Between 1998 and 2006, actor/writer Edwin Lee Gibson was a well-loved fixture for theater-loving children who enrolled in his Musical Theater Workshop at the Rye Arts Center. These days, however, he’s a fixture on the award-winning hit television show “The Bear,” playing a supporting role as Ebraheim, a stoic East African line cook.
Gibson, interviewed in early January in Los Angeles where he now lives, says he loved running the theater workshop. Students auditioned on Monday, rehearsed for five days, and performed a complete (albeit abbreviated) musical such as “Oliver” or “The Wiz” by Friday night. While directing and choreographing the shows, Gibson led participants in theater games and tongue twisters. The workshops were so popular that students re-enrolled year after year. Gibson, who takes pride in his ability to see his students as individuals, would start every session by saying something kind about each returning thespian.
When he wasn’t in Rye, Gibson was performing in shows in and around New York. He won an Obie (Off Broadway Theatre Award) for Outstanding Performance in “The Seven” at the New York Theatre Workshop, and has had a steady career for over 40 years. In 2022, after appearing in such television projects as “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”; “Fargo,” “Shameless,” “Law and Order: SVU”; “Proven Innocent,” and “Chicago P.D.,” Gibson landed a recurring role on “The Bear,” never imagining the show would become a huge hit. “The Bear,” which runs on FX but streams on Hulu, follows a gourmet chef who transforms his late brother’s failing sandwich shop into a fine-dining establishment. As Ebraheim, Gibson plays a cook who has worked at the shop for years. On Sunday, January 7, “The Bear” won three Golden Globe awards, and if you watched the awards show, or the Emmy awards, you may have seen Gibson alongside his castmates.
Though he has become something of a star, Gibson said he still relishes his days in Rye. He loved the town’s beauty, he said, but what really stood out to him were “these amazing, tenacious kids, between eight and 13,” who would come to class “bright-eyed and ready.”
It’s not surprising that Gibson feels such a connection with young performers – he began performing with his mother, a classically trained vocalist, at age five, and landed his first paid acting job at 16. Gibson, who speaks with a stutter that disappears when he’s acting or singing, credits his father for encouraging his fascination with language. (Gibson speaks French and is learning Kiswahili.) “My dad would tell me, ‘Say what you need to say. We’ll wait. Your voice is important.’” Because of his supportive family and his passion for language, Gibson said he never paid nearly as much attention to his stutter as others did.
When Gibson met with the creators of “The Bear,” they told him they loved his audition because he was the only actor “who didn’t play it for laughs.” Initially concerned that Ebrahim might be played as a stereotype, Gibson changed his mind after watching some of series creator Christopher Storer’s work. He trusted Storer’s skill as a director, and he also “wanted to take care of [Ebrahim],” and not let another actor turn him into a cliche. “Tropes only exist as much as the actor plays into them,” he said. Gibson wanted to break stereotypes and show a black male character who was “steady and even-keeled.”
Storer, whose previous work mostly involved directing comedy specials, told Gibson he had wanted to work with him since seeing him onstage in Chicago five years earlier. “You never know who’s watching,” mused Gibson.
The biggest inside scoop that Gibson revealed about “The Bear” is that all the food in the show is real. The cuisine in the series, produced by the showrunner’s sister, professional chef Courtney Storer, apparently tastes as amazing as it looks. Gibson admitted that he had to be sure he was “not eating the food until we’re done with the shot.” But when it comes to the close-up shots of lightning-fast food prep? The actors had to learn those skills themselves — it’s their hands, not the hands of doubles, you see chopping on-screen.
In early February, Gibson will be heading to Chicago to begin filming season three of “The Bear,” which was delayed by the writers’ and actors’ strikes. He hopes that playing Ebrahim will prove that he can’t be put in a box when it comes to the types of roles he can play. Gibson is also developing original scripts he has written with both Sony pictures and LeBron James’s Spring Hill Productions. He hopes to return to New York to reprise his role in Will Power’s play “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” slated to premiere on Broadway this summer.
Gibson offers this message to his former Rye Arts Center students: “I got more from you than I could have ever given you.”
Sophie Hessekiel is a television writer in Los Angeles, and a former student of Edwin Lee Gibson.