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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

drugs.

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

Alton Fitzgerald White, NAACP Legal Defense & Education

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,

4:30 p.m.


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