Daniel Beaty’s story will make you a believer in angels or, if you insist on being more down-to-earth, convince you of the importance of mentors, hard work, and a little bit of amazing luck. Stories from Beaty’s life build the basis for his one-man, award-winning theater piece called “Emergence-See!” at Crossroads from Thursday, November 29, through Sunday, December 9. This performance of drama and humor includes song, slam poetry, and commentary.
Beaty grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in a family that seems ripped from the headlines, to coin the “Law and Order” tagline. His father was a heroin addict leading a criminal life, in and out of prison. His brother was addicted to crack cocaine and was physically abusive. Meanwhile, his mother — as a single mother — worked very long hours to keep the bills paid. In a telephone interview he says that he often escaped from his brother’s violence toward him by running across the street to a church to wait for his mother to come home from work.
“One time something stopped me in the church parking lot. I closed my eyes and saw myself as an adult. I was dressed in a black outfit and I was on a stage with many people there watching me. From that moment, I knew that something was going to be in my life that was important, and I held on to that. I kept telling myself there’s got to be something better. I’ve got to get out of this.”
An “angel” in his life showed up when he was in grammar school. His teacher, Mavis Jackson, knowing how the young Beaty felt about Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged him. “If you love Dr. King so much, why don’t you try to write speeches like he does?” Only a third grader, Beaty took this challenge to heart. He began making speeches. His teacher contacted the director of the speech program at the local high school and asked if, during their speech contest while the judges were tallying the scores, her young third grade student could give his speech. From there, he was asked to speak at meetings of clubs such as the Optimist Club and Kiwanis. “By the time I was in sixth grade, I was traveling around the country giving speeches.”
When he was in the eighth grade, the superintendent took him along to speak at a Black History Program at Miami Valley School, a private school in Dayton. After speaking there, Beaty says, “someone pulled me to the side and asked if I’d like to test for a scholarship.”
Beaty thrived at Miami Valley School and still thanks another “angel” there, his speech coach Florence Krahling. With her encouragement, he won a national speaking championship. A scholarship propelled him to Yale University, where he earned a degree in 1998 in English and music. Another “angel,” Metropolitan Opera singer Lili Chookasian, then a professor in the Graduate School of Opera at Yale, gave him free singing lessons. His mother and the couple who had sponsored his high school scholarship were proudly on hand for his graduation when he led his class and carried the flag. He received one of Yale’s top awards, the Louis Sudler Prize for Excellence in the Arts.
From there, he received a full scholarship to the graduate training program at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco. where he received a graduate acting degree. “Though I was achieving on the outside,” Beaty says of his time at ACT, “internally I was very challenged.” He says it was time for him to work through the history of his difficult experiences growing up. He found a three-day workshop called the Liberty Experience that proved to be a breakthrough for him.
Having studied solo performance during school and also having dabbled in poetry, the next step led to “Emergence-See!” Immediately after the workshop, he says, “I woke up the next morning at 6 a.m., took out a notebook and wrote until 6 that night. On those pages was the genesis of what is now ‘Emergence-See!’ It was an exploration of different voices searching for ways to be free and that was the basis for the play.”
In the one-person play, Beaty enacts the parts of 40 characters. His website describes the show as follows: “A slave ship rises out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty sending the nation into a whirlwind of emotion and exploration. Through the characters’ individual responses to the ship and their varied testimonies on identity and personal freedom, ‘Emergence-See!’ weaves a stirring commentary on modern black life.” Beaty says that slavery is a metaphor in his piece, the backdrop. “The search for freedom relates to everyone, whatever their race or class.” The following lines from the play capture this sentiment: “We can overcome if we change the way we See: See ourselves, See our past, See our Possibility.”
“I really believe I’m a relentless optimist,” Beaty says. “My purpose is very clear: to transform challenges into power.” And he certainly seems to have met his challenges in a remarkable way, a testament to his philosophy of life.
In the play we meet a variety of people searching for freedom “in every form you can imagine — free to love, free to follow our dreams, free to be the nature of who you are.” Beaty wants his audience to be able to “embrace” challenges so that they are empowering and hopeful rather than destructive. He continues to praise the “angels” who saw something special in him. “I always had a concept of myself as possible,” he says. As an adult Beaty, who considers himself basically a Christian, has continued his inner search, as he describes it, “an internal conversation that I have with myself, studying Buddhism, Religious Science, and Hermetic African Religions.”
As he read books about positive thinking and visualization, he says he came to realize that as a child, he had stumbled upon a way of being that helped him get beyond his surroundings. “I see God in many forms. If more people realized the similarities of all religions, it would end a lot of problems. And that is one of the messages of ‘Emergence-See!’ — that we are more alike than not alike.”
After school he came to New York City. At one of the workshop performances of “Emergence-See!,” the actress Ruby Dee was in the audience. “She became a huge angel in my life.” As noted on the Public Theatre website, Dee says, “I sat in awe and profound admiration listening as he connected us to the exhilaration, the pain, and the promise of what it is to be human. By the end, I was on my feet shouting like someone in church — I was so moved.” She introduced Beaty to Oscar Eustice, the artistic director at the Public Theatre, where “Emergence-See” made its debut in October, 2006, to enthusiastic reviews, an Obie Award for Excellence in Off-Broadway Theater, and an Outer Critics Circle Award Nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance.
Beaty has traveled all over the world with his play. “It’s a real blast,” he says. He sometimes stays in one city for a week or two, sometimes longer, and has just returned from an appearance in South Africa. While performing in Johannesburg and Cape Town, he was especially moved while performing there in a church in an open tent. “The experience of apartheid is not so different from the experience of black Americans.”
In addition to appearances at the Fringe Festival in Scotland, where he won a top award, there was also had a month-long gig in London. He has performed at theaters and other venues all over the U.S., including the Kennedy Center, the White House, and the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Though he thinks all of the places he has traveled are exciting, when he was performing in Munich, Germany, he says he found a “real soul connection” with a young man whose parentage was half German, half Japanese and whose father had left him when he was a little boy. Everywhere he goes, he makes connections, enjoys the conversations and communities that he encounters.
‘People in very different places seem to identify with characters in ‘Emergence-See!,’” Beaty says “Because all of these characters are coming through one person, it underscores that we are connected and part of one another.”
Things are much improved for his family as well. He tells me that his mother recently started a church and that both his father and his brother have been clean for some time. Since his father was released from prison two years ago, he has “put his life together,” says Beaty, and is no longer a heroin addict and has a job working as a parking attendant in Dayton. His brother also turned his life around and is working in finance in the Boston area. Beaty says: “He and some of his colleagues actually came to see me perform when I was the Public Theatre, and my father saw me perform at the National Black Theater Conference summer before last. It was a powerful experience for all of us.”
In addition to “Emergence-See!,” Beaty has written a children’s musical entitled “Trippin’” and is currently working on rewrites of a new play about “black men in America — my response to the play ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf’(by Ntozake Shang).” It will begin its performance life as a one-person play but Beaty plans for it to grow to have a variety of lives with additional five performers in the cast. It is scheduled for the 2008-’09 season at the Arena Stage in Washington.
With all his traveling around Beaty feels that although he loves visiting new places, it would be nice to settle down for a while in New York, perhaps with a long-running Broadway show, and maybe even get a dog.
Emergence-See!, Thursday, November 29, through Sunday, December 9, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Daniel Beaty presents a solo show featuring slam poetry, opera, musical interludes, and multi-character transformations of 40 characters who have witnessed a surreal event in front of the Statue of Liberty. $40 to $55.732-545-8100.