How Ron Cephas Jones’ Vulnerability and Masterful Acting on ‘This Is Us’ Helped Me Forgive My Father Before His Death08/25/2023
NBC’s acclaimed and award-winning drama “This is Us” encapsulated a beautiful ensemble of actors from all walks of life. From the raw emotions of Sterling K. Brown and Justin Hartley to the heartbreak and bravery of Mandy Moore and Chrissy Metz, there was talent on display for its 106 episodes. However, at the center of it all, veteran actor Ron Cephas Jones’ work as William “Shakespeare” Hill, who died on Saturday, served as the undeniable backbone of the heart-wrenching series.
Watching an adult Randall (Brown) and an elderly and frail William struggle to connect, with anger and regret simmering beneath every interaction, had the most eerie resemblance to my own personal relationship with my father. Like so many in our society, I had a very complicated relationship with my father, one that I struggled with until his passing in December 2021.
William was a complex figure. A man who had battled addiction, abandoned his child and, before succumbing to cancer, put himself on the line to gain one final connection to the son he left behind. Jones skillfully navigated the layers with respect and dignity — bringing the character to the ultimate redemption he passionately sought.
Admittedly, Randall’s a better man than I am, relentlessly determined to track down his father after a 36-year absence. When he finds him, Randall invites William to move in with him and his family and connect with his two grandchildren as he battles stage-four stomach cancer. My pride and deeply rooted disdain for personal choices loomed too large to make such a gesture as my father’s health deteriorated in his later years.
In June 2021, the day before movers would arrive at my New Jersey home to pack my house for our cross-country move to Los Angeles, I visited my Dad with my wife and two children. A lot can be said with so little. There was a moment where we both seemingly acknowledged that this was probably the last time we would see each other. He was 78 years old, and it didn’t seem likely I would be visiting the Poconos in Pennsylvania too often. The day that our house belongings arrived in L.A. was Father’s Day on June 21, only a week since I last saw him. I didn’t typically text him to wish him “Happy Father’s Day,” but I did this time. His response, which would be the second-to-last message I would ever receive from him before his passing, was, “I never stopped loving you.”
My dad seldom showed vulnerability or said things like “I love you.” Sometimes, such a little blip can give you the motivation to let it all go. That day, I did.
The initial success of “This Is Us” was defined by the juxtaposition of viewing Randall’s relationships with his adopted father (Milo Ventimiglia) and the father he never knew, which affects his own choices as a husband and a father. Watching Randall and William find connection and forgiveness through communication and tears became my weekly alternate reality and a TV multiverse of what I wish my life could have been.
William’s artistic and calm demeanor was seemingly different from my dad’s. I can’t confidently tell you my father’s favorite song or what he wanted to be growing up. I often wonder what a flashback of my father’s upbringing would have looked like. What would be the defining moment, such as Randall’s biological mother dying of a heroin overdose in front of William, that becomes the catalyst of poor decisions he would make in his life?
Watching Jones’ expert skill in conveying William’s struggles and eventual success in sobriety allowed me some semblance of walking a path of patience and acceptance of the hands that life deals us, no matter how slighted we feel by them. Creator Dan Fogelman’s drama showed William owning his past mistakes, articulating and acknowledging his child’s pain he caused. At times, it would feel like science fiction. It’s hard to imagine such an admittance by those who have wronged us. Nonetheless, Jones’ exceptional vulnerability and impeccable range represented a wide spectrum of the emotions the human body can endure.
Jones found chemistry with his co-stars, like the ever-talented Susan Kelechi Watson, in addition to Brown. It was the heart of the show’s premise as it explored family, identity and reconciliation for six powerhouse seasons. He brought forth a mixture of paternal love harnessed in an undercover longing for a life that never was. It would have been easy for another actor to play William and do “too much” with the role, such as over-act or trying to outdo any of his co-star’s emotional moments. He did it, and he did it extraordinarily.
One element always at the forefront of a good Jones role was his effervescent style of poetic line deliveries. His eloquent speech and thoughtful reflections set him apart from other actors today. With a blend of gravitas and warmth, he added an extra layer to any character he portrayed, which allowed the audience and viewers to find empathy. We looked beyond Williams’ faults and saw the potential for love and growth.
The prolific star appeared in various films throughout his career, such as the prison guard in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” (1998) or as Lloyd Dickson in “Half Nelson” (2006). However, the bones of any master actor are created on the stage, and Jones frequently flexed that muscle in the theater, no matter the size. His most notable credits would come after the success of “This Is Us.” He played Crooks in 2014’s revival of “Of Mice and Men” and landed the role of Montrellous in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” in 2022. The latter earned him his first and only Tony nomination for featured actor in a play.
The legacy of “This Is Us” is cemented in our TV landscape. Jones’ remarkable passion for his craft — and seeing those audacious hints of him through his equally talented daughter, Jasmine Cephas Jones — is enough evidence that a world minus the man will be less bright than before.
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