Plunged into the dark abyss of grief over the death of his wife, Carl Lumbly nearly gave up the craft of acting.
The son of Jamaican immigrant parents, he found his calling at a young age and came to fame with roles on TV shows such as "Alias" and "Cagney & Lacey." It was on the set of "Cagney" that he met Vonetta McGee, an actress revered for her roles in blaxploitation films such as "Blacula" and "Shaft in Africa." The two, who played spouses, became inseparable and it wasn't long before life imitated art. They married, had a son together and moved to the Berkeley hills.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, he suddenly found himself in new role -- primary caregiver. He nursed her through nine grueling years, and when she died in 2010, he struggled to carry on without his wife of 23 years.
"When it's that difficult just to be yourself and get through the day, what is the value of trying to become someone else?" he recalls wistfully during a break in rehearsals at San Francisco Playhouse. "I just didn't have the juice anymore and I was beginning to feel like a fraud. ... I had to take stock of my whole life and figure out what my purpose was."
After living in the shadows for a time, he finally came to grips with his pain and found the steel to move on by remembering what Vonetta taught him about the importance of perseverance.
"Her life force was tremendous," says Lumbly, his voice thick with emotion. "Remembering her example, her bravery in the face of an extraordinary ordeal, is what helped me find my way back."
Lumbly cites playing the title character in "The Mother------ with the Hat" at SF Playhouse last year as a watershed performance in his journey back into wellness. The stage became his lifeline.
"Getting back to my craft was like therapy for me. I became a vessel for the character," he recalls. "It was an almost out-of-body experience and it helped me heal."
On the surface, Lumbly, a gentle soul who hasn't eaten red meat since 1974, had little in common with the role he played in "Mother------," a master manipulator and womanizer with a foul tongue. But the part also contained the seeds of survival, the power to endure.
"Whatever else he was, he was a brave cat, no matter what happened to him, he kept on putting one foot in front of another, and that was what I needed," he recalls. "It really spoke to me."
This month Lumbly can be seen playing a disillusioned man of the cloth in "Storefront Church," the final installment in John Patrick Shanley's "Church and State" trilogy, which began with the Pulitzer-winning "Doubt." A tale of faith and redemption in a down-and-out Bronx neighborhood, it runs through Jan. 11 at SF Playhouse.
By nature modest and thoughtful, Lumbly, 62, seems to have been born to play this role.
"Carl has a unique combination of intelligence, gentleness and power. He has a deep wellspring of empathy and an open heart that allows him to enter in the skin of many characters with emotional ease," says Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. "I remember seeing him years ago at the Eureka in 'Sizwe Banzi is Dead' with Danny Glover. His charisma was immediately apparent. You couldn't take your eyes off of him .... "
Susi Damilano, who directed him in "Mother," says that the thing that stands out about Lumbly is his fearlessness onstage.
"He is incredibly humble and gives directly from his heart, whether it is onstage or off," the director says. "I know he'll take a role when he says 'this terrifies me.' He faces his fears head on, with love and humbleness, and that is what makes him such an explosive actor."
Damilano recalls that Lumbly was initially self-conscious about parading around in his undies for "The Mother--- with the Hat." When she noticed he seemed to be hiding behind the pair of pants he was carrying, she told him to drop them and let it all hang out.
"It completely freed up his performance," she says with a laugh, "Now it is our private joke. Any role he is terrified about, we text about it and when he says he's given up the pants, I know he's going to give another amazing performance."
That hard-won sense of humor is part of his suit of armor. Heading into the holidays, a tough time when you've lost someone, Lumbly says that savoring the moment has become his credo.
"I know it will be rough, but I am trying to go on the journey anyway," he says with quiet determination, "It's a quest and maybe the search is of more value than the treasure."
Written by John Patrick Shanley
When: Nov. 26-Jan. 11
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St.
Tickets: $20-$100, www.sfplayhouse.org
Who: Carl Lumbly
Occupation: stage and TV actor
Next role: A priest in "Storefront Church" at SF Playhouse (www.sfplayhouse.org)
Quote: "Getting back to my craft was like therapy for me. It was an almost out-of-body experience and it helped me heal."