Gower Champion was called in to take over a show because the director who'd been hired originally was making a mess of it-a situation usually referred to in the press as creative differences." And does Gus talk about the great metaphysical interpretation Champion imposed upon the show? No. He talks about how Champion got the place organized, so the chorus didn't sit around while the principals were running through their scenes, so the unions didn't get angry and so the production didn't hemorrhage the backers' money.

The first thing he did was to hand out schedules," Gus tells the kids. It's a business. Time is money."

This is why people refer to Gus as refreshing." Another term you'll hear is blunt." It usually comes from one of Gus' students in Introduction to Theatre, and refers to certain rules Gus has laid down. Eating, drinking or sleeping are forbidden. So is arriving late-trust a former actor to think of that-or leaving early. Gus says he once followed a student out of class, informed him in the hallway he was not interested in why he had left early and told him he couldn't come back.

That's not even mentioning the lectures, during which he will tell the kids the audience is the most important aspect of any theatrical experience. Or that his favorite type of theatre is the musical. Or that theatre is for storytelling and entertainment. If you want to be inspired, go to church.

If you weren't prepared, your mind could reel.
There are a couple of reasons Gus may give fuzzy-headed notions like creativity such short shrift. These reasons have to do with hard work, and with sheer luck, and with the things you learn by experience. And they may explain why one of Gus' colleagues, playwright-in-residence Jim Leonard, makes an exception for Gus when he describes most writers as not a very nice bunch of people...obsessive and alcoholic, and they talk about themselves and their work to the exclusion of everyone else." Such a description hints at why Gus prefers the pose of working-class hero to creative, elitist snob.

Gus says he spent 13 years writing his first play, The Offering, produced at the Negro Ensemble Company in 1977. He started it after he realized he wasn't going to have a career as an actor.

The play, about an aging hit man whose young protege stops by to pay him homage, is beautifully written, with an ear for dialogue rare in a writer from another culture. As with others of Gus Edwards' plays, the characters leap to life, even off the printed page. It is possible to imagine them outside the plot, doing completely different things. The play runs to 27 pages of text. At one point, Gus says, he had more than 500 pages. He kept cutting and cutting and rewriting and rewriting, until the play seems perfectly controlled, with not a word too many.

The Offering would never have been produced except for a chance conversation. Gus was working as a waiter, and one of his regular customers was a white minister who worked in Harlem. The minister forgot his wallet one day and Gus trusted him for the money. The minister, intrigued, asked Gus what he really was. Gus told him he was a playwright, for by this time he'd written two other plays. ²The minister turned out to be a friend of Douglas Turner Ward, head of the Negro Ensemble Company. The minister passed on a copy of The Offering to Ward, who liked it, and not only produced it, but took the starring role himself, became Gus' mentor and has been in town for the past three weeks, directing Tropicana.

The accidents of life," Gus calls that sequence of events, adding, We're all victims of a whimsical fate."

Despite his critical success-reviews that were adulatory almost to the point of overkill from the New Yorker's Edith Oliver-his is not exactly a household name. And despite large and important- looking entries in reference texts like Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Authors, he never escaped the circumscribed world of black theatre to reach a wider audience.

The public hardly knows who I am," he says. I made more money writing one TV show, Go Tell It on the Mountain, than I made in all the royalties of all the plays I'd written until then."

Even as a black playwright, Gus was always a little out of step. As Jim Leonard, Gus' successor as playwright-in-residence at ASU points out, Amiri Baraka-then LeRoi Jones-wrote confrontational black-vs.-white dramas like Dutchman, but Gus was doing something more subtle. In his second play, Black Body Blues, the black hero is victimized by his own brother, and is granted the greatest respect not in his own community, but in the home of the white man for whom he works as a butler.

Gus Edwards will discuss the message of his plays by making the extraordinary statement, I don't believe in theatre as a vehicle for personal statement." And he'll add, I don't think I'm political at all, I'm so busy trying to make myself happy."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help