What do we call him? Playwright, director, screenwriter, television producer? “I’m a hyphenate,” say Charles Randolph-Wright. The day I talk with him in Manhattan in between rehearsals, he is the director, but twofold. Uptown on the East Side, he had rehearsed the touring company for “Porgy and Bess,” and he was on his way to a downtown rehearsal space to work with Daniel Beaty on his one-man show, “Through the Night.” Both will be seen by audiences at in New Brunswick: “Through the Night” at Crossroads Theater and “Porgy and Bess” at the State Theater. In his “spare time,” he is also working on the book for a new musical. And the film he wrote and directed, “Mama I Want to Sing,” opens this spring. “Usually I write a project while I’m directing a different project,” says Randolph-Wright. “It’s a perfect balance for me.”
“Through the Night” opens on Thursday, February 11, at Crossroads. The play follows an evening’s journey for six African American men, with Beaty playing each of the characters. He and Randolph-Wright developed the piece together after they worked on the west coast production of “Emergence See,” which played at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles. (Beaty performed “Emergence See” at Crossroads in November, 2007) After its Crossroads run, “Through the Night” will be performed at the Geffen, then cross the country again to be performed at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. For the latter, each performance will be followed by a guest speaker who will discuss specific challenges that each of the play’s characters face. “What I love about Daniel is that he doesn’t blame circumstances, but rather makes each character take the responsibility for his actions.”
On Thursday, February 18, Randolph-Wright’s new staging of “Porgy and Bess” will begin its 26-city national tour, playing at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Thursday, March 25. He promises a new “take” on the opera that he feels will respond to criticisms of the work often made by African Americans.
Balancing multiple projects has become a way of life for Randolph-Wright. “I wanted to do it all. I wanted to write, direct, produce,” he says. “Especially in the world of film and television, they want you to be one thing or the other.” Warned that he would never reach a level of success by trying to do it all, he now looks back from the vantage point of his 50 years and says that he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Friends who played by the rules, working their way up a specific career ladder, now say, ‘I wish I’d done what you did.’”
Randolph-Wright grew up in York, a very small, quaint town in the northern corner of South Carolina. His family owned a funeral parlor; his dad was a builder. When he wrote about his family in the semi-autobiographical play “Blue,” he surprised audiences with a family drama that didn’t depend on the ethnic background of the African American characters. Instead, the dysfunction and frailties of the characters of an upper middle class family are at the heart of the conflict. Premiering at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., “Blue” was produced in New York by the Roundabout Theater, where it broke attendance records before spreading to regional theater productions all over the country. Anyone who’s had a pushy mom will relate to this play. Randolph-Wright puts this more tactfully: “Mom gave me the gift of possibility — that I could do anything.”
The playwright’s mother wasn’t the least offended by the stage portrayal. “She thought that’s the way any mother should act,” says Randolph-Wright. “It didn’t hurt that she was played by Phylicia Rashad.” Her advice to her son: “Make an A or an F. C is failure.” He is still close with his mother and goes to York often since she had a stroke a few years ago. He and his cousins have formed a foundation to show respect for the family history and give the young people in York an image of “people of color” in which they can take pride. “When I have to fight another fight, I think of them and that propels me. I have this history behind me. I have to honor them.”
Another “hyphenate” that should be added to his list: activist. Where he has seen a need, he has taken action, serving on the boards of the Roundabout Theater and the artistic board at Duke University. He started the “Create Carolina Arts Festival,” a three-week immersion in theater, film, and dance held each summer at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Since dealing with his mother’s health issues, he intends to work for senior citizen care. Luckily, he can afford to take care of his mother, but sees that much is lacking for those less fortunate.
The year he entered the ninth grade, the schools in York were integrated, bringing together the students from the all black school; a rural school where most were white and very poor; and the small town white students. In the rough road to one school for all, the surface fight was to pick the school colors and mascot. Ironically, the poor kids and the black youngsters banded together to overturn the old Green Dragon. Randolph-Wright used this as the backdrop for a television play that he wrote. If we have to pick one label for him, it is storyteller.
This could not have been an easy time to live in York. I can empathize, as I also grew up in the same town, some 20 years earlier. The African Americans in York were virtually invisible to the white students in town. Having visited for a recent class reunion, and noticing the hostility toward our African American president, a lot has not changed. The highlights of high school life for Randolph-Wright were the band that won numerous awards for their routines in competitions and French classes that immersed the students in French culture. He was obviously very smart as he won a prestigious scholarship to Duke University. His plans: pre med. Very early on, a friend convinced him to be in a play. That’s all it took. He was one of the first three theater majors at the newly formed department in 1978. His degree with honors is two-fold: theater and religion — with two year’s worth of pre-med courses.
The year after graduation, he was selected for a workshop with director Michael Bennett. This turned out to be “Dream Girls.” “It’s exciting to see productions and recognize things that I contributed in that first workshop.” And he also appreciates his beginnings as a performer. “This gave me a good foundation for both writing and directing.”
Home for Randoph-Wright is the West Village in Manhattan, but he laughs and says that at times, like the character George Clooney plays in the current film “Up in the Air,” the airport is home. When he isn’t commuting from coast to coast, he escapes to his favorite place, Brazil. Fluent in Portuguese, he has directed films there as well.
His latest effort as a playwright, “The Night Is a Child,” is set in Brazil. Premiering at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 2008, its west coast premiere was at the Pasadena Playhouse last August, starring JoBeth Williams. He thinks the next stop will be London, and then we may get to see it in New York.
For television, he was producer and writer for the Showtime series, “Linc’s,” staged musical numbers for “The Golden Girls” and wrote screenplays that include “The Emmett Till Story” for Showtime, “Shades of Grey” for HBO, and “Fools Hill” for Walt Disney Pictures. He also directed commercials, including one for Nike that won several international commercial awards. His directorial film debut, “Preaching to the Choir,” swept the feature film prizes at the ninth annual American Black Film Festival.
As we talk, Randolph-Wright’s positive attitude is imbued in everything he says. A member of the Marble Collegiate Church (best known for its minister for over 50 years, Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking”), he applauds the diversity in the congregation. “Let the various cultures mix. There’ll be some cacophony but parts will be a symphony.” He is happy as long as he’s doing the things that he enjoys. “Going for the dream is more important than the dream.”
“Through the Night,” February 11 through 21, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. A solo show written and performed by Daniel Beaty, playing five men and one boy — ages 10 to 60 — who discover the power of possibility through one extraordinary event. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
“Porgy and Bess,” Thursday, March 25, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. A new adaptation directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.