A rainy night in mid-town Manhattan, 2013. Something was happening at 8th Ave. and 44th St. — sirens,
squad cars, cops cordoning off a corner. My actress girlfriend and I were coming from a theater workshop at
the Producers Club on 44th, and she said as we approached the avenue: “You might be covering that if you
still a journalist. But you’re a playwright now!”
In the best-thing-you-could-possibly-say-to-a-significant-other department, that was a winner. It made
my night, week, month year. Well, okay: my post-“retirement” life. At 81, I’m a very “old school” journalist.
Lynne Wilson, my girlfriend of two years at that time, is a Mississippian who’s performed in regional theater,
off-Broadway, and soap opera, and was the stand-in for the “Amanda” character on “Sex and the City.” She
had convinced me to join a theater workshop the year before and helped immeasurably to turn my first “New
York play, “I’m Dying Now And I Did Not Kill Emmett Till,” into a viable off-off Broadway production. (The play’s
based on my interview with one of Till’s killers in 1994.) And then on that dreary night Lynne had defined me
in a way I hadn’t yet dared to define myself.
I’m still a little wary of calling myself a playwright. I haven’t been reviewed yet and I’ve only made money on
one of my plays — bankrolled by the father of an editing client whose own play was on a double bill with mine.
But the Till play has been produced twice off-off Broadway to nearly full houses who liked it. (“It was a triumph,”
one friend said of the first production.) And Art Bernal, the director-producer of my second play, “A Cop Shot
My Son!,” liked it sufficiently to give a sit-down dinner for the cast at a nearby restaurant after the play’s closing.
Cast parties are routing; such dinners are not, off-off Broadway.
Lynne’s wonderfully supportive words have for me seemed closer to the truth recently. My third full-length
play, “White Woman, Black Boy: Carolyn Bryant and Emmett Till,” will be produced next spring, and it’s the
most ambitious yet. So I’m daring to think another previously unlikely thought: it could make it to off-Broadway.
A theatrical publicist who’s had previous successes getting off-off Broadway plays to Off-Broadway is interested
in representing the play, and that could be a breakthrough. I think the play has some cachet: it deals with a figure
in the Till case who hasn’t been portrayed theatrically or cinematically before, and it has an all-women cast of
seven. The off-Broadway possibility aside, the publicist might very well get it reviewed, which is crucial to a
play’s survival as a marketable entity. Only reviewed plays have a chance of being picked up by college theaters
and repertory companies.
“White Woman, Black Boy” has something else going for it: it was produced last year as a short play in a
mid-town festival. As you might guess, Lynne played Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, the Till murderer
I interviewed. I confess that I teared up at her stunning performance opening night. A heretical thought crossed
my mind more than once: theater is more rewarding than journalism. Lynne and I aren’t together now, but we
remain close and I’m hoping she’ll play the Bryant role in the new play that seems to have real potential.
Back in 2012 when I started in the theater, I had never retired from my profession. I left my last newspaper
job at 60 — I worked for New York Newsday, The Washington Star, and The Philadelphia Daily News, among
others — but I then spent nearly four years on a never-published biography, and was an editor at The Village
Voice for a year. I was a stringer for two years for The New York Times regional edition and wrote once for
its Magazine, and for The Nation and The Huffington Post. I taught journalism and English composition at
New York University and three other schools for eight years.
I also published three unsuccessful novels. Beyond journalism, my only ambition was to be an established
novelist. Decades ago, I’d written a play about covering the war in El Salvador that had a single script-in-
hand reading at a Philadelphia theater, but I never had any hope of being called a playwright or identifying
myself as one.
Not until Lynne Wilson accomplished both one night seven years ago. .
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