I received the awful news last weekend that a friend of mine had passed away. Jamie Carillo, an actor I’d worked with back in my days at Classical Theatre of Harlem. (Also a director, and a professor at Emerson College, and many other remarkable things besides. To give you a sense of how remarkable, his family has requested that any memorial donations go here, where he served as an interpreter.) A sweetheart of a man gone way too soon – he was my age. Actually, he was five years younger than me. Goddamn cancer.
Jamie and I worked together on a number of CTH shows, the most prominent of which was probably our 2004 production of Mother Courage and her Children. It gave Jamie his most prominent role – Swiss Cheese, the middle child in Mother Courage’s doomed brood. It was a production of Brecht’s famous anti-war play at the height of the Gulf War, about as relevant as theatrical programming can get. (The Public Theatre certainly thought so a few years later, when they mounted their production with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.) And it was a good, strong, production – vintage CTH. The performances were sharp and aggressive – Jamie was wonderful at creating standout characters with economy, so that you’d never see him reaching for an effect and yet they’d be lively and vibrant – and a set that could potentially kill you at any moment. The good old days, if you will.
I miss those days. And I’ve been thinking about that production a lot.
Part of the reason for my reverie is selfish, of course. For most of the run of Mother Courage, I played a succession of small roles such as the Clerk. During our final week, however, the actor playing our Chaplain took ill. An understudy would have stepped in – except that our small off-off Broadway company didn’t have any. So instead, the director called me – seven hours before curtain time, mind you – to see if I could get up to the theatre right away and be worked into the part. I’d barely gone through the blocking before giving a public performance – including the Chaplain’s song, mind you – and I will never forget the feeling of stunned relief as I made my last exit as that character that first performance, embraced by my castmates. Jamie included.
I miss moments like that. I miss Jamie. But I also miss productions, like our Mother Courage in the middle of a war, with that unshakeable conviction that they were making a difference. My god, there were a lot of us twenty years ago, shaken out of our complacency here in New York by a terrorist attack and a war that followed. We also had comparatively cheap spaces and generous funding from the Bloomberg administration, so anybody who’d get some hungry actors together could find a stylish way of saying “war is bad” or “Bush is dumb” and be hailed a genius. But it’s twenty years later, and despite our efforts there’s at least two additional wars engulfing the planet, and our audiences seem to want to have their cares soothed away by jukebox musicals instead, and a particularly horrifying question keeps pestering me.
Did we make any damn difference at all?
I want to believe that. For my sake, for Jamie’s, for all of ours. And I’m going to keep plugging away as if that’s the case. But with each passing year, it gets a little harder. And for a whole bunch of reasons, I’m really starting to feel the years right now.