BET’s new series ‘American Soul’ gets to the soul of Cornelius’ legendary show

LAPACAZO SANDOVAL | 2/7/2019, 3:32 p.m.
The new ten-part series “American Soul,” which debuts internationally on BET with back-to-back episodes starting Feb. 5 (9 p.m. ET/PT), ...
Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius BET photo

The new ten-part series “American Soul,” which debuts internationally on BET with back-to-back episodes starting Feb. 5 (9 p.m. ET/PT), is a straight-up example of Black excellence in every category. Written by Devon Greggory and Jonathan Price (creators and co-showrunners), casting by Robi Reed, vice president of talent & casting BET, and executive produced by Jesse Collins and Tony Cornelius, son of the late Don Cornelius, the riveting series does a deep dive into what it really took to bring the music and dance television show “Soul Train” to life.

“Soul Train” was a success on many levels despite the struggle to keep the dream alive that was bubbling behind-the-scenes. For millions of African-Americans, being able to watch themselves on television left a deep and lasting imprint.

“American Soul” is inspired by the untold rise of the iconic “Soul Train” program, and perfectly blends fictional and real-life characters and key moments in history while chronicling the intense struggle that Cornelius endured to keep his dream a ‘stone-cold’ reality.

Reed’s casting deserves a second mention because the cast of unknown and up-and-coming talent makes this series a must-not-miss event. The full cast of “American Soul” includes Sinqua Walls, Kelly Price, Jason Dirden, Christopher Jefferson, Katlyn Nichol, Jelani Winston, producer Jesse Collins and Tony Cornelius.

Other guest stars will include a dynamic multi-episode performance by Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight; singer and actress Michelle Williams as the legendary Diana Ross; consummate entertainer Bobby Brown plays the over-the-top Rufus Thomas; fresh off her show-stopping role as Whitney Houston in “The Bobby Brown Story,” Gabrielle Dennis portrays Tina Turner; “Hit the Floor’s” McKinley Freeman plays Ike Turner; and singer and TV personality K. Michelle plays Martha Reeves.

Here is what actor Jason Dirden had to share about his work on “American Soul.” The interview was conducted at the Crosby Hotel this past Jan. 30, 2019.

Amsterdam News: I’m still slacked-jawed by your performance as the gangster, Gerald Aims, who isn’t anything like the character you play on OWN’s “Greenleaf,” the oily minister Basie Shanks.

Jason Dirden: (laughing) Is that right? Well, thank you. When I first read the screenplay I was concerned but as I got deeper into the character he [Gerald] organically emerged.

AN: Jason, that’s an understatement. My favorite line comes from your character. I love when he leans into the frame holding a box of honey and whispers (raspy honey-soaked voice) “bees is money, bees is mon ey!”

JD: (laughing)

AN: Clearly, I detect a theater background. Am I correct?

JD: Yes. I lived in New York for many years and worked a lot in theater. The pay is better on television.

AN: (laughing) So I won’t ask if you miss theater. Wait, yes I will. Do you miss the theater?

JD: Yes and no. I don’t miss the [lack] the money but I still work in theater. The last time was 2016. Theater keeps the [acting] muscle strong. Acting is the craft is and you have to do it in different mediums to stay strong in all the mediums.

AN: There were four directors for “American Soul.” Tell me about your experience of working with the director, Robert Townsend.

JD: (sigh) Robert Townsend saw me on stage, speaking of theater, in an L.A. production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that Phylicia Rashad directed. Robert came backstage and was teasing me, promising me that he would remember me. So fast forward, to 2019, his first day on set and he walks up to me, and says, “Hi, I’m Robert Townsend” and I reminded him about the play, and he responded with, “Yo, that’s where I remember you from. Yo, man you’re a beast!”

AN: “You are a beast” I agree with Robert. In fact, maybe you should go back on stage with him. He’s working on the musical version of “The Five Heart Beats” did you know that?

JD: (laughing) I did. I did, but I don’t sing.

AN: And…

JD: Well, the manager didn’t sing did he?

AN: He did not. Let’s put this into the universe, shall we?

JD: We shall.