Yorke Fryer on Why ‘Pipeline’ Is a Lifeline in a COVID World

(Featured image courtesy of Cynthia Levin)

Most kids are enamored with the idea of performing on stage, and though that excitement may suddenly evaporate when actually placed before a live audience, accomplished stage and television actor Yorke Fryer desperately just wanted the chance to participate. He may be leading plays like Pipeline and series like Extinct now, but “the only play that ever happened in my elementary school was a Christmas play, and it was a musical that I was not able to do because my dad was a Jehovah’s witness.” However ironically, he remembers pretty much every lyric to every song, something that even the stars of the pageant probably couldn’t claim today. It wasn’t until he joined choir in middle school that his world really began to open up to performing, and even when he was young, “I don’t think I knew how interested in it I really was.” Through forensics, a type of speech and debate team, he participated in a dramatic interpretation competition with a ten-minute monologue. That experience was one he carried into high school and inspired his endless pursuit of the performing arts since. “It was in high school that I really felt like I came into my own and understood how much I loved it.”

Most teens find their love for Shakespeare in high school (or for that age group, maybe more often hate), but without much of his plays in the local English class curriculum, Fryer didn’t discover his love for the Bard until he began joining Shakespeare festivals. These ongoing celebrations of the world’s most famous playwright are demanding to be sure, and Yorke admitted that “it’s a lot of work. Some actors don’t like it. They just want to jump in and just feel these things, but with Shakespeare, if you just feel it and you can’t communicate the words, people don’t understand what you’re saying.” Because of the dated material, performing in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet requires much independent interpretation outside of an actor’s usual research tasks, but Yorke has always happily risen to the occasion. “You’re doing this very technical thing while at the same time also doing this very acting/feeling/living in the moment kind of thing, and I loved it.” That love is what brought Fryer to the various festivals, including Utah and Oregon, and it’s what made each feel like a months-long party with other performers who shared his passion. Eventually, though, “there was a point in my life where I kind of had to make a decision: Was I going to go to Hollywood and try out this TV/film thing, or was I going to be living as I was, a Shakespearean actor?” Eventually, he did make the jump and relocated to California.

If he could pick any of Shakespeare’s plays to be adapted for the screen, he would choose King Lear, which includes his favorite role he’s ever played: the antagonistic Edmund. “I’ve always imagined it; instead of three kingdoms there’s a business empire. You could make it more modern, where someone who has a huge business empire splitting it up between his three daughters and all the conflict and even death that that would cost, from greed. I think that it would still work pretty well.” He suspects current hit Succession is loosely inspired by the tale of the king, as the two share similar DNA in regards to the already-complicated bonds between parent and child that tangle even further when power is involved.

Of his various guest parts in television, Yorke named NCIS as his favorite. “I enjoyed it so much, and one of the reasons was Mark [Harmon], the lead of the show. He is such a generous actor.” Fryer was only on set for a short amount of time to play a doctor, so it would have been easy for the main cast members to ignore him as they went about their usual routine. “I’ve had plenty of sets where that’s how it goes.” But with Harmon, “I just felt like the whole time we had so many conversations and he was just so full of great advice. I’d be telling him a story, and he’d be like, ‘Well what’d you learn from that?’” Fryer felt as if the seasoned performer was truly listening and reciprocating the energy in a way that is rare to find in any person, much less someone in Hollywood. “People come in and out of [NCIS] to do bit parts all the time, so I just love that he put in all those years of making that show and still found it important to give in to the actors.”

However, Fryer’s most rewarding experience was his leading role in BYUtv’s Extinct, a sci-fi series following a group of humans given second life by aliens who want to use them to repopulate the Earth. Everyone was revived in the bodies they had in the prime of their life, no matter how old they were when they died, so Yorke had the unique challenge of playing a sixty-year-old inhabiting a twenty-three-year-old’s body. Between the first audition and the callback, Yorke found he couldn’t shake the character from his mind. “I’d only had one little scene, and I was like, “I feel like I was married and somehow I must have lost my wife,’ so I went down this crazy rabbit hole in my actor brain about all these things, not thinking I was going to use it.” However, when he learned more about the role in the further audition process, he found out that his intuition had been correct. “It was all about my wife and me asking these aliens, ‘Can I bring her back?’” Fryer ended up losing thirty pounds in two-and-a-half months for the role, and that same level of dedication obviously extended into every aspect of the production. “The experience on set was absolutely amazing. You end up falling in love with people that you get to work with.” Yorke named director Ryan Little as a particularly close collaborator throughout the process, and everyone he worked with is someone he could name as one of his best friends today. “It was a really, really great show. I’m sad it didn’t get to continue, because a lot of people really, really enjoyed it, but you can’t control the politics of how things go down.”

Now, Fryer stars in Pipeline, a play described on its website as “an emotional and profound story about striving for a better life when the system is rigged against you.” Playwright Dominique Morisseau named the play after the notion of the school-to-prison pipeline, a growing trend in which African American public school students are guided into the criminal justice system straight out of high school. The story centers around Nya, a public school teacher with a son of her own, Omari, who she’s desperate to keep out of this pipeline. “Instead of making it this grand idea, all of a sudden this thing is taken down into a story with just a few characters, and you really get to see these people, as opposed to them just being numbers.” Yorke plays Dun, a security guard whose affair with the teacher tore apart her marriage. “I see Dun as the kid who went into the pipeline but made it and came out the other side.” That background is not written on the page, but its potential informed Fryer’s performance and allowed him to craft an even stronger emotional connection between the character and the topics of the play. “He wants to give these kids things he didn’t have.” In one particularly impactful monologue, Dun discusses how he always greets kids with a smile when they’re entering the school, “talking about that understanding that this is hard, what they’re going through, and that sometimes just one smiling face, especially from an adult, can really make a difference in their lives.”

(Courtesy of Cynthia Levin)

Morisseau also addresses the flaws of large class sizes, acknowledging that “you have to know these kids individually.” To stop a teenager from acting out, you have to put in the time and the energy to address how every aspect of their lives might be shaping their actions and unique perspective. Through talkbacks at the theater (times at the end of the show where the audience becomes an open forum for discussion or questions concerning the material), Yorke encountered a woman who worked at an alternative school. These experimental schools employ nontraditional methods of education and counseling for students who have failed out of the public system, students who might normally enter the school-to-prison pipeline. In every classroom, there are only ten students per teacher, as opposed to the thirty or forty that usually populate public school classes. During the talkback, this woman discussed how a smaller, more personal environment allowed the students to thrive in a new way. She said, “‘The biggest difference was that I had time to get to know them… I knew what was going on at their homes,’ and suddenly these kids had an adult who was an advocate for them.” With teachers often unavailable due to the work of leading hundreds of students every day, students are expected to be able to “figure it out,” when really the one thing they desperately need is someone who will take the time to listen and be on their side.

The talkbacks have inspired a wide range of questions, ranging from poignant to simple (“All these kids are sagging their pants. What’s up with that?”). Though, no matter the topic, Fryer has been grateful for the chance to spark newer and more holistic understandings of the educational system and prison culture in audiences. “The other night, we had a gentleman who said, ‘I should have been one of those kids.’” The audience member had been a football star with a world of opportunity laid out in front of him, until a heated moment during one game escalated into a fight with an administrator. Immediately, the school kicked him out, but with a caveat: “‘If you get a job, we’ll give you the grades to pass.’” Technically, he still graduated, but he hadn’t been allowed to step foot on campus ever again. He never finished his high school education. Suddenly thrust into a new job, forced into adulthood years earlier than everyone else, the young man felt lost and disillusioned by authority, at least until one of his bosses recognized his struggle and decided to give him a break. The superior signed him up for a class and told him, “‘After you take this class, we’re going to get a new machine, and you’re going to run it.’ This one person who fed into his life got him out of the pipeline… and here he is, in his mid-sixties watching this play,” seeing his own life experiences reflected onstage.

Live theater has taken a backseat over the past year and a half due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as vaccination rates rise, theaters have been able to reopen to put on productions under special circumstances, with Pipeline as one of the first brave productions to do so. Yorke expressed his excitement at the opportunity: “It’s been refreshing to both sides. As a performer, it’s super cool to be in this first wave of plays coming back out and getting to reconnect with audiences in this very unique way.” Fryer has felt that appreciation reflected back to him from the public, primarily through those talkbacks where a significant amount of the audience has stayed to dig into the heavy topics and social issues raised by the material. “To me, that speaks to COVID.” Acknowledging that there’s a renewed craving for the live, interactive experience, Yorke highlighted, “They’ve come to see the play because they’re longing for something different, something that you can’t recreate at home.”

(Courtesy of Cynthia Levin)

One of Fryer’s Pipeline co-stars had been in rehearsal on that fateful week in March, and though the performers had heard whispers and rumors of a shutdown, they had been on stage when it was actually announced that live theater was essentially over. “The actors didn’t know it yet, but the audience had found out,” so when the play ended, the cast was honored with their longest and loudest standing ovation yet. Fryer’s co-star described it as both a beautiful moment and an unfortunate omen, because as soon as they saw the way the audience was fueling all of their extra passion into their praise and applause, they knew things had taken a turn for the worse. “There’s nothing like doing a show… I think the people watching would be surprised to know how often you [as an audience member] watching something and gasping actually affects the actor emotionally on stage too. We’re humans; we know that sound and that you were just touched.” It’s a special type of symbiotic relationship of shared emotional responses to powerful art that just can’t be replicated on a television screen at home. “People have missed that. I know I have.”

Yorke grew up just outside Kansas City, so working at the Unicorn Theatre is a sort of homecoming, one that has been a “really fun” experience for the young actor. His family has since moved, so he’s only returned periodically after graduating high school, but “I’ve found that I just love Kansas City. It is a great city, and I’ve been able to spend time with a lot of really talented people here. It has been such a good and unexpected experience.” Fryer had come back to his hometown for a friend’s father’s funeral, which was actually more of a going-away party. “That’s what he wanted, to throw the biggest party you can throw.” At the party, Fryer ran into Nathan, an old friend who works at the Unicorn and wanted to show him around. As he stood in the middle of the theater, with his flight still scheduled for later that day, he thought, “You know, I’ve never worked in Kansas City. I would love to work here sometime.” While visiting his great-aunt a few days later, he got a call from Nathan, who asked, “Would you really want to do it?” A spot in Pipeline had opened up a day into rehearsals. Yorke rushed to work out the details with his team, and they all agreed that it would be good to get this type of “nourishment” that he hadn’t been getting in Los Angeles. “I was a week late into the rehearsal process and just tried to work my butt off to keep up with all those guys who were already doing it, and then we opened a show.”

“You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Sound familiar? The Snickers slogan was first used in a now-iconic Super Bowl ad starring Fryer alongside Betty White, who Yorke had nothing but praise and admiration for. “She is a hilarious person, and I had the most fun time with [her] on set.” At one point, White is tackled by a football player into a puddle of mud, and “she was having a fantastic time.” The whole time, she was joking around but still constantly stayed sensitive to how she was poking fun at the other cast members. “She called me a son of a bitch, and I was like, ‘Betty White. My mother is not a bitch.’ And she got real serious and was like, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I was like, ‘I’m kidding!’ But she cared if it had hurt my feelings.” Abe Vigoda also appeared at the end of the TV spot, and Yorke remembers producers telling him, “We don’t know who’s going to have the last line yet, you or Abe Vigoda. I was like… Okay, so Abe gets the last line… You’re not taking that dude’s line and giving it to me!” Fryer feels incredibly grateful to have worked on multiple amazing commercials, including a Comcast ad last year with Steve Carell, but the Snickers spot that kickstarted one of the most memorable modern ad campaigns will always hold a special place in his heart. “Not a lot of people get to say they worked with a legend like [White].”

As a producer, Fryer currently has a few projects in various stages of development, including Cecilia Choi’s TV series Kombucha Cure, which is currently in post-production and is aiming to release by the beginning of next year. As an actor, he’s currently searching for his next project, a process he called “the nature of the business… You feel really, really lucky if you know what the next job is” after leaving one. However, if he could pick any dream role, he’d want to join the superhero world as the Green Lantern, specifically as John Stewart, one of the first major African American superheroes. “If you read those old comics, the things that he stood for: justice and dignity and standing up to racism… the way that John Stewart sees the world, I find him to be such a brave character.”

Wherever he may travel next in the world or on screen, we’ll be sure to continue to follow Yorke Fryer on his journey as a performer, and we recommend you do the same.

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