Photo by Lewis Campbell
August in August
by Kathleen de Azevedo
During a break from rehearsal, a group of male actors heads out to take a pee in the back yard. Another actor, Keita, breaks his Ramadan fast with a burrito, waiting for the others to return. Finally the coast is clear and Keita heads out with his prayer rug. Meanwhile, Beverly, who plays a waitress, adds a few more notes to her script, her lines highlighted with candy-colored felt tip pens. When Keita returns from his prayers, he’s ready to go. He tries to get into his ex-con character, a role easier seven-ten years ago when he and his peers were more street. Though he is now a medical compliance officer, his hip-hop saunter, his devilish grin, and desperation for respect begin to emerge. Beverly and Keita begin the love scene. They
get the cautious flirtation, but not the emotional damage that keeps the characters from trusting one another. The director puts them through an acting technique called “whispered subtext.” In this exercise, the actors say aloud the lines of the play, but whisper just enough to be heard, the truth inside them until they gradually slide into complicated yet honest intimacy. This scene from August Wilson’s Two Trains Running takes place in a 1969 Pittsburg Hill District restaurant. Keita and Beverly, like the other African American members of the cast, are working to make the drama real, not in a restaurant, but in a San Francisco garage.
Photo by Lewis Campbell
I was once an actor a lot less talented than the ones gathered here. I was not able to bring someone else’s life into my own. This doesn’t bother me now. I don’t have to worry about auditions or my dismal ability to tap dance. I am no longer jealous of those who can easily transform into a completely different human being. I still remember, though, the anxiety about one’s looks and talent, and whether the effort was important in the grand scheme of things. But the acting experience is not only a creative process. Plays speak to audiences with relevant lessons about the larger world and its complicated inhabitants. Actors use their own lives to bring these messages to audiences. In Two Trains Running, characters struggle to leave their past behind as they reach for opportunity in a challenging urban landscape. The cast of this production knows this truth so well, it would almost seem they didn’t have to rehearse at all. Yet, rehearse they did, with me as book holder and general production gopher.
My step back into theatre started with a fire that partially destroyed the house belonging to my husband and me; it didn’t burn to the ground, mind you. The garage was still intact and became a rehearsal space in the unimpressive working class Excelsior District of San Francisco. The muddle of pizzerias, nail salons and dollar stores, along with the typical cold summer wind that plunks trash into driveways, does not make for a sweet stroll. In the Excelsior, garages are not for cars, but for treadmills and barbells, hoopties on blocks sans a couple of tires, boxes of children’s toys and questionably-obtained merchandise (some still with sales tags) for a later sidewalk sale. More often these garages function as illegal apartments to accommodate those looking for semi-affordable digs in a city with rapidly rising housing costs. Inside our garage, the restaurant scenery sits between the laundry area on one side, and on the other, a long wood work table with a radial saw, tools, long 2x4s, and actors’ gear: gym bags, bottled water and potato chips. An old mattress flops on top of heating pipes above our heads. When the garage door opens, we’ve taken the play to the streets. When the door closes, the actors pull into a hush like a room full of poets.
The director, Lewis Campbell, is my husband and the mastermind behind his group, Multi-Ethnic Theater, or MET for short. He struck a great deal with a cheap performance space in Trinity Episcopal Church whose gay-friendly congregation regards theatre with the same reverence as The Word. He was so delighted, in fact, that he even became an avid church goer after decades of being a complete secularist. The trouble was that he shared the space with another theatre company who wanted to court an audience of dot.com hipsters. Lewis’s productions were relegated to the month of August. He had already directed and produced four of August Wilson’s plays. Now he had a mission: to do all ten. Hence the series August in August.
African American academic Henry Louis Gates, in his New Yorker article “The Chitlin Circuit,” cites August Wilson who claimes that American theatre was “an instrument of white cultural hegemony” and “called for Black Americans to have their own autonomous theatre.” The late playwright would be surprised to find Lewis as his torchbearer. First of all, my husband is eighty-two years old, decades older than me. And white. He seems cuddly in Ben Davis industrial coveralls, and with his hair consistently awry, he looks like he’s just out of the dryer. The small traces of blonde eyebrows disappear in his large face (his nickname as a kid was “big head”), but his blue eyes are doll-like and earnest. When he was an actor many years ago, his face got him cast in white-boy meanie roles. He played a KKK Grand Wizard in And People All Around, rancorous Judge Danforth in The Crucible, and equally unpleasant Cardinal Montecelso in The White Devil. At thirty, Lewis met his late father, Missouri State Senator Lewis Danforth Joslyn for the first time, but blood is the only thing they have in common. He often makes fun of his father, and quotes him with a Southern drawl: “I like Negras. In they place. At the back door, with their hat in their hand.” Lewis, who was raised by his mother and several stepfathers, bypassed politics and became the director of the theatre program at Mission High School, using inner-city teens to present edgy fare like No Place to Be Somebody, a Charles Gordone play that takes place in a Harlem bar, resplendent with pimps, prostitutes, starving artists and white activists clutching Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
Many years later, he met Fabian Herd, the company’s most senior member. Fabian plays the world-weary hustler, Wolf, in Two Trains Running. Today, his goatee with a little end twist, his black leather jacket and fedora give him an air of gravitas. But twenty-three years ago, he and my husband met doing an African American rendition of Little Red Riding Hood at the Egyptian Theatre in East Oakland. Fabian, at that time sporting short braids, played the woodsman. My husband played Red Riding Hood’s granny in drag, much to the audience’s delight. I even stuffed his bra. During the intermission, the audience stretched their legs by dancing to a bit of R & B. From this auspicious start, the company grew.
An actor has two bodies: a visible physical instrument and an internal body with secrets that poet Alberto Rios calls, “the city inside us.” Actors wonder if they look the part or are the right color, or too skinny, too young, too old, or too something-which-doesn’t-fit-the-role. They can have the emotional life to play a character, and could have gone through the same experience, only to be rejected for what seems to be superficial reasons. But sometimes an actor hits the sweet spot blending the body with the heart. This concept seems so esoteric at times, but Beverly, the only woman in the play, sees the humor in it all.
Photo by Lewis Campbell
Beverly waits at the bus stop for us to pick her up in our Toyota Sienna van which is easy to spot due to a bullet hole on the bumper from the time my husband gave an old woman a ride from Foods Co. to her home in the projects only to have someone take a pot shot at him. We are going to Thrift Town to get her waitress costume. Beverly’s distinctive shoulder length Cleopatra-cut hair is hard to miss in the bus stop crowd. Her royal blue t-shirt practically matches her purple sneakers, yet clashes with her orange Creamsicle in a plastic take-out cup. In Wilson’s play, her character, Risa the waitress, has cut her legs in 13 places (which Rigid Collodion “Scarring Liquid” make-up can mimic, scarily so).
She chatters as she hops into our van, her words swimming in mirth. Her figure is part maternal and part voluptuous hourglass–which contrasts with her distinctive baby-like voice. This combination of adult body and child voice is “definitely a challenge,” she insists. She recalls, seeing the giggly humor in it all, a call she made to another theatre company to get an audition appointment. When the artistic director answered the phone and heard her voice, he said, “Little girl stop playing on the phone, don’t call me again.” I said, “No sir, I’m calling because I’d actually like to audition!” And he goes, “Who put you up to this?” And finally he just hung up on me.
Thrift Town’s 50% off sale packs the store with the population of raw-boned Goth teens, tattooed street vets, and the crazy-wigged. Most second-hand stores smell vaguely of excrement and dry-cleaning chemicals. My killer instinct as an ex-theatrical costumer comes back as I hunt for the perfect outfit, in this case, a waitress uniform. I aggressively tackle the overstuffed clothing racks pushing the clothes aside, snatching others and flipping the rejects over the racks. The end product is an unflattering khaki skirt and a white shirt which Beverly will wear under a blue flowered apron. She is a good sport though. Vanity doesn’t fit into a tight theatre budget. She emerges from the store’s dressing room with the ungraceful skirt hiked up to mini, the hem high above her smooth brown knees, and giggles, “The play takes place in the 60s right?”
For African American actors, their physicality has more serious implications than fussy directors flipping through actor glossies looking for the right “type.” Cast member Bennie, a large, thick-shouldered man with
a shaved head, looks built to fight. His appearance gets cops to jump out of their cars and shout, “Hey, are you on parole?” Bennie plays Memphis, the playwright’s bitter but ambitious restaurant owner. In one speech, he rails, “Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to freedom and hope it hold up.” In fact, Bennie’s way to freedom is all about peace. On his midnight strolls in Golden Gate Park, he could intimidate anyone not aware that you could give him the key to your front door, come home and find your house plants watered. Yet if one were to really look at him in his old ochre-green sweats and matching mocs, he is hardly menacing. He became a Buddhist after losing much of his family to cancer and diabetes and, as a result, has become a Quigong practitioner and curandeiro of sorts. This informal medicine is played out on Stuart Hall, a PhD student at UC San Francisco. Stuart plays the Dashiki-wearing philosopher Holloway, the character with an answer for everything. Yet in real life, Stuart is befuddled by ill health, enough to get him hospitalized several times a year, and enough that he has an understudy just in case. When Stuart returns after one such missed rehearsal due to a kidney flare-up, Bennie zooms in with a tonic recipe of flax seed, chia seed and raw quinoa. Bennie’s approach to memorizing lines is equally Zen-like. First, he types out all the monologues. Then he tucks the papers into his pocket and pulls them out from time to time to go over the monologues and let the words soak in. Then, he tape records his speeches and listens to them while washing dishes or walking in the park.
Photo by Lewis Campbell
For the actors in an August Wilson play, the message of racism and respect is central to their lives. A bad production, therefore, would be like not being able to explain the complexities of Black identity. African American actors would be thinking about all the times they were told they “couldn’t make it.” Or that the whole world was watching. Or that they must be true to themselves and their community. During one rehearsal, this fear lurks, ready to break into primal meltdown. The session starts innocently enough with Bennie, an ex-Greyhound bus driver, having a spirited chat with Fabian and Keita, motorcycle enthusiasts and lane splitters. Lewis enters at the tail end of the discussion, unaware of lurking actor anxiety. “We will be READY opening night,” he crows and casually mentions the two performances on the Sundays during the run.
Bennie, normally a Zen master, bursts out in protest: “I HATE doing two shows. It kills us!”
“I hate it, too, but we’ll do it,” someone murmurs.
But Bennie pursues: “We ain’t eighteen years old! Some of us got medical condition.”
“See how you talk now, Bennie? That’s how you want to do the scene!” Fabian pipes in.
“Some of us is sick!” Bennie rails, referring to his thyroid problem.
“He blew up like this in Jitney,” Fabian adds, referring to August in August’s last show as Bennie grabs his jacket, leaves abruptly and paces up and down on the street in front of the garage.
My husband runs after Bennie, trying to placate him, “We’ll feed you between shows. We’ll put a cot back stage. We really did a good job in this scene. It really tells the story.” Bennie is calmer now but not convinced. By next rehearsal, Lewis has relented, canceling the Sunday night performances, and printing hundreds of new change-of-date labels for the publicity postcards, which, of course, I affixed by the hundreds. Bennie sheepishly returns to rehearsal. I have seen Bennie perform. I have seen him
in MET’s production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He was Herald Loomis, a haunted man, who worked on a chain gang for seven years, laboring on a plantation for free, a part of history many people don’t know: that slavery was still going strong forty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation. His rage, his madness was so palatable, I shrunk in my seat feeling feeble in the face of such a painful history. His professionalism kept his performance in control but he must have recalled the rage of being accused of shop lifting at a politically correct health food store, or his stint picking asparagus with migrant workers. His character Memphis in Two Trains Running moans about the destruction of his world: “Ain’t nothing going to be left around here. Supermarket gone. Two drug-stores. The five and ten. Doctor done moved out. Dentist done moved out. Shoe store gone.” He is maybe thinking of the Third Street African American community, home to Mission Baptist churches, Radio Africa restaurant, Las Islas Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine, Ebony Beauty Supply, and the editorial office of Thrasher skateboard magazine. The area is now being slowly gentrified, with a streetcar line running through the spine of Third Street, leaving in its wake swaths of trendy restaurants and new apartment complexes.
Photo by Lewis Campbell
These actors know they are bringing to the stage the raw truth that normally gets hidden in everyday white noise. Still the nagging feeling arises that perhaps the profession is not relevant. After all, at certain times in history, performers were compared to thieves and prostitutes. These actors in Two Trains Running, however, who have experienced some of the same dilemmas as their characters, are addressing heavy problems in real life. In the play, one of the big events is a Malcolm X rally. His quote, “I’m for the truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole,” is taken to heart by Geoffrey who plays to perfection Hambone, the babbling homeless guy you avoid on the street. Geoffrey is the director of the San Francisco Recovery Theatre, which includes “anyone in recovery. . . . not just drugs and alcohol but those in all states of disrepair.” Geoffrey’s Recovery Theatre operated out of different spaces in the Tenderloin, such as church basements and rec rooms in residential hotels, but like many people in the Tenderloin, his company is searching for a permanent home. Yet his mission is firm: “We are fighting today to try and level the playing field. We don’t want the Big Boys to come in and take over, and all there will be is these rich theatre companies.” He mourns the passing of the Black Arts movement which has been “sucked dry”— the movement that gave San Francisco superb African American art venues like the sometimes-resurrected Loraine Hansberry Theatre and the now-defunct Blackhawk jazz club. Yet he warns with an activist’s passion: “You can throw out the trash and clean it up, but the city will lose some of its flavor.”
Geoffrey plugs his Recovery Theatre mission everywhere, even at Martuni’s. Martuni’s, a metro-sexual piano bar, cranks out a half a dozen martini hybrids, Chocolate, Skyy Vodka Stinger, and Mango Melon, to name a few. Here, drinks are cradled, not chugged. Brocade curtains and friendly-on-the-figure wall mirrors soften the mood. The white wall in back of the small stage has a decorative treble clef à la Big Band club and in keeping with the theme of tonight’s show: the USO. At Martuni’s, Geoffrey is Mr. Geoffrey, the MC, and when his USO spiel urges us to pray for our troops in combat, there is an ironic moment wondering which war he is talking about. But his patter becomes playful as each diva leaves the stage: “Oh my God, she is so incredible,” or to the musicians, “Can you freewheel a bit? Why don’t you chime in and get a little 40’s going.”
The star of this line-up is Vernon, the same Vernon who plays the undertaker in Two Trains Running, but tonight, Vernon is not messing with the dead. He steps up to the mike, half-closes his eyes, and croons the song, “Blue Moon.” His dark skin glows like honey. He takes us to a faraway island somehow.
Photo by Lewis Campbell
“Blue Moon, baby!” the MC gushes at the end of Vernon’s number, then adds, “Take the time to love each other!”
Vernon is a real amalgam of talent and admits, “I always had my own rhythm, my own beat, you know.” He started singing a cappella back in the day. Then he went into instrumental music, though at the beginning, in having to coordinate with another musician, “my timing was off, my pitch was off and everything. I’ve come a long way with the music.”
Vernon’s strength, however, is in his comedic timing. While a student at City College of San Francisco, he played Silly Willy Clark in a show called Wine in the Wilderness. To prepare, he said, “I went down on Third Street, found an empty wine bottle, put it in a bag, and acted like I was drunk. I studied the winos. I said if I can make these winos believe I am drunk, then I could convince my audience.” And the audience was convinced. He stole the show. But in Two Trains Running, Vernon’s role of West, the undertaker, is his most serious role to date. Still, he can’t put away his funny bone. “An undertaker is just a human,” he says. “The undertaker at my sister’s funeral when she passed away, tried to hit on all the women who came in.”
Vernon could make it big. He sings; he acts in both tragedy and comedy. But not everyone has the luxury of a full-time theatre career. Vernon has fathered five children. A sixth is actually his nephew, son of his sister who passed. It took him years to prove to the social security office that this nephew existed even though he toted the child to his appointments. Yet in spite of what I think is systemic racism, he did not want to be “one more black man who has turned his back on his kids.”
Besides theatre, actors have something else which calls them. Duty. Family. Human Decency. Geoffrey and Vernon are talented enough that they don’t just impress their friends. They can wow a stranger off the street. No doubt actors can drive us crazy; they can be temperamental, vain, obnoxious, but there needs to be some seed of compassion within. In other words, to portray humanity on the stage, one needs to be humane off the stage as well.
The Greeks “invented” theatre conventions as we know them–the stage and scenery for actors and dancers and amphitheater seating for the audience. But for the Greeks, theatre celebrated the god Dionysus and the plays dramatized the conflict between the gods and the human race. In ancient times, the theatre-as-church festivals, called the City Dionysia, lasted about a week. Each day sunrise began with a trilogy of tragedies, such as The Oresteia by Aeschylus, where the cycle of generational murders, finally comes to an end when the goddess Athena establishes a system of law. For comic relief, each trilogy was followed by a satyr play written by the same author. In all Greek plays, humans fail in the face of divine judgment.
Our modern theatre does not speak to the gods per se, but actors can still feel that transcendent inspiration. Fabian played the aged conjure man Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, an August in August production many years ago. “I was having problems finding the old man in me,” he recalls. While visiting his family in Oklahoma, Fabian went to his great-grandfather’s grave who, ironically, was named Bynum. Fabian continues, “I stood over his grave and told him what I was doing.” The role suddenly clicked. When his parents saw the show, afterwards, Fabian smiles like he knew the spirit had whispered to him, “My mother, she gave me the best compliment and said, ‘You know something? I seen my grandfather out there.’”