Archive for the 'R.I.P.' Category

R.I.P.: Mary Alice

July 29, 2022

I always considered Mary Alice, who died on Wednesday July 27 at the age of somewhere in her eighties, to be one of the great American actors of our time. And I already thought that when I interviewed her for the Soho News in 1980, my first year in New York. That was before she appeared on Broadway opposite James Earl Jones in August Wilson’s Fences (for which they both won Tony Awards) and opposite Gloria Foster in Emily Mann’s adaptation of Having Our Say, the best-selling oral history about civil rights pioneers Bessie and Sadie Delany. I will never forget her scorching performance at Shakespeare in the Park as Queen Margaret to Denzel Washington’s Richard III.

I’m reprinting here my entire Soho News column about her because I love the thoughtfulness and confidence with which she talked about her work as an actor.


When the Feminist Press celebrated its 10th birthday last month, it sponsored an evening of readings at Town Hall by such heavyweight actresses as Colleen Dewhurst, Jean Marsh, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Viveca Lindfors. But the highlight of the evening was the section on novelist Zora Neale Hurston performed by Mary Alice, who, though little-known, is one of the greatest actors currently working in New York. She received an Obie Award in 1979 for her performances in Athol Fugard’s Nongogo at Manhattan Theater Club and in the production of Julius Caesar by Joe Papp’s short-lived Black and Hispanic Repertory Company. I first saw her last year in Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7 and then again earlier this year when she gave a staggering performance of Judy Grahn’s long poem A Woman Is Talking To Death in a gay poetry reading at the Public. In both, her work was so intense it was literally frightening; with an apparent abundance of power in reserve, she seemed like a human bomb that could go off any minute.

An extraordinarily mercurial actor, Mary Alice has a lined, weary face that in repose suggests the blank mask of a dullard or stoic but can suddenly, unpredictably soften into reckless ebullience or tighten in profound rage. Her voice can slide from the most elegant of dictions to a streetwise slur, from a high and happy croon to a slow, penetrating snarl, in nothing flat. Even in as crude a play as Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign at the Negro Ensemble Company, in which she currently plays the mother of a 12-year-old girl slain by a stray bullet from a gang fight, she projects astonishing complexity. Seemingly paralyzed with grief, she will instantly snap into practical action, and she vacillates almost terrifyingly between numbness and bitter knowingness. But then at Town Hall, reading from “Notes on Colored Me” and Their Eyes Were Watching God, she created the perfect voice for Zora Hurston, one I’ll hear whenever I read Hurston’s writing: hip, funny, down-to-earth, educated and unapologetically black.

Born in Indianola, Miss., and raised in Chicago, Mary Alice (legal surname: Smith) went to a teachers’ college and taught elementary school for several years before tentatively trying her hand at acting with a community theater troupe. “Then in 1966 Douglas Turner Ward came to Chicago with two of his plays, Day of Absence and Happy Ending,” she recalled when we met recently in her Manhattan Plaza apartment. “Actor’s Equity in Chicago required that they hire at least one local actor. They wanted a woman, because they needed someone to do the laundry. So I was hired to do two or three small roles in both plays and to do the laundry. That’s how I met Doug, and he told me he was forming the Negro Ensemble Company and if I ever came to New York to contact him, which I did the following July. I wasn’t in the original company, but he did put me in Lloyd Richards’ acting class, and that’s where I really learned about acting. Lloyd Richards and Uta Hagen are the two teachers I’ve learned a lot from. Around October of that year, I got my first Off-Broadway play, Cynthia Belgrave’s production of two Wole Soyinka plays, The Trouser Brother Jero and The Strong Breed. I joined Equity in January of ’68, and that’s how I started this career.”

That career has taken her from Broadway (No Place To Be Somebody) to Australia (For Colored Girls), from film to television, from Grape Nuts commercials to teaching drama in Brooklyn’s High School Redirection program. Actually, she’s done only one film (Sparkle), and she would gladly interrupt her busy schedule of stage acting to do more movies; she find film work particularly valuable in improving her acting technique. When did you get good? I asked. “I’ve always been a very good actor. I won’t be modest; I’ve always been very good. I’ve gotten better in the last two years. I’ve done my best work. It’s been…clear.” She pulled her face into a thoughtful moue and adjusted the turban covering her tightly braided hair. “After I got the Obie, I brought it home and looked at it and tried to determine what it meant to me – not their giving it to me, but the work I had done to get it. It was around that time that I realized that I was an actor. This is, mind you, after about 12 years of acting professionally. But until then I don’t think I ever thought about why I was acting. It had something to do with ambition, with career, with being a star, and all that. But I didn’t realize until last year that for the last 13 years acting has been the best way for Mary Alice to express Mary Alice. Before that, it was teaching. When I knew that, I finally was able to appreciate the quality of my work, instead of needing approval from other people. After that, my work took on another meaning for me.”

R.I.P. Lenny Von Dohlen

July 8, 2022

You might know Lenny Von Dohlen from Twin Peaks or the movie Electric Dreams. When Susan Shacter and I collaborated on creating the book Caught In The Act: New York Actors Face to Face, Lenny was still very young (26) and I don’t think I had seen him in anything onstage or in film. But Susan was a big fan, and when I met him for the interview he turned out to be a real sweetie pie, smart and funny and thoughtful and soulful. Also from Texas, like me. I was sad to learn that he died at his home in Los Angeles this week after a long illness, at the age of 63. I just posted Susan’s portrait and my interview from the book on my writing archive here.

R.I.P.: Gil Kessler

June 19, 2022

The sad news arrived this week that community treasure Gil Kessler, who for more than 25 years conducted an annual class for gay men interested in educating themselves about the skillful use of BDSM play, has left us. After a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, he died at home in bed in the company of his devoted husband, Damani Moyd.

A retired college math professor, Kessler was very meticulous in his teaching and practice, which he developed largely under the auspices of the now-disbanded Gay Men’s S/M Association (GMSMA). Underneath his unassuming exterior, he was extremely knowledgeable not only about the mechanics of kinky play but also about the interpersonal dynamics that go into creating powerful BDSM scenes. The written handouts that he provided for his classes is exceptional. I’ve never seen more thorough, accessible instructions for BDSM practice.

I once asked Kessler to tell me how he became the repository of such an extraordinary body of knowledge about BDSM play. Did he have important mentors? Undergo transformative initiations? Read lots of books? “I didn’t find most books to be helpful,” he said, “with the major exception of Race Bannon’s Learning the Ropes, which is brief and to the point. There aren’t particular people I consider mentors, but I attended virtually all the workshops and programs that GMSMA offered, so I learned bits and pieces from many people (including Peter Boots, Bob Pesce, and Andrew Harwin). I also attended Inferno and Delta [annual gatherings of gay male BDSM aficionados] for many years, watched closely, and experimented carefully. The first GMSMA chairman, Ray Matienzo, was a general influence on me when I joined the board in 1984. He had the qualities that go into making a wonderful S/M practitioner: extensive knowledge, confidence, sense of humor, consideration of his bottom, etc.

“It’s hard to judge what was in my own personality and what I picked up from other people,” Kessler said. “I certainly learned to be patient and listen to my bottoms (I was never really a bottom myself), and to try to make them happy as my major goal. How much of that came from me or from other people? I don’t know. I seemed to simply learn as I went along and as I began teaching others what I knew.”

For me, Kessler exemplified what a community elder looks like – someone who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience and found a way to transmit this information to younger men with generosity and grace. May his name and his history be a blessing.

R.I.P. Neil “Sandy” Havens

May 5, 2022

There are a handful of people who change your life profoundly. I don’t know where my life would have taken me if I hadn’t met Sandy Havens when I was a freshman at Rice University in 1972. Sandy ran the Rice Players, an ambitious and highly respected theater company in Houston, especially remarkable because Rice has no theater department and all the theater activity is extracurricular.

Sandy was such a good director, steeped in the classics yet conversant in the latest developments in avant-garde theater, that the major newspapers in Houston routinely reviewed his student productions. Shortly after I arrived on campus as an 18-year-old Air Force brat majoring in classics (Greek and Latin), I auditioned for the Rice Players’ production of Charles Marowitz’s radical Shakespeare adaptation A Macbeth and got to play Duncan under Sandy’s adventurous direction.

That’s when I caught the theater bug. Sandy saw something in me and cast me in 7 of the 8 shows the Rice Players did in my first two years at Rice, which ran the gamut from Shaw’s Heartbreak House to A Man for All Seasons, from the musical Zorba! to Jeff Wanshel’s nutty absurdist comedy The Disintegration of James Cherry. By that point, I was so smitten with theater that, with Sandy’s blessing and coaching, I auditioned for several professional theater training programs and transferred to Boston University.

Ultimately I wasn’t a very good actor but I parlayed the passion for theater that Sandy instilled in me into a career as a theater critic, journalist, and scholar.

In addition, Sandy was extremely kind and supportive of me in the process of coming out at a time and place when that was not easy.

I got to hang out a little with Sandy in Boston when he lived there while his wife Helen finished divinity school; she would go on to become one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest. We communicated at intervals over the years, but I think the last time I saw Sandy was when I had a very warm visit with him and Helen in Houston in 1990. I’m just one of hundreds of people who benefited from Sandy’s brilliance as teacher, mentor, artist, and friend and who are mourning his death yesterday at the age of 88.

R.I.P./From the Deep Archives: WILLIAM HURT

March 15, 2022

The great stage and film actor William Hurt died March 13, 2022, at the age of 71. He was the cover boy for CAUGHT IN THE ACT: New York Actors Face to Face, the 1986 book I did with photographer Susan Shacter. He was the only actor that Susan felt needed three images to capture, and they worked beautifully for the cover. Having admired him tremendously onstage in HAMLET and HURLYBURLY as well as on film in BODY HEAT, ALTERED STATES, and the others, I very much enjoyed talking to him. “The mask is everything.” Click here to read my interview from the book.

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