by Jack Scribe
The next two weeks really tested my acting ability - theater veterans called it, 'acting chops'. While the La Jolla Playhouse was a very professional regional theater, Broadway was the pinnacle in America. Somewhere into the second week of rehearsals the cast began to rally to me, as our characters' interaction took on a life of their own: my interpretation of the role was positively critiqued and it was evident that all of our characters connected. On the technical side, the producers were relieved that my voice projection carried well into the back of the large theater - I was told that many film actors had difficulty with this aspect of performing on a live stage.
I also took Pam's suggestion and left a message on dad's telephone answering machine. I breathed deeply and submitted an emotionally charged message at the beep. "Dad...this is your son, Brent. As you may be aware, I'm in town to act in a play on Broadway. It's been a long time since we saw each other..." I had to pause a moment to steady myself. "I know it was a shock to find out that I was gay...by finding me with another guy. For not coming out to you in the proper way, I'm sorry...I didn't know how to tell you. But for you to throw me out was something I've never understood. For Christ's sake, I was your son...and still am...if you want. I guess, after all this time, I forgive you." 'Fuck, Brent,' I said to myself, 'steady your voice.' "I've met a wonderful man who is my other-half...my life partner. I hope that you come to see the play with Pam. If you want to see me after the play, my mind is open. On the other hand, if you deny I exist...well, I'm prepared for that, too. You're up to bat, Dad. Bye."
I sat and looked at the phone receiver as my hand quivered before placing the receiver back in its cradle. 'Shit,' I thought, 'it would be nice to have a real dad again...even with all the crap that went down.'
In that I had not been back to New York in four years, most of my friends had moved on. And other than getting together with Pam to see a few other shows running, I concentrated on the play as the rest of the rehearsal time moved ahead. The last week, working on a live set, we concentrated on lighting cues and final stage blocking. Previews were to begin on Thursday, January 30th and the opening was on Sunday, February 9th.
The evening of the first previews, I sat in the apartment silently sipping cream of tomato soup and munching on Ritz crackers as something to calm myself while I watched the local TV news. The cast was to be at the theater for makeup at 6:30 p.m. Around five, my phone rang.
"Hello?" I answered.
"I guess it's appropriate to say, 'break a leg,' isn't it?"
"Hi, Doug. Yep, 'break a leg.' Thanks, for calling. I'm kinda nervous right now, but should be just fine when the curtain goes up in...yikes...three hours." I picked up the remote and turned off the television set.
"Variety says the play is a highly anticipated event."
"With Margo and George starring in a new George Furth play, it's getting big exposure back here. I'll just do my thing and go along for the ride."
"If you want to play the modest card, go ahead. But from what I've read, you're creating the same buzz as you did in La Jolla. I'm really proud of you, Brent."
"Thanks, I appreciate it. How's it going with you, Mr. Director?"
"AD, please. Seriously, we started filming scenes yesterday. The director and I are really in synch, he really lets me contribute and the actors respect both of us."
"Sounds like this will be a successful filming. One more step before the big one next year with us, together."
"Listen, I know you've got tons of things on your mind. Just know I'm thinking of you when you take those extra bows tonight."
"One of those bows will be for you. I'll call tomorrow. Bu-bye."
At the theater the entire cast was nervously in a good mood and high spirits. At 7:30 p.m., we all gathered with the director on the quiet, unlit set, so we could meet one more time before the first evening of previews...and a paying audience.
"Tonight will hopefully launch a successful run. You - the men and women of our dramatic group - have given 110% to make it happen...and I think it will. Box office tells me that the next 10 days of previews are sold out and that ticket sales for the first month after opening are very respectable. This is a good sign and everyone is to be congratulated. George Lemming wanted to say something to all of us. George, please."
"Unless I fuck up and blow a few lines, we've got a terrific hit on our hands," he said with a wink, and the cast laughed.
"Blowing your lines will hardly be the case, dear," answered Margo Fontaine, with a warm smile. "Just don't upstage me, dear."
"Thanks for your vote of confidence, Margo, and I know better than upstage you. This is what, our fifth play together?" George asked, and Margo nodded affirmatively. "She and I discussed something this afternoon that we want to do tonight at the curtain call."
"At what point did I lose control?" said Nelson Lewis, the director, with a laugh.
"Nelson, your direction has been superb. Especially drawing out the talents of our young co-star. And that's what I want to talk about. The beautiful Margo and I propose that we modify the curtain call this evening."
There were a few whispers and low voices commenting at that statement.
"We heard about the way the La Jolla cast changed their curtain call - and she and I would like to do the same thing. After coming out from the opposite wings and taking our bow, we want to yield center stage to Brad for the final bow."
The cast enthusiastically applauded, and a few said, "Hear, Hear," and "Yes," in loud voices.
"I couldn't agree more," the director replied and looked around the stage area until everyone became quiet. "Brad, I must admit that George, Margo and I conspired on this suggestion, and I hope this doesn't make you nervous about tonight?"
"Um, Margo, George, Nelson, and fellow cast members...I'm humbled," I replied with a sheepish grin. "This does take me by surprise and I don't know what to say. Can't we just do it the way we rehearsed it?"
"Nonsense, lad. We're doing two things. One is to recognize that your outstanding performance is the glue to the play. We're only a step ahead of what the critics are going to say in less than two weeks."
"And, number two, George?" asked Margo, with a sly smile.
"That seasoned actors like us can be a little less ego-driven when the situation warrants it," he added, with satisfaction.
"I thank you in the memory of my mother. By the grace of God, I won't let you down."
Everyone applauded and seemed to talk at the same time.
"Then, please, everyone, stand, clasp hands with your neighbor and join me in a short prayer. This is a tradition that I picked up years ago from the first Broadway play I was in," George said.
"Gads, when was that George? Around 1910?" Margo added, with a chortle.
We all let out a nervous laugh in unison and grabbed hands in a circle as George offered a brief prayer.
"Father, please bless what we are about to perform tonight. May it bring joy and fulfillment into the lives of our audience. May they be empowered to spread the word when they leave the theater this evening. And, God, may each of us work to our potential and share in the rewards. Amen."
We all said spontaneously, "Break a leg."
As was the case at La Jolla, after a few tenuous moments, the entire cast found a rhythm that continued until the final scene. 'Jesus,' I thought, as the final curtain came down, 'how lucky to be surrounded by such marvelous acting talent.'
Listening to the initial curtain call applause and the enthusiasm for the supporting cast members sent a chill up my back. Then, Margo and George came out to even louder cheers. After counting to 20, I came out on center stage to join the stars and cast on the apron. I was a little taken back and surprised at the thunderous ovation greeting my arrival. 'This is the friggin' Big Apple,' I thought as I regained composure, 'where it's supposed to be cool to be blas.' I took the obligatory bows and grabbed the nearest hands of Margo and George. The three of us bowed before the stars released my hands and stepped back to applaud me. The roar of the audience became infectious. As happened in California, the audience -sophisticated, hard-core New York theatergoers - started yelling my name and screaming "Bravo."
George came up and yelled into my ear, "Ya got 'em by the balls, kid. Go for it." Margo gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek. As planned, the entire cast bowed and stepped back so the curtain would fall, count 30, and go up again. This time, as an ensemble, we all joined hands and walked up to the footlights together and bowed. The audience was still chanting my name. Suddenly, in an unwritten cue, the entire cast left the stage as I solely accepted the continuing applause. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an usher approach the stage with two-dozen red roses. I bent down to accept the flowers. After another bow, I motioned the rest of the cast to join me. We received six curtain calls before the audience had enough.
After everyone congratulated each other, I shared the roses with everyone as a memento of this successful evening and went to my dressing room to change. 'Need to take a break for few minutes,' I thought as I hung up my costume, 'before I dress and get out of here.' As I sat in a terry robe, there was a knock at the door.
"Brad, that was a helluva performance," said Steve, the backstage manager.
"Thanks, I'm fucking drained, if you'll excuse the expression," I replied with a smile.
"No excuse needed. You were fucking great." He returned my smile and added, "A man asked me to give this to you a few moments ago. I hope you don't mind that I opened it...that's part of the security drill. It's safe."
"Oh, thanks," I said, with a curious expression on my face.
"I'll let you be by yourself. See ya downstairs."
"Right. Give me ten minutes." I closed the door and set the box on the counter of the makeup mirrors. I slowly opened the rather old box and pushed away the tissue liner. 'Oh, God,' I gasped, when I recognized an old, well oiled, used baseman's mitt, 'dad was out there tonight.'
"I'm looking at it, Pam. It's dad's old glove he wore playing with the Mets." I was sitting in my apartment a little after 11:30 p.m. "He was in the audience tonight."
"This is the first I've known of it, but I think it's a good sign. In his old fashioned, jock, macho way, I think he's offering a peace pipe."
"What do you think I should do? After years of silence, I'm almost paralyzed."
"Brent, my suggestion is to leave another message tomorrow on his machine. Acknowledge the gift and gesture. Maybe suggest that the three of us meet for an early lunch Sunday. I know he's off."
"The theater's dark, so I'm okay. Ummm, how's this for a plan. I'll call and suggest we all meet someplace around noon or so. Then, you call and suggest a particular place. Jeez, I'm nervous just thinking about seeing him."
"How about Sylvia's on Lenox in Harlem? We all used to go there as kids with mom and dad."
"Oh, yeah. I remember...soul food and gospel singing. That might be a great place to ease the tension. I'll place the call tomorrow morning."
"Terrific. I'll follow up. By the way, how did the first preview go tonight?"
"The reaction really was positive. So much for the 'aloof New York audience' theory - they couldn't have been more enthusiastic and I think we're going to have a successful run. You and Doug have got tickets for the Saturday of President's Day weekend. We'll all go out afterwards."
"Can you get one more ticket?"
"Sure. You going to bring a date?"
"I thought I might."
"Cool, Sis. Listen, I'm tired and emotionally spent so I'm goin' to bag it. Let's talk once you've spoken to dad. Okay?"
"Fine. Love you, little brother. Night."
I left a message for Dad the next morning, thanked him for the generous gift and suggested that we get together for breakfast Sunday. Pam would do the rest. I quietly lowered my head and offered a small prayer.
Buzz on the street - that's what they called it. The Pleasure Was Ours was considered the hottest ticket on Broadway, and scalpers where making major money. The cast and crew were effervescent at the second evening of previews, because of the potential of a long running play, professional acclaim and gainful employment - not necessarily in that order. Now that we were privy to the potential positive reaction of the audience, the cast gained confidence and the opening moments went off without a hitch. The only difference was the applause I received on my first stage entrance of the performance. The La Jolla experience was repeating itself in New York.
I reported to Doug Friday night the reaction to the play and the reception to my acting and he said that he was not surprised. His faith in my ability to succeed was my rock. Also, he was my rock to engage in a little phone sex. Although I was a little exhausted at midnight my time, Doug was still wound up out on the coast at 9:00 p.m. His challenge was not too get to vocal on the phone, because his bedroom was next to his parent's room. 'Fuck,' I thought, 'I love talking dirty to my man on the phone.'
Pam called late Saturday morning to confirm that she had convinced dad to join us at Sylvia's in Harlem for brunch on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. She had spoken to Sylvia personally to reserve a quiet table, although I was a little embarrassed when Pam said she mentioned to Sylvia my status as a new star on Broadway.
That evening I nervously rushed through the opening scenes. Thinking about seeing dad again was rattling the normally unflappable me. At the end of act one, George Lemmings pulled me aside and asked what the problem was?
"George, I'm so sorry. Am I really horrible tonight?"
"Well, not up to top form but nothing serious, yet. What's up?"
"I'm meeting my dad tomorrow for the first time in several years. We had a falling out when I was a teenager, and it's never been repaired." I didn't go into why the breach in the father-son relationship occurred. "I'm a little unglued."
"Get out the Elmer's and get yourself repaired," he said with a smile. "I'm going to be selfish because all of us are depending on you. Margo and I may be listed as the stars but you, Brad, are the magnet. You're the reason we are all going to be successful. It's why they cast Al Pacino and Johnny Depp together in a movie these days. Young Turks like you give us old war horses a chance at some staying power."
"I understand, George. It's just a big deal in my mind."
"The meeting's tomorrow. I want you to concentrate on only the next 65 minutes. I want you to have 1,200 fucking audience members on their feet cheering all of us, led by your performance. Can you do that?"
"I want to," I replied, looking into his intense set of green eyes. "No, Goddamn it, I'm going out there and knock 'em dead - I'm fired up, George."
"Okay. We'll all knock 'em dead."
And we did. The cast rallied around me at the end of the play, as the audience went wild with enthusiastic applause and bravos. I thanked everyone and went back to the apartment for a night of tossing and turning. Around three, I drifted off to sleep.
I hailed a cab in front of the apartment building at 12:30 p.m. for fear of being late. Pam was picking up dad and would meet me at the restaurant a little after 1:00 p.m. In that they opened at that hour on Sunday, I didn't think that the crowds would be at the restaurant this early. How wrong I was. It was just before the opening hour, and a large, well-healed crowd of every ethnic mix was gathering at the entrance. I paid the cabbie and stood near the entrance.
An older African American woman, dressed in a beautiful blue dress, came out of the door and looked around at the crowd and spotted me. She walked forward and grabbed my hand. "Goodness, child, you must be Brad Williams?"
"Guilty, as charged, Ma'am."
"And a Brad Williams who is polite to his elders. I appreciate that, son. I'm Sylvia Woods, and your sister asked me to look out for you. Please follow me and let's get you inside," she said, as she took my hand and led me into the restaurant foyer.
"Thank you, Ms. Woods. I hadn't expected such a large crowd."
"Sunday is always crazy. We'll serve 500 dinners today."
"Pam said you could get us a quiet table so we could talk. I'm meeting my dad after several years' absence."
"Absolutely, Sugar. But first, would you mind if a photographer takes a few pictures of you and me? I have it on good authority that your play is going to be the next big thing down there on Broadway."
"We're all hoping that's the case, Ms. Woods. It'll mean a lot to the cast and crew."
"Please, it's Sylvia. I may be 80 years old, but when a handsome, young Broadway star is in my presence, we're first names, all the way."
"I'd be honored to be photographed with you, Sylvia."
With a subtle nod of her head, a photographer appeared and took several shots as the crowd started in the door. Several looked at us with curiosity.
When we were finished, Sylvia pointed to a place on the wall where she intended to display the photograph as she led me to a corner table away from the activity and the gospel musicians. I ordered a Bloody Mary and watched the crowd fill the room.
Stirring the drink absentmindedly, I saw in the distance Pam and the man that I called dad. I took a fast sip and stood as the two arrived at the table.
"Hi, Pam," I said, grabbing her hand and kissing a cheek. "Dad, long time." I offered my hand that he tentatively took for a shake. Our grips tightened as our hands shook.
"Yes...ah, Brent...long time. Or, do I call you Brad?" he asked with genuine puzzlement and a small smile.
"Brad's just a stage name. I'm still Brent to all the people I knew before all this happened. Shall we sit?"
Pam grinned while dad looked nervous and a little bewildered. He was still the handsome man I knew as a teenager. Several character lines and a slight paunch around his middle, however, were in keeping with a man approaching 50.
"I remember when you and mom would bring us here," Pam said to break the tension at the table.
"Yeah, we all had a good time. I still think about your mother every day. I loved her very much."
"We all did, Dad," I answered. "Is it okay to call you 'Dad'?" I said in a small voice.
"Brent, we had a major upset that I couldn't deal with, then. I have wished a thousand times that I hadn't come home early that day. But, that's over and done with. I guess I've got to put that behind us. But, here's the deal. If you call me 'Dad', I get to call you 'Son'.
"We both fucked up. Aw, shit, I promised I wouldn't cry," Ty Williams said, as tears started trickling. Pam and I both grabbed a hand as we became misty-eyed.
"I'd love to have you in my life again. Just understand that I am a gay man...and I'm committed to another man whom I love...very much. Can you accept that, Dad?" I looked into his eyes for any signal of acceptance.
He started smiling. "Brent...Son...if I can have a police partner who is gay, I guess I have no choice but to accept you. Of course, Son." He grabbed my hand and held it tightly.
"You mean your partner is gay?" I asked with a laugh.
"As a three-dollar bill...no offense. I've been over to Gabe's house several times for dinner with him and his special friend...his other half. Gabe and I have had several confidential conversations about how to get you and I back together but I've been a stubborn cuss...it's taken your sister to set things into action."
"Well, Pam, I owe you," I said to my sister, with a big smile. "Dad, are you prepared to meet my special friend?"
"Naw, Doug's back in California where he's the assistant director on a new film. However, he'll be here in a couple of weeks over the President's Day weekend. You up to meeting him?" I asked with conviction.
"I've had a lot of time to think about this meeting. I reacted badly when I walked in on...well, you know...wasn't prepared for my son to be that way. I guess, Brent, that I owe you a big apology. I didn't have the balls...sorry, Pam...the guts to talk this out. It's something I'll always regret, but I'd like to try and make up for that. Son, will you forgive a narrow-minded, old man who's trying to learn?"
"I've waited for this day for five years," I answered in full cry-mode. I looked over at Pam's red eyes that were starting to flood, too. "I want you in my life again. Doug's the real deal and I love him very much. If you can accept that, we've got a lot of time to make up."
"Son, Pam, I've never stopped loving either of you. I screwed up, but I want to have my family again," he said, with tears streaming.
"Dad, I forgive you. Let's plan on making up for the lost years." We both stood and took each other in an embrace. I breathed in a pleasant odor that I had associated a long time ago as my 'daddy smell'. We both sobbed on each other's shoulders.
In the background, the gospel choir was singing an old Winan favorite:
"Now part of living right Is being prepared to fight That means there's gonna be sleepless nights In this walk with Christ But Lord you know Anytime day or night I'll go Even if my own mother says no I'm your son. I'll go."