Richmond native Frank Riley III has admittedly worn several hats during his life: single father of two sons, professional wrestler, television actor and policeman. What’s more, he serves as an encouraging example of what can happen when we prepare ourselves for that fortuitous moment when doors swing open and the opportunity to realize our dreams emerges within our grasp.
So, with the longtime support of his supervisors and colleagues, the recently retired member of the Alexandria Police Department will soon take his place on the Arena Stage in Southwest in a masterful drama, “Two Trains Running,” set during America’s turbulent civil rights era and written by the award-winning Black playwright August Wilson.
Riley, who returns to Arena Stage after his debut in the Lorraine Hansberry classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” takes on the role of Hambone under the direction of Juliette Carrillo. “Two Trains Running,” a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, runs through April 29.
“As the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the concerns of the African-American community into the center of the public eye in recent times, this 1992 play (set in 1969) has become startling current,” Carrillo said. “Wilson’s genius every day poetry illuminates the emergence of personal dignity and self-worth during one of the most turbulent eras in our country’s history.”
Riley, who retired from the Alexandria police force in June 2017, recalls often feeling like he had two full-time jobs — and very few moments to lose his focus.
“We worked 12-hour shifts as police officers, so I’d get off and then go right to rehearsals,” he said.
“Doing film work wasn’t too bad but the theater is a lot more intensive. I had to exercise great discipline. And many times, instead of enjoying an evening with my friends, or doing something fun with my sons, I had to memorize my lines, get into character — I had to make sure I was ready. I had to be willing to sacrifice fun time,” said Riley, who at 260 pounds and well over six feet tall, has long been considered an imposing figure.
“Learning your lines is a lot like learning a dance routine — even complicated choreography,” he said. “It just gets instilled in your body. After a while it becomes part of the muscle memory.”
As for other members of the cast, Riley points to Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) and David Emerson Toney (Holloway) as the kinds of actors he seeks to emulate.
“I love watching those two. They are the epitome of how actors should carry themselves and how they should work. They’re just amazing to watch. For one, they bring so much energy to their characters.”
Riley, who resides in Alexandria, got back into acting a few years ago, being cast in roles for community and professional theatre companies in the area. He attributes his success to a highly-encouraging team of police officers, as well as “two great acting coaches” (Mike Baker. Jr. and Katie Kalliacky), both of whom motivated him to pursue his career.
“People are often surprised when they hear that I was once a police officer,” he notes. “But the irony is that I always wanted to be the guy on TV who was playing the cop. I didn’t want to actually be one.”
“I remember seeing ‘The Wiz’ when I was in the eighth grade. Stephanie Mills was Dorothy. She was amazing. That’s when I knew, after seeing that Broadway show, that I wanted to become an actor. I was simply in awe.”
“I love being an actor and being on stage is where I am most comfortable. It gives me this rush of adrenaline and it’s very satisfying. I feel like I’m able to make people happy. To heal people. To help them forget, at least for a few hours, the challenges, the struggles and the problems they may be facing. Maybe it’s their health, or money issues — even a broken relationship.”
“When the curtain goes up and ‘Hambone’ takes his mark, I want the audience to believe that I am this amazing character that August Wilson envisioned. Every time that curtain rises, the first thing that comes to my mind is ‘it’s showtime.”
“It can’t get much better,” Riley adds.
For more information or tickets, go to www.arenastage.org.