For those who have spent some time acting on stage, what's the first role you were ever cast in?
Here's my first role...well, my first speaking role. Well, my second speaking role, technically. Dammit, stop being so technical! It was still one of my earliest moments on stage, during my junior year in high school. And there I am, trying to look like Shaft. You have to admit, it was a bit of an acting stretch.
I mean, let's face it, the first question that comes to one's mind has to be: why on earth would any school, especially one located in the liberal Northeast, ever allow a dimwitted, gullible white boy to put on black make-up like this? Unless the role absolutely, positively had to be performed that way. So, were we doing a production of Othello? The Emperor Jones? A Raisin in the Sun? Ragtime?
Wrong on all accounts. It was 1982, and I had been cast in "You Can't Take It With You," in the role of Donald, the gentleman friend of the household servant, Reba. Despite the fact that I maybe had three pages of dialog, for some reason, the director (a very good director, by the way) had elected to keep things true to the original intent of the play, and play Reba and Donald as African Americans. Even though we had only one African American in the entire school. And, she didn't try out.
So instead, they cast me, this skinny Greek kid. Playing my lady love, Reba, was the mother of one of the students in the Drama Club.
Take a look at the photo for a few minutes, and let the absurdity of the entire situation soak in for a bit. Let's size things up, shall we? Well, it's pretty clear that I sure as hell don't look anything like an African American. Even if you try to confuse the issue by putting me in blackface, a striking straw hat, and a mighty fine suit that looks like it came from Sears and Roebuck. And oh wow, that tie!
Okay, so maybe it's not blackface, per se. But look, that black make-up practically seems to shine. It's as if someone poured a bucket of brown latex paint over my head. Then there's the coat of red lipstick around my lips. The better to kiss me with? Really, what kind of self-respecting black man goes around wearing cherry red lipstick? Add a really thick black eyebrow pencil to make my eyebrows look really bushy, and voila! Look what you have.
Well, I'm not sure what you have, exactly. The only thing that comes to mind is a mutant Oompa Loompa.
And then there's my lady love. So, if you can get past the existence of mutant Oompa Loompas, now you're asked to accept the fact that the two of us are sweet on each other. I mean, I just don't get that from this photo. Maybe it looks like the photo was taken after we came back from the world's first-ever mutant Oompa Loompa Mother-Son dance (wearing our Sears Roebuck finest).
I mean, we do have matching lipstick on and all, so a family connection is not that much of a stretch. I guess I can kind of see a momma mutant Oompa Loompa spreading her loins and giving birth to me.
But lovers? With the matching red lipstick, I think there's more of a chance that we're drag queens than intimates.
Well, chalk it up to the magic of theater, I suppose.
I remember working so hard on that role! I remember being all excited for the very first rehearsal, a read through, and waiting for what seemed like hours that first night to deliver my opening line. It was a classic, I was convinced of it, about as great an entrance for a character as Martha's "What a dump" line in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.'
What was it? Ah, I still remember it, as if it were yesterday. Allow me to share it with you:
DONALD: Hello, Reba.
Located somewhere on page 36 or something.
I waited and waited and waited for the cast to get past those infinitely boring 35 pages that came before, impatiently biding my time until the moment that it was my turn at bat. And then, with all the fury and passion that my skinny little 15-year-old body possessed, I bellowed out, in a voice that would have made Amos and Andy cringe in embarrassment, "Hell-o-o-o-o Reeeeeeeeeba!"
I think I let that line go on for maybe two minutes. The sound echoed through the theater hall. Of course, it made everyone laugh, and prompted our theater teacher to say, "Well, hello Ted!"
That only encouraged my ham tendencies. Some would say, made them insatiable. From that night on, I had found my true calling. Which is why, ever since, I've made it a point to live a Hello Reba! kind of life. Only, without the offensive make-up.
You know, I tried that line on Corb, just the other day. As we were in the process of moving, I came across the photo album that held this picture. It made me smile to look at and think back on, so I closed the album, placed it on the table, turned to Corb and said, with all the gusto I possessed, "Hell-o-o-o-o Cooooorbett!"
Corb raised and eyebrow and looked at me strangely. "You're kidding, right?" he said, dismissively.
Well, Corb always did have a way with words. But don't worry, that didn't deter me from fulfilling my life's mission. Somebody has to look out for the poor little mutant Oompa Loompas in this world, after all.