jakub | September 4, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | 3 Things to Know About the Miracle That Was Ron Cephas Jones

Ron Cephas Jones in the Public Theater Mobile Unit production of “Richard III.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Ron Cephas Jones, a busy theatrical actor known for his work with the LAByrinth Theater Company, the Public Theater, and productions everywhere from San Diego to London, as well as on TV’s This Is Us, died on Aug. 19. He was 66.

“Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.”
—Lao Tzu

I don’t wanna write a remembrance of my brother Ron. I don’t want to heed the words of Richard II and “sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Fuck that. This essay was due days ago, I haven’t been able to write one word. I’m not ready. I’m not willing. Because it hurts. It hurts too much to be true. My man smoked cigarettes down to the brown, he smoked more than any human being I’ve ever met, he had many chronic medical conditions, including surviving a double lung transplant—and technically his ass was the ass of a bona fide senior citizen—so it is completely believable that he would have passed. And yet, I promise you, the news hit me and all our friends like a sucker punch, it was a stone cold shock. Now how is it possible we could be so shocked? The answer is simple. Because that’s how much Ron Cephas Jones was loved. He was loved beyond measure and he was loved literally beyond reason. And I don’t want to memorialize him here because I’m not ready to accept that he‘s gone. So if you’re reading this, and we see each other on the street, ask me about Ron and I will happily tell you stories, and if you got stories too, please tell me all of them—but for the moment, I’ll ask for both your forgiveness and your indulgence while I share just these three things:

1. Ron worked his ass off. Intently. Intensely. Obsessively. Ron lived with me for many years on Riverside, and we had many parties, many gatherings, many people coming and going at all hours, but if he was doing his script analysis or memorization or working his actions—an atomic bomb could go off and I swear he wouldn’t notice. He was like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man—that was his level of focus and concentration. My man broke down his scripts down to the syllables. No lie. My man did script work throughout the entire run. He never stopped, and he always wanted notes. I’ve only known two actors in my life whose scripts were so filled with notes that you couldn’t detect where the typed words ended and the pencil marks began—and the other one was Philip Seymour Hoffman. So please, all young actors, take note: Like Phil, Ron was talented and he was gifted, but his greatness—and he was truly great—came from his enthusiasm and desire and his highly disciplined work ethic. Ron paid the cost to be boss and his currency was Hard Work.

2. Ron was admired for his great style and unquestioned cool, but what made him so damn lovable, such a good friend, and such a great actor, was his humanity, his brave and gorgeous vulnerability– not his cool. Don’t get me wrong, he was cool. Ron was a long-legged natural born cool ass motherfucker in every sense of the word, and he never left the house without a crease in his jeans, a shine on his cowboy boots, and his hat tilted just so. He knew how to make people feel good and even blessed just to be in his presence; his easy smile and his genial rap could charm and disarm even bill collectors and hostile authority figures, just about anyone, really—and if he was engaged in conversation with you, he gave his undivided attention like there was no place he’d rather be and no one he’d rather be with. It really didn’t matter who you were, Ron gave love to everybody. He gave love from his heart, and it was truly genuine, but it wasn’t because he was “cool.” The truth is, Ron was one of the least “cool” people you’d ever want to meet and he gave love so generously because he needed love so desperately. It was effortless to love Ron—and a joy to be his friend.

3. Ron’s last public performance was heroic and brilliant. On July 30, a few weeks before his death, members of LAByrinth Theater Company gathered at a theatre in Los Angeles with some of our old friends and some new friends to do some work. We rehearsed and did readings of three new plays in progress that I wrote. Ron was in two of them. And he was clearly not well. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, he needed a special chair to sit in, and he was at times confused and slightly disoriented. Several times, in both rehearsal and performance, Ron needed John Ortiz to turn the pages of his script for him. I had to step out of the theatre a few times during rehearsal because I didn’t want Ron to see me cry. And yet we rehearsed like everything was normal, because it actually was normal and we were all so excited for new pages and to be together again. Ron was a little shaky in rehearsal, I had to give him a few notes, and yet he had moments, even reading shit fresh off the page for the first time, that were absolutely pitch perfect and flawless. His body was failing him, but he had not lost an ounce of his acting ability. We had about 15 minutes between rehearsal and performance and Ron was out cold sleeping on a cot. And then the audience filed in and we began. That tiny stage was filled with brilliant actors at the top of their game—but once those stage lights came on, nobody shined brighter or was more effortlessly on point than Ron. He rose to the occasion and he willed himself to be the great and beautiful Ron Cephas Jones one last time. After it was over, I was saying to folks how Ron had this one particular moment where I wanted to stop the rehearsal and say to everybody, “Did you see that?! What Ron just did? Do that! That’s how it’s done—not too much, not too little—you only gotta do what the moment requires, nothing more, nothing less”—and then John Ortiz turned to me and said, “Yo, Steve, you did stop rehearsal and you did say that, in fact you said exactly that.” And we laughed. But I was glad I had said it because it was the gospel truth.

Over the years, Ron did five of my plays, a TV show, and countless readings. We spent thousands of hours together at the kitchen table and in the living room. And thousands more in rehearsal and performance. And it wasn’t enough. Like so many of you, I loved him dearly and I will miss him daily. I was thrilled for every single success he had so richly earned. But in the end, the only irreplaceable commodity we are given is Time. Ron loved to laugh and he loved to work and most especially, he loved his daughter Jasmine. He lived on borrowed time and used every minute of it. My prayer for you and for me is that we do the same. Life is short. Work hard. Love hard. Laugh often.

I love you, Brother Ron.

Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote the plays Between Riverside and Crazy, The Motherfucker With the Hat, Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

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