John Beasley’s Moment in the Sun Interrupted by COVID-19, But Nothing Can Keep a Good Man Down
by Leo Adam Biga
No sooner did venerable stage-screen actor John Beasley of Omaha realize what maybe the role of a lifetime playing older Noah in the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of “The Notebook,” then he found himself in a fight for his life.
Everything was seemingly going his way. Just before the show opened, American Theatre Magazine profiled his improbable but inspiring journey from competitive athletics to community activism to jitney driving to slinging a hook as a longshoreman, to acting in Omaha productions, to establishing himself in regional theater, to breaking through in film and television. Readers learned he only started his professional acting career at age 45. He soon became identified with the plays of August Wilson. After years of yeoman’s work on stage and screen, he finally found himself on the cusp of Broadway stardom at age 79. The national magazine piece went viral and netted him warm responses from cast, crew, friends, and family. He was humbled by the reaction to his resilient life and career.
Last fall, he was in previews at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for “The Notebook,” the musical based on the best-selling novel and top grossing movie of the same name by Omaha native Nicholas Sparks, when he contracted a severe case of COVID-19. He got sick amid an outbreak of the virus among cast and crew. Testing positive for the coronavirus knocked him out of the show just as its press performances went up, meaning the show was reviewed with his understudy on stage and not him.
Though he keeps himself in great shape, Beasley’s much older than anyone in “The Notebook” company, which put him at higher risk of complications. He thought he could tough out his respiratory symptoms with enough rest and make it back in quick order. But when his persistent cough and breathing difficulties worsened, cast-mates urged him to seek immediate medical attention. Still, he balked. His fellow players finally took matters in their own hands and got him to a Chicago hospital emergency room. By then, he was struggling to catch even small gulps of breath. He was put on oxygen therapy and meds.
“I was given three liters of oxygen. I was that depleted,” Beasley said. “I think I would have died if I didn’t get that emergency care.”
He’s grateful his cast-mates got him there and stayed by his side. “My support team were there with me. They wouldn’t let me be alone. It took 36 hours to get a room. When I got to that room, I felt like I was at home.”
He remained hospitalized a few days but even after returning to the Chicago apartment he stayed at during “The Notebook” he was too weak to rejoin the show before its preview run ended.
Beasley returned to Omaha in November of this year 2022, continuing to make slow progress in his recovery, when he ended up in a hospital here after complications arose. After this latest setback he’s back home again, his condition stabilized. His hope is to regain enough energy and weight to make rehearsals for “The Notebook” when it goes to Broadway in the summer 2023.
Originally, the show was to open in New York in February 2023, which might have been too soon to allow his return. Now slated for mid-year, he said, “That’s better for me and my chances of rejoining the show.”
The experience of having his dream within his grasp only to have it snatched away by an illness that nearly killed him has changed Beasley.
“It made some things clearer to me about my journey and spreading the word.” he said.
For one thing, he wants skeptics to know that COVID-19 “is no joke, it’s nothing to take lightly.”
Then, there’s the way this man of faith, spirituality deepened through his near-death crisis. He even feels spirit world figures visited him during his ordeal.
“These brothers from the past started appearing to me. They were having a good time. They were looking at me, calling my name, asking me to join them. I laughed and said, ‘I’m not coming. I’m not ready.’”
When Beasley mentioned the apparitions to actor friend Stephen McKinley Henderson, he was told, “The ancestors were strengthening you for the journey ahead.”
Said Beasley, “That’s who it was – my ancestors. As I was so close to dying, I could see them, and in the whole mix, God was there.”
Beasley said Henderson reassured him by saying, “God didn’t bring you this close to Broadway for it not to happen.” “I think it’s meant to happen, too,” Beasley said. “But it’s been a journey, man. This COVID-19 has opened my eyes to a lot of things. I’m more grounded now because God was showing me some things. Sometimes you need to go through something like this to know God is there, God is real, God is love. You can talk to God like He’s your father.”
He finds solace in the comfort of faith and family, whose prayer warrior chain has been working overtime, and in the support of “The Notebook” company. Some “Notebook” members posted an emotional get-well message to Beasley on social media. Others have checked in on him and encouraged him during his ordeal. All these expressions of concern make him “feel blessed.”
Still, there was the frustration of his shining moment of the American Theater feature appearing only for him to fall ill and drop out of the show. Making it even harder to take, was the fact he felt he was doing some of the best work of his career in what he considers “the role of a lifetime,” only to be sidelined by a bug.
“I’m doing a master class,” he told this reporter in October.
By all accounts, his powerful acting and singing cast a spell over audiences who hang on his every word, note and gesture. He delivers the opening and closing songs in this musical about enduring love.
Beasley’s always tried making his characters as real as possible. The same with playing Noah’s undying and stubborn devotion to the love of his life, Allie.
“Whenever I feel like I’m acting, it doesn’t sit well with me. The audience might buy it, but I won’t buy it.”
In co-directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams, and co-star Maryann Plunkett he’s working with, Broadway veterans, who won’t accept less than his best, anyway, which is just the way he likes it.
“This is a whole other level. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with this level of talent, and I think never before in a musical. The talent is really good,” he said. “Coming in from New York, Maryann, the actress playing the older Allie to my older Noah, is a Tony-winner. She’s just a marvelous actress. It’s always great to team up with someone that has this much talent.”
The pair share a chemistry that can’t be faked.
“Maryann and I knew we had a connection even over our Zoom workshops earlier in the year. It’s a connection you must make. It’s a trust. You have to be able to trust each other. You can find that trust early on, and we did.”
He’s equally excited about the direction, the sets, the story by Bekka Bramlett and the music by Ingrid Michaelson. “It’s incredible.”
The rigors of theater’s 10–12-hour rehearsal days are challenging for anyone, much less an octogenarian.
“Theater is work. What keeps me going is knowing I am creating something. I’m creating this. To be able to create this character in a world premiere production is special.”
While Beasley’s acted in hit films and television shows and in major regional theater productions in Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington DC, Broadway is the last milestone to conquer in his 35-year professional career.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time in the making,” he said. “But the good part about it is that it’s more like dessert because during this whole period I’ve been a working actor. Basically, that was the dream because to be a working artist is the highest calling. That, it’s brought me to Broadway is just the cherry on the top. If I never got there, I would still feel I’ve had a pretty successful career. That it did happen to take me to Broadway, well, I always knew I would get there eventually. So that it’s came, is not surprising.”
Long before this opportunity, Beasley cast a long shadow in Omaha theater, appearing on virtually every stage, breaking color barriers along the way. For about a decade, he headed his own theater, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, that produced the entire 10-play cycle of his friend, the late great playwright August Wilson. The actor’s older son, actor-director Tyrone Beasley, served as artistic director at the theater. His younger son, Michael, a busy screen actor in his own right based out of Atlanta, joined his brother and father in the JBT production of Wilson’s “Jitney.” Michael is trying to develop a screen project for all three of them.
The theater also helped train a generation of African American Omaha actors, some of whom – Andre McGraw, Kelsey Watson, Vincent Alston, Carl Brooks and TammyRa’ Jackson – are working steadily in the industry. Indeed, Jackson has added directing to her resume and is co-director with Denise Chapman of the 2023 Omaha Community Playhouse production of Wilson’s “Fences”. It’s the first Wilson work the Playhouse has ever mounted and the first time a Wilson play’s been produced in Omaha since Beasley’s theater closed more than a decade ago. It pleases Beasley that he paved the way for Wilson to be performed in Omaha.
After years putting it off, Beasley’s planning to pen his memoir to chart the life and career journey so many find captivating. He’s seen too many peers die to risk delaying and perhaps never sharing his own legacy for posterity.
If he has anything to say in the matter, Act III of his life will still see him taking bows on Broadway whenever “The Notebook” finally opens on that ultimate stage.
No, he’s not quite there yet, but it will take more than a virus to keep him from having his cake and eating it, too. Yes, his moment in the sun may have been interrupted, but he’s bound and determined to make it all the way back for that grand showcase.