Friday, July 13, 2007

Theatrical Ceremonies

There was little, if anything, in my environment growing up in North St. Louis that afforded me the opportunity to explore theatre or stage performances of any kind, with the exception maybe of Parliament Funkadelic coming to town. I only became interested in playwriting as a way to ‘write the words they say in movies’ because when I was young, I didn’t realize there was actually a job you could get called screenwriting. Even by the time Spike Lee came along, I began thinking that I had to be a director in order to get something I wrote performed on film. I didn’t have the privilege of attending a performing arts high school, and well truth is I never saw myself as a performer, always a writer. Even though I had a very short run as the wife of a plantation owner in a seventh grade play (one of those little known facts about myself), written by my teacher for what was probably one of the first Black History Months, performing was not in my blood. But I believe the first time I became fascinated with performance and what an actor can do on a stage in a darkened room was after watching a PBS production of a play called Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven when I saw it, and though I’d forgotten what the play was about, I only remember how impressed I was with the performance. And, even though I don’t remember most of the actors, there was a Puerto Rican actor whose name I committed to memory, Jose Perez. Maybe because he was Puerto Rican, maybe because he was a Puerto Rican with an afro, I don’t know why, but him I remembered. (You may remember Perez as Torres’ father in the TV series New York Undercover.)

The reason this is all coming back to me is because I recently saw a production of Ceremonies in Dark Old in Atlanta starring Glynn Turman (who most may remember from the later seasons of Different World, and also acted in the 1975 PBS production of Ceremonies). It was a True Colors theatre company production at the Balzer Theater on Luckie Street, and its harmonious cast included veteran actor Eugene Lee, brothers and Morehouse alumni Brandon J. and Jason Dirden. So, I’m telling everybody about how I remember seeing this play on PBS as a kid, but only remembering the Puerto Rican dude. And now as I am researching back, I realize that there were two plays on PBS back then that got my attention: One was Ceremonies which actually included Rosalind Cash as Adele Eloise Parker, Godfrey Cambridge as Mr. Jenkins, Glynn Turman as Theo, and Robert Hooks as Blue Haven! How could I forget that? The other one, was a play called Steambath which starred Bill Bixby and Jose Perez, who played God (who was the attendant in this sort of steam bath afterlife). I’d somehow mixed the two plays together, but now for me, the web has been untangled, never to be intertwined again. Both are very good productions with steller performances. Ceremonies was written by Lonne Elder III, who also wrote the 1981 adaptation of Bustin’ Loose starring Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson. Steambath was written by Bruce Jay Friedman, who also wrote the 1980 film Stir Crazy, starring Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Seeing this play again reminded me of how impressed I was with how words combined with skilled performances could take over the imagination, create a hope and determination to do something, be something, to leave something more beautiful than when you came. And though I had all the details criss-crossed, it reminded me of the importance of art in my life. Where were you the first time you saw a play, a performance that held you captive, attentive and awed in the blackness? Could you not stop laughing? Did it make you wanna read a book; go to college, open a lemonade stand? Did you cry thinking about it ten days later? Where were you; do you remember…?

(Photo is from a production of August Wilson's Two Trains Running.)



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