Redefining Retirement, With The Final Curtain Near

Retirement

A rainy night in mid-town Manhattan, 2013.  Something was happening at 8th Ave. and 44th St. — sirens,

squad cars, cops cordoning off a corner. My actress girlfriend and I were coming from a theater workshop at

the Producers Club on 44th, and she said as we approached the avenue: “You might be covering that if you

still a journalist.  But you’re a playwright now!”

In the best-thing-you-could-possibly-say-to-a-significant-other department, that was a winner.  It made

my night, week, month year.  Well, okay: my post-“retirement” life.  At 81, I’m a very “old school” journalist.

And playwright.

Lynne Wilson, my girlfriend of two years at that time, is a Mississippian who’s performed in regional theater,

off-Broadway, and soap opera, and was the stand-in for the “Amanda” character on “Sex and the City.”  She

had convinced me to join a theater workshop the year before and helped immeasurably to turn my first “New

York play, “I’m Dying Now And I Did Not Kill Emmett Till,” into a viable off-off Broadway production. (The play’s

based on my interview with one of Till’s killers in 1994.)  And then on that dreary night Lynne had defined me

in a way I hadn’t yet dared to define myself.

I’m still a little wary of calling myself a playwright.  I haven’t been reviewed yet and I’ve only made money on

one of my plays — bankrolled by the father of an editing client whose own play was on a double bill with mine.

But the Till play has been produced twice off-off Broadway to nearly full houses who liked it. (“It was a triumph,”

one friend said of the first production.)   And Art Bernal, the director-producer of my second play, “A Cop Shot

My Son!,” liked it sufficiently to give a sit-down dinner for the cast at a nearby restaurant after the play’s closing.

Cast parties are routing;  such dinners are not, off-off Broadway.

Lynne’s wonderfully supportive words have for me seemed closer to the truth recently.  My third full-length

play, “White Woman, Black Boy: Carolyn Bryant and Emmett Till,” will be produced next spring, and it’s the

most ambitious yet.  So I’m daring to think another previously unlikely thought:  it could make it to off-Broadway.

A theatrical publicist who’s had previous successes getting off-off Broadway plays to Off-Broadway is interested

in representing the play, and that could be a breakthrough.  I think the play has some cachet: it deals with a figure

in the Till case who hasn’t been portrayed theatrically or cinematically before, and it has an all-women cast of

seven.  The off-Broadway possibility aside, the publicist might very well get it reviewed, which is crucial to a

play’s survival as a marketable entity.  Only reviewed plays have a chance of being picked up by college theaters

and repertory companies.

“White Woman, Black Boy” has something else going for it: it was produced last year as a short play in a

mid-town festival. As you might guess, Lynne played Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, the Till murderer

I interviewed.  I confess that I teared up at her stunning performance opening night. A heretical thought crossed

my mind more than once: theater is more rewarding than journalism. Lynne and I aren’t together now, but we

remain close and I’m hoping she’ll play the Bryant role in the new play that seems to have real potential.

Back in 2012 when I started in the theater, I had never retired from my profession.  I left my last newspaper

job at 60 — I worked for New York Newsday, The Washington Star, and The Philadelphia Daily News, among

others — but I then spent nearly four years on a never-published biography, and was an editor at The Village

Voice for a year.  I was a stringer for two years for The New York Times regional edition and wrote once for

its Magazine, and for The Nation and The Huffington Post.  I taught journalism and English composition at

New York University and three other schools for eight years.

I also published three unsuccessful novels. Beyond journalism, my only ambition was to be an established

novelist.  Decades ago, I’d written a play about covering the war in El Salvador that had a single script-in-

hand reading at a Philadelphia theater, but I never had any hope of being called a playwright or identifying

myself as one.

Not until Lynne Wilson accomplished both one night seven years ago. .

.

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