Home again. I’ve been away for four weeks, the longest absence from my home in more than 20 years…and that includes trips to Romania, Australia, India, Vietnam, Amsterdam, Peru and a few other places I’ve probably overlooked. During this mission I had not a single day off, worked harder than I have in recent memory, am as tired as I can remember having been since Ranger Week (ten days on nine hours of sleep;)…and realize that I haven’t been this happy in quite a few years.
I spent most of February and early March at Fresno State University, teaching 15 hours of Speech, English and drama classes, rehearsing and doing ten performances of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” with a singular group of young drama students. I also did a reading and signing of my book, Return To Eden, a live TV interview for KSEE, a campus TV interview, an interview for talk radio, several print interviews…and a few workmanlike chores at the faculty home where I stayed. So what made this trip so memorable? Where to begin…
For openers, I’ve resisted teaching drama for much of my professional life. I’m impatient, judgmental, critically demanding…and did I mention, lacking in patience? Guess what? I seem to have outgrown some of that. I was blessed to have studied with all three of our master teachers of Stanislavski – Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and Lee Strasburg. All were patient and generous with me and I succeeded as a working professional because of their guidance. In my efforts to distill and communicate the essence of their wisdom for newbie collegiate minds, the process reawakened my love for The Work and particularly, for the working process. I’ve long done many of the things they’d taught me but I now remembered just why.
An hour-long class with me was unlike a gentle discussion or sampling of opinion; it was more like a thirty second question and a five minute (plus) answer. I was inspired and motivated and animated and keenly attuned to a rare opportunity: To pass along to youngsters that which had carried me thru the past 37 years of performance. I shared with them a great deal (some of which they will not likely own for years) but no matter. Every journey begins with a step.
I have great admiration for these young students, many of whom
commute from afar. (Steven, our Lyman, lived ninety minutes away, in Bakersfield.) Most have outside jobs to help pay their tuition and living costs, all carry 15 credits of college work…and yet my stalwart six fellow artists found the will and energy to rehearse and perform. That kind of grit can be inspiring to an old fart.
Tho the classes I addressed had students of all ethnicities, my cast was exclusively African-American. That too was meaningful to me. While recounting my professional arc can benefit any aspiring actor, this sojourn reminded me that I have something very dear to share with young minority artists. I’ve lived thru the struggle for civil rights, I’ve been ‘one of the first persons of color to…’(fill in the blank) for much of my working life. And just as I am able to communicate to civilians about the nature of combat and war, I am able to offer them informed guidance that is rather rare and unlikely to come their way.
I was invited out after one performance by my young cast and was very flattered that they’d include ‘the old man’ in their aftershow decompression. We ended up at Denny’s (don’t laugh) they’re too young to drink and probably don’t, in any case. I arrived just before midnight and only stayed about 45 minutes. (I carry no illusions,
regarding my present ability to roll with teenagers. A man’s gotta know his limitations.) We spoke about a perceived slight they’d endured at the hands of some campus official. They felt it was racially tinged. Hey, it might have been. And it also might have been a result of adults, mulling their diminishing home values, what now looks like a 201(K), state budgetary cutbacks, postponed retirements, you name it…grown-ups are understandably grumpy and stressed. Stressed people often speak impatiently to young adults…and young adults don’t particularly appreciate it. I learned that the same discussion had taken place in an English class. And those students were all Caucasian;)
My point was simply that there is little upside to being racially prickly. Save your powder for battles that must be fought.
“This time is your Selma, your Birmingham, your opportunity to continue the proper choices of those that preceded you. With character and good judgment, you will pave the road for those who follow you.” The next day, I asked one actress, “So what time did you guys hang it up?” She said, “You don’t want to know. We left at 5 AM. We just sat there and talked about the things you’d said.”
I was very moved. When I began in 1971, there were few people of color in TV and films on a regular basis. That has changed dramatically in my working lifetime, much for the better. Yet some uncomfortable realities remain and will continue to need addressing in the years ahead. I also told all of my students how very different the profession is today, how even more difficult it is to make a living from it and that they should consider marrying well (that generally drew an appreciative laugh, especially from the pretty ones;) and consider majoring in something like health care. People grow old, nurses are always in demand, make a great living and can work anywhere in the world. If you love the creative process, then by all means, continue to study and work and grow and love your work. Just don’t count on making a living from it. I accepted my pension several years ago, after watching too many of my contemporaries die before their time. An actor who begins today and enjoys success commensurate with mine will not enjoy a pension in 30 years. “They” changed the rules. Hardly fair, but life is rarely fair. There will always be lottery winners but that fact is hardly a foundation on which to base a life plan.
So what else? How about this? I’ve done more than 40 fully realized stage productions in my career – Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater and experimental theater, here and abroad. I have never enjoyed so many “independent activities” (things I could physically do, truthfully) on stage as I was allowed to do in this production. I had a working kitchen. During the play, I cooked bacon, French toast, scrambled eggs, grated cinnamon, ate and drank, washed dishes, ironed pants, played solitaire, played blues guitar, sang, exorcised;) Seriously, this was groundbreaking for me…and this was also my very first opportunity to engage the prose of August Wilson!
I appreciate the singular working relationships in my past; they remain high water marks. These students will some day look back and realize just how special was this working context. Kudos to the student set designer, the theater craft shop and particularly, to the director, Thomas Ellis. This is a guy who pretty much stuck his neck out to do something special, (tenured or not;) I give him props for the heart to dream and for the chops to pull it off.
Regrets, I’ve got a few…Yeah, we’d always love another bite at the apple. But my cast grew with each performance and would have continued to grow, with more reps. Two of Wilson’s family attended one show and I’m told, were very taken with it. I dearly desired to archive the work. I felt the kids deserved a record of what they’d done, some might never again have a chance to speak the prose of August Wilson on a stage. After all, this was my very first opportunity, I’d never before even been invited to audition for one of his plays.
The technology exists (there are videos in Lincoln Center of productions I did for Joe Papp’s Public Theater, 36 years ago!) I called Samuel French and asked about permission to film and was told it was strictly forbidden by the Wilson estate. So, I have this regret. The night the family members came, I was distracted and not introduced to them. Know that I would have been verrrrry persuasive in my efforts to have them countermand that edict;) But I didn’t get the chance. So it goes.
What else? Hmmm. You know, I visited my brother’s family in Ohio last Thanksgiving and while there, begin playing the guitar of my niece and nephew. They each play several instruments (man, I always thought Band was geeky but Jos and Nate are so clearly cool, I guess that was a misperception;) In any case, while there I discovered that there were all these Youtube videos online of my favored country blues players, like Mississippi John Hurt and Charley Patton as well as more contemporary musicians who offered analysis of the techniques and visual breakdowns of their pattern picking!
In my day, back in the ‘60s, I’d go to Washington Square Park in NYC’s Greenwich Village to hang around the fountain and jam with other folkies. You’d learn a lick here, a lick there, trade one insight for another…and that’s how we learned to play guitar. Very much like bluesmen of the past, stealing licks and lyrics from each other at jook joints and bawdy houses. Today’s tech allows one to stay at home, go on line and learn riffs. Point is, I was smitten with Stefan Grossman and Po Boy Hayes and other blues devotees and became reinvigorated. I started playing my guitar daily and haven’t stopped.
I learned to play guitar in the early ‘60’s. I got pretty good. Getting shot thru the throat in Vietnam chilled my singing for a bit, but throughout the ‘70’s, I continued to play, learning even more. I recorded a blues album in 1981, POSSESSION – The music of Robert Johnson.
(OK, false cause is always suspect.) Whether because of PTSD or the denouement of that recording experience or whatever, bottom line – for the next 28 years, I played very sporadically. Sometimes a project would come along, like Flipper, filmed in Australia (starring a young Jessica Alba) and me portraying Lil Mo James, a blues legend on the run. So I’d play for a few weeks, shoot the project…and then put away my guitar.
Go to India, play guitar, put it away. Go to Virginia for Evan Almighty, play guitar, put it away. But this time, since this past Thanksgiving, I haven’t put my guitar away. For whatever reasons, I’ve continued to play, day after day. And my hands have grown stronger. And my fingertips have reacquired their pads. And my brain again remembers/appreciates the countering harmonics and spaces and alternating bass/melodic fundamentals of the rather rustic, unsophisticated, and beautiful country blues. I realized that I was playing again and living music again, now strong enough to execute the small nuances that make this music so special.
August was greatly influenced by the music of Robert Johnson, Skip James and other delta bluesmen. Some future doctoral candidate will base his thesis on the following assertion: August Wilson heard RJ’’s recordings (the double CD released in the late ‘80’s) and was inspired to write The Piano Lesson. I can identify at least twenty different lines of text lifted directly from RJ’s lyrics. I’ve always felt if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best;)
“Let me heist your hood and check your oil.” Terraplane Blues
“Gon’ take my 32:20 and cut her mos’ half in two.” 32:20 Blues .
So with typical synchronicity, my enduring relationship with the blues of Robert Johnson comes full circle with my involvement in The Piano Lesson. Our play began with my character, railroad cook Doaker, emerging from his room ten minutes before the curtain and quietly picking on his guitar (The Yellow Dog) in the early morning darkness. Act Two began in similar fashion, (which seriously shortened my intermission) but that choice allowed me to segue into the railroad song that Wilson wrote and I re-arranged into a 12 bar E blues. I’d decided early on to perform these “outside the play” segments seated, with my back to the audience. I wanted the appearance of privacy and non-performance – I was playing for myself and the audience was eavesdropping. Additionally I wanted to reference the iconic image on Johnson’s album cover, which showed him recording, faced into the room’s corner, a man of mythic shyness (except around women;)
Performance offered me a great deal of opportunity to play my country blues. During my first few days, I recorded about 20 minutes of instrumentals that were used to bridge scenes. Director Ellis asked me early on, “Can you arrange some of the music to be played on guitar?” I responded, “Short answer, sure…but the play is called The Piano Lesson, no?” Turns out the only competent pianist in the cast was Bryttani and her Berniece doesn’t consent to play until the final moments. Hmmm. OK. I justified it by deciding my Doaker has a secret musical competition with his older brother, Winin Boy, a gambler and piano player who’d recorded in his early days.
I so enjoyed my experience at Fresno State that I feel driven to replicate it elsewhere and I’ll submit inquiries to other collegiate theater programs. I also realize that academia is a world unto itself and that my instincts may require retooling. During our play, the men drink copious amounts of whiskey (tea, naturally) and I decided to offer my fellow actors a tumbler of The Balvenie, a fine 12 year old single malt scotch, following our closing performance. I then had this chilling thought: YOU COULD GO TO JAIL, YOU IRRESPONSIBLE DICKHEAD! It’s called “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”…and I don’t think I’d relish starting a theater group at Soledad.
That realization truly gave me pause;) On this religious, conservative, non-alcoholic, non-smoking campus I was more than a bit out of sync. I had a number of memorable missteps, including wearing my period boxer shorts backwards for the first three performances. I thought they looked strange and no wonder. My director had noticed but attributed the look to one of Tucker’s more cryptic artistic decisions;) They did fit much better once I turned them around.
During Boy Willies demonic possession, his cup went flying into the air one evening…and Bryttani (channelling Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds “where triples go to die”) made a splendid basket catch, which drew admiring murmurs from the audience. And there was the performance which presented my Doaker with a physical challenge. At the top of Act Two, I’m ironing my cook’s uniform pants. The crew had neglected to preset my hanger on stage on this day…and I found myself improvising the sequence of draping my ironed pants neatly over one arm, then lifting, folding and hanging the ironing board on its onstage nail one-handed, all while looking nonplussed. I was decidedly plussed and a tad pissed. Thomas liked it so much, he decided to keep the sequence in the play.
And then there was the gun. Someone (who shall remain nameless) had decided that Doaker would have a gun (yeah, probably) and spent a considerable amount of money on a long-barreled six-shooter. I looked like effing Wyatt Earp, holding it. They further decided that Doaker would keep it in the piano. You have got to be kidding. Sure, I’d own a weapon…and I’d keep it secured in my room, rather than within a haunted piano where my 11 year old niece, Maretha might gain access to it. Furthermore, we live in Pittsburgh, not Crack City, so why would I need to draw my weapon simply because there is knocking on my door at 5 AM to start the play? (Ah, Tucker, there you go again with that tendency to reason;) I was advised that the pistol needed to be seen (to justify the expenditure) and would I pleeeeze show it off in the opening moments. Pleeeeze? All right, I took one for the team and invariably felt silly reaching into the piano, only to immediately replace it…but I am a good soldier.
There was one final fillip I added, involving Maretha’s lunch for school. Originally there was to be a lunch pail but a period-correct one was never found. We turned to paper bags and I was reminded of an obscure tradition in the Black community regarding color consciousness. Earlier in the 20th Century, elite people of color judged their social worth by comparing their complexions to a paper bag. If your skin was darker, you were of less standing than someone with fairer skin. I decided that Maretha and I’d had this discussion: I’d told her she must never judge people in such a shallow way, but rather by their character. Moments earlier, her mother had admonished her, ”Don’t be going down there showing your color.”
Our ritual involved my holding the paper bag against her bare arm, as a reminder of our past discussion. Like many such choices, this was somewhat obscure, but invariably someone in each audience would notice and offer an audible “ahh” of recognition. These are the gentle rewards for craft and forethought.
Wilson’s dialogue is beguilingly simple but his poetry and craft are compelling. Iambic pentameter inhibits any inclination to ad lib and re-write but rustic, grammatically-challenged text can tempt newbies to embellish. Altho I am notorious for having re-written text by anyone not named Shaw, Ibsen or Shakespeare, I accepted that I did not have more chops than August Wilson and happily spoke his dialogue as written. I find the rhythms of rural dialect charming and picturesque and slide comfortably into its cadences, armed with years of having sung lyrics with similar coloring.
There was one passage Boy Willie never quite owned but he did so much that was good, I left him alone, regarding this point. His text was, “Crawley three time seven. He had his own mind.” Invariably he’s say, “He had a mind of his own.” Grammatically more proper but not nearly as pretty, IMHO.
I allowed myself a single addition to the text. During the opening scene with Lyman and Boy Willie, as they describe their odyssey driving north from Mississippi in Lyman’s truck, I wanted the audience to understand not only was the truck prone to breakdowns, but that a breakdown in the wrong place could have lethal consequences for Black men in 1930’s America. When Lyman tells us, “We broke down twice in West Virginia,” I’d slip in “Lord, dark don’t catch me here!” That was a reference to signs which were actually posted in certain rural areas in the South back then. “Nigger, don’t let sundown catch you here!”
Just as my Vietnam is ancient history to these youngsters, so is America’s racial history but our students worked with great passion and acquitted themselves nobly in this effort. I am very proud of their work and very proud to have shared our stage with them. Like I said, I want more.
17 March 2009