“I’m going to remember this night, for the rest of my life.” That’s what I was thinking when my cousin walked into Schomburg Center in New York City. I have a strange relationship with New York. I love her. Seriously. I have such great memories of NY. Syretta, Bassey, Sabrina and I walking through Brooklyn in the summer. Stacie, Rich and I stumbling from bar to bar in the West Village. Seeing Passing Strange on Broadway, wanting to throw my concessions at a solo performer while Lucy and Jason practically snored next to me. I could go on and on.
Then there are the tough times; As a kid I was a leader in a hip hop group, Jamel, Squiggy, LJ, we drove up to NY looking to break in. I remember leaving to get on the subway, and I told everyone, “Grab a tape, we’re in NY anything can happen.” Nothing happened except we spent a ton of money with nothing in return. Dan and I went to NYC to do my solo show Essential Personnel, I later returned with Barbara, Mark and a band to put the show up again. Sometimes I’d perform for forty people most of the time I performed for three. I thought the experience of performing for such a small crowd was the worst thing that happened to me. Now I know it was one of the best. Traveling that for to perform for three people seemed like such a waste. But really it prepared me in ways I couldn’t imagine at the time. Professionally, every time I left New York, I’d think, she got me again. While staying in the city rehearsing with a new director for Essential Personnel, Ron, I woke up in Bassey and Maro’s apartment in Brooklyn to find out the sky had fallen. I remember clearly walking through the streets going to get something to eat, and the ash from the Towers floating in the air. Seed and I “escaped” New York three days later. When we drove out from the city, I looked out of the rear window and watched as the smoke crept from the mounds of debris and stretched itself into the night sky. I mourned for the city, the people, and the idea of New York. The idea that all these people of all different backgrounds could be in the same place, work together, live together, love/hate and struggle together it seemed that 9/11 had destroyed that.
Thankfully New York and her people are stronger then that.
I wrote Julius X, about a mythical time and place in America, Harlem more specifically. The play is set in an alternative universe, but it is about honoring a man, Malcolm X, a place, and a time. I did a ton of research, talked to Jimmy, Dr. Felicia and her mother to help me fill out the vision of what Harlem was, what it meant to the people who lived there. It’s a complicated piece with a lot of layers. I’ve had two really excellent directors do the play and I’m happy with both of their visions. Gary’s (Plowshares in Detroit) version was tight and well staged, Barbara’s (Players by the Sea in Jacksonville) was big, and smart. Both got the poetry right for the most part. The actors in both were good. Except, Julius. The Detroit Julius was good, but not what I was looking for, I enjoyed him as an actor, just not sure I dug him in that role. The less I say about the Jacksonville Julius probably the better.
There have been other productions, one in Cleveland that I didn’t get to see. I was curious how that production was because I was not able to work with the actors on the poetry, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. The reviews were mixed, I didn’t expect to get much out of it. But oddly enough that production is how the Classical Theatre of Harlem found out about the play. While on tour they’d heard from someone that they needed to check out the play, they asked for a script, I sent it in and didn’t hear anything for a while, and then they schedule the reading. Between radio, Summer in Sanctuary, and my new piece Crumbs, I hadn’t thought much about it.
I came to New York for rehearsal a little unsure. The director Tracy, was young and hadn’t directed a lot. She was nice though, and I thought she got the material… but still. All of that was erased the minute we started rehearsal. The cast was phenomenal, and Tracy’s command of the rhythm was impressive. In a week’s time we bonded and created something that was better then I’d even imagined it in my head. Each actor did amazing work, but I’d seen great actors in various roles, so while I was impressed I wasn’t surprised. It was the smaller roles that blew me away; usually in a production the weaker actors get the smaller roles. In this reading, we got some excellent talent to read these small parts and really bring it to life. And then there was Julius. Ty Jones is an incredible actor, I’ve seen him, do his thing a couple times, and I enjoyed watching him. When CTH said they wanted to read the play I asked if Ty could be Julius because I knew he could kill the part. Thankfully Ty is on the board of CTH, and agreed to do it. He was magnificent. He gave the reading exactly what the role needs. Fire, smarts, and a magnetism that makes you as an audience member want to follow him. Without that fire, the play loses much of it’s punch. The actors, the drummer/violinist, Tracy and I were able to collaborate on the material and elevate it beyond what I have been hearing in my head into something beautiful.
The night of the reading, I got all screwed up on subway, and had to jump in a cab to get to the Schomburg Center. When I read the address to the cabbie, is when it hit me. The Schomburg is in Harlem. 135 and Malcolm X Blvd. Performing the piece in Harlem was something I wanted to do since started writing the play, but honestly I never thought it would happen. It struck me watching the actors, give the play it’s due, in some ways I’ve accomplished a goal, a dream that I held on to so long, I just didn’t even think about it anymore.
I’m not one for looking back when it comes to my career. When good things happen, I take it, enjoy it for a day or two then let it go. I learned long ago that the business is a series of ups and downs and the way you survive is not to get too high or too low. But this week, I know I will feel similar to the way I did when my children were born. A continual floating high, that’s not so easy to let go.
God is good, and the universe makes space when you dream.