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Three score and ten or more

Sunday, December 23, 2007


I have dried my tears, swallowed the lump in my throat and am sitting here with a full heart. I had a wonderful experience this afternoon.

To really clarify this experience I have to give you some background. Some time in the late seventies or the early eighties, I was Director of Theatre at Georgia Southern College (now University). WE were a small program, part of a Department of Communication Arts, and we were working our selves to death with a pretty large production schedule, sponsoring student directed plays, including a children's play, and a couple of plays in the summer, and I was enjoying myself thoroughly, though I was a bit stressed. One day, my boss (the Department Chairman) came to me, a little hesitantly. He said something like "Could you use some help? No that's not right but could you use some adjunct or part time help from a guy who is supposed to be a professional director from New York?"

Now this was a silly question because I had submitted grants to get help for one of the summer plays, and for a Yiddish Culture Conference (more about this another time, perhaps) that I had sponsored at the school, and noting my surprise, he added, "The President has met with this guy. He is returning to Metter for awhile, and he has had a lot of experience. The president has been trying to recruit black faculty, and this guy is available. If you can use him, the first year salary would be from the President's budget, not ours."

Now, I know a deal when I hear one, and, not caring if he was black, white, or purple, if he had even a "little bit of ability", we could use him to supervise student directors or something, so I said, "Of course."

That was the beginning of a wonderful experience. Mical Whitaker, the "guy' in question, had more than a little ability, and his "one year adjunct faculty status" continued until he retired a couple of years ago. We had had problems recruiting black actors, he recruited from the varsity basketball team. He did things that the rest of us ("Political Correctness" had already made its mark) that none of the rest of us would have had the guts to do. He used black actors in roles that were structured ethnically for white characters, but we had already done that (a little) but he used a white actress to play a role in an "all black" play (without blackface make-up or any such silliness) and directed her skillfully to the point that after the first sixty seconds the audience was unaware. He used a wonderful young Caucasian actor to play Othello and, though my memory may be clouding it, I think he used a couple of black performers to play roles that logically could not have been black in that play.

I confess that he drove me bananas at times that first year until he figured out of the nonsense things that college faculty are supposed to know (from Graduate School), but he became consistently on of the best directors around. (I have never been able to admit that ANY ONE was as good as me, but I'm a little biased in that regard)

He has become a good friend, and I had a wonderful experience (I hadn't acted in ten years) playing the role of Scrooge in his production of A Christmas Carol a couple of years ago and he has otherwise enriched my life.

One of the things he did was get involved with a production of Langston Hughes' wonderful poetic musical Black Nativity. I am not sure whether he was director or otherwise involved when the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art, of which he had been Artistic Director (remember my statement above that "if he had a little bit of ability, we could use him") presented the play to Pope John Paul in the Vatican in 1981.

Regardless of the nature of his involvement in that production, he directed a production of the play two years ago. (He was directing it at the same time he was directing A Christmas Carole, I do admire folks who multi-task. When I direct a play I sometimes get so involved I forget to eat.). I saw the production then, and loved it. It is becoming a yearly even here in Statesboro GA, (It toured a little this year, should tour a lot, but these performers are, for the most part amateurs who have to have other jobs in order to eat.)

We missed last year's performance while Janet was recovering from her strokes and heart surgery, but we didn't miss it today, we went and dragged along three of our kids .

It was a heart pumping, breathtaking wonder. I will never figure out how Mical finds performers of really professional caliber just wandering around the neighborhood. He does usually get a professional or two involved (This year, more than two, he used the Wardlaw Brothers), but they are in company where they become part of a large ensemble.

I was initially a bit troubled by some technical glitches. The lighting was generally good, but occasionally masked folks who seemed important, and the band was new this year with a few transitions that seemed awkward, but these minor things soon fell out of notice as I was forced to give myself to the show.

The play has two parts; the first part is a depiction, mostly using traditional Black hymns about the actual nativity story, with Joseph, Mary, the townspeople, innkeepers, wise men and those you would expect in such a story, but not in any way that one might confuse with the "bathrobe pageants" seen in so many churches and schools (well, not now, but in my youth). The movement is powerful, the characterizations unique and intense, and the music is wonderful. The Wardlaw Brothers were marvelous as the shepherds in the field "keeping watch on their flocks by night", but there was really not a voice or group that did not inspire.

Edward Ellis whom I had known mostly as the specialty chef from the university dining service who made so many of our spring dinner theatre productions memorable for the food as well as for the performance is, I think, an even better performer than chef. His vocal solos leading hymns in the nativity segment were super. I haven't mentioned the second half of the show, where the performers come back as member of a Black Gospel Church, but in that segment he was even better.

This part (the church scene) is my favorite. The anonymous drone who pitched such a fit in this blog last May because this old Mormon went to and reviewed a Gaither Family Fest in Gatlinburg, since he obviously felt that no Mormon could appreciate nor understand Southern Gospel Music, could have really attacked me here, though I doubt that he would have understood or appreciated this as much as I.

My experience in black churches is very limited. I listened to the Black Gospel Choir at Georgia Southern and loved it, but actual experience stops at reading, sometimes listening to the radio or TV, and watching the occasional play like Amen Corner by James Baldwin (also directed by Mical). I was particularly caught up in this church.

Every character was distinct and real. Edward Ellis, whom I mentioned before was outstanding as an old man who, though hardly able to walk, sings through his memories with the hymns that everyone knows and follows, and he even dances a little. I wish I could comment on all the characters by name, but the show moves so fast and most of the singers are identified in the program as "Chorus". I feel silly praising the "lady in the red dress" and the "lady in gray" but there were many outstanding soloists in the chorus.

The "back stories" in the show were wonderful as folks in the congregation flirt, roll their eyes, gossip under their breaths, discipline the kids, and react in so many different ways to the Eucharist. I don't know how to explain the reverent venality of the collection, but it was wonderful to see.

One of my favorite singers (noted in the program as both Featured Soloist and Chorus) is Shaunta Ellis. I have watched her and listened to her voice since she appeared in Amen Corner more than twenty years ago. I remember urging her to go to Atlanta to audition for the road company of Dreamgirls a number of years ago. I don't know whether she did or not, but if she did, and they didn't grab her, the casting directors were idiots. When she sings, the heart moves. Her solo during the collection was remarkable and in the finale she made it clear that her voice came from Angels. I would pay almost any amount to sit and listen to her concert, if she gave one.

When the show ended, I was exhausted, weeping, spiritually fed, every old dramatic theatre bone in my body wanted to have been a performer in the show (An unlikely possibility for a seventy plus year old white Mormon who really has trouble walking).

I should mention that the producer (who put up the funds for the show) was Cleve White, a local Nissan dealer who was once my student in a public speaking class, gave me a good deal on my last car, and is doing such a service to the community by sponsoring this show.

It has been done for the last three years and is planned as a yearly event the week before Christmas. If you are anywhere in travel vicinity I would urge you to fly, drive, walk, swim or crawl and be here for that performance next year. I have flown a thousand miles and paid a lot of money to see things that couldn't even compare.


At 10:28 PM, Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

12 23 07

Whoa, what an intense experience Richard. I thank you for sharing it with me. I have never had the pleasure of seeing that play, usually around this time of year I am sick and they would put it on at my old church.

I love your writing and the way you make experiences come alive to anyone who reads it.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger Norma said...

What a wonderful experience you have described for us. Thank you so much.

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Kathleen said...

Richard, what a beautiful review ... I felt like I was there. As always, I love your writing style and ability to take me with you. Thanks.

Hope your Christmas was as wonderful as the play.

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Gayle said...

I also love your writing style... a very beautiful post, Richard, thank you. I'm glad you were able to spend so much of your life doing what you loved to do.

Regarding the comment you left on my post, I'm glad you are able to "sit" comfortably now. :)

I won't be back to posting until the 5th or 6th of January, and in February I'll have to also break for about a week because I'll be going to Arizona for my daughter's graduation. The reason I won't be posting until the 5th or 6th is because I will have company until then. My daugher, her boyfriend, a couple from Maryland and another couple from Oklahoma are all here, one couple with their two kids, so I have my hands full.

God bless you and yours and a belated Merry Christmas to you and yours. May your New Year be blessed!

At 1:55 PM, Blogger t_cole said...

if you will - remind me next year in November so I can make plans to bring my little actress. It will be a Mississippi Christmas next year so this could be a side trip for us...


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