note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Larry Stark
I think I had an idea that might mean more work for Black actors, but when I talked about it to people --- like Tiffany Nichole Greene, Johnny Lee Davenport, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, and Cliff Odle --- most of them said "Oh, Obehi Janice already did that!" MY idea was, simply, to create a Company here in Boston that will do "White" plays with all-Black casts; and people said "Obehi Janice Did That --- in a reading of PICNIC --- last October!" and now I find I got an invitation to that show from Cheryl Singleton but somehow never made it to the performance.
I've been told The Negro Ensemble Company did this same thing down in New York. Even the name of the company seems a little like history, but for 40 years they did the work of Black playwrights, and the list of their alumni reads like a role-call of the acting elite of generations. In a sense, they were on the vanguard of finding and producing the Black plays that come out of the woodwork every Black History Month.
Even so, gifted Black actors seem to have a lot of free time in Boston these days: "temporarily between engagements"...
Every time I've mentioned my little idea, I've watched Black actor-faces burst open into eager smiles. I think if people started talking to one another about it, the idea can take on a life of itself, and I sense an enthusiasm for something a little like what's in my mind. So let me set down an outline or blueprint that others can add to:
You might start out as an Actors' Equity Special Project (like A.S.P.), so that interested Equity members would be allowed to work for less than Equity minimum --- at least until the idea catches on.
What got me started was wondering, what would happen if Johnny Lee Davenport were to play James Tyrone? Yes, Eugene O'Neill was being very autobiographical and Irish --- but couldn't a successful Black actor have similar family problems? And Maurice Emmanuel Parent looks so much like Johnny Lee off-stage he'd be perfect for his older son Jamie. Hell, they might even exchange rolls on alternate nights!
So I wonder, would LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT change very much if the four Tyrones were played by Black actors? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly that would give several Black actors a chance to slip on those characters and portray some of the more heart-wrenching emotions in American stage history.
But I don't mean just dusty old classics. I thoight of Neil Simon. I don't mean THE ODD COUPLE, or BAREFOOT IN THE PARK in Black-face. There's a great, late-Simon play called JAKE'S WOMEN wherein a writer's-blocked novelist imagines conversations with five women of various ages in his life. And Black people sometimes write novels, don't they? Again, a Black Ensemble Company could do these two plays IN REP, alternating males for females on alternate nights.
But those are just MY top-of-my-head suggestions. I suspect every Black actor or director in Boston would pick a different show. I remember a minority actor aying "There's no way I'll ever be cast to play John Proctor in THE CRUCIBLE!" Well, maybe not, but --- damn it, let's DREAM a little!
I have no money and can't bankroll such a project; I have no management skills and could never be a producer --- but I'll bet people who could do both could be found. New companies are showing up here in Boston all the time.
And a Boston Black Ensemble Group needn't carve out their own performing space. With all the work they get locally, Black actors probably have enough free time to indulge in longer rehearsal-time, and then (during Black History Month in particular) they could offer services to any of half a dozen local major companies who could add sets and custumes, or buy a couple weeks in any of the Black Box spaces; they could tour local colleges; they could certainly give their preview-performances at Hibernian Hall, or at Roxbury Community College --- or at both.
A company like that could offer free tickets to high school students of every race, who might benefit from seeing familiar classics done in a new way. That might instill in young hearts an eagerness to see Black faces in other places than on stages, like movies or television.
And, ultimately, such a project could encourage other minorities to go the same route --- to do plays in Spanish (I'd love a one-act that could be done in the common-room downstairs in my Elder Housing Unit in English in the morning, and then the same play in Spanish in the afternoon!), or with all-Oriental or all-Moslem faces and/or themes.
And it might be easier this year; I'm sure there is seed-money for such a project in the Boston Mayor's Arts Department, or the budget of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and I'm sure the Bob Jolly Fund would help out in any emergency.
I often say to people new to boston, or facing graduation from a theatre-school:
"If you stay here in boston, you Will get work; you probably won't make any money, but you will act on stages, and that's the only place to learn your craft and grow."
That may not be so true for minority actors; but perhaps what I've suggested could help change that a little...
Okay, there's a rough idea of what I had in mind.
What do YOU think?
(aka That Fat OLD Man with The Cane)