Friday, June 01, 2007

Child Prodigy

My earliest memory of performing took place on stage in kindergarten when I played wooden chopsticks. My mother told me recently that she'd seen my kindergarten teacher in a retail store, and that she asked about me. She was very nice and kind to all her students.

I can see the classrooms and hallways in my grade school in Houston, and think back to my teachers and administrators who first encouraged me when seemingly no one would or could. In my mind's eye now, the desks and classrooms seem so small and remote.

I don't remember my classmates as overtly competitive, but there were encouraged rivalries among us.

There gospel-singing, tambourine-playing sisters in the glee club, one of which audition for the Houston Idol. The younger of the two sisters, I felt, could have become a household name with professional training and mentoring. She felt her voice was a gift from God, and was best utilized in church.

I don't recall any others with artistic gifts from God. The director of the glee club back then believed in and encouraged us equally. He was determined to get as many of us out of the neighborhood and into better schools and universities.

I can't recall if I performed solo prior to playing piano in my bid to be Mr. Hilliard in 4th grade, when I swore I wouldn't cry as winners were announced. Perhaps it was then that I formed my low opinion of pageants. The king and queen were the teachers' pets. The comedienne classmate and the budding athlete who became a minister would have been more interesting choices.

I didn't come into my own as an actor until junior high, thanks to the opportunities of my 7th grade English teacher who took over the drama department. The previous year was when I learned that I could be replaced in a performance if I locked myself in my dressing room like a spoiled opera star. It was none too pleasing to sit in audience and watch someone else walk through a role I knew I could sell.

I was the default male lead in school plays for two years, I just had to pick up the script and attend rehearsals. I last knew my drama coach as Dr. Owens, but I think she's since remarried. I owe a debt of gratitude to her and a few people at church for putting me front and center on stage or behind a podium to read the bulletin announcements, scriptures, or performing God's Trombones or The Judgment Day by James Weldon Johnson.

High school brought with it new challenges and head-on racism in a predominantly white student body. I transferred from an all-black high school at the urging of my grade school and junior high school glee club director/cultural attaché to all things upwardly mobile.

I knew I was black before I hopped on the yellow banana and was bussed clear across town to the tony River Oaks, but somehow didn't feel my blackness until I was surrounded by white classmates, which was a first for me. It's different having two or three white teachers in a black school who chose to work in the district, and eating lunch Indian-style on the front lawn of a new school, a few feet away from a country club that I imagined had restricted membership.

The new high school was filled with false prophets, spoiled rich kids, and a few who were probably child prodigies in the family and/or respective grade schools. I acknowledge that I was in a different body of water, but I wished the drama school had cast me and other non-white students in lead roles, rather than being relegated to bit players and servants.

One of my fondest memories came from from one of the redneck coaches, "Boy, you can act! Keep on doing what you doing." He'd seen me audition in the auditorium for a role that I wasn't given the opportunity to bring to life even though I was right for the part. The Northwestern-educated drama coach didn't believe in colorblind casting.

When I landed a few print modeling gigs, local commercials, and a national McDonald's commercial, I wanted to poke out my tongue at the overacting son of the famous televangelist, and the saccharine-sweet default female lead.

I'm glad I didn't turn out like Bette Davis's character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Imagine.

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