Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 10,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Rekindling the Flame

I really wanted to be an actor," says Reggie

Montgomery,

the actor who is directing Suzzanne Douglas in "Lady Day at the

Emerson Bar and Grill," at the George Street Playhouse in New

Brunswick. Opening night is Friday, October 12, for the show that

runs through November 11.

Montgomery could well have gone down a very different entertainment

route. He was the first African-American to be trained and hired as

a clown for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. Learning

to be funny and making people laugh was not a bad first step —

albeit an unusual one — for a young black man back in 1970 with

his hopes pinned on a very different kind of theatrical career.

The gig with the circus and the job of making people laugh lasted

a full year. It was enough. But neither training at regular college,

clown college, nor studying acting and directing with the greatest

teachers in the world can prepare someone for what happened on

September

11, the day that was also destined to be the first day of rehearsal

for "Lady Day."

On the morning that Montgomery was on route by train from New York

to New Brunswick, he and his fellow riders received the terrifying

news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the

Pentagon.

Looking out of the train’s window, he said he could see smoke coming

from the twin towers. Carrying that catastrophic event with him to

rehearsal was difficult enough, but the next day brought another

devastating

shock.

The following day Mongomery learned that his long-time dear friend

and fellow actor, Tommy Hollis, had been found in his apartment, dead

at age 47. Hollis lived alone and suffered from diabetes and high

blood pressure. His body had gone undiscovered for days. The actor

had appeared with Montgomery in "The Colored Museum," but

was also lauded for his performances on Broadway in August Wilson’s

plays. They were close friends.

As I suspected talking to Montgomery, following a less traumatically

punctuated rehearsal of "Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and

Grill,"

there has been little need or motivation of late for him to call on

his reserves to be funny. He admits saying to the stage manager

recently;

"I don’t know how I can do this." I make sure there is a

little

room for laughter in our talk when I remind Montgomery of a vivid

and wonderful memory I have of him playing one of a pair of preening

pimps at the Crossroads Theater in 1989. It was the world premiere

of George C. Wolfe’s "Spunk." In it, Montgomery is seen

standing

on a corner in 1930s Harlem surveying the scene, wearing a canary

yellow zoot suit ("it was green," he corrects me) — a

lasting impression. He’s pleased.

While Montgomery openly shares his current sense of depression, he

says that the rehearsals have also been affected in a productive way.

Neither he nor Douglas are into denial, and proceed to talk about

the things that need to be talked about. "Thank God, I have this

play to work on to direct my energy," he says, commenting on how

Holiday’s life was so full of denial and focused on escape through

the use of heroin.

Montgomery is eager to move on, carry on and empower "Lady

Day"

with all the creative artistry he can muster. Although Montgomery

has worked with Douglas before, as actors in an Actors Studio

production

of "The Obeah Man" (a musical version of Moliere’s "The

Doctor in Spite of Himself"), it was only after Montgomery had

directed a recent workshop production of a new musical,

"Comfortable

Shoes," that his name was mentioned to George Street’s artistic

director David Saint, as someone who could direct "Lady Day."

"It is great because I feel like the new kid on the block,"

he says, "but I am also excited because Douglas, a terrific actor,

has such respect for me."

"Especially being of color, I am always figuring out a way to

survive in the world and in the theater," says Montgomery. "I

grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, in the 1950s, a place where people

were still being lynched. With his parents high school teachers and

his father soon to become a football coach at Florida A & M,

Mont>gomery

says he knew no one was going to harm him or his two sisters. While

Montgomery played football in high school to please his dad, he says,

"I was always about theater."

His love of theater started in childhood when his family recognized

little Reggie had a serious speech impediment. It was serious enough

to require surgery. Then, through the persistence of an aunt,

six-year-old

Reggie was enrolled in a theater program at A & M, run by Randolph

Edmunds, noted for being the father of black theater.

"Not to digress," says Montgomery in a digression about the

drama program in which he stayed for eight years, gaining confidence

and perfecting his speech, "but Edmunds was the first of the

giants

I was privileged to work with." Others included Lee Strassberg,

Paul Baker from the Dallas Theater Center, and Jack Jackson from the

Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles. When the program ended,

Montgomery had entered high school. It didn’t take him long, and with

his father’s blessing ("That’s good. Because you really aren’t

very good at football"), decided that he would rather be

rehearsing

in a high school production of "A Raisin in the Sun," than

running for a touchdown.

After graduating from Florida’s A & M College in 1970, Montgomery

decided to pursue his love for theater. He was accepted as an

apprentice

at the Oslo Theater in Sarasota. It was there that a scout from

Ringling

Bros. saw the nimble actor on stage in a bit part in "The

Visit,"

and made the offer to send him to train for six weeks at the then

brand-new Clown College. It was not what the family that had just

paid for four years of college wanted to hear. By being billed as

the first African-American clown in Ringling’s history, he was on

the cover of magazines. Montgomery went on to earn an MFA in acting

and directing from Trinity College, in San Antonio.

Montgomery credits the Public Theater’s artistic director George C.

Wolfe for commending him to other theaters as a director. "As

a director you have to assume a lot of responsibility and take care

of your company like your children. As an actor I was used to being

taken care of," he says, very cognizant of why he and Douglas

are carefully exploring the text in order for the story to move ahead

without mimicry. "My main task is not to let the show appear like

a cabaret, because it is so easy to fall into that trap. Billie

Holiday’s

life deserves so much more than people coming to hear the songs that

she sang."

Directing, it seems, is slowly taking over the center ring for

Montgomery,

who most recently directed August Wilson’s "The Piano Lesson"

at Baltimore Center Stage, as well as directing several productions

at the Hartford Stage Company. His talent as an actor (he won the

Audelco Best Actor Award for his performances in the original

productions

of George C. Wolfe’s "Spunk" and "The Colored Museum,"

at the New York Shakespeare Festival) and as a director is coming

in handy working with the talented Douglas.

Douglas has appeared on Broadway in "The Threepenny

Opera," "Into the Woods," and "A Grand Night for

Singing."

Her critically-acclaimed performance as cancer victim Vivian Bearing

in "Wit," last season at George Street Playhouse, remains

vivid in many area theatergoers minds.

For "Lady Day," under Montgomery’s direction, Douglas is

preparing to recreate the temperament and musical expressiveness

rather

than the actual persona or vocal quality of Billie Holiday.

But what are the demands of directing a virtual one-person play, and

how is Montgomery approaching them? "With Douglas it is more about

exploration than deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. She is the

kind of artist who isn’t afraid to take risks, and draws upon things

about herself." What does it take to rekindle the flame that

burned

in the soul of the great jazz singer Billie Holiday? The Holiday that

Douglas is preparing to bring to us is the tragic singer at the end

of the line. The place is Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia

at midnight on a Friday in March, 1959, four months before Holiday’s

death.

Using mostly the songs, it will be quite an accomplishment for

Douglas,

under Montgomery’s guidance, to not only utilize the wide emotional

range that infused Holiday’s singing, but to also discover the humor

in her character. Not even Holiday can play Philadelphia without a

few jokes. I have never forgotten this one: "I’ve been arrested

all over the country, but Philly’s the only place that’s made me a

candidate for federal housing."

Both Montgomery and Douglas want to make us feel close to the spirit

of Holiday rather than to her ghost. This drama, basically a

celebration

of the legendary jazz singer, unfolds in songs like "When A Woman

Loves A Man," "Them There Eyes," "God Bless the

Child,"

"Livin’ for You," and more. An Off-Broadway production that

starred Lonette McKee played during the 1986 season. Written by Lanie

Robertson, the play attempts to also give us insights into Holiday’s

childhood and her debilitating marriage. The performance will include

the services of pianist David Alan Bunn, who portrays Holiday’s

accompanist,

with the saloon atmosphere created by Felix E. Cochren and costumes

by Karen A. Ledger.

In the play, Holiday, the proud but defeated singer says, "They

won’t let me sing in New York." But it is Holiday’s triumph that

Montgomery says he wants us to see. He hopes it will be apparent as

Douglas uses the jazz rhythms, the penetrating lyrics, and the

evocative

milieu to tell Holiday’s story. Notwithstanding her heroin addiction,

Holiday’s life was filled with brave deviance, justifiable arrogance,

and unavoidable suffering. Yet at the end Holiday ends up able to

understand why it happened to her and what she has done to herself,

yet able to feel victorious. It is something we can all hang on to.

Currently living in New York’s Chelsea, Montgomery can still see smoke

rising out of the World Trade Center. He will undoubtedly continue

to see scores of people walking about, who, like Holiday, are also

bravely defiant. This, as they prepare to come through this test

victorious.

It seems that Lady Day does make a strong statement and provides more

than a few stirring songs for us to hear.

— Simon Saltzman

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill , George Street

Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.

Opening

night for the show that runs to November 11. $36 to $45. Friday,

October 12, 8 p.m.


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