Although I researched the festival online, and looked into the staff at Hattiloo, there was nothing that could prepare me in regard to the people I would experience over the course of a swift 72 hours in town as a performing artist for the inaugural National Black Box Performing Arts Festival in Memphis, TN.
Several luncheons into the festival, I had wrapped up my second show and found myself in a room full of HBCU students and older black folks at Central BBQ just before we headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum to catch Antonio Lyons’ one-man show. Pinned between a gentleman wearing a paperboy cap and silver-maned bloke both as dark as my dad, I went in on the BBQ with the voracity of a starved musician… as I was. The silver-maned bloke spoke to the woman next to him, opposite of me, about Panama. I interrupted with, “Just watched Hands of Stone- y’know the movie about Roberto Durand”. The silver-maned bloke stared at me for a second and nodded...
He went back to whatever conversation he was having with the woman next to him. I recoiled, reset, and checked just how much clout I had to lose in this affair (which was exactly none). If anything, I had negative clout, I meant little to nothing to these people and could only gain (or work my way back to zero) in this room. Aye, I wouldn’t be boxed out of this man’s world, and persisted with the Roberto Durand reference- seeing it’s the only in I currently had upon the conversation.
He gave in, we discussed the 5 youth that were shot & killed during a protest outside of the U.S. Embassy in Panama, then onto the question a few others had already asked once they heard I was from Minneapolis- “Oh, you know Lou then?” Lou Bellamy, the former Artistic Director, of Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, MN was inescapable even though he wasn’t anywhere near the zipcode. “Yeah, Lou!” I responded, even though it had been damn near 10 years since I’ve spoke to the guy. I might’ve burned that bridge with the Black Actor, White Theatre article I posted a year ago, then again only 3 folks read this blog, so probably not.
Before knowing someone, their accolades and falls, or even their name, you get a presence about them. The silver-haired bloke emitted this energy of having literally dealt with and seen it all, and being entirely ok with it. If he were in the Marvel Universe, I’d have him pegged as the Watcher or one of the deceased Black Panthers that walks the astral plane. He’s here, he’s created a mass of art & action, and now he observes… to what I’ve briefly gotten from his demeanor from the 30 minutes we sat next to each other.
He explained his retirement to Panama, having once lived in New York as a director, and that was all we really expounded upon- Mostly Panama, which seemed to be the most exciting part, and was also the present tense of his life. I couldn’t get a read on how old this man was. He could be 70, he could be 80, dear lord not 90. Alas, he was somewhere in the winter of longevity and bucking it quite well.
Our dinner wrapped up, the silver-maned bloke called over to the gentleman with the paperboy cap now sitting a few seats away from me. “Woody!” he called, and then said something along the lines of their familiarity betwixt each other. I had taken up enough of this man’s time and it was upon the crowd to go watch Antonio Lyons’ one-man show at the National Civil Rights Museum.
“Hey, you goin’ to the show at the museum?” I asked him, on my way out.
“I’m going to get a ride back to my hotel. And then I’m going to bed.” He said powerfully with emphasis on the “bed”.
I’d taken it this man was tired and had perhaps seen enough theatre for several lifetimes. I, on the other hand, have not. I got a quick picture with him and bumped on down the road to Antonio’s show. Little did I know the man I had been speaking to the whole time was Paul Carter Harrison, legendary playwright, professor to Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, and much more. And the gentleman with the paperboy cap was Woodie King Jr, founder & director of the legendary New Federal Theatre in NYC.
I may never get another moment like that again.
However, if I’m lucky, I’ll live to see 90 and have some good-looking young artist try and start a conversation with me about a movie I haven’t seen yet.