William Jackson Harper's quietly powerful performances In the stage drama Primary Trust give him a chance to confront some of his deepest emotions. He plays Kenneth, a young man struggling with loneliness and mental stability. Harper tells EBONY that he has a better understanding of this character than he has had with any other role.
"One of the things Kenneth says is that he gets angry sometimes. And that's me," Harper confesses. "There's this way of moving through the world when you're sort of sitting on top of your feelings all the time, just to not screw up anything. That's something that I really understand. Kenneth is the guy that spent a lot of time not saying what was on his mind. It's good to get to play with that."
The character finds solace through conversations with Bert, an imaginary friend he has had since he was 10 years old. Kenneth even buys two (or more!) Mai Tais each night at a local watering hole to share with his pretend buddy. It's a safety net Kenneth has relied on so he doesn't have to confront uncomfortable situations.
“Kenneth is that guy who's putting on a kind face and trying to present like everything's alright. And actually, he's not," Harper surmises. "I think a lot of people are like that. And I think it's just a little bit closer to the surface for me, so playing this part is somewhat therapeutic and then at the same time, reminds me of the stuff that I feel, a lot of the times, I push down."
Harper isn't afraid to admit that he's a sensitive soul. "Things don't roll off my back in the way that they do for other people. My feelings get hurt very easily, so I tend to retreat a lot. And as soon as it happens I'm preoccupied in thinking about what I should have said and how I should have reacted, or that I shouldn't have let this person get away with saying or doing this," he says candidly. "But I feel like I don't have the right to be as upset as I am. I'm a people pleaser who gets really angry and feels resentful at times. And that's not anyone's fault or problem, but my own. I think it probably comes from trying to make sure everyone's happy.”
So how does Harper handle these emotions? “I'm trying to deal with it in therapy. But that's a long road,” he shares. “Honestly, what I do is just go to the gym a lot and work out really hard and say nothing and get to the other side of it, and then I'm fine.”
One thing the character Kenneth, Harper and this reporter share in common is the loss of a parent at an early age. Studies show that children who experience a parent's death may suppress their feelings as a defense mechanism, believing that expressing their sadness or anger would be too painful or might burden others, which can carry into adulthood.
“My dad passed when I was eight, so I do have an understanding of what loss feels like and being angry about the fact that people say that it's going to be fine," Harper exclaims. "But, you know, even as a kid, it's not going to be okay, the worst has happened.” Widowed at 30, his mother persevered and excelled in taking care of her children as a single parent. “My mom raised me and my sister by herself,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to have a really strong supportive woman there to shepherd me through all of what that loss feels like, and not being completely alone.”
It's been five years since Harper performed on stage. "I just fell in love with the script. When I read it, it really affected me," he says of taking the lead role in Primary Trust, which was written by his pal Eboni Booth. "I was curious to get inside of it and see if I got the same feeling when performing as I did while reading it.”
He does believe the play delivers a happy ending for Kenneth. "I think while he was having Mai Tais with Bert and no one was giving him a hard time, that was joyous for him. But then he has to step out of his comfort zone. And while that's uncomfortable, he does find joy with other people.”
Harper has his own path of joy and happiness. “For me, it's it is just sort of this feeling of just being completely free and unencumbered and being understood," he summarizes.
And like Kenneth, that can be found over a cocktail, too. "My favorite It’s called the Division Bell. It's Mezcal-based," Harper declares. "It's smoky and sweet and tangy. It's wonderful and I make them all the time.”
Primary Trust from the Roundabout Theatre Company is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre Laura Pels Theatre in New York City through July 2.