Rochester 10: J. Simmons 

There are hundreds of actors working in Rochester. But few of them are "working actors," those whose steady presence on stage and screen, and behind the scenes, pays the bills and feeds the soul.

One of them is J. Simmons.

If you frequent community theatre, you should be familiar with Simmons. In the last two years alone, he has directed six stage productions and performed in 15, captivating audiences with intense and idiosyncratic roles, from the seductive Juan Julian in "Anna in the Tropics" to an ophidian stamp collector in "Mauritius."

PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Photo by Josh Saunders

But even non-theatregoers may recognize Simmons — or his distinctive baritone — from his ubiquitous commercial and voiceover work. He has appeared in television and internet ads and training videos for insurance companies, gas stations, golf courses, you name it.

"It's all acting," as Simmons said recently over a bacon, egg, and cheese on a croissant breakfast at Spot Coffee on East Avenue in Rochester.

As a side gig, Simmons teaches acting lessons and choreographs fight scenes as a stage combat coach. His fight choreography for a recent National Technical Institute for the Deaf-Rochester Institute of Technology production of August Wilson's "Fences" was recently recognized by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

"If you're going to be an actor you can't say I'm only going to do theatre," Simmons said. "You've got to do everything."

Simmons, 37, has done a little bit of everything. His resume, as he tells it, includes stints as a traveling tea salesman, a night club host in Las Vegas, a recruiter for a window company, and a porn shop manager in New York City.

The common thread through all of them, he said, was his ability to act the part, to move easily between the sophisticated, the seedy, and the up-all-night and sweaty.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Photo by Josh Saunders

His latest role of working actor in Rochester, however, is one Simmons has been training for all his life. The role requires him, a black actor, to move easily in a local theatre scene dominated by casts and audiences of white people.

"This theatre scene that we have here has a giant fence going through it," Simmons said. "It's not set up by anybody intentionally, but it is there. It is there because there are not a lot of black shows that happen, so a lot of black actors don't think there's opportunity.

"But at the same time, when there are black shows that are offered, black people don't attend them. So it perpetuates itself."

A case in point, he said, was "Detroit '67," which Simmons directed for Blackfriars Theatre in October. The show, set against the backdrop of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, featured a predominantly black cast and received good reviews, but played to relatively small houses.

Born in Rochester to a 14-year-old mother, Simmons was raised from infancy by the instructor of his biological mother's Head Start program, a middle-aged white woman.

He grew up Johnnie Simmons on Alpine Street across from Highland Park, attended the prestigious Harley School, and traveled. Simmons recalled an impromptu vacation he and his adoptive mother took to Newfoundland one spring.

But he also spent a lot of time in his youth with his biological mother and the two sons she later had. Simmons, who now makes his home in Penfield with his girlfriend and her two sons, said his childhood was like straddling two worlds.

Simmons began acting at a young age, doing plays and touring musicals — opportunities he said he would have never gotten without his upbringing. He fast-tracked through high school, graduating at 16, and studied musical theatre at SUNY Fredonia.

"My dream is to be a working actor," Simmons said. "I just want to make money doing what I was put on this planet for."

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