Laurie Lawrence (1959-2017)

Laurie

“She was very clear that she wanted her life to be celebrated, not mourned,” said Erica Dubno, who superlatively organized the packed, 90-minute memorial tribute to her close friend Laurie Lawrence. This was held at the Beach Point Club, in Mamaroneck, New York, on Sunday May 21, 2017, and it was a beautiful celebration.

Laurie program*

Laurie died on April 30, 2017, in New York City, at St. Luke’s Hospital, at the age of 57. She had suffered a massive heart attack on April 18, while at work. During her hospital stay, she was unconsciousness. Her room was decorated with pictures of her life. She was attended to by her many friends. She had registered to be an organ donor, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible.

“Imagine,” “In My Life” and a finale of “What I Did For Love” were the musical selections that Laurie specified to be played in her instructions. The acclaimed pianist and singer, Michael Isaacs ravishingly performed them. Mr. Isaacs regularly appears at the piano bars Brandy’s and The Duplex. Laurie frequently sang at those venues, and Isaacs reminisced about her appearances and their friendship, “I loved her.” He also mentioned their mutual close friend, Canadian resident Rory Taggart, who was unable to attend this event.

Laurie program1

In 2000, I appeared in a one-act play that was part of a festival of short works that was presented at The Producer’s Club theatre. One of the other plays was a Honeymooners-style dramedy about a quarreling married couple.

The actress who played the wife was superb. Wearing a blue plaid housedress, she had a fierce intensity that combined with her supreme comic timing, piercing eyes, animated facial expressions, and powerful voice, made her performance quite memorable.

She embodied the tradition of great American character actresses such as Maureen Stapleton and Eileen Heckart, along with the comedic depth of Doris Roberts. Though it was a minor piece, she brought as much conviction to it as if were a Clifford Odets drama.

As we were in separate plays, we did not rehearse together, and I only saw it once during the dress rehearsal. The only real interaction we all had was with the cast members of our own plays.

Three years later I became friends with someone who was part of The Duplex circle. There I saw the actress from that short play. It was Laurie Lawrence. I told her how much I enjoyed her performance and how memorable it was.

“Thanks! That’s the last play I did. I just don’t have the time or the energy anymore to do theater that doesn’t pay. I’d rather sing when I want to and do SAG-AFTRA work.” That belief was understandable, but this strategy was a great loss for her talent and for audiences.

This surfaced during a reading of a revelatory diary entry she wrote in 2010, and that was read aloud. She spoke of her never having had the feeling for the need to have children, being single but open to the possibility of marriage if the right man came along, and most poignantly of her disappointment that her acting career had not gone further.

The wonderful slide show of illustrative photographs of her life included family gatherings, work events, her involvement with animals and her coaching for the Special Olympics. There were also shots of her performing, and most telling were new headshots every few years. That dream never faded.

She was from New Rochelle, graduated from Ithaca College as a theater major and moved to New York City to be an actress. For the past 17 years she worked a full-time job in the legal department at CBS.

Creating a bubble within a bubble while chewing bubbling gum was her “Stupid Human Trick” that she performed on Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980’s. Her rapport with Dave was marvelous and he was quite warm to her. This bit was shown during a video highlights presentation.

There were clips of her at various venues dynamically singing. Her brassy and affective gifts were showcased with rousing renditions of Kander and Ebb’s “All That Jazz,” “Cabaret” and “Ring Them Bells.”

Local cable news channel NY1 profiled her for their program, “New Yorker of The Week” because of her volunteer work as a coach for the Special Olympics, and a touching excerpt of that was shown. She was also a long-time participant of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and organized an annual Holiday party in support of battered women.

Friends, relatives, and a former roommate poured forth with accounts of her frenetic lifestyle. Working full-time while seeing theater, movies, volunteering, taking classes and performing were all part of her jammed schedule.

Marilyn Sulzbacker, an older, Upper East Side neighbor of hers movingly recounted their long relationship and bond over their cats.

Her cousin George DeMarco, recalled her secretly rehearsing “Dance Ten Looks Three” from A Chorus Line that she was to perform at his surprise birthday party. She was stricken a week before it took place. Mr. De Marco’s partner, Andy Monroe then went to the piano and wistfully played and sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent.

Nick-nacks, souvenirs and mementos from Laurie’s collection were on display on a large table in the front of the auditorium. Attendees were invited to take something, to have a part of her. Apparently she collected penguins, as there were several figurines of various sizes of them. I took one of the miniatures. I soon returned, and took two more as they seemed to be part of a trio, and it felt wrong not to keep them together.

Over the years we kept in touch through email, Facebook and chance meetings. We once shared a Metro North train ride to Westchester, and joyously caught up. Later that day she wrote a glowing testimonial for my tour business page.

Like so many, I treasured her kindness, vivacity and passion for the performing arts, and was overwhelmed that she was gone too soon.

When my cat was diagnosed with a tumor, she was a constant stream of information and advice. Being an animal rights advocate and cat enthusiast, she was an expert on their care. Following my cat’s death, she eagerly encouraged me to adopt another by sending me notices of ones who needed homes. After her beloved Belle died, she soon adopted Vera, who survives her, and has been taken in by a friend.

“She made everyone laugh,” declared one of the speakers, and that was a common sentiment. In the past few weeks when going through my various contact lists, I would always smile whenever I came across Laurie’s email address, daffylaurie@aol.com.

“I am terribly, terribly unhappy to think that I shall never see her again,” wrote Noël Coward upon the death of that other legendary Lawrence, Gertrude.

Laurie program2

 

John Simon is 92 today

“For Darryl who isn’t Wally Shawn,” meticulously inscribed John Simon, along with his signature, in my copy of his collected theater reviews. This massive volume was part of a comprehensive trilogy that also included Mr. Simon’s reviews on film and music. The time frame chronicled was the 1970’s to the early 2000’s.

Being a long-time admirer of his, I had LUGGED it in October 2005, to the New York Times’ sponsored Bryant Park Book Expo, “Great Read in The Park.” I had noticed in the brochure that he would be among the many authors in attendance at tables promoting their work.

John Simon book“Could you please write ‘To Darryl, Shut up you fool!’” That was one of his many fabled, caustic zingers. He had yelled that from the audience of a New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony, where Wallace Shawn had been rambling on during a presentation.

“I couldn’t write that as you are certainly not Wallace Shawn!” he chuckled. “Besides it would be self plagiarism. I never use a line twice.”

Then I reminisced with him about his spectacular appearance in the 1980’s, at New York University that I had witnessed. He participated in a panel about books adapted into films.

During the discussion, a man in the audience was quietly glancing at a newspaper. “Excuse me. I really must insist that the gentleman reading Le Monde kindly put it away! It is extremely rude!” bellowed Simon from the stage.

There was a hushed silence, and the embarrassed individual froze, and the talk resumed.

“I remember that. And I recall I went into the audience.” he beamed. That was his dramatic response to the man provocatively taking out the paper again. Simon got up from his seat, sprinted off the stage and up the aisle of the auditorium. Pointing at the scoundrel, he admonished him in French, to the astonishment and delight of the crowd. The cretin got up and left, and the proceedings continued. “Politeness is so important.”

After thanking him, I investigated the rest of the event. Later on, I saw him ambling to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, where he waited for a bus.

For 36 years he was the drama critic for New York magazine, then at Bloomberg News and most recently at The Westchester Guardian.

It is wonderful to still see him in the audience at shows, as he continues to wittily and eruditely hold forth at http://www.uncensoredsimon.blogspot.com

He is also active on Facebook, and reviews theater on the cable television show. Corner Table, that is taped at Joe Allen. He co-hosts it with Justin William Brown, who is in his 20’s. There is a marvelous contrast between them. Simon transcends time and embraces technology. Those who revere him are very lucky for that, and wish him well today.

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on May 12 , 2017

Brief Encounter

I got to the Tony Randall memorial at about 11:00 AM, when the line was still short, near The Majestic Theatre.  A well-dressed, spry, silver coifed, 80ish woman got chatty with me, and I regaled her with celebrity sightings around us.  She was from Ft. Lauderdale, and comes up to New York City, for six weeks every year.

“Do you stay with relatives?”

“No.  I rent an apartment.  It’s expensive but worth it.”

I inquired further.  She was originally from New Jersey, where she and her late husband, had the VERY successful Abram’s Furs.  He came to the U.S. from Poland, at 17, with nothing, and due to the booming times during and after WW II, and before animal rights activists and red paint, was able to retire at 51.  “We got out at the right time!”

“We sold the business to a lousy Greek, who ran it into the ground! It broke our hearts.”  When women came to get their furs out of storage, they were told that there was a robbery, and it was gone, and that they should contact their insurance company.  Actually the furs were stolen by the owner and sold to a Greek company.  Eventually the scandal was exposed, and was in the newspapers, and the good name of Abrams was tarnished. By then, they were busy on the golf courses of Florida.

This year she rented a one bedroom on 48th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues.  Usually she takes a studio, but her grandson from Connecticut, said he’d visit with his girlfriend on weekends.  “He came once on Labor Day and that was it!  “If I’m still around next year it’ll be a studio!”

We also spoke of my activities.

When it came time to go in, I said I was going to run to run the men’s room and as it was very crowded, “If I don’t see you inside, it was very nice meeting you.”

“Oh, I was going to take you lunch after the show.”

“Then I’m not going anywhere.”

We watched the event from good seats, as she complained to the usher that she couldn’t walk up any more stairs to the mezzanine, where those without invitations where supposed to sit.  She is a big opera fan and was delighted by Marilyn Horne and Sherill Milnes, who performed.

After it ended, in the lobby, she extended her hand, “I’m Harriet.  Where do you want to eat?”

We crossed the street to go to Angus McCindoe, where we could watch the crowds outside from the large, front window.  I ordered a turkey wrap, and she a hamburger, while we chatted some more.  She was very encouraging but suggested shortening my last name, “It doesn’t flow…”

After lunch, there were farewells and best wishes outside.

Nacogdoches

“It says, ‘Tour guide gratuity is not included,’ so here you go,” twanged an older, Vickie Lawrence/Mama’s Family-type woman, after reading aloud from the travel company’s voucher.

Wanda then handed me a folded bill that I later saw was $10, at the START of a Sunday morning, Statue of Liberty Tour, in 2005.  We had already established a playful bantering when I checked her, and her companion in, so this premature gift was in keeping with the whimsy.

She was here from rural Texas, with her 14 year-old, well-mannered, quiet, blond nephew, Morgan.

“It was the only thing I could tickets to on short notice.  ‘Isn’t that a chick thing?’  He’s not so happy but it’s on Broadway.”  The 3:00 PM matinee of Steel Magnolias was their time constraint for the expedition.  “I thought everything on Broadway was a musical,” was the boy’s puzzled reaction when I explained that it was a play.

They had seen touring productions of The Lion King and Beauty and The Beast.  “Yesterday, he said, ‘Look, there’s more people on these few streets then in all of back home!’” was Morgan’s observation of New York City, versus his hometown of Jasper.  Wanda lives 75 miles away, in the comparative metropolis of Nacogdoches.

There were 15 other nice people on the tour, who had checked in by the departure time of 8:00 AM, at Paramount Plaza, but Wanda and Morgan, made the most impact.

There was the usual routine.  The R train from 49th Street, to City Hall.  Show and lecture of that, as well as The Brooklyn Bridge, Woolworth Building, the plaques in the sidewalks commemorating the ticker tape parades, St. Paul’s Chapel, The World Trade Center site, Trinity Church and assorted tangents to fill the time before Battery Park.

After I got the ferry and Statue of Liberty admission tickets from the box office, we then had to wait on the ferry line.  As usual, it was modest at that time, but seconds later, at 9:15 AM, there was the inevitable large, group of high school students and chaperones lengthening it.  We got swamped, but most of my bunch pushed ahead, led by Wanda.  Following the intense security check, we all got on the boat, and after 15 minutes it left at 10:00 AM.

I read the Sunday New York Times downstairs, and as per my directions, most of my charge went upstairs.  As we headed into Liberty Island, Wanda and Morgan emerged to push to the front.  “Look we have the matinee, so we’re just going to rush in and out.  Thanks!”  My standard directions are that we’ll all gather on the dock, so that I can explain things, etc., but I understood.  “Thanks very much.  It was nice meeting you!”

After gathering the rest of the group, and seeing them into the Statue of Liberty, I had lunch in the crowded cafeteria.  Eventually I headed to the dock to wait for the next ferry with the mob.  From the corner of my eye, I could see Wanda and Morgan pushing through the crowd.  “You didn’t think we were going to let you get away!”  We got into the boat and sat downstairs. They did not get out at Ellis Island.

“I’m going be 70, this year, and a few weeks ago I thought I should see New York, while I’m still able to.  I took him out of school for four days, so he’s happy!  It sure is SOMETHING.  I was an educator, administrator, and dean for 34 years, at a vocational high school for aviation. We taught them how to fix planes so they could fall back out of the sky again. What’s a good place to eat before the show?

“Are there any restaurants that you’ve heard of, or were curious about?”

“A lady in an apartment complex I once lived in, talked about The Second Avenue Deli.  She used to live around there.”  I gave her subway directions,  “Take the green #4 train from Bowling Green, uptown to Brooklyn Bridge, and change to the green #6 train to Astor Place, then walk down St. Marks Place, to Second Avenue…”

“Yeah.  Right.  I’m going remember all that!”

We were standing near the exit door of the ferry as we were pulling into Battery Park.  “Come on, I’ll take you to The Second Avenue Deli,” I said. Why not let this adventure continue, I thought,

No Lexington Avenue trains were running below City Hall, so instead of getting it at Bowling Green, we had to trudge back up to City Hall. We got the #4, that today was running local, to Astor Place.

We walked down St. Marks Place, past all of the exotic emporiums.  “Morgan, would you like to get something pierced?  Or a tattoo?  Your Mom would love that!  If we still had film left, I’d sit next to HIM for a picture,” Wanda said, while pointing to a quintessential, tattoo aficionado who had an inked faced, and was smoking, on a stoop.

At 12:40 PM, we got to The Second Avenue Deli.  “Of course you’re joining us…” By 1:00 PM, the wait was obviously still too long.  We walked over to the Ukrainian landmark, Veselka.  “About 15 minutes?”  “Yeah, something like that,” said the unconvincing hostess.  That’s Sunday brunch in Manhattan.

We looked around, and headed up 9th Street, to the restaurant Around The Clock, which had room for us.

“This is a very good sandwich,” Wanda said of her Portobello mushroom concoction.  “I was a big Anne Richards fan.  After the governor’s election, everyone in the state could see what was happening.  You all couldn’t, but we could.”  “You mean HE was running for president from the start?”  “We could see what was happening.”

Morgan had a turkey burger with fries.  I had a brunch selection of a bagel/lox/tomato/onion, with a Bloody Mary and coffee.

“I could put some grenadine in a coke…” said the pretty waitress after Wanda sniffed, “No Dr. Pepper?!”

The check for the three of us came to about what one meal would have cost at The Second Avenue Deli.  After looking it over, she took out money, and gave the check to Morgan.  “As for the tip, that’s your job.”  With his calculator he figured out 18%, and after paying we left.

It was 2:00 PM, and they wanted to go back to their hotel first, to get their forgotten digital camera to replace the used up, disposable one.  Wanda chatted with the East Asian driver, and we soon arrived at 31st between 5th Avenue and Broadway, where a small building with a functional sign announced “Herald Square Hotel”.   “It’s kind of nothing, but it’s clean, and the beds are so comfortable.  It got good ratings when I investigated it, and for $139 a night, that’s fine!”

Due to traffic and construction, we got out on the opposite side of the street from their hotel.  “Well, we’re over there.  It was very nice to meet you!”  We all shook hands, and they crossed over, and I headed to Broadway, to go home.

Frank Langella’s EAG Memorial Address

“I’m profoundly grateful I’m not on it,” said Frank Langella, during his moving speech at The Episcopal Actors’ Guild’s annual Memorial Service for deceased show business figures on November 13, 2016.

This crowded celebration was the centerpiece of an 80-minute inter-faith religious service that was held at the 400-seat Church of the Transfiguration. This bucolic landmark was built in 1849, and is also well known by its knick name, “the Little Church Around the Corner.” It has been a haven for actors since the 1870’s.

The Episcopal Actors’ Guild was founded in 1923, and its main mission is to provide emergency aid and support to professional performers of all faiths who are undergoing financial crisis.

A long-time lapsed Catholic, the 78 year-old, New Jersey born Mr. Langella explained that he had not been inside a church in many years. “Better an old habit should die rather then an old actor.” Aged but vital, this titan of the performing arts was serenely commanding.

“It petrified me,” he revealed of his personal brush with death earlier in the year and how that incident instigated his appearance at this event.

In the early morning of Sunday June 19th, he was taken ill, nearly died and was in the hospital for eight days. Without specifying his malady, he declared that he has since fully recovered.

The date was significant as that afternoon he was to give his final performance in the acclaimed Broadway production of The Father. His performance as a proud, elderly man beset with dementia was critically hailed as among the greatest of his renowned, 54-year career. He won that season’s Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, for it.

His understudy, actor Anthony Newfield went on for him. Mr. Newfield is on the council of The Episcopal Actors’ Guild and urged Langella to deliver this year’s Memorial Address. Reluctant at first, he eventually agreed, “So Tony wouldn’t do it better then me,” he joked.

After quoting Noël Coward’s allusion to the dead as, “Blue Shadows,” he estimated that he personally knew 35, of the 250 individuals being commemorated. “Actors have always been my heroes. They’re so profoundly human.” He reminisced about a few of them.

“We were two impossible people,” Langella observed of playwright Edward Albee and himself. The two had a contentious relationship during the 1975 production of Albee’sSeascape, for which Langella won the first of his four Tony Awards. They had not seen each other in many years but had met again relatively recently. “He was shaky and frail. He kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘It’s all water under the bridge. Isn’t it?’”

“Peter Shaffer tried to pick me up in a bar in the 1970’s.” Langella was at a London bar with Mel Brooks. “He’s my boyfriend!” roared Brooks and mock threatened Shaffer. Some years later in 1981, Langella was appearing in the playwright’s Amadeus on Broadway. Shaffer had no memory of this incident, “It was the 1970’s. I was trying to pick up anyone I could!” They were never physical with each other because, “No sex. He’s British.”

“Alan Rickman was my go-to pal in London. He loved shopping for clothes and spending money.”

In the mid 1960’s, in Los Angeles, Langella befriended the young, future Oscar winning film director Michael Cimino. Cimino had written a script for a never realized movie that he planned to direct and that Langella was to star in in. “I was to be paid $1000 for the whole thing and would have been glad to have it!”

In 2003, he and Tammy Grimes were inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame. The ceremony took place at the Gershwin Theatre. Langella got wistful looking at their names painted in gold on the white walls. “Did you ever imagine when we were starting out in the early 1960’s that this would ever happen to us?” he said to Grimes. “They’d look better against a black background,” she quipped.

“A boy with a profoundly beautiful soul,” Langella remarked of Anton Yelchin, the 27 year-old actor who was crushed to death by his truck in a freak accident. The two worked together several times, and recalling this relationship, Langella was at his most emotional and thoughtful. He held forth about the reality that death might come at any time, and at any age.

“I’ll leave you with cheap sentiment,” he said at the end of his
17-minute address. He then recited a quotation from the 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie that starred Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.

“There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.”

He then left the pulpit, and reflectively sat in the front row of the church as Elowyn Castle, the president of The Episcopal Actors’ Guild and Mr. Newfield read the names of the departed.

Earlier, the gregarious Ms. Castle joyously introduced Langella. “He was everybody’s favorite Dracula!” Castle recounted the highlights of his illustrious career. From Dropped Names, his book of memories of deceased celebrities that he knew, she quoted his personal summation, “I consider myself a work in progress.”

(Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster ahronfoster.com)

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on November 14, 2016 

Miriam Colón 1936-2017

Miriam Colón died recently at the age of 80. She was a great actress who had a long and distinguished career on the stage, screen and television.

She arrived in New York City, from Puerto Rico in the 1950’s as teenager. Elia Kazan accepted her into The Actors Studio and she appeared on Broadway soon after.

Such are the vicissitudes of show business that her greatest recognition came for playing Al Pacino’s mother in the 1983 movie Scarface.

She officially founded the renowned Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in 1967, though its roots go back to the 1950’s. Tonight, her passing was noted there.

Colon candles

President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2014.

One wintery night 10 years ago, I was walking down 52nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Near the Post Office I saw a bundled up, older woman at the mailbox holding a large pile of yellow envelopes. I got a closer look at her.

“Miriam Colón!”

“Good evening!”

“Nice to see you! You’re sending out headshots and resumes?!”

She laughed. “Are you an actor?”

“I try. I’m in a little play now.”

“That’s great. Good luck!”

“Thanks. Very nice to see you.”

She continued mailing her envelopes and I went home.

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on March 6, 2017.

 

Anna Deavere Smith: My teacher in the 1980’s

“Hookers and drug addicts are all my agent sends me out for,” said Anna Deavere Smith to her acting class at New York University in 1983. Ms. Smith was articulating the reality of the lack of opportunities for performers of color in the entertainment industry at the time.

It was this frustration that led the African-American Ms. Smith to pursue creating the works of documentary theatre that she has become celebrated for, with the MacArthur Fellowship among her many honors. After recording interviews with people involved on a particular subject she would then fashion a script from these transcripts into a show where she would act out all the interviewees.

I was in that class where she vented and ever since, I’ve followed her rise in the world with great interest and admiration. She is now appearing in her latest solo show, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City through December 18, 2016.

“Acting for Non-Actors” was the title of the two-credit elective course that caught my attention in the class catalogue. I was majoring in Cinema Studies and due to shyness and uncertainty had previously suppressed my acting desires. I signed up for it and my life changed.

“How do you relate to authority?” Anna asked each of the students the first day. She was in her early 30’s, tall, lean, willowy with long flowing hair and radiant. Her expressive features had a warm roundedness with a beaming smile or a dramatic scowl. Her rich voice rang out loud and clear with staccato blasts of enthusiasm and feeling.

From our answers she would have a better idea on how to interact with us individually. “Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?” was another of her purposeful questions. She seemed to be genuinely interested in our responses and genuinely interested in us.

That we were not drama students excited and challenged her. We were a cross section of mostly those from the arts and even some business majors. Before we got to perform scenes from plays or films, there was a series of exercises she put us through. Warm ups, mirroring the actions of partners, and telling stories.

One of those involved telling a story that wasn’t true and the class and Anna would analyze it to determine if it was true. I told an elaborate and detailed tale of how I had dinner with Jack Lemmon at a friend’s apartment who was acting in movie with her. Everything in the recounting was true except it happened to someone else. It seems I misunderstood the point of the exercise and Anna was cranky about this.

“Oh! I could work with you for weeks!” Anna said to me. As my totally untrained voice tended to be monotone and Bronx accented, she gave me a cassette she had compiled to keep and listen to. It had excerpts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and other celebrities speaking. The idea was for me to hear and emulate vocal variety.

“You have to be like a cat ready pounce!” was her declaration about the need for energy in acting that she physically demonstrated with a crouching and attacking pose.

A scene from Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was assigned to me and two other students. I was thrilled as it was one of my favorite plays. I was the crafty Lenny, a girl studying photography was the enigmatic Ruth, and a taciturn literature major was the passive Teddy. We were all too young and inexperienced for the roles but we ardently rehearsed and in performance achieved the necessary tension and mystery.

The scene in Annie Hall where Annie calls Alvy Singer on the phone to come over to kill a spider was assigned to an abrasive Quinn Cummings type girl and me. She had been a child performer so it was odd that she was in this class for beginners. She was also “difficult.” Anna had a personable film major direct us. The girl was quite resistant to his suggestions. Still, our performance was very good. My speech patterns perfectly matched Woody Allen’s dialogue and my idea of wearing colorful pajamas was greeted by laughter. Trouble occurred during Anna’s critique. The girl playing Annie Hall was prickly about criticism.

“Well, my objective was…”

“STOP!” Anna roared. “I have never used that word! I have never used that word because you all are not ready for that yet!”

The girl continued her offensive defense and there was back and forth.

“I don’t think you have anything to teach me.”

“WHOA! I don’t know who ever told you that you could act! Especially with that cutsey Patty Duke voice and mannerisms. You have a lot to learn!”

The girl did not quit the class and later was assigned a scene from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. The male character of the lawyer George was changed to the female Georgia so she could play it. Anna wanted us to have the experience of playing to a real audience so she arranged for our program of scenes to be done in a small theater in the drama department instead of in a classroom. Flyers were put around inviting people to attend.

All went well until All My Sons. The young man and woman also in it delivered their lines and now it was time for Georgia’s entrance. There was no Georgia. The young man began ad-libbing.

“I wonder where Georgia is. Georgia must be on her way. Georgia?!”

From back stage the audience could hear nervous giggling.

“Get out there!” Hissed Anna. There was more giggling. “I can’t! I can’t!” “Get out there!” Finally the girl went onstage and did the scene as if in a trance.

Anna invited several students to participate in a workshop outside of class for a modest fee. We would rehearse scenes and perform them at a Soho art gallery in for one evening performance. I eagerly signed up and was put into Christopher Durang’s wacky Beyond Therapy with a young man and a young woman. It was exhilarating to perform in front of a real audience and I made great comic use of a spiral staircase in the space.

The evening was also revelatory as it was there that I saw Anna perform for the first time, and in the format that became her trademark.

Television journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault became a part of the Civil Rights movement in 1961 as one of the first two African-Americans to attend the University of Georgia in 1961. There was a lot of conflict and her story was newsworthy at the time.

Anna had interviewed her and performed a monologue about that situation that evening as Ms. Gault. I was familiar with her having seen her on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. Anna’s performance was commanding as she echoed Gault’s speech patterns and mannerisms. More importantly it was a channeling of a real person rather than a strict impersonation. Gault was in attendance and spoke with Anna onstage afterward which added even more excitement to the event.

Several students from “Acting for Non-Actors” became fired up to want to pursue acting after they graduated. Anna was very helpful with advice and assisted them with applications to Julliard and other schools. Having taken her class twice, and participated in a few of her workshops as my own graduation approached, I too sought her counsel. We set an appointment for us to meet at a café near her Upper West Side apartment. She treated me to an ice coffee and gave her opinions.

I had talent but was very intelligent and that could cause conflicts with directors, as the ability to surrender one’s will was often required in the profession. My voice still needed work. She advised against graduate studies in acting and that instead I should take ad hoc classes and suggested a teacher.

There was then a crash course in breaking into show business. A headshot photographer was recommended. Buying Backstage every week and sending headshots to projects I was right for. Buying the Ross Reports that had the contact information for casting and talent agents and mail headshots to them.

“What can I really tell you? You could walk into the room and be exactly what they’re looking for.” Our meeting jovially ended.

About a year later I was crossing 57th Street and Sixth Avenue and someone was yelling my name. It was Anna. She was recently back from a stay at Club Med and was gleaming in a summery outfit of a halter, and gauzy skirt. We stopped at a corner and had a brief catch up. Then we went our separate ways.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities premiered in 1992, at The Public Theatre to great acclaim. In it Anna explored the Crown Heights race riots of 1991. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, dealt with the Rodney King riots and was performed on Broadway in 1994. She was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actress and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it. For both of these shows she won The Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The success of these works was followed by theatrical explorations of politics, the criminal justice system and health care in The United States and other topical subjects.

As her performing career ascended, she continued to teach acting at major institutions while also becoming a public figure. Besides numerous honorary degrees these theatrical achievements also led to a prolific career as an actress. There were roles in the filmsPhiladelphiaThe Human Stain, and Rachel Getting Married, and on television in The West WingNurse Jackie and Blackish. None of these characters were hookers or drug addicts.

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on October 17, 2016.