BEGINNINGS

I was sick as a dog this morning. I’d spent the night coughing and sneezing and wheezing and I awoke exhausted, willing to roll back over for another 4 or 5 hours of sleep…But I couldn’t. This morning they would be celebrating the life of an old and influential friend…and I needed to be there.

I knew I had no business attending the repast (the meal after the services) but I needed to man up. If you at all can, you muster to show respect for those whose lives have touched yours. I’d been around a lot of people of late (in New Orleans, at my birthday gathering and a recent black tie affair); all that hand shaking and hugging had probably exposed me to someone’s bug. I don’t often get sick, I’m pretty hardy and when a bug does slip thru my defenses it really kicks my butt. I was coughing so hard that I felt light-headed, feared I might pass out.

Get up, Tucker. Get in the shower, wake your ass up, let’s see if we can do this. After some coffee, some Dayquil, some breakfast, I felt I could manage for a few hours, but you stay away from all the people this morning! I dressed in black, too muted to wear my b/w spectators (tho I knew that Dick would have approved:) and I fought heavy morning traffic on the 405 to arrive just after 10 AM at Inglewood Park Cemetery. The large chapel was absolutely filled from front to back with the multitudes of artists and friends who had admired and loved this man. I accepted my program, smiled back at the smiling portrait of Dick Anthony Williams on its cover, found a seat at the very rear, not immediately beside anyone and slipped in. I bumped the elbows of a lot of old friends today but resisted any embraces, much as I might have wished to.

There are certain times and certain events in one’s life that are defining; events from which you can clearly see the road taken and why. More than anyone on this earth, Dick Anthony Williams was responsible for my having become an actor. In late spring of 1969, in just 72 hours, I’d driven cross-country from LA to DC, stopping here and there to say goodbye to friends and family. I was now in NYC. In two days, I would fly first back to California and then on to Vietnam, to begin my work as a military advisor to a colorful and deadly group of soldiers, the Vietnamese Airborne. I was fatalistic, I really didn’t expect to come home.

I was in NY to visit a college girlfriend living in Little Italy…and hoping to get lucky:) I drove up and down Houston Street, (which seemed to me to be HUSTON St) and finally found her apartment. It was early on a May Saturday evening. We embraced and she asked whether I thought I’d like to go to see a play. Hell, I had carnality on my mind…but I said, “Sure, why not?” She took me to a small theater in the West Village…and my world view underwent an abrupt shift.

Understand that I’d been to a few plays in my life, had even walked the ancient stones of Greek amphitheaters as a child, living there for two years when my father was a Fulbright professor. But this was something entirely different…this was BIG TIME BUCK WHITE. And the stage was dominated by the presence and performance of a tall, compelling actor named Dick Anthony Williams. I was enthralled. The power, the electricity, the passion of this kind of theater was very different to me. It was something new; it was BLACK Theater. I didn’t go backstage afterwards to thank him, I knew nothing about such traditions.

Fast forward maybe 7 months. I’m now lying in a room at Walter Reed, facing months of more surgery and convalescence. It’s December, 1969. The doctors really don’t have much to offer me in terms of expectations – my injuries invariably led to death – and yet I was still around. At nights, I’d lay awake and think about what might be possible for my time. I’d been a TV director before I was drafted, a graduate of the TV Production program at the University of Maryland and became the first Black director hired by WBAL, the Baltimore NBC affiliate. I was a good director, I knew lots of technical stuff…but absolutely nothing about the process of acting. To progress, I needed a grounding in the actors process…and I remembered the excitement and the immediacy of Dick’s work…and one night, I resolved: If I survived all the healing ahead of me and could still function, I would learn to act.

In the spring of 1970, I continued to progress and wrote to Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse Theater in New York and to Edward K. Martin, heading UCLA ‘s MFA program, requesting an interview. I met with both, chose Sandy and in September, I resigned my Army commission and moved to New York to begin my studies.

Let’s now jump forward to 1975. I’ve been out of school for several years and have enjoyed a measure of success in my new profession. I’ve done a number of stage plays, a soap opera, several commercials and am now a member of all three acting unions. Joseph Papp of the Public Theater hires me to understudy actor Al Hall’s role at the Lincoln Center production of Black Picture Show at the Vivian Beaumont. My lady is performing there in A Midsummer Nights Dream. I feel like we are latter day Lunts:)

I meet with the cast that include. Ethyl Ayler, Linda Miller, Graham Brown, Carol Cole, Al Hall, Bill Cobbs… and Dick. This is truly the Big Time to me, I am very excited. I don’t remember at what point I felt secure and familiar enough with Dick to share our connection…but eventually I told him. I got to thank him for having inspired me to enter this glorious profession. If you ever knew Dick at all, you knew him to be a man of great warmth, humor, grace and humility. And you can imagine how he received and responded to my confession. I am very grateful to have encountered him in my life.

Happy Trails, Dick

24 Feb 2012

POGO

You know, there was a time in all of our lives…when we were children, that we believed some myths with such passion and conviction. The Man in the Moon, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus… Facts and reason had nothing to do with it, we BELIEVED. Until at some point, we no longer did. We knew better, we found out, we grew up.

We are now, as a people, and I’m speaking about America…we are now so poorly educated and so culturally corrupted and so disrespectful of reason and logic that large numbers of us buy into belief systems and rationales that beggar the myths of our childhood. And yes, I’m speaking of the multitudes that embrace a political dogma that is so fundamentally un-American…the right-wing, thinly-veiled, mean-spirited agenda that is today’s GOP and candidacy.

I find two equally dispiriting rationales at cause: willful ignorance and cynicism. Both are toxic and both are an obstacle to the progress of America’s historic singularity. Greece, proclaimed in schools as “the cradle of democracy” now faces bankruptcy.

Bail-outs for Greece may well ensue, time will tell how successful they end up being. But our own incarnation as a nation of free, self-ruling citizens is equally bankrupt. We have allowed the wealthy to purchase our birthright. In the end, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.

20 Feb 2012

48 HOURS IN THE CRESCENT CITY

I arrived at my New Orleans hotel, the Hilton Riverside about 1 AM on Wednesday. As usual in transit, I’d been often stopped and asked, “Why do you seem so familiar to me?” One passenger even called to me by name and then offered me the DVD of his childrens book. People tend to do that because I am familiar. I’ve been a visual image in their lives for 40 years…and that reality now extends around the world, thanks to cable and DVDs and satellite. That constant recognition is generally pleasant and stressless.

But today, instead of confirming that I am an actor they’d seen at some point, I could honestly say, “Yes, I am familiar. My people come from here.” That was in fact the reason for my visit, to walk the streets where my parents met and courted, where my father’s mother had lived for all of her life, apart from the few years she lived with us in Washington, DC. I know the city not at all, tho I’d visited as a child and drove thru on my way to Texas in 1969 to study Vietnamese before deploying as an advisor.

I awoke at 7 and began to plan my day. Breakfast, you bet for I was starving. My shuttle driver had recommended Mother’s, a local favorite several blocks away in the Warehouse District. I arrived and decided on grits and scrambled eggs and smoked sausage and a biscuit. My God, I felt like I needed a childs portion, I was stuffed! But happily so.

My objectives for this adventure were pretty simple; to eat well and often, experience Mardi Gras on a moderate level, visit my grandmothers grave and walk the streets that my family had walked in their younger days. So I walked thru the French Quarter and eventually approached a cab. I knew that Momma Britt had been buried in Resthaven Memorial Park, about ten miles NE of the city and I had a photo and location of her grave. The drivers name on the cab door said, “Luis Soto”. Hmm. My concern was that he know his way around greater N.Orleans, I’d been warned about drivers taking advantage of tourists, so I asked, “Where are you from?” He took immediate umbrage and waved me away.

I persisted. He asked, “Do you want a cab?” Yeah, I just want to be sure that you know your way around, dude. I got in…and then noticed the GPS on the dashboard. Hell, with that kind of guidance, he could’ve arrived yesterday from Hyderabad and still found his way:) We began chatting as he drove and he confessed he’d had a bad experience the night before, a tourist berating him, simply for being a foreigner and he apologized to me. Turned out he’d lived here many years but had originally come from India, was a Muslim and was somewhat defensive about it. I apologized to him, realizing how my question must have sounded to a stranger. We spoke of faith and beliefs and eventually came to the cemetery, which surprised him. It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. “This is where you wanted to go?” I explained that I had come to visit my grandmothers grave. He asked, “How will you get back?” I had my cell phone and he gave me a more efficient number for his cab company. I thanked him, tipped him and walked down the entrance path. There was no one in sight. The grounds were well kept; instead of headstones there were plaques in alphabetical rows and numerous flowers, I later learned that had been placed on Valentines Day.

It was a pretty, colorful cemetery. A restful haven. I’d brought the numerical location of Momma Britt’s grave but searched in vain for some time without success. I called the office on my cell but only got a message. Eventually I approached a man I’d noticed near the mausoleum and asked for his help. Walter was kind enough to walk back to the area with me and together we searched but her grave was simply not where it should have been. He called another friend, Larry, who brought a tape measure. We called the office repeatedly…just a message.

As we searched, my feet became soaked for the ground was wet from recent rains and a delta cemetery, much like those in the Mekong delta of Vietnam, favored those interred above the ground. I’d spent $25 to get there, probably another $25 or more to get back, but no matter. I wasn’t going home without completing my mission. We spoke of family and war and traditions and they seemed somehow enrolled in helping me to fulfill my purpose in coming.

Walter told me the entire area had been under 30 feet of water after Katrina; it’d taken more than a year to drain the flooding. There was a large hummock of reeds and a tree between the road dike and the graves, they spoke of intentions to clear away those reeds and move them closer to the road. With a probe and shovel, we discovered another plaque beneath the reeds…and Larry left to get a backhoe. He returned with this small tractor and began to clear away the brush and reeds and small trees. We were able to remove the muddy earth covering the plaque and Walter made several trips to fill a cup with water. The plaque, once rinsed, revealed this inscription: Susie Britt. 1892-1976.

I thanked them both; they first tried to wipe clean their muddy hands, which I shook in gratitude for their kindness and effort. They left me to be with my memories. Momma Britt never had much education, she’d cleaned the homes of others for a living. Although a single teenaged mother during The Depression, she managed to raise a son who remains one of the most accomplished men I’ve known in my lifetime. Poor, fatherless, Black, Osborn T. Smallwood became a Lutheran minister, a Ph.D university professor of English at Howard, a Fulbright professor in Greece, a diplomat…and my father.

Much like my return to Vietnam in 2004, I’d brought with me tobacco and rum. My grandmother had smoked a pipe, Prince Albert as I recall was her tobacco of choice. I sprinkled rum over her plaque, took a drink, lit a Pall Mall and offered prayers that she and my father are reunited and at peace.
I remembered her glasses, her laughter, she’d called me “Tuckie -boy”, her warmth, the adoration that my father held for her, his inconsolable grief at her passing. That was the first and only time in my life, that night he called to tell me, that I heard my father openly weep – such a strong and stoic man – disconsolate at his loss. I was far away, unable to be there to comfort him. In such a time, the first son should serve his father…and I regretted my distance and inadequacy.

Eventually I gathered my knapsack and myself and walked slowly to the park entrance. I called for a cab and sat down in the grass to wait.