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
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
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
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
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
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
"I don’t know how I can do this." I make sure there is a
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
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
with all the creative artistry he can muster. Although Montgomery
has worked with Douglas before, as actors in an Actors Studio
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,
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,
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,
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
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
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
at the Oslo Theater in Sarasota. It was there that a scout from
Bros. saw the nimble actor on stage in a bit part in "The
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
life deserves so much more than people coming to hear the songs that
Directing, it seems, is slowly taking over the center ring for
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
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
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
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
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
Using mostly the songs, it will be quite an accomplishment for
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
of the legendary jazz singer, unfolds in songs like "When A Woman
Loves A Man," "Them There Eyes," "God Bless the
"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
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
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
It seems that Lady Day does make a strong statement and provides more
than a few stirring songs for us to hear.
— Simon Saltzman
Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.
night for the show that runs to November 11. $36 to $45.
October 12, 8 p.m.
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