Nicole Lewis fondly recalls seeing a production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” several years ago. It changed the way she viewed the late playwright’s work.
“I got to see these incredible actors be so distinctively human, but distinctive in their characters that I truly believed I was watching people, and that’s a tribute to this detailed writing, the detailed acting, it blew my mind,” she said. “And so it was from actually seeing that production that kindled the awe for August Wilson at the time I didn’t know how I could possibly do that. I was really — I was in awe, I put it on a pedestal.”
Now it’s her turn to take the stage in a Wilson classic, as Risa in “Two Trains Running,” now at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Feb. 11. It’s her first full-length Wilson production.
“He’s in a class of his own,” she said. “He’s a poet extraordinaire, and this channel for the human experience — particularly the black American experience.”
Of the seven characters on stage, Lewis plays the lone female role, one she finds fascinating — especially in the context of the play’s 1969 setting and what it meant for a woman to have her voice at that period.
“She chooses when to speak and when not to — and she doesn’t have to speak at all times,” she said. “I find her very self-possessed, but I will say one of the greatest and wonderful explorations that I’m getting to do is how to do that without text, how to do that with body, how to do that with presence.”
For Lewis, the role (as with any other) requires a deep dive of sorts into not only the text itself — the blueprint, she called it — but the historical and cultural setting as well. That research, and discovering what works and what doesn’t with the character over the course of rehearsal, helps ready her by the time audiences are added to the mix.
“I like to talk about the plays,” she said. “I like to talk about the characters. Ultimately in performance, there’s no room for talking, because if I’m talking about it I’m not actually in it.”
Lewis sports a few Broadway credits and a number of off-Broadway and regional roles — local audiences may recognize her from a 2011 production of “All My Sons” at the Intiman Theatre — along with a handful of television parts.
But that wasn’t the plan when she first arrived as an undergrad at Yale.
After attending Bronx High School of Science, she started at the Ivy League school and became a biology major — and was a pre-med student — but soon found herself, “completely obsessed in the best possible way with the medium of theater.”
Growing up in New York, she has warm memories of seeing a musical each year, but college exposed her to a new array of performance.
“I think I was always a bit of a musical theatre nerd growing up,” she said. “Whenever I did get to go see musicals on stage, I was transfixed by the expression of emotion, this really free expression of emotion, feeling, human experience, all of that, so when I got exposed to it in college it was everything to me, and I just absorbed it from every angle.”
Eventually, she would major in both psychology and theatre studies, later going to A.C.T in San Francisco for graduate school. She hasn’t looked back since.
“An actor’s life is made up of a lot of moving parts, endless reinvention and really being able to be flexible, combined with a strong passion,” she said. “So many people are like, ‘How do you do that? I couldn’t do that,’ and the truth is, I don’t know. It’s just, I was called, and I went, and I go, and I still feel that way.”
In much the same way, that’s how she feels she ended up at the Rep in this production.
“I was called to do it, and I’m just trying to live up to that responsibility and that call,” she said. “… And do justice to the story and the character that August Wilson put on paper.”
“Two Trains Running,” is at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Feb. 11. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.seattlerep.org.