Sunday, April 22, 2007

bang! bang! bang! - alt theater blackgrrl makes good on camera, part three

my friend renee got cast in a short film awhile back. sometimes when we hung out, she'd let fly with all of these tidbits about what the process was like. she thought that i should meet ed durante the director of the short film because he seemed to be as much of an anomaly as me. and strangely, he was. after we'd met, renee showed me his reel of short films. i thought that much of what i saw was filled with beautiful imagery that was compelling and, well, interesting. clearly, he knew how to tell a story with visuals. that alone was enough to put him a cut above a lot of people who called themselves filmmakers. i was intrigued. okay, i thought. he knows how to do what he does -- no small feat there. now what does he want to say?

but i digress.

where did the initial introduction take place? there are so many moments that blur together, like some strange syrupy goo: the video shoot for renee's dance project, where a hardworking focused ed (surprisingly) gave it his all, with beautiful visuals and real direction; the sit-down dinner at ed's girlfriend's place, wherein we showed up later than expected because we expected something a little more casual, much to ed's bemusement and (slight) chagrin; ed, telling me that i was really onto something with my whole "black americana" thing and how we should make a video of the song "stand by your man"; ed, looking at my photos on and telling me how bad he thought they were; and of course there was the burlesque show at the slipper room, wherein during the go-go section of the show, ed's righteous black friends asked rather indignantly how long to we have to watch these flabby white girls jiggle around, anyway? what a fun night that was. i distinctly remember that ed freaked himself out when he realized he was turned on by little brooklyn's clown moment.

i'm not sure when it happened but somewhere in there, ed and i connected. and then we bonded. renee's project brought us together and i figured another one would probably happen along, but i had absolutely no idea what it might be. and besides -- i wasn't sure ed would work with me because i didn't have a lot of film experience. there were a few el-lay moments when he'd go on a little too long about what someone looked like on camera that he wanted to work with, not knowing or caring whether they could actually act. as an actor that can act, that bothered me. but whatever. for some strange reason, he called me in to read for his first feature length film and for some strange reason, i auditioned well and for some strange reason, he kept calling me back until he finally offered me a part.

the first problem, it seemed, was that we would shoot on the weekends in april, which meant that my hair had to be consistent. so my first question was, do i have to straighten it? needless to say, ed is progressive enough as a black man to find black women attractive in their natural state -- so we agreed that my hair would stay the way it was. i was warming up to the fact that my character seemed to be such a smarmy high-brow back-stabbing two-faced hedonist. all that detail right below the surface seemed drama-ready -- and after giving the script a thorough read, i realized that really, that was the whole idea.

film is a funny thing. you can read a play and know if it's good but you don't really know what you've got with film until you're looking at the final edit. (and i mean final.) to be honest, it's hard for me to trust anyone. and here i was, trusting ed. he knew what he was asking, of all of us.

before i left his apartment, i remember him telling me, "this is going to be a crazy adventure and you're going to hate me by the time this is over, but you're going to be glad that you did this." and i think he said something or another about making me a star. i can't remember. i was too busy thinking about the crazy adventure and the hate and the happiness.

i remember walking down the street thinking, ed may be nuts -- but he is talented. and he is my kind of nuts. so this just might work...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

the real thing

i had a strange conversation with some twenty-something year old who thought that mary j. blige originated that chaka khan classic. does it really make me "old" to know that this isn't true? maybe it just makes me aware. please. i know that thelma todd was murdered by her idiot boyfriend but that doesn't make me anybody's grandma.

everyone should have a healthy dose of their own history, whether they have to catch it on basic cable or wander through a museum or get lost in somebody else's record collection to pull it off. so here's something for everyone: rufus featuring chaka khan performing sweet thing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

hey! is that thing loaded or what? - alt-theater blackgrrl makes good on camera, part two

the real reason why i never bothered to audition for film or tv before was because what you looked like seemed to matter way more than whether or not you could actually act. frankly, i didn't think that i was light-skinned enough or conventionally pretty enough to seriously pursue it. i didn't believe that most film actors were especially talented because most of them had never done any theater. film is not an actor's medium, contrary to popular belief. theater is. to my way of thinking, an actor that's never done any theater is like a surgeon that's never actually operated on anybody. and truth be told, when film actors did do theater, they almost always sucked at it.

and another thing. film people -- directors, editors, producers, the whole lot -- were freaking annoying. they walked around like they were breathing some rarified air that the rest of us knew nothing of, for the sake of a genre and the fame that somehow elevated all of them. i would go into these auditions and they would say, what have you been in and they would look at my resume like it was a blank piece of paper because i didn't have any film work on it. well. a lot of them just flat-out didn't know what they were doing. it was disturbing: all of these people, wallowing in gobs of money, running around hob-nobbing, and for what. wouldn't i always be too old, too young, too black, too patently unattractive, too strong, too...something to these people? why should i have to convince them of anything? wouldn't success make me beautiful (ie bankable) in their eyes? it certainly seemed to work that way for everyone else.

it didn't help that i had befriended one too many film majors when i was in college who would sit around and and argue endlessly about who was brilliant, who wasn't and why. hardly anyone was making any art -- and if they were, it was derivative and boring and encrusted with scholastic excess. i suppose it was way more interesting to trash everyone else's work than come up with something original. or at least cool.

by the time i decided to take acting seriously, i already knew rejection -- the hard way.

i was called a white girl in grade school like that was my name and roundly ostrasized because not only did i know how to read but i actually enjoyed it. thanks to intellectual pursuits that included reading dictionaries and encyclopedias for fun along with the clothes that my mother lovingly made for me turned me into a garden variety wierdo in the african american community and made me the object of ridicule amongst my peers for most of my youth. somewhere in there, when i was 8 or so, my mother accidentally dropped a straightening comb on my neck. i told myself that there was nothing wrong with my hair in its natural state when everything in my world told me otherwise. afterwards, i promised myself that when i grew up, my hair would be natural. i never fully understood why i had to straighten it to be considered pretty but that's a whole other conversation.

so i had already endured a lifetime of "no" by the time i hit puberty. what i endured in my early years in new york city was nothing in comparison. it was luncheon and an afternoon nap in a field of wildflowers and daffodils. it was a walk in the freakin' park.

circumstances of my youth may have convinced me that i was fugly, but no one ever disputed my intelligence or my talent -- expecially the people who ridiculed me in the first place. i put all of it behind me and i kept going and going and going...

just as i'd hit a wall with alt-theater/off-broadway, everything shifted gradually towards tv/film and commercials. the first step was bravo's the it factor. i did it because i had little or no camera experience and i had no money or time for on camera classes. i needed to learn how to be comfortable in front of a camera and i figured having a crew follow me around for six months or so would compel me to break some bad habits. it worked. i got my SAG card when i got RENT but i finally used it when i got a part in Marci X that didn't end up on the cutting room floor.

the next step was auditioning like crazy. but there were obstacles. to find them, i had to be objective about my physical self. i quickly learned that how things look in a camera's eye can be very different from my own. i had to see things differently. there were some concessions i wasn't willing to make -- like straightening my hair, for example -- but now that i got rid of those annoying tics that seemed to happen if i was on camera for too long, i had to work hard to lose the chunk that made me look heavier than i actually was and get my teeth fixed, an extremely expensive proposition. most importantly, i had to learn how to audition on camera well. this would take time, but i was up for the challenge.

i had a million auditions and callbacks before i got anything. but finally, something happened: in october, i got my first national commercial, for ocean spray. two weeks ago, i got another national commercial, for prego. and somewhere in there, i met filmmaker ed durante, and his feature length project "jake gets paid" happened.

how did i meet ed durante? now that's a long story...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

what are you going to do, shoot me? - alt-theater blackgrrl makes good on camera, part one

a few years ago, it seemed that i couldn't sit through a movie preview without seeing someone that i knew onscreen. i'd think back and remember which off-off broadway play or musical we'd done and when, and in my head i'd feel a strange sense of pride and glee for them, that they'd gone hollywood and "made it"-- not fame, really. just steady work. and to my way of thinking, that was making it. mazeltov.

but then one day i turned on the television and they were there, too. almost every commercial break meant having to sit and watch someone i knew hawking cookies or room sanitizer or God knows what all -- which was hysterical, if you really stop to think about it. i even recognized a few here and there with roles on sit coms and tv series. eventually, a passing conversation with an actor-acquaintance who gave me a ball park idea as to how much they were probably making made my jaw drop. was i missing the boat here?

when i had this epiphany, i had been doing theater in nyc professionally for about 10 years. i don't dance, so i knew that the broadway chorus wasn't anything for me to consider. once i understood that the great white way tends to favor heavy-set black female performers, i began to lean towards a much less conventional approach. eventually the breakthrough happened when i made the original cast in the national tour of RENT on a cattle call -- no representation, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing. but for several years before that happened, when i got here from down south and everyone pretty much ignored me, there was no work. so i developed my own ideas -- in alt-music and alt-theater. with the two one person shows that i wrote and performed, i proved that i was an originator. with the various roles in george c wolfe's "harlem song," i proved that not only could i could carry the lead in a broadway caliber musical but that i could originate work on a grander scale.

after one evening's performance, my mentor the director jeff cohen met me at the stage door. somewhere in the conversation that ensued, he said, "you'd better enjoy this moment, because this probably won't happen again for you for another 10 years." he was right, of course. downtown rags described me as an "alt-diva." casting directors said that i was "quirky." the general vibe was that i was "unconventional" -- simply put, that i wasn't the black girl that they thought i should be, the black girl that they could easily recognize from their deepest imaginings or the most innocuous media saturation or even around the way. the fact of the matter was, i was unlike anything they'd ever seen. or heard.

more often than not, my uniqueness was percieved of as a threat. why? because i wasn't behaving like a stereotype. because for some, the unfamiliar and the unknown are things to be afraid of, especially where black people are concerned -- and especially with black women. because i wasn't sitting around trying to figure out which black girl to turn myself into, to get the job. i wasn't desperate -- and to be honest, that must have made me look like an uppity negress. but because i actually am an uppity negress, i really didn't care. and i still don't.

i was just being myself. was that so wrong?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

moving right along

somewhere inside of the past week, i had a callback for a reoccurring role on All My Children, i committed to another guitar class at NYC Guitar School (Blues Guitar Basics) and i started work on Ed Durante's indie shoot, Jake Gets Paid.

all in all, not a bad way to end the first three months of the year.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Strange Thing Happened On The Way to The Beacon...

greg allman
there i was, on the every edge of the stage at the beacon theater taking pictures of greg allman with the digital camera that tracey moffatt and franco mondini-ruiz gave me for my birthday, surrounded by drunken freaks that were dancing in a haze of pot smoke, and all i could think was, how did i get here?

i'm glad i asked.

some weeks ago, i wrote about a book i'd read called layla and assorted love songs on and posted it here. it was about layla and assorted love songs the album by derek and the dominoes. it basically told the story behind the music and delved into the legendary 7th century islamic poem that tells the tragic love story of majnun and layla. riveting stuff. i loved it.

some weeks later, i get an email from john lyndon who offers me an orchestra seat ticket to see the allman brothers. it seems that he and 66 of his friends are making the annual trek to new york city for march madness. how did he find me? the essay i wrote was sent to him from someone's rock and roll list -- it even reached the author jan reid somewhere down the line, who wrote to me as well -- but strangely enough, bobby whitlock's wife coco was the one who found me initially. the author was the real surprise. his family is close friends with linda wetherby, someone i shared a stage with for three years as a member of rotel and the hot tomatoes when i lived in austin some years ago. for all either of us know, i probably met him in passing somewhere on sixth street. the world isn't small, folks. it's teensy.

john and his friends make sure that they come to new york city for march madness every year. he's been making a habit of seeing the band and hanging out backstage since '69 when his brother twiggs was the allman brother's original road manager and his brother scoot was their guitar roadie. john is now a divorce lawyer in athens, georgia. sweet man. he even had a backstage pass for me. i met up with him and about 20 others at ruby foo's up the street from the beacon. they had all read the layla remarks and were very much interested in meeting me. one of them, a rather perky apple-cheeked mom of a blonde said that she was surprised that i wasn't older. "i thought you'd be in your fifties or something," she shrugged. she almost sounded disappointed. after i plopped down next to her and she took a good look at my uppity negress t-shirt, she laughed and said that she wanted one.

the show was everything i wanted it to be: acid trippy visuals, top-notch musicianship and an audience that was absolutely on fire for their band, their heroes. it was crazy, hearing so much music coming at me all at once, music that i was so deeply connected to, emotionally. so much of it was a part of my southern childhood. flashes of relatives long gone played out against my mind's eye -- bits and pieces of conversation and situations and happy times i thought i'd long forgotten. it was completely overwhelming. later, there would be an ever-churning hoarde backstage, laughing and talking and leaning against the walls, with greg allman was secreted away on another floor, far from the maddening crowd. i was introduced to jaimoe backstage and i even got his autograph for nicole's boyfriend pete, as a surprise birthday present. but that feeling that exploded in me when i heard those songs out loud, that still hasn't left me.

the allman brothers @ the beacon, nyc

i think that's the whole point, really. when you're emotionally attached to a song, it belongs to you. what you're buying (or downloading illegally, whatever the case may be) is that emotional pull. the thing is, there's so much crap out there music-wise that does not move me whatsoever that i think i'd forgotten what that pull felt like. it took this show at the beacon to remind me.

now i want more. but where will i get it?