THEATER: An Ar­ling­ton judge switches from court­room drama to the theater.

Act­ing was a first love of Ar­ling­ton judge Wil­liam T. New­man Jr. Now he’s be­ing en­cour­aged to return to it. It’s all to­tally le­gal.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESSLEY nel­son.pressley@wash­

“All rise” is the usual cry when Wil­liam T. New­man Jr. makes his en­trance, be­cause usu­ally, New­man is strid­ing into court as chief judge of Ar­ling­ton County’s Cir­cuit Court. For the next sev­eral weeks, though, the 66-year-old will be mak­ing his en­trance on­stage with the re­spected small lo­cal com­pany WSC Avant Bard as Oedi­pus in “The Gospel at Colonus.”

Act­ing is hardly a whim for the Ar­ling­ton-raised lawyer. It’s what he stud­ied at Ohio Univer­sity, where he got a bach­e­lor of fine arts in a con­ser­va­tory-like pro­gram, and it was on­stage in the early 1970s that he met his fu­ture wife, en­tre­pre­neur and BET co-founder Sheila John­son. Both were cast as re­place­ments in the Ne­gro En­sem­ble Com­pany’s Wash­ing­ton tour of “Cer­e­monies in Dark Old Men,” more than two decades be­fore they un­ex­pect­edly crossed paths again in 2002 as New­man presided over John­son’s di­vorce from her first hus­band, Robert L. John­son.

“I’ve been en­cour­ag­ing him to get back into his act­ing,” says John­son, whose brief fling with theater ended with “Cer­e­monies,” “be­cause I know he loves it so much.”

It’s tough to moon­light on­stage, though, when you’re main­tain­ing a full-bod­ied le­gal ca­reer.

“I’ve sort of learned the job now,” New­man says with an easy smile, sit­ting in a dress­ing room of Theater II in the Gun­ston Arts Cen­ter. (The county-run com­plex in­cludes an el­e­men­tary school that was a whites-only ju­nior high school when New­man ar­rived for a week as a stu­dent dur­ing the area’s in­te­gra­tion years.) “The hard­est part is re­hearsal. Once the show is up, you show up, do it for two or three hours, you’re out of there. It’s not a prob­lem at all.”

“It’s safe to say it’s been awhile since he’s had a role off book this big,” says Tom Pre­witt, WSC Avant Bard’s artis­tic di­rec­tor. “Off book” means with lines mem­o­rized: Pre­witt re­cently saw New­man read­ing as Oedi­pus and Othello in onenight shows with the au­dio troupe Lean and Hun­gry Theater, and his ears pricked up. “I was im­pressed with his com­mand of the stage — his pres­ence — and his com­mand of the lan­guage in both cases,” Pre­witt says.

Chat­ting in the dress­ing room, New­man looks less like an ac­tor than an in­side-the-Belt­way power player. The suit and tie come across as nat­u­ral, dap­per, not os­ten­ta­tious, even with mono­grammed ini­tials just vis­i­ble on the French cuffs.

He does sound the part, though — judge and ac­tor. The voice is resonant. The state­ments are sure. He does not hem and haw. You un­der­stand when John­son says he’s an au­thor­i­ta­tive judge, and when she adds that a bet­ter sense of drama might help cer­tain ad­vo­cates who don’t tell their clients’ sto­ries well. (“I think ev­ery lawyer should take act­ing classes,” she says.)

New­man got stage work right out of school, head­ing to New York, and mak­ing ap­pear­ances in off-Broad­way show­cases and on the NBC soap “Som­er­set.” He au­di­tioned for the Ne­gro En­sem­ble Com­pany’s “Cer­e­monies in Dark Old Men” and didn’t get in, but got called when the troupe needed per­form­ers for its D.C. tour. He earned his Eq­uity card — has al­ways kept it — and be­gan pick­ing up lo­cal act­ing gigs, in­clud­ing sev­eral shows at Arena Stage.

Still, it didn’t take long for him to de­cide to en­roll in Catholic Univer­sity’s law school. “I grew up here, where ev­ery other per­son’s a lawyer,” New­man ex­plains. “It was al­ways if I wasn’t go­ing to be an ac­tor, I was go­ing to be a lawyer.”

It was a ma­jor choice, and it helped him mend a fence. His fa­ther, a fed­eral em­ployee as a spe­cial po­lice of­fi­cer with the CIA, had urged his son to­ward law.

“I’m glad I didn’t go back to New York,” New­man says, “be­cause that next year my dad did die, the first year I started law school. And he was happy, be­cause I had made that com­mit­ment. And when he died, I said, ‘I’m go­ing to see this through.’

“But hold on,” he adds. “While this was go­ing on, I would still be do­ing shows. I re­mem­ber walk­ing out of torts class, and ev­ery­body say­ing, ‘You’re crazy.’ I was in a show at Arena at the time. That’s when I was do­ing ‘Julius Cae­sar.’ ”

In the 1980s, New­man built a law prac­tice, took up pol­i­tics by suc­cess­fully cam­paign­ing twice for a seat on the Ar­ling­ton County board and, by 1993, was ap­pointed to the court. “I’m a grinder,” he says. “I’m go­ing to make it work. If it means I’ve got to stay up all night to get it done, I’m go­ing to do it. Be­cause I don’t want to stand up in front of a bunch of peo­ple and look like a fool.”

Mean­time, New­man kept his hand in as an ac­tor. He signed up for act­ing work­shops. Took gigs as a pub­lic speaker. Did voice-over work. He par­tic­i­pated in read­ings for fundrais­ers and for com­pa­nies want­ing to hear scripts out loud; in 2010 he even ap­peared in the play “Sanc­ti­fied” at the Lin­coln Theater. He would have done more, but it couldn’t quite com­pete with his first pri­or­ity.

“There’s a learn­ing curve to be­ing a judge, and it was just very prob­lem­atic to fig­ure out time to do that,” New­man says. “But I would al­ways go to au­di­tions, even know­ing that if I got the role I couldn’t do it. Just to keep sharp.”

draws a more pointed pic­ture, not­ing that New­man would go to au­di­tions not just in the District, but also in Rich­mond and New York. The past few years he has done ra­dio broad­casts of “Othello” and “Oedi­pus” with the au­dio troupe Lean and Hun­gry Theater. He also had a preacher’s part in the movie “Lee Daniels’ The But­ler” that was ex­cit­ing to per­form but that blips by quickly in the film.

“Even Oprah said, ‘Who is that guy up there?’” says John­son, an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the 2013 pro­ject. “She thought it was the preacher of the church we were shoot­ing in.”

De­tails of the New­man-John­son ro­mance are ir­re­sistible: They had not seen each other be­tween their long-ago act­ing en­counter and the day of John­son’s di­vorce. New­man wasn’t even the sched­uled judge; he stepped in when a col­league had a con­flict. Some­one told him the split­ting cou­ple hoped he could take the bench early.

“I said, ‘Who the hell are th­ese peo­ple?’ ” New­man re­calls. “Judges take the bench when they take the bench.”

His tone changed when he saw the names in the file. He of­fered to re­cuse, but it wasn’t nec­es­sary. John­son asked to ap­proach the bench af­ter the pro­ceed­ings, and a few weeks later she in­vited him to an event. New­man pon­dered the in­vi­ta­tion and won­dered who to bring. His mother, who re­called how fondly New­man had spo­ken of John­son years be­fore, ad­vised him to go on his own. “You never know,” she said. Their 2005 wed­ding was han­dled by the same plan­ner used by Don­ald and Me­la­nia Trump. “It’s got to be the wed­ding of the year and then some for Vir­ginia,” Gov. Mark R. Warner said at the time.

New­man and John­son seem in sync about his ap­par­ent next act when­ever he re­tires from the bench. Ramp­ing up the act­ing makes sense to their friend David Dower, co-artis­tic di­rec­tor of Bos­ton’s Arts-Emer­son and a former as­so­ciate artis­tic di­rec­tor at Arena Stage.

“I’ve never heard an ounce of re­gret,” Dower says of New­man’s act­ing im­pulses. “I think the law ca­reer has been very pow­er­ful in his life, and very re­ward­ing. So there’s not been a sense that he’s been side­lined as an ac­tor. And in terms of ap­petite, I think he’s been pre­par­ing for the time when he can spend the time. So this is it.”

New­man is al­ready com­mit­ted to the Au­gust Wil­son play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bot­tom” in June with the Tysons Cor­ner troupe 1st Stage. A “Gospel at Colonus” cast­mate is ask­ing New­man about a pro­ject for next year.

“I think it’s good he’s build­ing his port­fo­lio,” John­son says. “And he needs to get an agent.” Is he go­ing to? “Is he go­ing to?” John­son re­peats. “As his wife telling him he needs to get an agent, he’d bet­ter.”


Wil­liam T. New­man Jr. has taken on the lead role of Oedi­pus in the WSC Avant Bard pro­duc­tion of “The Gospel at Colonus” at the Gun­ston Arts Cen­ter in Ar­ling­ton. To stay sharp, New­man au­di­tioned for roles through­out his ca­reer in law.

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