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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 15, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
An Artist Faces Reality
How Do I Feel," is what singer, actor, composer,
and poet Alton Fitzgerald White chose to call his four consecutive
late-Saturday night gigs (also the title of his new CD) this summer
at the posh Firebird Cafe in New York City. It could also serve as
a title for his appearance as guest speaker and entertainer at the
annual benefit for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund on Sunday,
November 19, when White will not only perform songs from his other
CD "Ecstasis" (Latin for "Ecstasy"), including his
own composition "Never Give Up," but also discuss at length
a less than ecstatic police incident that involved him on the afternoon
of July 16, 1999, and changed his life.
White was playing the role of the unjustly accused Coalhouse Walker,
Jr. in the award-winning musical "Ragtime" on Broadway when
he himself was unjustly accused of a crime, along with three acquaintances.
This, while in the lobby of his own Harlem residence on St. Nicholas
Avenue. Not suspecting anything amiss, White willingly admitted several
police officers into the building. "I was on my way to the bank
and to the gym and saw them approaching the door and thought they
were paramedics. There are lots of elderly people in our building,"
White tells me in a coast-to-coast telephone chat from Los Angeles,
California, where he is pursuing his television and movie career.
The officers proceeded to handcuff White and three companions (all
African-Americans) as suspects in a cocaine bust. To no avail, the
building’s superintendent told the officers, "He’s the star of
a Broadway show." The officers, who were following a lead that
described the suspects as "Four light-skinned Hispanics in white
T-shirts with a gun," whisked them off to the Harlem precinct,
where White and friends (none of whom matched the suspects’ descriptions)
were strip-searched and then grilled for five hours. Although White
says that two other men were apprehended in the inner lobby, he adds,
"In the five years I’ve lived in Harlem, I had never witnessed
any drug busts, or even any cops gathering near the building."
It isn’t surprising that White says he felt "anger"
when he could not get any explanation from the arresting officers.
"But I knew enough not to provoke them. I knew I was dealing with
people with guns," White says, "although I had never a experience
like this in my entire life. I also knew I had done nothing wrong
and that I had nothing to prove." It also doesn’t come as a surprise
when White tells me that he was in no condition (he hadn’t eaten or
rested) to perform that night, or for the rest of the weekend performances.
It didn’t take long for Norman Siegel, president of the American Civil
Liberties Union, to contact White. White is seeking $750,000 in damages
from the City of New York.
It did not take much time for the story to break country-wide, from
CNN News, to the Los Angeles Times, and a report in the New York Times
stating that police had conceded that White and his three acquaintances
had been wrongfully arrested. White was featured in taped interviews
for both NBC’s "Dateline" and CNN "Newstand." White
says that the police department did apologize, but also apparently
stuck to their story that he and the other men fit the description
they received of the men sought for drug dealing. The other two men
in the lobby, strangers to White, were charged with possession of
Unlike the character in "Ragtime," Coalhouse Walker Jr., White
is not contemplating revenge or perpetrating mayhem on an unjust justice
system, but rather is pursuing his constitutional and civil rights
in his lawsuit against the police department. I asked White if suing
New York City for wrongful arrest is an action that he feels will
help to stem or curb racial profiling. "I just want to draw people’s
attention to it, because it happens all the time. Awareness that it
can happen to anyone is the main thing," says White, who also
says it happens more if you are black. While the apology from the
police went something like this: "We are sorry that you were just
the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time;" White’s
answer was: "I was where I live."
The impact of the incident on White was huge. "It changed my perception
of everything," he says. "I believe now in awareness, but
I don’t believe in justice. As an artist, it has given me more character,
more experience, more things to pull from and a stronger sense of
reality. I’ve used the shock and bitterness of the experience to empower
me in my life and in my art. When something like this happens to you,
it thrusts you into major reality. Having someone pluck you out of
a wonderful day and pull you into their reality where you have no
say so is a traumatic experience." Ironically, while it took days
for White to get back into the show, his work, "`Ragtime,’"
he notes, "is dealing with the same subject matter."
It isn’t hard to understand why White felt that sticking with the
show for its last six months was very hard. "I got tired of being
interviewed, talking about it, and having camera crews following me
around. Then I had to go on stage and be called `nigger,’" says
White who concedes it wasn’t fun. It certainly wasn’t fun on that
fateful day in July, for White’s acquaintances, who on the day of
the arrest, had just been escorted by White on a tour of the building
they were about to move in to. White says he had just told them, "how
proud I was to live in that building and live in Harlem."
The Cincinnati native, the youngest of seven children, and the only
one to go into show business, White came to New York 10 years ago
with the original company of "Miss Saigon." For the most part,
New York was good to White; he was cast in the Broadway productions
of "The Who’s Tommy," and played both Broadway and London
in "Smokey Joe’s Cafe."
"One of my dreams came true recently when I sang a song I wrote
as a guest artist with the Gay Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall,"
he says. White, who feels that color-blind casting doesn’t really
work (he gripes a little about not even getting a call-back when he
auditioned to play a French citizen in "Les Miz"), says he
is branching out now, "pursuing TV and film and singing a lot,
and taking time out to live and be a normal person, something you
can’t do doing eight shows a week."
The NAACP legal and Educational Defense Fund is focused on securing
equal justice through litigation, advocacy, and education. It was
founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall and is the largest civil rights
legal organization in America, combating racial inequality in the
areas of education, employment, voting rights, environmental justice,
health care, fair housing, and criminal justice. This year’s NAACP
benefit will be in the Garden Room at the Institute for Advanced Study
on Olden Lane, beginning at 4:30 p.m.
The event marks a return engagement to Princeton for White, who appeared
in 1994 at the McCarter Theater in the Irving Berlin commemorative
revue, "C’mon and Hear." And one might easily conclude, after
talking to this amiable and generous man, that he will soon be the
right person in the right place at the right time.
— Simon Saltzman
Fund , Institute for Advanced Study, Garden Dining Room, Olden Lane,
609-924-1272. Featured guest at the annual benefit. The reception
includes refreshments and music by Newton Stewart’s jazz trio before
and after the program. By reservation, $50. Sunday, November 19,
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