Telvin Griffin is channeling David Ruffin as he plays Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in PassinArt’s production of "Seven Guitars" by August Wilson.
Ruffin, one of the Temptations’ classic five, had such a captivating, charismatic style.
“We call it swag now,” Griffin says. “It’s what makes people want to take that ride with you.
"Floyd wants you to take the ride, to do something you’ve never seen or done before.”
Even better, “I love music,” Griffin says. “I’m a musician at heart.”
"Seven Guitars" is Griffin’s second time working with PassinArt Director William “Bill” Earl Ray and his first full-length August Wilson experience.
Of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle, "Seven Guitars" has been described as one of the most musical. From King Buddy Bolden to Muddy Waters with stops for Maggie Jones, Gary Davis, and Blind Willie McTell in between, "Seven Guitars" presents a dimensional history of Black American blues.
Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton has a hit record “That’s Alright,” a blues based on “That’s Alright, Mama,” one of several popular songs recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in the late 1940s. Not long after, it became Elvis Presley’s debut hit single and Crudup, fed up, stopped making music.
In "Seven Guitars", August Wilson has Floyd Barton’s song on the radio and Floyd in jail for walking without money in his pocket.
"Seven Guitars" is not Griffin’s first time playing a musician. The SAG-card-carrying actor comes to "Seven Guitars" straight off a Hollywood film project – Babylon starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. Griffin’s character, Reggie, plays the alto saxophone in the film’s Roaring Twenties style big band.
Although he’s not actually playing the music you hear, he’s doing everything else – having his breathing and all 10 fingers in the right place and moving at the right time.
That he’s been playing music since age six, and grew up singing in church, enabled Griffin to display impressive chops when director Damien Chazelle cast him for the part. Chazelle, whose LaLa Land won a ton of Oscars, has received more Academy Award nominations for Babylon.
When Griffin first heard the news about the nominations, he remembers thinking “Wow, hard work does pay off.”
He said the Babylon experience has been unparalleled so far in an acting career that includes TV’s Deputy (2019), Dynasty (2018), and Blackish (2020).
Indeed, he says the proudest moment so far in his 32-year-old life was flying his mom from Longview, Texas, to Los Angeles to see the premier of Babylon.
“She was tickled pink,” he recalls, with the fuss – make-up, hair, jewelry, elegant gown, black limousine.
“Her being able to see me walk down that red carpet, made me feel so proud,” recalls DeeDee Reid’s oldest son, so grateful to her for “all the sacrifices you made for this family, all the unconditional support and love you’ve shared with this family.”
The depths of Griffin’s gratitude to his mom is real life becoming art when, in scene four, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton sings The Lord’s Prayer.
“I know that song real well,” Griffin says.
“It speaks to me. Floyd is having a moment. He’s thinking about his mother, processing that she’s gone.”
That there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house when he’s done singing is the way Griffin likes it.
“My dream and goal is to always impact someone. That’s why I love to tell these stories,” he says. “They need to be told.”
And the music “is what makes me real excited about tapping into Floyd. Music speaks to your soul.”
The cast of "Seven Guitars" includes Telvin Griffin, Taylore Mahogany Scott, William Earl Ray, Josie Seid, James Dixon, Jerry Foster, and Tyharra Cozier. The play runs from March 15 through April 9 at Brunish Theater, 1111 S.W. Broadway Ave., Portland. Tickets can be purchased at passinart.org or portland5.com. For additional information, call 503-235-8079.