The voice of Roscoe Lee Browne surely must be considered a national treasure. His resonant, sonorous pipes belong with those of John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Esther Rolle, James Earl Jones and Orson Welles in the commanding-voice hall of fame.
Browne is joined by fellow journeyman actor Anthony Zerbe in a unique theatrical performance of 20th-century literature called Behind the Broken Words this week at Washington University, as part of the school's Ovations! Series and through its International Writers' Center.
Browne and Zerbe together and as solo performers bring to life around 27 pieces of poetry, prose and drama by the likes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dylan Thomas, William Butler Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Seamus Heaney, Robinson Jeffers, Jean Giraudoux, Alfred de Musset, Edmund Rostand and Derek Wolcott. It's a feast for lovers of belles-lettres and poetry slams, a rich experience from two old pros that should be a sold-out show.
Zerbe has acted in TV shows, movies and plays, including his role as Lt. Trench in the TV series Harry O and parts in Cool Hand Luke, The Omega Man, The Dead Zone and True Crime. His face has often gotten him cast as a TV and movie villain. Zerbe's one-man show on e.e. cummings toured colleges in the manner of Broken Words.
Browne is noted for his work for the New York Shakespeare Festival, The Cosby Show, narrating the movie Babe and serving as the sepulchre-voiced narrator for many special performances with symphony orchestras, including our own. Both actors have collected Emmys, and both have faces you will probably find familiar, although their names may not be.
In prior performances of this show, a list of the cuttings and authors performed has been distributed after the performance, steming the impulse to fawn over a work of art simply because of the cult of personality surrounding its creator. It's as if Browne and Zerbe are saying that it's better to groove on the experience of the spoken works than on the obvious fame of the artists.
Behind the Broken Words is performed by Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 30 and 31, at Washington University's Simon Hall, just west of the Mallinckrodt Center. Call 935-6543 for tickets.