In 1958, as a seven-year-old first-grader who couldn’t start school earlier because of my December birthdate, I was first introduced to the stage. It was under the direction of the late, great Ms. Jean Whidbee. Norfolk’s old St. Joseph’s Catholic School was staging the latest edition of its ever-popular annual Commencement exercises, huge musical variety events she produced, directed and choreographed. The setting was the old Norfolk Municipal Arena.
I was captivated by the stage and what it offered to my creative spirit, so much so that for the past 50 years or so since Ms. Whidbee’s class, I have been divinely led to write, direct, act, and produce plays.
Currently, I’m directing Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West,” a play opening September 8, at Norfolk’s Generic Theater. To my own amazement, I’ve recently decided this will be my last play. I believe the Lord is beckoning me to shift my creative energies in a new direction.
As amazing to me is that I had no idea at the time when I did Ms. Whidbee’s play at the Arena, it would prove a pivotal radius in my theatrical career, bringing me full circle.
Let me elaborate.
I can’t remember what my 1st grade class performed so many years ago, but the tradition was that each class at St. Joseph’s would present some manner of a performance, a song, dance number, or a skit. Every classroom essentially served as a homeroom, most students spending their entire day in that single room. So, each class was a built-in theatrical ensemble.
Earlier, St. Joseph’s students would matriculate through the 12th grade. Yet, it only went to the 8th grade at the time, selected Black students having begun to integrate the previously all-White Norfolk Catholic High School. The frequently sold-out Commencements were at once celebrations of the senior graduates, as well as critical fundraisers for a school that catered to youths from diverse economic backgrounds.
I only attended St. Joseph’s through the 4th grade. It and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church were both closed in 1961 to make way for urban renewal. Everyone migrated to the all-White St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Mary’s Academy. Yet, for each year of my four-year tenure at St. Joseph’s, my class staged a performance in the Arena.
I remember one routine from the 2nd grade. My father built wooden shoeshine boxes for our performance. Ms. Whidbee directed and choreographed a lively routine where the boys and girls danced and sang around those quaint little wood props.
Yet, my favorite performance was in the 4th grade, donning a royal blue, double-breasted velour sport coat adorned with white buttons, white pants, a white shirt accentuated with a royal blue bow tie, and a pair of seemingly luminescent Black patent leather shoes. All the boys were dressed the same and the girls wore frilly party dresses. We danced to the old standard “Tuxedo Junction.”
I wasn’t aware at the time how much those St. Joseph’s Commencements had ignited my passion for the theatre. Yet, frankly speaking, through a wonderfully blessed experience at age 5, the Lord had already endowed my spirit with rich creative fervor. I’ll expound in a moment. But those years of performance between age 7 and 10, had laid a foundation that would be unmoved.
My exploration of the arts would continue. I had actually begun writing poetry at age 7. But later, ever finding the need to stroke irrepressible creative impulses, I began drawing. Marvel and DC superheroes were my favorite. I eventually began playing bongos and learned to strum a guitar as well.
But it was in Ms. Wimbush’s 10th grade English class at Portsmouth’s I.C. Norcom High School, a class which I failed, that I learned writing lay at the very core of my creative being. I’ll never forget it! I was reading William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis” and had quite an affirming experience. The architecture of the words spoke to me so the page appeared quite luminescent, my spirit grandly seduced and peeled wide open as it nestled, energized, into Bryant’s words.
I did continue sketching and playing guitar, yet writing offered a universe all my own, the Lord seeming to peer over my shoulder, watching my growth, gauging my capacity to pay attention to His calling. Then, He blessed me with the late, great Vladimir Chernozemsky, a Bulgarian who taught me a lesson about writing I, too, have never forgotten.
I was working part-time at Georgetown University Hospital and Vlad, who after two previous unsuccessful attempts, had not long ago finally escaped from behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Having once been a popular, prolific filmmaker, producing and directing films for the Communist State, he was now in the U.S. and had been reduced to working as a desk attendant at the high-rise Alexandria, Virginia apartment building where I lived.
After working the 3-11 p.m. shift in the hospital’s E.R., I would come home late in the evening and struck up an acquaintance with Vladimir, eventually sharing my writing, which he gladly critiqued. He told me once that people needed to experience my words. “When you write about rusty water,” he advised, “the reader should taste it!” Later, he would also introduce me to the craft of acting, coaching me by running scenes from Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park.
Shortly thereafter, I sought out playwriting workshops at the legendary D.C. Black Rep. They had none but encouraged me to audition for new acting workshops they were about to launch. I did so and was selected from a large field of people whose principal interest had been acting. Twice now, I found myself courted by the craft of creating character.
Not too much later, in 1978, the Lord stepped things up a bit on my artistic journey, enlightening me with unquestionable clarity on how I was to serve Him, with the creative fire He so abundantly bestowed upon me. Of all things, He used a number to do so, one that eventually led me to the Bible’s Book of Revelation, specifically Chapter 22, the last chapter of the Bible. The Lord is quoted saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” I still get misty-eyed, even in this very moment, as I write those words.
The Lord was not only telling me that He is to be my everything but reminded me of what He had done 22 years earlier, when at age 5, He gloriously kindled a creative fire within, its hallmark my simple desire to share what impressed me as the beauty of all His creation.
Within months of such a profound revelation, I had penned my first play “For the Love of Jazz,” the tale of a struggling musician who endures a horrific tragedy on the night of the break he had sought all of his career. I was writing the play between trips as a messenger at the prestigious Washington law firm of Covington and Burling.
Then, the Lord blessed me yet again, having one of its attorneys take interest in my writing. The next thing I knew, the law firm, whose other clients at the time included CBS and the NFL, worked pro bono to help me start my first, non-profit, 501 (c)(3) theatre company, Pili-Pili, Inc. Pili-pili is a Swahilian term for hot sauce. We called ourselves, “Seasoned bits of hot pepper.”
But Pili-Pili didn’t endure, as quite unexpectedly, in 1980, I made a rather abrupt move back home, to be closer to my eldest daughter Dawn, who was 7 at the time. Just 2 years later, the Lord would intervene again.
Having previously worked a variety of jobs, including waxing floors at a Zayre’s department store, cleaning hulls of a ship, working as a model introducing people to the new technology of ATM machines, and as a Bell Atlantic telephone store salesperson, on January 1, 1982, New Year’s Day, I secured a full-time position with the City of Norfolk’s Department of Parks and Recreation. My duties? I was to act in, produce and direct plays for a brand new theatre company, the Generic Theater.
Astonishingly, the Generic Theater where I will direct my last play was then housed in a small lounge of the Norfolk Municipal Arena, just on the other side of the wall of the theatre where I first performed on-stage. That got my attention. Something in my spirit prompted me to add the numbers of that New Year’s holiday, for me a holy day, as the sum total of 1, 1, 1, 9, 8, 2 is 22. The Alpha and the Omega let me know He was still watching over me.
More than four decades after I became a founder of the Generic Theater, I will be returning there to direct Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin West,” in its current home, the stage down under beneath Chrysler Hall. The theater is literally a stone’s throw from where I was first introduced to the stage, at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, which once stood where the Scope Arena now stands.
As a hardworking practitioner of the theatrical arts, I have been remarkably blessed by the Lord, and in my very own Norfolk hometown. But now is the time to close a curtain that has come 360 degrees.