If you close your eyes and listen to two-time Emmy Award-winning actor and poet Ron Cephas Jones’ voice, and allow yourself a moment to soak in his tone and pitch, you might be surprised by the sense of trust that envelopes you, like a warm, fuzzy blanket on a chilly night.
Like many New Yorkers, I know Jones as a well-seasoned theater thespian, and when he stepped into NBC’s groundbreaking hit “This Is Us” as William Hill, a gay, recovering addict who becomes reconnected with his biological son while coming to terms with his own terminal cancer, I was so proud, my chest puffed out like I was a family member.
In the theater community, there is a certain sense of earning your space, and although it’s a community it’s one with high stands. Jones has over 30 years of stage experience. He’s paid his dues several times over, often taking his small, baby girl—Emmy Award-winning actress Jasmine Cephas Jones—literally into the audition rooms over the years.
There is a sense of karmic justice that father and daughter both took home Emmy Awards (2020), Jasmine for best actress, in a short-form comedy or drama series for “#FreeRayshawn” and Ron for his role in “This Is Us,” making them the first father and daughter to win acting Emmys in the same year.
His television and film credits are long, growing every day. Some of those credits include AppleTV+ series “Truth Be Told,” AppleTV+ series “Lisey’s Story,” “Mr. Robot,” season 2 of NBC’s “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” “Better Things,” “The Get Down,” AMC’s “Low Winter Sun,” “Banshee,” and “The Blacklist.”
On the stage, Jones recently wowed audiences and critics playing Montrellous, in the Second Stage Theater’s production of “Clyde’s,” alongside Uzo Aduba, Reza Salazar, and Kara Young. His work on stage as Montrellous earned Jones a 2022 Drama League Distinguished Performance Award.
“Clyde’s” is written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and her frequent collaborator, director Kate Whoriskey (“Ruined,” “Sweat”) and is set in a truck stop sandwich shop where formerly incarcerated kitchen staff work for their shot at redemption. Ron’s character (Montrellous), a long-time employee of Clyde’s, in many ways serves as a kind of spiritual guide for the shop’s employees. Jones’ performance was praised across the board with Newsweek calling him “mesmerizing” and Time Out adding that he’s “a model of soulful grace.”
Jones, who has known Nottage for over 20 years, was initially struck by how “Clyde’s” stood apart from Nottage’s other work. No stranger to daring to tell the truth, this play examines important social issues, choosing to use the humor that emanates from the characters’ behavior.
There is power in laughter. As for his character Montrellous, Jones considers him to be someone unique, an enlightened being living in the now. To get to this place of bliss, he stepped into a headspace after learning how to make sandwiches, and use knives—properly—understanding the deeply spiritual space that preparing food can enter.
“Clyde’s” was the first time Jones has performed on Broadway in seven years, last appearing in “Of Mice And Men” (2014).
The season finale for NBC’s “This Is Us” is scheduled for May 24, and to answer the question—yes, his character, William Hill is returning. His two-time Emmy winning turn in “This is Us” kept him busy for many years, but now that the series has aired its final season, we might get to see more of him in New York. “I still have a bucket list,” he exclaims, as he rattles off roles both classic and contemporary that he is dying to explore on stage.
The actor, who got his start with the famed LAByrinth Theater Company, seems to have theater woven into his DNA. “I’ll always long for the boards,” he admits, “it’s where my roots are.”
“It was about choosing light and also about having faith and working through fear,” he says of his recent role in “Clyde’s” on Broadway. Jones describes working on the play as a “joy” as he thinks back on “all the little metaphors” for light conquering darkness that he found in the script.
Here is part one of a two-part interview with two-time Emmy Award-winning actor and poet Ron Cephas Jones.
Amsterdam News: I don’t know if you heard this before, Ron, but I was very hungry while watching “Clyde’s.”
Ron Cephas Jones: (laughing) They were real sandwiches as well. We had a “personal sandwich maker” and she was integral to us having those fresh sandwiches there every night. Fortunately, Kara [Young, who played Letitia] and Reza [Salazar, who plays Rafael] and Edmund [Donovan, who plays Jason] was fortunate enough to be able to taste those sandwiches. I couldn’t eat the sandwiches during the course of the show, so but they got a chance to, you know, to enjoy the delicacies of those sandwiches.
AMN: I confess, I left hungry.
RCJ: So, like you and everyone, you know, everyone left the theater, hungry, craving a gourmet sandwich, you know, so that was a beautiful part of it.
AMN: Not for nothing, but you were called using the knives like pros.
RCJ: Well, we had a chef working with us on how to use the knives. How to slice because they were very sharp. We learned how to make it look real. Learning how to hold knives. How to cut, downwards and away from the fingers, how to curl the fingers.
AMN: Life lessons in this knife slicing session, I think.
RCJ: That’s right. Yeah, yeah.
AMN: I had no idea how much training went into this play. However, in retrospect, it makes sense.
RCJ: Yes. You know everything was very specific. For example, the way the refrigerators were designed. And now each time they were open, they would have a different look. When Ryan pulled this out of her refrigerator it was more pale and dull. And when I pulled things out, they were bright, bright vegetables. And we had that smoke of steam, coming out of the freezer, to get that frosty look, when Clyde (Uzo Aduba) would come out, her colors were always dull.
AMN: There was a moment that I realized that what I was looking at was a very well choreographed piece. It reminded me of the visuals used in football.
RCJ: That’s the part of live theater. You get to experience not just a story, but how people move and things happen.
AMN: What comment, about your character (Montrellous), surprised you the most?
RCJ: That’s an interesting question. I think mostly, people were surprised by Montrellous’ redemptive quality. How Nottage wrote him [on the page] was elevated. It’s in his persona and his attitude. He’s almost angelic. It was a balance between Clyde’s (Uzo) devilish ways and his angelic ways.
And I think what got people when they started to notice, and they would question themselves, was that rest stop sandwich stop heaven, or was it hell?
AMN: Yikes. I can see that. Ok. I am stopping here. Next week, part two, and congratulations on being in the last episode of NBC’s “This Is Us” (May 24).