Acclaimed director and actor Ron OJ Parson is in a season of radical reflection. He’s been so busy he says he scarcely had time to slow down and think about all the accolades of the past year and, indeed, the past several. But when he finally did, it took him aback.
In a 50-year career that most creatives dream of, Parson has become one of the nation’s pre-eminent theater directors, in particular of the groundbreaking and challenging “Century Cycle” works of playwright August Wilson. Parson has directed Wilson’s “Century Cycle” plays — a collection of 10 award-winning plays chronicling African American life in the 20th century — more than 30 times, including “Seven Guitars” most recently at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
In 2022, the Resident Artist of Hyde Park’s Court Theatre directed a string of hit shows to great acclaim in Chicago, from a revival of Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at the Court, to “Relentless” at the TimeLine Theatre to “Toni Stone” at the Goodman — literally shuttling from theater to theater on public transportation, he says.
“Things were happening so fast I didn’t really have time to stop and think about impact,” he says with a laugh. “I had a Metra train to catch or a bus to catch, trying to make it to a rehearsal or performance.”
Then last May the Court Theatre, where Parson created the heralded Spotlight Reading Series and, through his immeasurable influence, brought Wilson’s shows there, won the Regional Theatre Tony Award.
Then a few months later Parson was awarded the 2022 Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation which recognizes “singular creativity and deep investment in a particular community or region.”
Then to cap off an already busy year, Parson was named Chicagoan of the Year for theater by the Chicago Tribune, which noted that Parson “has done more than any other single individual to remind all of the South Side of Chicago that it has a world-class theater in its midst.”
At 70, he has no intention of slowing down. But Parson, a native of Buffalo, NY and a graduate of University of Michigan professional theatre program, says none of it would have been possible without the timely and targeted support of philanthropy.
“When I got to Chicago, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I had a career in New York but it was mostly as an actor. When I got to Chicago I ended up starting a theater company with Alfred Wilson called the Onyx Theatre,” Parson recalls. “Well, (Joyce President & CEO) Ellen (Alberding) came to see one of our shows when she was still the (Culture) program officer — she wasn’t the president then — and she said she really liked what we were doing and asked if we would be interested in applying at the Joyce Foundation for a grant. That started it all.”
Parson says when he began working with the Court Theatre he was told they were going to apply for a Joyce grant and “I thought the timing was perfect because I already knew Ellen and told them how she had supported Onyx and how much Joyce supports the arts.”
“Honestly, If it wasn’t for the Joyce Foundation, I would not be who I am. None of the accolades would mean anything without that support. I was a freelance director and actor. I was broke half the time. I was doing a lot of things to make money and still working on my craft. I didn’t have a home base. Joyce gave me that,” he says. “They gave me a home at the Court, and I’m still there.”
He says the support to Court Theatre also allowed him to fulfill a dream of bringing theater to Chicago’s neighborhoods, noting that the Court’s community engagement allowed him to curate programs “As far north as the American Indian Center, way out west and far, far South. We went everywhere and it meant so much.”
Though his directorial exploits have taken him all over the world, including Canada’s Stratford Festival, where he says he was the first Black director to direct a play, he is rooted in, and his influence endures in Chicago’s legendary theater community.
“Ron, both through his body of work and as an individual, has transformed Court Theatre and significantly impacted the community of artists and the larger community. It seems only right, then, that he would be recognized in this way,” said Court Theatre Executive Director Angel Ysaguirre when Parson received the Fichandler Award.
Having taken the time to slow down from the whirlwind of 2022 to reflect on his storied career, Parson relishes memories of things like having had dinner with August Wilson when Wilson was writing “The Gem of the Ocean” and learning about his writing process. (“I bring those memories and that spirit into every August show I direct now”). He savors his close friendships with peers he knew way-back-when who are now well-known performers like 2023 Tony nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson who was recognized by Vulture magazine as one of the “32 Greatest Character Actors Working Today” (“Stephen was the person who first told me I needed to come to Chicago!”) Then there’s the story of his college girlfriend, who insisted that Parson needed to meet her talented best friend — that best friend turned out to be actor, comedian and Tony winner David Alan Grier, who Parson says he gave some of his first work at University of Michigan.
Parson says he recognizes the blessing in being a successful and supported working artist because he remembers the flip side, and knows the struggle most working artists face.
“The arts are difficult. I had many, many rough periods when I didn’t know what I was going to do. I turned down many 9-to-5 jobs because deep down I knew what I was meant to be doing,” Parson said. “But I also know that what has happened to me is rare. The salary of an actor is less than 10,000/year. Most directors don’t have residencies. I know how meaningful all of this is, and how important the support of philanthropy is,” Parson says.
Persevering through the difficult times and never giving up on his artistic dreams makes him appreciate success even more.
“I’m a firm believer that things don’t just happen, things happen just,” Parson said. “They happen exactly the way that they’re supposed to happen.”
About The Joyce Foundation
Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.