February 21, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


Curtain Calling 

Actor Carl Gordon says God led him to the stage and screen. With an acclaimed acting career that's spanned nearly four decades, he still believes in the power of transformation.

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Editors' note: In the print version of this story we reported that Gordon's son was 11 years old. He is 13.

It's 45 minutes to curtain for the 8 p.m. show of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" by the Living Word Stage Company, and Carl Gordon, the star, has just arrived backstage.

The cast has already joined hands, giving thanks to Jesus for their talents and opportunities and one another, just as they do before every show and every rehearsal.

Gordon wasn't expected until now, because it takes him nearly an hour to get into town from his home in Amelia County. In his narrow dressing room, the fluorescent lights illuminate atomized hairspray hovering in the air, and Gordon slides in already in costume: plaid shirt, corduroy pants, and suspenders. He begins inspecting his props.

Actors pass by and ask how he's doing. "I'm blessed," Gordon replies, his standard answer to such questions and the ending to all his stories.

In this show he's playing Bynum, the elderly healer living in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. Gordon checks a bundle of straw and trinkets wrapped in burlap and twine, and shakes a metal box full of black beads.

"You folks call it voodoo, but this is for miracles," Gordon teases a white reporter.

Nearby, two actresses patting on makeup in front of a vanity catch the comment and start riffing on "voodoo," chanting Salt-N-Pepa lyrics from an early '90s pop track — "I don't know how you do the voodoo that you do so well, what's the spell, hell, make me wanna shoop" — then dissolving into laughter.

"You girls are too young to know that song!" Gordon says. He searches his brain for the one he's thinking of. A show tune? His wife would know for sure.

It's not that old, they assure him. 1990, maybe.

"1990! I go way past that," he declares.

If the young actresses can picture a 30-something Carl Gordon bopping along to Salt-N-Pepa when they were popular, the mistake is forgivable. He looks 50, but he turned 75 last month. His oldest daughter is 54, but his wife — his third — is 28 years younger than he. Together they have a 13-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, who help keep him young, he says.

As for going way back, Franklin Roosevelt was elected for the first time the year Gordon was born in Goochland County. But the part of history that Gordon most actively shaped can seem even further away.

The show playing on this Friday night is an installment of the 10-play cycle — one for each decade of the 20th century — by playwright August Wilson. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Piano Lesson," set in the 1930s, and Gordon was in its original Broadway cast. That was after he'd performed in some of the most significant stage productions to come out of the explosion of African-American theater that rocked New York City in the late '60s through the early '80s.

Gordon has shared the stage with James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg. He once cleaned out Richard Pryor at a 50-cent-ante poker game and co-starred on the Fox television series "Roc" with Charles Dutton from 1991 to 1994.

He's had plenty of work since then, but as far as Gordon's concerned, the black theater renaissance has come and gone.

"What happens in this country when African-Americans get successful — it seems like there's always somebody throwing a roadblock in the way," Gordon says. "Since we don't have any power, any theaters or anything of our own, then we don't have any place to put our people to work.

"America's still a racist country, and until we address it — in other words, face it and deal with it — it's gonna be like that.

"In the state of Virginia we don't even have a black theater [company]," he says. "That's why I'm trying to help [Living Word Stage] try to get up there."

Living Word, which opened its first season in 2002, was founded by Derome Scott Smith, a former drama teacher at George Wythe High School of the Arts. Smith has said his mission is to produce plays that "witness to your soul, testify with your spirit, and minister to your heart," along with establishing a permanent professional African-American theater in the community.

Gordon is onboard. He's committed to try to find a permanent home for the group, in residence at the city-owned Pine Camp Arts & Community Center.

At 15 minutes to curtain, Gordon needs to get into character. In the story, Bynum has the supernatural ability to bind people together — lovers to each other, parents to children — but this keeps apart pairs that aren't meant to be. He is old and wise, but some of the other characters in the play look upon his habit of draining pigeon blood in the yard with suspicion.

Someone once told Gordon that to portray the walk of an old man, take a staircase one step at a time then use the same pacing on the flat floor. Just before going out, Gordon takes laps around a costume rack, practicing how to act his age.

Onstage, the 11-person cast tells the tale of Herald Loomis, a church deacon that the wicked Joe Turner kidnaps and forces to work on his plantation for seven years. When the traumatized Loomis finally gets free, he reunites with his daughter, but his wife has gone north. He and his daughter set off looking for her and stop over at the boarding house on their journey.

Wilson writes dense language open to different interpretations. He hands his characters long, challenging monologues. When Gordon came in on the second week of rehearsal with one of his speeches memorized cold, the other actors — some of them experiencing their first time on stage — took notice. The ensemble navigates the tricky lines evenly.

Smith, director of the Living Word, says originally Gordon called to ask for information to come see the show. "But I said, 'Wait a minute — this is Carl Gordon from "Roc"?'" he recalls. Smith eventually convinced the actor to take the part of Bynum.

"He really has a very close connection to Wilson," Smith says, "so any time we talked about the work and had any question, he could say, 'That's how August would see things.'"

In one of Gordon's monologues, his character, Bynum, tries to explain to Loomis why Joe Turner held him captive:

"See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it, till he finds out he's got it with him all the time. That's why I can tell you one of Joe Turner's n—ers. 'Cause you forgot how to sing your song. What he wanted was your song. He wanted to have that song to be his."

Once a leader in his community, Loomis is left paranoid and volatile by the kidnapping. He needs to find himself again — his identity, his song. To bring those long passages to life, Gordon thinks back to when he was starting to find himself.

In his case, it's a night in 1965.

His mother and grandmother had moved from Goochland County to Brooklyn when he was a baby. He lived there, in the same neighborhood, for 33 years.

Gordon went to a Catholic grammar school and can still rattle off each sister's favorite way to torment the students. At 19, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Puerto Rico during the Korean War.

Though his family was Christian, he began to find that the church couldn't answer his questions, he says, and he stopped making it a part of his life.

When he came back from Puerto Rico in 1955, things got bad. His first marriage broke up and the second one didn't last a year. His career dived. He went from making $1,500 a week repairing sheet metal on aircraft for Lockheed to $42 a week stocking a department store when Lockheed left town.

Gordon was miserable. One night, he came home to his apartment and fell down on his knees, he says. Crying, nose running, he asked God to show him what to do.

"And I'm one of these people who never believed that God talked to anybody," he says. "Well, he spoke to me that night and I heard him loud and clear."

"All he said was, 'Try acting.'"

Gordon was scared. He knew nothing about acting, never had any aspirations for it. But that very night he called a friend and got a recommendation for a drama teacher. He signed up for classes at the Gene Frankel studio in Manhattan as fast as he could.

Once he started, other distractions fell away.

"I quit the bowling team and gave away the TV," Gordon says. After acting class, he and the other students would sometimes adjourn to a nearby bar with a patio and discuss literature and theater late into the night. He'd finished only two years of college, he says, but he could hold his own with the others, mostly white college graduates, and his confidence grew.

Slowly, Gordon started getting small parts in plays, and then work as an extra in movies. New York City Mayor John Lindsay had made it easy for film crews to get permits to shoot, and Gordon would do two or three films a week. It was good money, but a friend had advised him that if he wanted acting jobs he should avoid getting pigeonholed as an extra. So he spent most of the time shielding his face from the camera.

Then Gordon began to meet other black actors doing stories written and directed by African-Americans. That's when things really took off. Iconic black playwrights such as Melvin Van Peebles, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Charles Gordone and Charles Fuller were on the scene, winning awards and drawing crowds.

"You had all these black actors that no one had heard of and seen — James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis — coming out, and then into the movies. It was a renaissance period where blacks were able to tell their story their way," Gordon says. "They thought: 'OK, the door's open now. We'll be able to have work all the time like everybody else.'"

Some of it was celebrated; Gordone and Fuller both went on to win Pulitzer Prizes in drama. Some of it was controversial; The New Lafayette Theatre wouldn't let white people in the building at all. Finally, Gordon landed a role with the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company and then a part in "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death."

"This play really was one of the first plays that let American audiences in on real black life," says Living Word's Smith. Smith's directorial training and technique comes from Ernie McClintock, who had a theater school during the black theater movement in New York; James Earl Jones taught his voice classes. And despite Gordon's other theatrical accomplishments and television career, Smith knew him best for his work in "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death."

The play was a series of 19 monologues. In one of them, actors are dressed in police uniforms with pig masks on their faces. The cops arrest a prostitute as a birthday present for their sergeant.

"Smile, Brown Sugar," Gordon says, paraphrasing from the play. "It's Sgt. O'Maggliani's b-day, but we're gonna have a little fun with you first."

One night during the show, a woman out of the audience came up onstage in the middle of the scene. "Don't do this, please, don't do this!" she begged the actors. It wasn't until she had been coaxed backstage and calmed down that the actors realized who she was, the singer and pianist Nina Simone.

Gordon continued getting work, but turned down lucrative parts in the blaxploitation potboilers of the '70s.

"God told me to do this — ain't no way in the world I'm going to do something he wasn't gonna be pleased with," he says. Gordon generally sticks to a "no pimps" rule for casting, though he did play one in "Great White Hope" on Broadway with James Earl Jones. Gordon did such a convincing job that after one show, Muhammad Ali, who'd been in the audience, came backstage and asked if Gordon had been in that business before becoming an actor.

Although he'd left the church when he joined the Army, Gordon constantly read books about different spiritual practices, Hare Krishna and other life paths. Then he began to notice Frederick Casey Price, a television preacher from California. To Gordon, Price was "a teacher, not a preacher."

"Don't do it 'cause I say to do it, try for yourself," he recalls Price saying. "If it don't work, you can go back doing what you been doing, with your old rusty self." Price's message brought Gordon back to the church in the early '80s.

He'd had a steady run of work for the past few decades, but things started slowing down toward the end of the '80s. So Gordon prayed to God again, this time asking for a part that would showcase his talent.

A month later he was cast in "The Piano Lesson," the play for which Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990. After the run, the cast continued their roles in a film version, and then several of the original cast members moved out to Los Angeles to begin work on "Roc," a Fox sitcom. While in California, Gordon joined Price's church.

"Roc," meanwhile, was bringing something different to television. "Our show was a positive view of America from the black perspective," Gordon says, "but everybody could relate to it because [it addressed] the same problems they were having."

He played the family patriarch whose grown children still looked up to him. The stage actors made television history when "Roc" became one of the first sitcoms since the 1950s to broadcast live, like a play.

Although "Roc" was a comedy, it often dealt with current events and social issues. The cast was vigilant about what material crept in. During one episode, the daughter-in-law of Gordon's character sets him up on a date with her boss, hoping it will help her get a promotion. In the original script the date ends with moans from off-camera suggesting a steamy end to a first date, but Gordon wasn't having any of it.

"We already set a precedent where I was the patriarch of the family. That makes me a dirty old man and makes a black woman a whore. I said, 'This is derogatory,'" Gordon recalls. "So they had to change that whole script around."

There were episodes dealing with homicide, drugs and homosexuality. But in 1993, the NAACP passed over "Roc" to give its Image Award to the comedy "Martin" instead, a decision that still rankles Gordon.

And despite critical acclaim, after three seasons when the Tuesday-night ratings started to slump, Fox canceled the whole evening's lineup, including "Roc," and replaced it with a movie instead.

"If we are making buffoons of ourselves or singing and dancing, that's what they want to see," Gordon says. "They don't want to see thinking black human beings, striving, who can be successful in business — and that's what our show was about. It was about love in a black family, black males taking charge."

A starring role in a sitcom was not the only thing Gordon took away from his Broadway run in "The Piano Lesson."

Jacqueline Alston was a lovely volunteer usher for the show. She worked for Sony Music and lived at 48th Street and 9th Avenue at the time, right near the theater and five blocks from Gordon's apartment on 43rd Street.

Alston was independent and for a long time was convinced that she didn't want to get married and have children. Slowly she had a change of heart, she says, and prayed to God with a laundry list of attributes she'd want in a man.

"The Lord has a sense of humor," Jacky Alston-Gordon now says. "I forgot to mention age."

She and Godon had similar tastes in music and art and became buddies. Then one Valentine's Day a bouquet of roses arrived at Alston's apartment, and their relationship changed. They dated for six years and got married in 1997.

Gordon had property in the Bahamas and planned to retire there, but the surprise arrival of their son, Rufus, changed that plan, and Jasmine, four years later, took that idea off the table permanently.

After attending a reunion in Virginia, where Gordon still has extended family, he and his wife decided to move from New York five years ago so their children wouldn't have to grow up in the city. They live on just over 40 acres in Amelia.

They had plans to build a hexagonal house drawn up by an architect who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, but the design was too complicated for local builders. Instead, their house is a standard one with yellow siding and white shutters.

The walls are covered with memorabilia from Gordon's long career. In the basement, Gordon stands in front of an enormous flat-panel TV, framed photographs with models and celebrities, and a commemorative poster from the Million Man March. He reminisces about a time he played opposite Richard Pryor. Gordon was supposed to cut the buttons off of Pryor's shirt with a knife, and accidentally nicked Pryor's chest.

"Oh shit," Gordon says, imitating Pryor's high-pitched response.

Some people would say Gordon was lucky to survive working with Pryor, known for his tumultuous personal life. But in this case it sounds like it was the other way around. It's a joke Gordon doesn't like.

"When people like that, who have a lot of personal demons, get to working in the arts, you get to see a lot of their finer qualities," Gordon says. The phone rings and he picks it up. It's a wrong number, but that takes a while to sort out. The caller sounds just like his old friend S. Epatha Merkerson, who was in "The Piano Lesson" and stars on "Law and Order" as Lt. Van Buren.

Comes with the territory.

Recently, after a two-hour service at a South Side church and a quick lunch, Gordon takes the family minivan to Pine Camp for a Sunday matinee. He likes working with Living Word, but would love to see the young theater company in its own building with space for larger audiences. He's committed to helping find both. Smith says he and Gordon will be scouting locations this weekend.

On the way to Pine Camp, there's an accident in the middle of Chamberlayne Avenue, and Gordon slowly pulls up to ask the police if he can proceed.

"Can I go straight or I turn?" Gordon asks.

"Hey, I know you, from TV!" the officer replies, smiling, wildly beckoning a paramedic to come look. "Who that is? Who that is?"

"Can I go straight or turn?" Gordon asks with a laugh.

"You can go any way you want," says the policeman, while the paramedic realizes who the driver is.

"Come up to Pine Camp and see the show on the weekend," Gordon says.

"Yeah, that was him, yeah, that sure was him!" the paramedic says.

"Lord have mercy," Gordon says, shaking his head as he drives off.

Backstage that afternoon, Gordon checks his props, looks for a missing pair of black socks, and chats with the cast, making jokes and giving a miniseminar on comparative theology.

There are 50 people in the audience and as many empty seats. Gordon's in time for the cast prayer and chants along with the group before he heads onstage to help Harold Loomis regain his song. S

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone"

Produced by: The Living Word Stage Company.
Where: Pine Camp Arts & Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road.
When: Through Feb. 25; 8 p.m. with 4 p.m. weekend matinees.
Tickets: Cost $18-$20, at 355-2187.

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