Kevin failed to be Top Dog in THE MALE ANIMAL, but it didn’t really matter. It was all COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY anyway!
In part 5 of PLAY PRODUCTION FOLLIES:
> KEVIN WORSHIPS AT THE AMEN CORNER
. For many years Charlotte Kay Motter had a secret desire. For a long, long time, she had been teaching drama and producing plays at Canoga High, in what was then a safe white suburb of L.A. But there was a play she really loved that was just not suitable for the school she found herself in. James Baldwin’s autobiographical masterpiece The Amen Corner tells the story of his Harlem upbringing as the son of a female fire-and-brimstone preacher and an absent ne’er-do-well reprobate father. It’s a stunning drama, rife with gorgeous language and deep emotional undercurrents. But there was one tiny, insurmountable problem: THE AMEN CORNER is an all black play while Canoga was a nearly all white school.
. But come spring of 1973, for the first time a single black student had enrolled in drama. The color of Vince’s skin made it possible for Ms. Motter to mount a (technically) inter-racial production. In her mind, there was really only one part that absolutely had to be played by a black man: the philandering booze-drenched jazz-musician father, who deserted his wife and baby James, escaping to a life on the road held thrall by a merciless heroin addiction. This deadbeat dad was clearly the best male role in the beautifully poetic play- the one I coveted the most. Come auditions, everyone knew that I didn’t stand a chance in Hell. Vince had no discernible talent whatsoever, but he was the right hue- so we knew Vince was preordained to play the good-for-nothing dad. Didn’t seem quite right, but I got it. Besides, I got the next-best part: the young hero, torn between the devotional enclave of his mother and the sensual lure of the secular world he is forced to confront, when unexpectedly, his father comes home to die. So it was, that I- a hopelessly white, white boy, played the young ebony-black James Baldwin… as a mulatto!
. To bring the environment of a storefront church into the vast Canoga theatre, Charlotte set aside the front three rows to serve as pews for the congregation, which would be played by every available warm body she could recruit. They were encouraged to pray aloud and call out in devout religious ecstasies, but as suburban white kids, my classmates just seemed to have no idea at all how vital, boisterous and swooning a traditional charismatic fundamentalist church can be. She singled my pal Rocky out as the only believable holy roller in the group, with his loud, enthusiastic shouts of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Preach it sister!” He wanted the role of the bad dad too, and was determined to wring every bit out of his part as an anonymous parishioner.
. On opening night I was so nervous, that I nearly revisited my supper in the wings. I had never been anywhere near so nervous before any play, and it caught me by surprise. Comedy had always been my forte. The Amen Corner was a heavy drama, and the words were so gorgeous I felt a huge responsibility to do them justice. As it happened, my longtime girlfriend Lauren and passionate first lover was playing the role of my mother, the hellfire preacher. We had an intense scene together, where the young James Baldwin stumbles home long after curfew, following his first experimental night of drunken debauchery. Going to the sink, the drunk young man splashes water on his face to sober up before facing the certain wrath of mom. But she enters silently and catches him unprepared, hissing: “Boy- you stink of whiskey!” And then: SMACK! she slaps him hard across the face. No matter how much we rehearsed, Lauren just couldn’t bring herself to follow through with that slap. “Don’t worry.” she insisted. “Come performance, when I’m in character with all the adrenaline flowing- it won’t be any problem.”
. Uh-huh. That’s just what I was afraid of.
. Sure enough, come that moment of truth in the first matinee, we sweet lover Lauren entered in character as my mother, delivered her line: “Boy- you stink of whiskey!” pulled back her arm and WHACK! She really let me have it! POW! I staggered under the blow. The audience, sensing the verisimilitude, gasped audibly. For the remainder of the scene, I spat mouthfuls of blood onto the stage between my garbled lines…
. Safe to say: I really bled for that one!
We take a look at the bi-annual drama festivals, where we were COMPETING FOR ACCOLADES, in Part 6 of PLAY PRODUCTION FOLLIES.
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