ⓘ John Earl Jelks


ⓘ John Earl Jelks

John Earl Jelks is an American actor. Working extensively in theatre, Jelks is also known for screen roles, including in films such as Compensation, Miracle at St. Anna, Enter the Dangerous Mind, Night Comes On, and television series such as True Detective, The I-Land, and On Becoming a God in Central Florida.

In 2007, he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play as Sterling Johnson, in August Wilsons Radio Golf. In 2014, Jelks won a double Obie Award for Fetch Clay, Make Man and Sunset Baby. For First Breeze of Summer, Jelks also won the AUDELCO Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play, in addition to the production winning.


1. Career

Jelks began acting at 18 while attending the City College of San Francisco, a public community college. He began his career in 1979 when he acted in his first play, Pinocchio Jones, which also starred Cindy Herron and was performed at Balboa High School. He went on to act in several plays, not acquiring an agent until he had been performing on stage for 7 years.


1.1. Career Stage acting

For a decade, from 1989-1999, Jelks performed in the independent play The Diary of Black Men. In 2002, Jelks performed The Piano Lesson at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Later that year, Jelks performed Joe Turners Come and Gone directed by Marion McClinton at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and again at the Penumbra Theatre, where he later became a company member.

In 2004, Jelks made his Broadway debut in the August Wilson play Gem of the Ocean, which starred Phylicia Rashad. Gem of the Ocean was the first installment in Wilsons decade-by-decade ten-play chronicle, The Pittsburgh Cycle, dramatizing the African-American experience in the 20th century. Directed by Kenny Leon, the production took place at the Walter Kerr Theatre and has received five Tony Award nominations.

Jelks collaborated again with August Wilson in the 2007 premiere of the play Radio Golf at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. The final installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle, the production received 3 Tony Award nominations, including Best Play and Best Featured Actor in a Play for both Jelks and Anthony Chisholm.

In 2010, Jelks performed in the world premiere of the stage version of The Shawshank Redemption at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. The play was based on the Stephen King novel that had been successfully adapted for the screen by Frank Darabont. Jelks played the part of Red in the production directed by Peter Sheridan and adapted for the stage by Owen ONeil and Dave Johns.

Jelks has worked extensively in other Broadway and regional productions including Magnolia 2009, Fetch Clay, Make Man 2010, The Break of Noon 2010, Two Trains Running 2013, Sunset Baby 2013, Holler If Ya Hear Me 2014, ToasT 2015, The Piano Lesson 2016, and Head of Passes 2016.

In 2014, Jelks conducted acting workshops and performed in the play The Meeting at the Terra Sancta Theater in Amman, Jordan.

From 2016 to 2018 Jelks performed in 3 productions of Lynn Nottages Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat, playing the part of Brucie, a middle-aged man unemployed for 2 years after losing his factory job. The play was performed in New York at the Public Theater Martinson Hall in 2016, before moving to Studio 54 in 2017. Jelks returned in 2018 for a run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.


1.2. Career Screen acting

Jelks first starring screen role came in the 1999 film Compensation, which premiered at Sundance. The film depicts two Chicago love stories, one set in the 1900s and one in the 1990s, with both couples played by the same actors. Jelks played the dual roles of Arthur Jones and Nico Jones.

He has also appeared in Spike Lees 2008 World War II historical film Miracle at St. Anna, and in Jordana Spiros 2018 drama Night Comes On, which premiered at Sundance. In 2019, he acted in series 3 of HBOs anthology crime drama series True Detective, Netflixs science-fiction thriller miniseries The I-land, as well as a recurring role in the Showtime comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida.


2. Personal life

Jelks is a widower, having lost his wife of 12 years, Naomi, in a traffic accident in 2002. The couple had 3 children, sons Jamal, Jabari, and daughter Jamila. The loss of his wife had led Jelks to consider leaving acting, but he eventually decided to remain in the career for his children. He dedicated his performance in the play Gem of the Ocean to his late wife.

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