The return of Carl Lumbly

Carl Lumbly didn’t really go anywhere. He just hasn’t been around much.

The Berkeley-based actor is a busy, busy guy (you can read my interview with him in my Stage Scenes column here), what with all the TV and film roles that keep him commuting to Los Angeles.

These days, Lumbly is sleeping in his own bed and crossing the Bay Bridge to go to work. He’s starring in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ drama Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train at SF Playhouse. The show opens Saturday.

One thing I didn’t get to mention in my column is that Lumbly is an expert craftsman. When we spoke on the phone, he had just stepped out of the sauna he built in his basement.

“Building this sauna myself cost me much less than it would have to have someone else build it, but the odd thing is that when you do a project like this, part of the joy is in doing it,” Lumbly says. ” When you finish, it’s actually a little disappointing. But this is a good sauna. They come more high-tech, but none of them hold steam and air and water better than mine does.”

Lumbly sees that sauna as a metaphor for his career as well because the joy has come from the process much more than the end result.

“There are times when people ask me — and sometimes I even ask myself — if I could have had this gig or that gig, this project or that project, maybe my name would be on the tip of every tonuge,” Lumbly says. “I don’t know that I could have had all that I have now if I had gone for those kind of projects. I get to live in Berkeley. My son is in college now, and my wife and I have remodelling plans. You know, all of that is just standard junk, but I live on the stuff. I’ve reached a point in my life where I have a real good feeling just being where I am. So much of life as an actor is about where you want to go. I still have places I’d like to go if they come along, but I’m cool right here.”

Lumbly very nearly became a journalist, and his way with words comes through in his conversation. He admits he still loves and respects writing and still does bits of it.

“I write back stories when I’m working on a character,” he says. “I think I was intrigued by journalism because I loved stories. I loved hearing people talk about what they did; liked the way people phrased their stories, talked about coincidences — you know, all the magic involved in a story. That’s sort of what stood me in good stead when I first started doing improvisation. It’s easy for me to follow a story in my head and create a character for that story.”

Grateful he didn’t end up in journalism — he says journalism today offers too few chances to go into a story in depth — Lumbly is relishing his time back on the stage in Jesus.

“Doing this play reminds me of living in New York,” Lumbly says. “It’s very direct. It’s not sentimental but he writes about love. You can feel the love his cahracters can have, the love he gives them, the love he has for them. I think the world of his work. I just want to do him justice.”

So what keeps a busy actor like Lumbly in the Bay Area?

“I’ve lived here, then moved to L.A. then to New York, and I was always comparing the places to the Bay Area. Every place fell short,” he says.

The only place he loves more is Jamaica, where he was born.

“I have a little place there on the coast,” he says. “My parents left there to make a better life for their children, and as a child, there was part of me that, when we were in Jamaica, it felt like some sort of defecit. This was not the place. America was the place. And the older I got, the more I realized that they may have felt that way about the opportunities they were seeking for us. The fact that they made a sacrifice for us makes it even more special. They dearly loved that place. I still have a great love for the place. I usually go to the house every year, but it’s been a couple of years. I need to get down there.”

There are repairs to be done, most of which the ultra-handy Lumbly can do himself. But he won’t to the electrical.

“I don’t play with electricity. I leave that to the pros.”

For information on Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, visit

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