The 19th Time's the Charm

As I mentioned two weeks ago when I announced that I’d be part of Negro Ensemble Company’s upcoming revival of Day of Absence, I’ve previously worked with director Arthur French on eighteen different projects over the past fifteen years. I can understand your incredulity, Gentle Reader, and indeed I share it – that number is ridiculously high, isn’t it? Indeed it is – but what’s preposterous for you or me is an ordinary week for Arthur French. His most legendary characteristic, as anyone who knows him can attest, is that he is the biggest workaholic in this city. There was one day when I worked with him – to pick one day out of thousands – when he rehearsed a show in the morning, did a reading of a separate show in the afternoon, performed our show in the evening and did yet another reading immediately afterwards; four separate productions on the same day. By that metric, eighteen shows over fifteen years is nothing.

As I stated before, I first met Arthur when we both appeared in Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2001 production of Hamlet. Arthur was the Player King (I was Guildenstern) and the first thing I noticed was that, at full outdoor Shakespeare volume, Arthur’s voice has such force that it literally caused my own chest to vibrate. This was the first of a series of summer Shakespeare productions there in which we both appeared, with King Lear in 2002 and Macbeth in 2003. The next year, Macbeth was invited to tour Germany (Arthur and I spent a day with our directors on a boat trip down the Rhine), which made remounting it at CTH the most cost-effective thing to do. I count each of these Macbeth iterations as a separate production, since they each had different casts and had to be rehearsed separately. So that’s five right there.

Also in 2002, CTH asked Arthur to direct their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (I played a policeman. I do that a lot.) Previously, Arthur’s work as a director had mainly been confined to HB studios, where he teaches; the production’s acclaim – it won AUDELCO awards for the production and for Arthur himself – launched him as an in-demand director throughout the city. He directed me in two one-acts the next year; Medication, a multi-character dispatch from the front lines of our failing mental health system which is still the best performance I’ve ever given, and Workday, written by his son. That latter production was part of a one-act festival; we were scheduled to run two performances, but the second performance wound up being cancelled by the Blackout of 2003, which wound up seeing the author and I walking from Manhattan’s Producer’s Club all the way to Jackson Heights in an effort to make our way home.

We each tried our hand at filmmaking the next year; Arthur cast me in a film he was producing called Bellclair Times, and I cast him in a script I’d written called Akhmed right after that. Somewhere in here, Arthur also went to Vermont to direct a production of Fences, and asked me to do some research for the sound design; I’m counting that as well. I’m also counting the final show (to date) I performed in at CTH, The Cherry Orchard (wherein I got my Equity card by being beaten up by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce!) Earle Hyman played the elderly servant Firs in that production, but was sick one night, and Arthur graciously agreed to step in for him at the last minute. (Arthur had understudied both Earle and Morgan Freeman in the original production of Driving Miss Daisy, so this wasn’t unfamiliar.)

We’re up to twelve already.

Over the next few years, Arthur would periodically call me up to participate in a staged reading of somebody’s new work. I did three such pieces; one in a mostly empty theatre, one in a larger company’s developmental offices, and one as part of an outdoor reading series at Manhattan’s Waterfront Plaza (which I’m not sure had ever happened before or has happened since). It wasn’t quite the Rhine, but it was fun nonetheless.

Another friend of ours from CTH, James Rana, cast the both of us in two small projects of his; an Instant Shakespeare reading of Henry VI Part 2 in the New York Public Library system, and a piece of his own called Cafeteria. And a few years ago, Arthur called me up and asked me to assess the definitive role for all Caucasian actors who find themselves working consistently with African-American companies; Karl Lindner in A Raisin In The Sun. (Courtney Vance saw that show and said I was a great racist!)

I worry, as I type these posts in my Spartan living room, that I’m not leading a particularly exciting life. It’s the whole reason we keep scrapbooks, the whole goal of maintaining our resumes (this has been a particularly deep dive into mine) – to convince ourselves we actually did something. That all of our frenzied activity and show-biz hustling wasn’t all for naught, that we somehow mattered. But if Arthur has any such angst as this, he does not show it, and he absolutely does not stop. Not for him the kind of wallowing in the past which I've done here – there's still too much to do. He’s been spending the past few years as something of a Horton Foote specialist, appearing in Broadway revivals and subsequent tours and broadcasts of Dividing the Estate and The Trip to Bountiful, while juggling a hundred other things all the while. He knows that the secret to a meaningful artistic life is to keep moving forward, no matter what the circumstances. And now, here in 2016, he’s directing the revival of Day of Absence.

Number nineteen.

Better make it count.

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