White Nights, Black Mondays

Audition: You get what you risk.

One of many cattle calls in the late ‘90s found me landing an extra role in response to the local Casting Director’s hotline: “We’re looking for ‘real people,’” code for non-actors. After years on stage, as an upstart film actor, I was on my way to some of the most rewarding, exciting work possible. Harpo Productions to co-produce with Disney Films. Oprah Winfrey to star alongside Danny Glover, under the direction of Jonathan Demme. And all this in Philadelphia, home of only a few non-independent films each year.

Working on film sets quickly overshadowed any joys I had found in the theatre. To be sure, it was a newer endeavor for me (and no doubt has a power that to this day holds captive the American actor’s dreaming-capabilities) but, more important, I found film production consisting of such diverse collaboration in a technologically based medium – well, I fell victim to its charm, and quickly focused on getting more deeply involved in filmmaking. All this led to my achieving the coveted Union-Waiver days as an extra on a Disney-Harpo production starring Oprah in her first role since The Color Purple.

Compared to the low- and no-budget films that I’d been fortunate to work on during the previous two years, my four days as a “Background Actor” – the politically and economically correct term for the more familiar “extra” – my four days on Beloved turned out to be a costume drama to the hilt. Even Old City was covered in new digs, made to look like Cincinnati during Reconstruction. In the low thirties, damp air, covered from head-to-toe in brown, wool tweed over my set of long johns, I had “dirt” placed on my face and fingerless gloved-hands to keep the “poor look” going on. Replete with my shoulder-length dirty-blond hair, I looked like a Dickensian urchin.

Of my previous auditions, the most threatening one had not so much to do with the risks called for during the actual audition, but much more to do with that good ol’ American standby: skin color. This audition, for me, had to do with my fear of difference in the real, non-cinema world, of facing past roles I’ve played, of the possibility of being judged not for my acting skills but rather for the “B” movies my culture made when we didn’t know better. Or worse, when we knew better but couldn’t stop the reels from turning.

The fall and winter that found me so lucky to work on Beloved was also a time of working, for the first time, under African American directors, producers and writers. In addition to Beloved, I was acting in two indie films and a play, often the only white actor on set, and in one brilliant instance, not only the lone white on stage or in the house, but possibly the only white person in the whole neighborhood: Bushfire Theatre, at 52ndand Locust streets, burns bright in the heart of West Philly. Having grown up amidst the white sands of some very tan white Floridians, acting white roles turned out to be a quick and sure way to help stop some of the old reels in my head, and, if not entirely replacing them, begin making some additional scenes, which I pull out from time to time in order to reflect on who I am, and who I wish to be.

First Rehearsal: “We don’t care what you think.”

As a wannabe young male lead, the ingénue’s equivalent and suitor, it would always be a struggle for me to land a leading role. Let’s just say I’m not tall, dark and handsome. While my face doesn’t tend to repulse the viewer, especially on screen, it does though have more of a character look than a leading one. For instance, if I laugh, really laugh, my face muscles can contort to such an extent as to make me appear stoned. Fair enough. I’ve done plenty of work as a character actor, laughing and not laughing, in black film and white film, and while a differentiation based on skin color may seem outdated, or worse, based on an -ism or two, it is no secret that storylines, and monies, often come from and are directed to different cultures. This may all be well and good – vanilla does indeed taste different than chocolate, caramel different than strawberry (this analogy is melting) -- but my work in the black theatre and film worlds seems to have had a greater influence on my acting, and my personal growth, than my work in the for-the-most-part whites-only film and theatre worlds.

It occurs to me now that what any quality kindergarten teacher knows is that a challenge gets the synapses firing better than any redundancy. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was about to become the re-education of a white boy, who, in all his seventeen years of private school, attended class with only a handful of African American peers, and never a black teacher or administrator. My father made his share of race-influenced jokes, and while never veering too far from an awareness of white racism, he clearly was in an early stage of recovery from the non-awareness of white privilege.

I admit that I like humor that plays with old notions of race and sex and country of origin and religious differences, but Dad’s jokes--then in the 1970s and so many jokes still floating around, albeit no longer from my father--seem lodged in some bitter we-lost-the-War-of-the-States projection onto those who benefited most from the end of slavery as we knew it.

Mom, although no Harriet Tubman, did in a way pay some of her dues as a Union scout. Sometime during my elementary school years, very likely after hearing something racist spew from my mouth, she hooked me up with one of those Scholastic library-fundraiser bargains: a short glossy paperback on an eminent American scholar, whose power of words would save not only his own skin but a generation’s: Frederick Douglass.

Other than in the Encyclopedia Britannica and on television, Frederick Douglass was perhaps the only black person to set foot in our house. And other than Dr. J. Reggie Jackson, and what then seemed the entire starting teams of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals, the only actual black skin I recall seeing in our house was that of an African exchange student.

He cooked for us. Soul food probably, knowing my dad’s then somewhat irreverent penchant for exotic customs. I may be conflating memories, though; perhaps the black skin present was of an African American, not an African, as I do recall on another occasion a Chinese foreign student also attending to our culinary education. What’s true, for sure, is this: we didn’t fear the Chinese person, and regardless of country or continent of origin, the presence of the person with black skin in our house was a mini-revolution, emotional and political, for our family. But the ways our eyes moved that evening during food prep and dinner belied a definite suspicion about the future of our belongings. To make matters worse, I remember the Chinese man, after cooking a fabulous meal, sitting with us while we ate. I can’t remember if the black man did. He may have even left before we ate.

Some white Americans see African Americans in a darker light than we see Africans. I think this occurs because, at best, Europe dealt hand-in-hand (though clearly we had the upper one) with Africa amidst slave trading, colonialism and numerous other manifestations of Manifest Destiny. Slavery in the American Colonies and the subsequent on-their-backs and by-the-sweat-of-their-brow United States of America, and all the residual violence of institutionalized racism, has indeed done its job: some of us still fear our repressions. An African is free of white America’s repressed projections, while an African American remains chained. One is an immigrant; the other came against her will. “White guilt?” The weakest link in America’s race politics today is our personal and collective pasts, our slow receding zoom from behind a noir nightmare.

My years in Philly, working first as a social worker with homebound elderly African American great-grandparents and then moving into the worlds of dance and theatre, exposed me to many a skin color, religious background, and perspective from parts of the world other than my ancestral Switzerland. On the set of Beloved, just starting out in the business of being a film actor, I met a lot of experts, true-blue and otherwise, who shared a great deal of information with me. One of the first actors who reached out to me -- the very first day on set actually, and still one of my favorite people in the whole business, though now somewhat mythically -- was Douglas Powell.

Powell, compared to my “poor look,” was dressed to the nines, and his two-inch Afro and (real) beard, cut almost like the same goatee as Douglas’ (they both lived at the same time, cinematically), was just beginning to show some gray. At about thirty-five, Powell was fun to talk to, caring and so near a Jesus of Nazareth character that I looked up to him in a disciple sort of way. His guidance wasn’t in the realm of milking the business prospects but, rather, of being of service to the world through one’s presence onscreen and off, both to the other’s internal spiritual landscape and the global family. If I hadn’t been a bit flaky myself, I surely would have brushed him off as some sort of religious nut. I still wonder from time to time what he made of his acting and music careers, but after a year of email we drifted to other cities and interests.

Two days into Beloved and all the business contacts and schmoozing and active research that most actors do during down time, regardless of career level, I was informed by a superiorly informed, well established actor, in the Philly-Baltimore-NYC film and TV scene, of a part in a local play that was to go up in the coming months. He was Brian Anthony Wilson, whom I was also to be acting alongside on another feature film at the same time.

“They’re auditioning for the white role now. All their plays are black, and they occasionally have a white part. You’d be good over there.” So Brian wrote the contact info in my pocket organizer, which an actor always carries on set if one’s costume leaves room.

“The theater’s legit, hires mostly Equity actors, some from New York. I’ve worked with them a few times. If you get the part, don’t worry about the rehearsal and production stuff. They can be a little sloppy over there, but the direction’s tight. He knows what he’s doing.” To better prepare for the audition, I scribbled Brian’s warning down:Don’t worry about sloppy rehearsals; director is good.

Al Simpkins’ six-six frame dwarfed my five-eight-and-three-quarters. His hand gripped mine and he smiled as he welcomed me on the sidewalk outside the rehearsal hall of the Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts, which he founded in the seventies, making it the oldest still-running inner-city African American theater in the country. Simpkins wasn’t so outwardly proud of this – a significant fact any founding director would surely brag about – as much as just plain proud. He had an air of self-respect I admired, and respected, from the get go. Simpkins reminded me of my grandfather – a conservative Mennonite preacher for forty years at the same congregation in Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania. Al served as artistic director of the Center, and the director of most of its productions.

The audition was short, which I was grateful for, with Al simply talking with me, looking over my résumé, telling me a bit of the play and letting me know that the character was from Louisiana, in his late twenties, handsome, debonair, a bit arrogant, and a troublemaker who dresses well and speaks eloquently. Al said he’d need me to come back in a week and read with the actors.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Simpkins. Thank you,” careful to shake hands as firmly as he. He smiled, one of the few times I would ever see him smile in the next three months of our working together. He always seemed serious.

“You’ll probably get the role, but I just need to make sure that the company agrees.” A technical callback then. Cool!

But not so cool. “’Company’ basically means a group of actors who always work together in the same theater, which meant a kind of second audition awaited me. I had little to fear, though. A week later, at the reading was a single-named New York actress, Zuhairah, who was kind enough to go by “Z.” I secretly hoped Zuhairah, a stunning, middle-aged woman who could act the pants off anyone, was to play the character I’d heard my character was to kiss. Also present was a gentle man, Vaughn Morrison, who enjoyed my dated Baton Rouge accent and who I would later find out was to play the father of the young woman I would woo, who was not to be Zuhairah. Vaughan Morrison and Zuhairah were very kind to me, clearly respecting my role at the audition as the outsider, both in regard to their company and to my eyes and skin color.

My character, Jackson Thurnsby, would end up murdered by Zuhairah’s character for wooing her daughter and then attempting to bribe the family for money to leave them alone. Taking a quick shovel to the back of the head was, I guess, worth it, considering I got to stand next to Zuhairah in the dark, waiting for the lights to come up, and then saying something wonderfully racist like “Ah! Another one!” when Gramma Freeman appeared, shovel in hand. They were kind to me, asked me questions to get me to relax a bit, and to begin getting to know me, but Al was reserved, almost cold. He was probably simply respecting the company, letting them have their space with the possible newbie, but I felt intimidated by his stoicism. Clearly, looking back, I wanted his approval.

Later, at the first read-through Al introduced me to everyone around the table. There were Z and Vaughn --so welcoming and warm they both felt like friends already -- who were to play the parents of the girl I was to kiss, who hadn’t been cast yet. There was Michael Brown, in his late twenties already a veteran of the stage and of Bushfire productions, who was to play the husband-to-be of Octavia, the not-yet cast ingénue. And Shirley Bright, a heavyset, tall gramma character. Introductions all around, and then Al got to the business of describing the play. Amidst the usual short monologue about the rehearsal schedule and reminding the veterans and informing me of how things get done around Bushfire, he looked right at me and said, “And we don’t care what you think.”

Not a syllable was emphasized. It was so casual I hardly flinched. No one around the table did; they just kept their smiles intact. Al certainly didn’t flinch. It seemed like something he’d said on occasion over the years, and that the company had heard before. I remember Z smiling, very warmly, and making direct eye contact with me. Al’s was not a blurting, as some sort of fearful reaction, merely a statement of fact. Perhaps my Germanic background helped me accept it: this was the director’s ship and he was just reviewing the rules. Very clearly.

But I had never before worked with someone who was that direct. I simply nodded, and smiled just a bit, until I realized Al wasn’t going to. In the decade since, I’ve never struggled to come up with the best comeback line. “I shoulda said …” There was no need. Al and I had an understanding; he was the boss and I was the guest. He never made me feel scared, or stupid, or racist. We simply shared that understanding: my mouth should be kept shut except when acting. This rule existed in part because I was not a company member but also, I believed at the time, because of race. It’s interesting to me now, knowing the state of mind I was in then, how little threat I felt.

First Payday: “Don’t worry, you’ll get yours.”

We were to memorize on our own in the weeks that followed, then get together and rehearse. In the first week of rehearsing, most of the actors weren’t off script. As one of the actors with the fewest lines, and desiring to make a good impression on the director and actors, regardless of skin color or forewarnings, I came prepared to rehearse offscript all week. It’s respectful, and removes the most unnecessary stressor in an actor’s life: our memory for someone else’s lines.

Al was frustrated, of course, but I could tell he trusted the company to get it together by dress rehearsals, and that this seemed par for the course with Bushfire. My friend Brian’s warning came back to me: “Don’t worry so much about the rehearsal stuff. The director knows what he’s doing.” So I kept my professional, anal retentive, outsider, white man’s mouth shut, and patiently waded through poorer scenes with script-clinging peers: I’d been there before myself, and most of the parts had many more lines than mine.

But then our first payday came up. Al said in rehearsal that he couldn’t pay for actors not being on script, that the rehearsal schedule was behind because of our poor work. I kept my mouth shut, thinking Al is now an asshole, or perhaps he just forgot I came prepared – offscript all week. As we collected our things to leave for the weekend – with the clear message to get offscript, and in my mind maybe this is the way it’s done around here, that we’d get paid later – Al exited the rehearsal hall, and the bright light from the sidewalk at midday left his silhouette in my eyes. Blinking, saying, “Ciao” to everyone else, I grabbed my briefcase and followed his suit, ready to do business.

“Al, excuse me. I was off book all week.” Walking beside him, hoping he’d be reasonable.

“I can’t pay anyone for that week of rehearsals.” He wasn’t about to be.

“Paying actors for their work is a matter of integrity.” That’s one of my best versions of almost fucking up, a white peon informing a respected black artistic director of his job, about to get my ass fired. But I was growing angrier by the sentence and feeling disrespected, forgetting completely Brian’s admonition.

Al stopped walking toward his office, turned directly to me.


“Don’t worry.”(He’ll pay me.)

“You’ll get yours.” (And thinks me a racist, only out for my own.)

Which I was. And now clearly on Al’s asshole status. I thought about quitting all weekend, of doing something noble and reactionary – “Keep the money!” – but I needed the $200 a week, and the résumé, and liked the company, and getting to play an obvious racist, and getting killed on stage for the first time. (Spike Lee would later have me killed on screen for the first time, shot by a crazed white man, David Berkowitz, in Summer of Sam.)

But I hated Al’s spear into my side. (Yes, I had a Messiah Complex. I was an actor.) The oof of his statement might have been a normal heated thing to say to an indignant actor peeved about non-payment, but I had said something mildly racist myself. I shoulda left the “integrity/I’m superior to you” dagger in my back pocket. Out, out, brief spot! Coulda just said “professional” or something like it. So Al had parried with his equally charged, “You’ll get yours.” Still hurts. He knew that I knew that my character acted in a remotely similar fashion throughout the entire play. Though the story held a completely different context, Al was insinuating an unwelcome parallel structure: that of my person and the character I played. That the ease with which my white character bribed black people in post-War Philadelphia was equal to my exploitation of indoctrinated racism. Ouch!

First Dress: “What kind of kiss should I give her?”

Al paid me, paid everyone their due, I guess. I never asked around, and nothing more was ever made of it. My righteous indignation I left at the door, Al got down to business with stage picture issues, and the play began to come together quite well, considering the unorthodox production means. Even by the first of three dress rehearsals, lines were still not memorized by two key supporting figures. But Al said loud enough for all to hear – he had a way of doing that – “Shirley, you need to work harder at home at night. And you [Michael] … I’m not worried about you. You always come through.” And so I trusted him. Al and I had worked something out, regardless of how sloppily, on that sidewalk in front of his office. I did get mine, but he got his, like he always does, like I often do.

Because Michelle, the young actress from Temple University who was playing Octavia, hadn’t been hired until two weeks shy of dress, she and I had some onstage awkwardness to get through. The script required us to kiss. Stage kisses are awkward, period. Especially when one actor has a significant other, like I did at the time. Even though her last boyfriend had been a black man and her last significant other had been a white woman with a shaved head, she didn’t like me kissing anyone else, fake or not. Adding to this particular stage kiss’s complexity was that when it comes to what we think of as interracial sexual behavior, all skin colors have a tendency toward titillation. That’s our mildest reaction. Just look at the stink raised, in both black and white audiences, when Spike Lee had Wesley Snipes getting it on, and on a drafting table! with Annabella Sciorra in Jungle Fever. And so believably, one might add. (Perhaps it wasn’t the interracial sex that got the white crowd riled up. Perhaps it was Snipes’s character’s family name: Purify.)

With these levels of complexity, it was difficult for me to decide whether I should lay a quote on Michelle that I had heard the week prior. When I heard the line, I knew it would be fun to employ, and emulate. Oprah, by then months into production with Beloved, was being interviewed on what it was like to work so closely with Danny Glover. The interviewer had asked about Glover’s kissability.

“We had shot many scenes already, but on the morning of our first love scene, I was nervous! Right before Jonathan asked for ‘Quiet on the set,’ Danny squeezed me close and spoke directly into my ear, so no one else would hear: ‘I don’t fake it!’” (italics Danny’s, exclamation Oprah’s).

I’m not as suave as Danny Glover, although my character was supposed to be. But I couldn’t bring myself to use that playful line, and I wouldn’t have meant it. Michelle, God bless her, wasn’t as desirable as Oprah. So when it came to rehearse the scene in which we were to kiss, I turned to Al.

“Excuse me, Michelle.” Tentative. “Al, what kind of kiss do you want me to give her?”

“I don’t want you to give her any kind of kiss. The script does!” He laughed. I laughed. We all laughed. I still laugh, and tear-up with some deep fondness for Al. Nothing like a good sense of humor, and timing, to knock down walls. His offering acted the definitive olive branch role.

The kissing went just fine. Michelle and I opted for the safe stage kiss, faking it, turning our heads so the audience couldn’t see the non-deployment of our tongues, which, housed behind a pair of white lips pressed to a pair of black lips, lay in wait, both pink. During a weekday matinee, the house packed with junior and high school students, mostly black, we received some serious mid-kiss ovations. Our stage kiss overtures, and the suspension of disbelief, weren’t lost on them.

Opening Night: Deep Rootsby P. J. Gibson, a World Premiere

Octavia served as the reason for the existence of my character, out to woo and swindle, and she represented the gemstone of the whole storyline--a sort of historically important touchstone. Octavia was supposed to be the lightest color of black present in America in the 1880s, representing the mixing of blood, most often a result of domination, of biological occupation. Each generation represented on stage was to seem darker than the previous generation. So Al, directing a play with three generations of characters and with a company limited to its preexisting variety of skin tones, realized he need make only two adjustments in casting: bring in a non-company actress for the lightest role and ask Michael to use stage makeup in appearing the darkest, as Octavia’s husband-to-be.

During opening night, while hanging out in the Green Room over cigarettes, both of us killing time before we had to get back on stage for our final scenes, Michael divulged that the script’s demand that he use makeup to appear darker than he, the man, naturally was, made him a bit uncomfortable. Again, his character was to be darker than everyone else, and the impending marriage was to be a redemptive act for the family, for the race. This according to Gramma, who arranged everything, making sure to find her light granddaughter the darkest man available in 1880s Philadelphia. “The strength of a man lies in his resolve,” she said. She meant herself. She meant her people--for her people to begin their biological resistance.

Michael added, “This is a touchy subject in the black acting community. P.J.’s script says my character has to be darker than everyone else on stage. I’m not that black, so I have to use this makeup. I feel as long as it’s done with respect, and called for as it is in this script, that it’s far enough from the days of blackface. But some in the audience might not see it that way, so I’m careful to tone down the makeup as much as I can.”

I didn’t tell him that I didn’t exactly know what he was talking about. Partly because I didn’t want to appear ignorant, which I was, but also because I appreciated his confiding something of black culture from a personal perspective, something of the black theatre world to someone venturing forth for the first time. And I didn’t want to alter the collegial atmosphere into the clichéd educate-the-white-man-of-the-black-man’s-plight lesson. He respected me, but I didn’t fully trust him, or myself for that matter, and feared his reaction if I asked for more information. Besides, I was wooing his on-stage future wife!

He probably would have easily gone into more details about these cultures and not felt that he was wasting his time. He in all likelihood would have appreciated an interested – yes, white – ear. His company knew all this already. I robbed him of an opportunity to further shine a light on this world, and I robbed myself of that same light, which could have easily rid me of some ignorance, white or otherwise.

Michael liked talking. As the two-week run continued, I sensed that Michael knew he was acting as a sibling to me, under Al’s somewhat stern-parent role as director. And Michael always graciously shared with me from his pack of Salems. Here I was, smoking menthols in the Green Room with a black actor in a black theater in a black neighborhood, about to get my racist ass seriously knocked upside the head by three black characters, buried out back of the house like the dog my character was. Too cool!

Last Show: “You’re all right.”

During the last show’s pre-performance company circle, which I was welcomed into from the get go but always felt a bit shy in, Al joined us to give a few words of congratulations, standing to my left. After his short speech, Z read from one of the reviews. We felt good about our run, that was clear, and the usual actor’s sadness about ending a play seemed present in each of us.

Except Al. His apparently habitual emotion steeled across his face: stoical fortitude. Not that he was holding down any particular emotion, but perhaps he’d been at this for twenty-plus years at one theater. During one of our Green Room waiting periods, Michael had recounted the story of how Al had gone to Africa for the first time in the 60s, how he’d gone out into the wilderness, met an assembly of tribal leaders, sat in the bush at night amidst campfire. Thus his calling, and the name: Bushfire.

After that final pre-performance circle broke up, and the actors with opening monologues moved to the darkened stage, Al put his right arm around my shoulders. Towering over me, looking down, he blessed me: “You’re all right.”

Post-run Party: “And that’s why we cast him.”

At the post-production party, with Bushfire’s community of supporters as special guests, Al spoke a final round of introductions and congratulations to the creative contributors to the show. Some of my family were present.

The playwright, P.J. Gibson, with over thirty plays produced throughout the U.S., Europe and Africa, an NEA grant, et cetera, accepted much applause by waving to the small gathering from her seat. The Set, Lighting and Costume Designers did the same. Producers were thanked, as were office personnel and the all-important Stage Manager. Next up, the actors.

I think Al started with me because I was one of the new ones, and had one of the smaller roles. Regardless, I went first. I had assumed that people stand when introduced in public situations, that it was actually the polite thing to do, and I simply thought the others introduced so far hadn’t stood because, well, they weren’t actors or were just being humble. As they were.

So when Al introduced me, I stood and turned to face those behind me also, waving my little “Thank you” back-at-cha. Without missing a beat, Al laughed and pointed out to everyone that this was par for the course with me.

“And that’s why we cast him,” with no emphasis on any syllable, but with some undeniable delight.

Everyone, including me, giggle-laughed, and as I sat down and applauded my fellow actors one-by-one, I noticed how not a one stood when introduced. With growing embarrassment I realized what a faux pas, though excusable, I had just committed. A sort of final bow, a last performance of my arrogance. And I realized that Al’s “And that’s why we cast him” was a fun way of poking fun at me, of making light of my darker tendencies. Indeed, a link existed between some qualities of my being with those of one Jackson Thurnsby. Clearly, I had provided an easy casting at our first meeting.

About the Author

Jeremy Frey

Jeremy Frey lives in Tucson, where he teaches writing at the University of Arizona. After graduating from Eastern Mennonite University, he earned an MFA at the University of Arizona, specializing in poetry and literary nonfiction. He has been associated with the Bahia Vista Mennonite Church in Sarasota and the Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. His poems have been published in Mennonite magazines, including Mennonite Life and DreamSeeker Magazine. Jeremy wrote his essay, somewhat abridged here, in a nonfiction workshop in grad school. “Our country was deep into the trouble of Iraq, and rumors of another crack at Afghanistan were surfacing . . . I went back to my own experience of forgiving myself the racism, which still lingers. This essay, at best, is an experiment in addressing ‘the personal is political.’” Of his life and work Jeremy says: “As I continue the temporal and spiritual work which is writing, the mystics will continue their conversion of me: there is no enemy.”

Jeremy Frey