I was watching a Great Performances episode on “In the Heights” (I might be a little addicted) this morning, and it got me to thinking of my own theatrical journey, as much as it pales in comparison to those great performers on Broadway.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with the stage. Acting has always been something I enjoyed either doing or watching. I can get lost in an actor’s performance and see the world through their eyes. Getting to portray a life not your own and make it yours is what I see as the key part of being a performer. The greats have always poured their hearts and souls into whatever character they portray and it’s something I’ve always aspired to do myself.
The first time I ever did anything on stage was in elementary school; I think I was in kindergarten or first grade, but I don’t remember exactly. All I remember was it was fun, and I wanted to do it again. Unfortunately, I never did. When we moved from one city to another, I was unaware of a theater department at the school I switched to. I still have vivid memories of my high school stage and thinking it would be the perfect place to put on a show. But the love of the stage kept calling to me like a siren’s call to a ship at sea.
I would finally get the chance to answer that call when I attended Alabama State; one of my dormmates asked if I wanted to be in a Gospel version of Jesus Christ Superstar, and I immediately said yes. It was there where I met Dr. Tommie Stewart – you might remember her as the grandmother from In the Heat of the Night or Samuel L. Jackson’s wife in A Time to Kill. She really put us through the paces in those rehearsals, but it was incredible fun. I got to play one of the Roman Centurions who escorted Jesus to the mount and was the jerk who stabbed Him in the side; not one of my proudest moments. We rode that show all the way to Regionals at Tennessee-Knoxville, and when we closed the curtains for the last time, I feel like we made a difference.
Our next play was a Shakespeare play. I don’t remember which one, but I did audition for a part. When I didn’t get it, I stepped away for that show. I came back for the Greek tragedy Medea, and I got to play my first speaking part since elementary school. It was the role of Jason’s Man (changed from Jason’s Slave because…uncomfortable connotations and whatnot). Fun fact, there were two people playing that role because we both gave two entirely different performances; I was the more energetic one and would run down the stage screaming “WHERE IS MEDEA?!” and collapse in a heap in front of her. The other one would exhaustedly breath out the same line and give a completely different performance. That role also gave me the greatest rehearsal story I’ve ever had.
During rehearsals, I had to deliver my lines like I was pained from what I saw because what I saw was horrific. However, I just wasn’t getting the motions right; it was like I was stiff as a board. Well, Dr. Stewart hopped on the stage, jumped on my back, and started poking and pinching me all over while I was delivering my lines. Needless to say, she got the performance she wanted, and I got the story of a lifetime. That role would be the last time I was ever on stage…
I was working as an IT technician in a school when I was asked by someone if I was willing to play Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. I said yes, and that brought me back on the stage for the first time in 22 years. Tom’s story is…well, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but I poured my heart in soul out for that role. In fact, I came on three weeks before opening and helped make the show a success. It was another one of those where I was struggling to find the right way to play the part, so my director told me to show my fear. I couldn’t show it with actual movement, so I had to use my eyes instead; that ended up making the part and helping me leave my mark on an iconic character.
My next show was A Christmas Story and I ended up playing multiple parts for that one. I got to play Red Ryder, he of the eponymous BB gun that shot Ralphie’s glasses off, I played the Christmas tree salesman, I delivered the famous leg lamp to the Parker household, I was the voice of Pierre Andre, and – in a performance that would endear me to the school at which I worked – Santa Claus. That’s five different characters with five different performances, and each was incredible fun. Fun fact: I based my voice of Red Ryder on one of the kids at the school I worked at. I told her I was doing it and she got a kick out of it.
Next up was a smaller part, but it was by no means less entertaining: I played Joe the circulation expert in Father of the Bride. This one stands out because it was the first show I did that was set in modern day; there were cell phones and mentions of Instagram and Snapchat. There was technology and there was a whole different level of exasperation I was able to play. Working in a school meant I had a fount of opportunities to draw from when I had to portray annoyance at the situation I found myself in. I also got to be incredibly deadpan, which is my go-to brand of comedy. I learned that by watching the late, great Robert Guillaume on Benson, and I tried to carry myself as he did when I was on. I hope I did well.
Immediately after that, we did Arsenic and Old Lace and I got to play one of the police officers the old ladies were friendly with. I played Officer O’Hara but changed his name to “Crawford” because I don’t look Irish. My character is a moonlighting playwright who wants to get the attention of Mortimer Brewster and have him convince Broadway to put his show on. The most entertaining part of that was my director gave me carte blanche to deliver my big scene any way I wanted to. So, I ended up leaning into my role as a time aberration (I’m a black man playing a police officer in the 1930s) and pulling people from all over the place; Richard Roundtree, Bobby Brown, Leonard Nimoy…no one was safe. I also liked the part because it was against type; I got play a nitwit, and that was fun.
The next role I would play would be my big role. Up to this point, I had only played principal or supporting roles, but I would get to be a lead actor this time. Not only that, but I got what would be considered top billing as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. I brought my own little quirks to that part, like when Murray’s wife hears him insulting her, I hop out of the chair laughing and running. When Felix chastises Oscar about being late from work, I tell him I had a hard time finding a cab in a way that’s totally me. This role was one of my favorites; it’s also the last time I’ve been on stage.
Presently, I’m in rehearsals playing Oberon in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have no idea whether it will actually go on because of the ongoing pandemic. At this juncture, all I can do is continue to rehearse and prepare for either case.
All told, this has been one hell of a journey. I’m looking forward to seeing where I go next.