In the world of academia, where many things are taken quite seriously, Gus Edwards is like a breath of fresh air. He talks about how as a kid in the Caribbean he was inspired to acting by Sidney Poitier. Was it the chance to... prove that blacks were as capable as whites in the acting profession? To bring the transformative power of theatre to the masses?
Poitier made a lot of money and got laid a lot," Gus says. This is typical Gus Edwards, although he often makes these remarks so quickly you're not sure you really heard them. Could he really have told his Introduction to Theatre class that a theatrical performance without an audience is like sex without a climax? Could he really have said, I'm as shallow as everyone else"? You listen to him for a while, and you are forced to conclude Gus is that rarity in life, a man in full possession of mental health.
And it's hard to avoid listening to him. Gus Edwards is a talker. During class, he holds forth for 50 minutes without a single um," providing a steady stream of solid information punctuated by hilarious asides. One of his former students says that when he goes out to lunch with Gus, all he has to do is eat, nod and listen. Gus does the rest.
Now Gus Edwards is talking in his office at Arizona State University, where he is director of the Multi-Ethnic Theatre program. He is talking about how he has given up playwriting. This is indeed a revelation. Gus Edwards, after all, made his reputation as a playwright with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, and became one of the black playwrights reporters called when they wanted a quote on black theatrical subjects.
He spent two years as playwright-in-residence at ASU, and one of his plays, Tropicana, is being performed there this week in connection with the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
To hear Gus-it's impossible to call a man named Gus Mr. Edwards"-tell it, that's all in the past. He now considers himself a teacher, a natural teacher, and wishes he had discovered it earlier.
As it was, he was forced to spend time as a successful playwright until discovering his true vocation in his mid-40s.
Gus today is 52. With his round face and short-cropped hair, he still looks like a kid. He looks completely different in photographs from a decade agoÏbig mustache, mini-Afro-but that may be the actor's uncanny ability to change his appearance seemingly at will.
Gus arrived in New York from the Caribbean in 1959 and scratched out a few parts onstage and in movies. In those days, though, before Miami Vice made Jamaican accents a sine qua non for a black actor, the lilt of his native Antigua was a liability. Typically, he wasn't too proud to be a bartender or a stevedoreÏhe tended bar, in fact, until 1984, when he became ASU playwright-in-residence. Gus talks about being a bartender with great pride, not only, as he says, because he made a lot more money and had a better social life. I've been working class all my life," he'll tell you.
You know the most important thing about being a bartender?" Gus says. It's thinking three drinks ahead." He snaps his fingers indicating a bartender reaching for Seagram's as he put back the Cutty Sark and checks the guy down the bar just finishing his first martini. Bartenders who didn't put their bottles back in the proper place drove him crazy.
Gus has the same practical, down-to-earth attitude toward theatre. One day in Introduction to Theatre, a big lecture course that meets three times a week, Gus starts talking about Gower Champion, the director and choreographer. As a teacher, Gus can sling definitions (opera is a dramatic musical entertainment in which all text is sung") and discuss Aristotle, but the times the kids put down their pens and lean forward to listen are the times he's talking from his own experience.
As Lin Wright, head of the theatre department and one of Gus' biggest fans, has explained, practical experience is what got Gus to ASU. Ten years ago, a guy with just a high school degree from someplace in the Caribbean probably couldn't have gotten a job at a university. Today, a life in the theatre makes up for the degree. Wright, a diminutive woman with red hair who runs a fairly loose ship at the theatre department office, recognizes Gus as that rare teacher who will give exams requiring essays to a lecture class of 300, the only teacher she knows of to inspire a student to write a letter of praise to the president of the university. Having a man with his connections was useful to ASU, too. Soon after Gus arrived to head the Multi-Ethnic Theatre program in 1988, he arranged for the world premiere of Jonquil to inaugurate the new Galvin Playhouse where Tropicana is being staged. Jonquil is by Charles Fuller, a very hot playwright who wrote A Soldier's Play. Gus knew him from New York, like he knows Gower Champion, the subject of the anecdote he's relating to the class.