At home in Bed-Stuy with ‘Tamburlaine’ star John Douglas Thompson

December 12, 2014 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Meet John Douglas Thompson, star of Polonsky Shakespeare Center's “Tamburlaine,” shown at home in his Bed-Stuy loft. His Obie Award is hanging over his right shoulder. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
Share this:

Keep your eyes peeled, Brooklynites.

There in the bike lane, you may spot the man The New York Times called “one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation” as he heads to work from his Bedford-Stuyvesant home.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

That’s John Douglas Thompson on his way to Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where he plays the title role in Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II.”

“This is so beautiful to work in Brooklyn,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle in a sit-down at his Bed-Stuy loft. “Thank God for bike lanes.”

For the first time in his career, Thompson — an Obie winner who has racked up accolades for Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional stage appearances — can ride his bicycle to the playhouse where he’s performing.

With “Tamburlaine” sticking around an additional two weeks because its run was recently extended through Jan. 4, it seemed like the perfect time to ask the actor who portrays Marlowe’s shepherd turned world conqueror to share some insights about this extraordinary Elizabethan playwright and his blasphemous and breathtaking play.

But first, a bit more about the bike-riding: As a practical matter, it gets Thompson to the new Ashland Place playhouse faster than the subway would. His trip to the BAM Cultural District’s theatre takes 10 minutes, or 15 minutes in heavy traffic, on a Trek hybrid, a combination racer and mountain bike he recently bought after his 20-year-old bike was stolen.

And the ride home to Bed-Stuy helps him decompress after his high-energy performance in Marlowe’s blood-soaked 1587 masterpiece, which is  3½ hours long.

So does music. Once he gets home, he listens to Pandora internet radio — either a classical station or The Cinematic Orchestra, a British nu-jazz and electronic music group — takes a steam shower and eats a nice meal.


Now, some thoughts about Marlowe, a shoemaker’s son who was educated at Cambridge and was fatally knifed at age 29, probably because he worked as a spy in Queen Elizabeth’s secret service.

“He was the Quentin Tarantino of his day,” Thompson said.

“You know how Tarantino really exploited violence and also subversity in his movies,” the actor said. “He was a contemporary figure who would be a mirror for Marlowe.”

The popular filmmaker and the Elizabethan playwright both created anti-heroes, he added.

In “Tamburlaine” the high and mighty suffer mightily because they don’t realize the outrageous things Tamburlaine will do to show he’s the boss. He’ll lock a vanquished emperor in a cage and make conquered kings draw his chariot with bits in their mouths like horses.

“It’s the failure of the imagination of his adversaries to fully understand the context of this man’s power,” Thompson said.  

“He lives in a world of ancient gods. You have to admire this man’s imagination.”

Thompson is proud to be in the cast of seldom-staged “Tamburlaine,” which was last performed professionally in New York City in 1956, before he was born.

“This play comes around once in a person’s lifetime,” he said.

Thompson, who learned to be an actor at Brown University’s Trinity Rep program, keeps the books he used to prep for the role of Tamburlaine in stacks on a small dining table in his loft. These include  “The Prince” by Machiavelli, a volume about pagan gods and several annotated versions of “Tamburlaine.”

With a play this old, it’s helpful to study the different editions because variations in the punctuation of some of the lines can make him see new meanings in them.

There’s also a book about early 20th-Century boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion.

“All my characters have a little Jack Johnson in them,” he said. “He was quite a rebel, revolutionary for his time.”

Thompson, who grew up in Montreal and Rochester, didn’t realize he wanted to be an actor until he was 29. The Le Moyne College grad was a computer salesman who lived in New Haven — right across the street from Yale Repertory Theatre.

He had a date to see “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” August Wilson’s play. She stood him up but he went anyway, alone.

“The acting was brilliant,” he recalled. “It was the first time I’d seen African-Americans on stage, telling an African-American story. It was just breathtaking.”

In the two decades since then, he has played the title roles in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Richard III and Othello. In fact, he has portrayed Othello in six different productions — and looks forward to playing the part in the future.

“It’s one of those roles you grow into,” he said.



Thompson has lived in Bed-Stuy for 12 years in a factory converted into artists’ lofts.

“People want a loft when they come to New York. I was seduced by that,” he said.

In the rented apartment, there’s enough room to do a reading of a play, should he so choose. The space is big enough for him to walk around in while he learns his lines for a role, which he finds helpful.

He thinks living in Brooklyn is wonderful. In his off-stage life, he spends a lot of time in Fort Greene, in the park and restaurants and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

After “Tamburlaine” ends its run, his next show is going to be at BAM. He will play the role of Joe Mott in “The Iceman Cometh,” the Eugene O’Neill revival from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.

It opens at BAM on Feb. 5.

* * *

See for further info about the extended run of “Tamburlaine.”


Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment