By Mike Sauve
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot isn’t exactly Philip Akin’s first play, so it’s a surprise when the 30-year veteran of the acting game lists the theological courtroom drama set in purgatory among his best work.
Akin graduated from Ryerson’s first class of acting students in 1975 (his name appears first on the graduating list). Since then, he has appeared in at least 100 feature films and television shows, and has directed and starred in dozens of theatrical productions.
He has appeared opposite Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears and recently appeared in the 50 Cent biopic Get Rich or Die Trying. I first recognized him from Cube 2: Hypercube. In The Last Days, which just completed a successful run at the Distillery District, Akin plays Pontius Pilate, and with only a brief window of dialogue, still manages to steal the show.
His seething justification of Pilate’s infamous washing of his hands is the dramatic centre of an emotionally charged second act. Wearing a light, camouflage military uniform similar to what Colin Powell was often seen in, Akin steps down from the witness stand and screams explanations his character feels he shouldn’t have to make. “I hadn’t realized the impact of Pilate’s scene,” Akin says. “Only with the audience have I realized what a powerful piece it is.”
Akin’s Powell-like rationalizations are the clearest parallel between the American and Roman Empires in the Birdland Theatre production. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play already zinged off lines about “the Americanization of the after life,” but David Ferry’s direction sizzles with questions about the current imperialist tendencies of our southern neighbour. The ensemble piece included veteran actors such as Frank Moore, Alon Nashman and Stewart Arnott, all accustomed to playing lead roles.
“It took a great deal of discipline to go in there and practice moving chairs and shining a flashlight. But everybody gets to do it, and in a way it helped build the ensemble,” Akin says. Akin got his break fresh out of acting school when theatre critic Herbie Whittaker recommended him to the Shaw Festival after seeing him in a Ryerson performance.He never looked back, but credits Bob Christie and David Harris, two of Ryerson’s original acting teachers, for lessons he’s never forgotten.
“They were two very, very different teachers. David was a Stanislavski guy and Bob was about old-school practical theory.” Akin himself has directed seven plays and calls it “a hard gig,” but something he’d like to do more of in the future. “The biggest problem right now in Canadian theatre is that virtually the only time theatre companies hire a black director is when they’re doing a black play.It’s tricky that way. There are a lot of talented black directors and whenever a project comes along they’re all lined up.”
Akin is also a founding member of the Obsidian Theatre Company, which produces the work of international black playwrights using Afro-Canadian actors.Akin is currently the administrative producer of Obsidian and will take over as artistic director next year. Akin names episodes of Highlander: The Series, a 1992 TV movie Liar, Liar and theatrical work in Coming Through Slaughter, Necessary Angel, and Slow Dance in the Killing Ground among his favourite roles.
Akin has had too many forgettable roles to single out a specific worst, though.But he remembers the old days when business people were making movies in Canada only looking for a tax write-off.”Gas, that would be a movie that I was most offended by,” says Akin, referring to an infamous Howie Mandel flop. He’s lost count of how many times he’s died on screen, but guesses around 60.
“I’ve always talked about putting together a death reel. I did seven or eight episodes of Night Heat and I died in every one. “It’s that classic black guy role, you’re the best friend, you die in the first 10 minutes and your buddies get to look great avenging your death.”
Akin said his first days of acting at Ryerson were “moderately chaotic because nobody involved knew much about teaching. “It was about good ideas … a lot of teachers who were teaching for the first time,” Akin says. “We took every good idea from every theatre school we knew of. We did dance theory, judo, dance, underwent psychotherapy, it was great.”