11:02am

Tue May 22, 2012
Theater

David Alan Grier's 'Sporting Life' On Broadway

In 1935, George Gershwin brought the script for his folk opera Porgy and Bess to the opera's original cast, which was entirely made up of African-American actors. "[In the original], every other word was N-word this, N-word that," says actor David Alan Grier. "[And] there's a very famous story: Al Jolson really wanted to play Porgy, in blackface."

Grier, who plays Sporting Life in the new Broadway adaptation of Porgy and Bess, says the original company got together and told Gershwin that changes needed to be made. "[They] said, 'Look, we have to cut out these racial epithets,' " he says. "So the piece has always evolved and changed. ... There is a lot of history surrounding this piece and infused in the piece that's very interesting to me."

The version of Porgy and Bess that Grier stars in is not without its own controversy. Before the adaptation premiered, Stephen Sondheim wrote a letter in The New York Times accusing the creators of arrogance and dishonoring the creators' original intentions. The next day, Grier went to his fellow cast mates for a meeting.

"And I said, 'Listen, I don't know who this Steven Soderbergh is, but I've never liked his films, and I didn't even know he was an opera fan,' " he says, laughing. "So I told Audra [McDonald, who plays Bess] that, and she fell down laughing."

Getting more serious, Grier says Sondheim's letter didn't get him down.

"I was titillated and excited because that is what theater is supposed to do," he says. "I didn't think people would get this excited and heated over a simple musical production. I want to be in that production. I think there were 400 comments on that article. At the end of the day, it was a letter in response to an article about a production that no one had seen and had not even opened. At the end of the day, I felt confidence in what we were doing."

Performing on Broadway isn't unusual for Grier, who has been in five Broadway productions and got his start playing Jackie Robinson in The First immediately after graduating from the Yale School of Drama. He didn't grow up performing, though. As a kid growing up in Detroit, he says he didn't think much of musicals.

"I started acting at the University of Michigan in my sophomore year," he says. "A friend of mine had his own theater company, and he jumped me in like I was in a gang. And once I came in, it was just that simple. For the first time in my life, I felt, 'This is a career, this is a life that I think I can grow old doing.' It was love at first sight. I loved being on stage and reading these plays. It was great."


Interview Highlights

On how he played the character of Sporting Life

"I didn't want to play it on one level. Meaning, I didn't want to hit the stage like Snidely Whiplash going, 'I have this drug, you take it, and we'll go to New York.' It was more smooth and trying to build a real seduction, which is, he comes on, he's funny, amusing, always there, and as the stakes change, his argument changes. The way he talks to Bess when no one else is around is different than how he talks to her with the community around. I think the character of Sporting Life is a salesman so he has to be flamboyant, the life of the party. He's fun to hang out with, but you just don't want to owe him any money. Because once you get on that side of him, he changes."

On his father's obsession with the opera

"Why would he be obsessed with Porgy and Bess? My father contracted polio on a troop train in Korea. He's a retired psychiatrist. And all of a sudden, I go, 'Of course. Now I understand. He's seen all these productions of Porgy and Bess, and he ultimately came to the show. Which, boom — this was him, in a lot of ways, to have this opera depict [Porgy] on stage. In a lot of ways, this was an aspect of him that he saw, and it became infused with so much more for me."

On his father's seminal book Black Rage

"He was an angry black man. At the heart of Black Rage, a lot of it was about the residual effects of racism, and in particular, the effect slavery has had on the African-American psyche and our community to this day."

On what his father taught him about being African-American in the U.S.

"One time in 1965, our family all piled in the car and we drove across the country to California. The car broke down in the salt flats. I remember going to a gas station and my father gets out, because our air conditioner was broken. He must have been in there for 10 minutes. He got in, ashen-faced, and quietly said, 'Everyone stay in the car. They don't like Negroes here.' That was a rude awakening.

"We had to spend the night in this small desert town. My father and mother told us not to play in the pool, to stay in the room. My brother had a skateboard. I remember we wanted to play. It was bewildering. It was not psyche-shattering because I didn't grow up in that kind of world. My grandmother was born in 1900, and she would regale me with tales I call Little House on the Prairie tales, but they were tales of segregated and racist America growing up in Alabama and Mississippi, where she came from. ... Our household was infused with black history. I grew up in a home and in a world in which you can do anything. We were all expected to go to college. My father was a doctor."

On the snaps from In Living Color

"Damon Wayans and I would rate movies using snaps. The fun of In Living Color was exposing black culture, and in that sketch, gay culture, that I don't think America had ever seen at that point. I had already done Dreamgirls on Broadway, and being in a musical and working with other performers who were gay, I was privy to that vocabulary backstage. They were being themselves. So a lot of it was hijacked from what I heard in the theater and what was permeating around. Now at that time, if a gay person was going to read you — to tell you off — it was always accompanied by snaps. Now I don't know if it was a gay thing, but it was also a very black thing."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David Alan Grier, is nominated for a Tony for his performance as the drug dealer and pimp Sporting Life in the Broadway adaptation of the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess," which means he gets to sing two of the songs that have become pop standards, "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York" and "It Ain't Necessarily So." The cast album was released today.

"Porgy and Bess" premiered on Broadway in 1935 and was written by Ira and George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, who wrote the novel and the original play. The new production is set in the late 1930s on the South Carolina coast in the fictional place Catfish Row.

David Alan Grier first became known for his work on the variety and comedy TV show "In Living Color," where his characters included the blues singer Calhoun Tubbs and the co-host with Damon Wayans of "Men On Film." Grier got his start on Broadway, starring in a musical about Jackie Robinson, which got him his first Tony nomination. His second was for his performance in the David Mamet play "Race."

Let's start with a track from the new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess." Sporting Life is trying to convince Bess to leave Catfish Row and Porgy and go with him to New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A BOAT THAT'S LEAVING SOON FOR NEW YORK")

DAVID ALAN GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York. Come wid me, dat's where you belong, sister. You an' me kin live dat high life in New York. Come wid me, dere you can't go wrong, sister. I'll buy you de swellest mansion up on upper Fifth Avenue. And through Harlem you'll go struttin', you'll go astruttin', an' dere'll be nuttin' too good for you.

(as Sporting Life) (Singing) You'll dress the rich in silks and satins, just like the Paris styles. And all the blues you'll be forgettin', you'll be forgettin', there'll be no frettin', just nothin' but smiles. Come along wid me, dat's de place, don't be a fool, come along, come along.

(as Sporting Life) (Singing) There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York. Come with me, dat's where you belong, sister. That's where you belong. Come on, Bess.

GROSS: David Alan Grier, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

GRIER: Thank you.

GROSS: Really loved your performance on the show.

GRIER: Thank you.

GROSS: You know, I interviewed Audra McDonald recently about playing Bess, and she said that, you know, she always loved the song "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" as a song, just an independent song, and always though oh, it's about this guy who's inviting a woman to go to New York and lead a more glamorous life. He wants to buy her things. Isn't that great?

But hearing it in the show, you know, this guy is really trying to seduce her into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. He wants to be her pimp and control her. Did the meaning of the song change for you when you joined the cast and started singing the song?

GRIER: Absolutely. My relationship to "Porgy and Bess," coming into this production, was one of I've never seen the opera. I have sketches of the movie in my head. So remembering those patches of the movie as a child, I thought happy dust was like fairy dust, you know, like is a magician, Sporting Life, is he - you know, what exactly is he doing, because I was too young to really understand who and what this man was, this character was.

GROSS: Can I just back up and say that happy dust is the name in the opera, for what I assume is cocaine.

GRIER: Right, right.

GROSS: So I said I assume happy dust was cocaine. Maybe it's heroin. Does it make a difference to you which it is? Do you need to know?

GRIER: We decided that it is cocaine. Now, you know, we decided as a production, because that's - you kind of have to go, like, what is this, are we all on the same page. Yeah, I think so. I mean, in 1935, the source material, I would assume it's cocaine. I mean, and I also think that, for Sporting Life, the cocaine is really a tool.

I mean, I think he is a purveyor of flesh. I mean, I think that is what gets him off, that is really his interest in Bess, and the cocaine is a way to make money and exploit her weakness, but it's all used to get her, to seduce her, to get her so that I can turn her out. I mean, that's really what's happening.

GROSS: So, you know, you're a comedian, and - among other things. And, you know, Sporting Life is, you know, usually played as somebody both sinister but really kind of like dapper with a comedic side to him. How have you tried to balance the sinister and the comedic in your performance?

GRIER: I didn't want to play it on one level, meaning I didn't want to hit the stage like, you know, Snidely Whiplash going (makes noises). You know, I had this, you know, this drug, you take it, and we'll go to New York. It was more smooth and trying to build a real seduction, which is he comes on, he's funny, amusing, always there, and as the stakes change, his argument changes.

The way he talks to Bess when no one else is around is different than when he talks to her with the community around. I think Sporting Life is a salesman. So he has to be flamboyant, the life of the party. He's really fun to hang out with, but you just don't want to owe him any money because once you get on that side of him, he changes.

So try and build it and put all those levels in so that it builds and changes and evolves all the way leading to that moment of there's a boat, where he just drops all façade and goes for her because they're alone onstage, and no one else is there. Then he can show his real face.

GROSS: What meaning did "Porgy and Bess" have for you when you were growing up? How aware of it were you?

GRIER: You know, this whole production has been so strange. You know, I was talking to my brother, my older brother about "Porgy and Bess" when we first started. We did a workshop in New York, and he said, well, you know dad was obsessed with "Porgy and Bess," and I'm like what?

I'm the youngest of three kids. So I'm 55 now, which means when the movie came out, I was really little. I was like, what, three years old. So I had - that's what I mean, I don't have any memory of it. I've never seen the opera. And he goes oh, yeah, dad loves - I'm like: Why would he be obsessed with "Porgy and Bess"?

And he goes: Well - you know, my father contracted polio on a troop train in Korea. He's a retired psychiatrist. And all of a sudden, it's like this huge thing appears to me, and I go; Well, of course. Now I understand. He's seen all these productions of "Porgy and Bess." And we started corresponding by email, and he ultimately came to the show, which was boom, this was him, in a lot of ways, to have this opera depict this man suffering from polio on the stage, a lot of - in a lot of ways, this was him, this was an aspect of him that he saw, and it became infused with so much more to me.

GROSS: So you're saying that your father, who had polio, related to Porgy because Porgy is crippled?

GRIER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Porgy didn't have polio, like he was...

GRIER: No, but I mean, it's - you know, it's not like it was his story.

GROSS: Right, just wanted to make that clear, yeah. So you didn't even make that connection until your brother told you after you started to work on "Porgy and Bess"?

GRIER: No because I didn't remember. I didn't remember. Yeah, I was a little kid. I did not remember. But my brother is older, and he goes: Oh, yeah, when the movie came out, daddy came, you know, home with the posters, and he - and through our correspondences, he talked about all these other productions that he'd seen, the opera and now who's playing Bess and how are we doing it differently.

I mean, he was all involved. But it also helped us all because, you know, as a child, I never saw my father as anything other than a normal and vital man. You know, he had a severe limp because he caught polio, contracted it on side. He was in an iron lung. He was in crutches, in a wheelchair, and he basically came finally, with this brace which is the exact brace that Porgy wears at the very end when he saves up his money, and he finally gets this brace for his leg to help him walk.

That's what my father - that's what I played with as a kid. I played with his brace in the house, you know, when I was growing up.

GROSS: Was it a relief to know that your father loved "Porgy and Bess"? And here's why I ask: Your father is the co-author of a very important, widely read book called "Black Rage," which was published in 1968, and it's all about all of the issues like, you know, slavery, oppression, discrimination that held back and pushed down African-Americans and what the source of that day's anger was.

And some people see "Porgy and Bess" as being stereotyped. Some people see it as being this like extraordinary achievement that gave both a Broadway stage and an opera stage to African-Americans, who would have never gotten such fantastic roles before.

GRIER: Right.

GROSS: So did you know how your father - like in those two...?

GRIER: I didn't. I didn't know all of that because that was a conversation, that was the exact conversation when he finally was able, he was well enough to travel to see the production. We went out for lunch, and I said exactly that: I didn't know your relationship to "Porgy and Bess," if you felt it was racist, or if you felt this was a great American opera, blah, blah, blah.

And he looked at me like I was crazy, and he was like this is, you know, America's greatest opera. Are you kidding me?

GROSS: And what about you? When - did you have any opinions in that spectrum of, you know, racist stereotype to, like, a brilliant production that opened the doors to African-Americans on Broadway and opera houses?

GRIER: Well, I mean, here is what I thought: They wanted to tackle this. They wanted to tackle all of that stuff, all that minutia, that racial, the racial issues, these problems that a lot of black performers have always had with "Porgy and Bess" and really delve into the emotional life of these characters.

That is what attracted me to this production.

GROSS: So could you give me an example of something within the - a book of "Porgy and Bess" that you thought was maybe a little stereotyped, a little racist, that was - yeah, that was altered?

GRIER: There are characters that were taken out. There is a white, I guess, what is he, a lawyer who intercedes on Porgy's behalf. I mean, the way it is written, the way that these white people deal with the black people, they deal with them as if they are amusing children who need guidance. They can't take care of themselves. They are not fully fleshed-out human beings. That's the tone.

From my research, when Gershwin first brought this piece to his African-American cast, which he himself insisted only be played by African-American artists - why do I bring this up? Because it's - there's a very famous story. Al Jolson really wanted to play Porgy in blackface, and...

GROSS: I was so amazed when I heard that.

GRIER: Well, there you go.

GROSS: Just thinking what that would have been like, how bizarre that would have been, how wrong that would have been.

GRIER: Right. I mean, we're getting into a lot of the controversy of our production. As soon as Gershwin brought this to this group of African-American artists, the original company got together with him and said look, we have to cut out these racial epithets. They are offensive to us, and we, as artists, will not do this.

So the piece has always evolved and changed. It changed from there, and then this company said we will not play in segregated houses. So as they went from Boston to Washington and started that original tour, the company was like unless you desegregate the house, meaning everyone sits together, it's not going to be done.

So there is a lot of history surrounding this piece that's very interesting to me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Alan Grier, and he's nominated for a Tony for his performance as Sporting Life in the Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess," and the cast recording has just been released. Let's take a short break; then we'll talk some more. OK?

GRIER: All right.

GROSS: All right, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Alan Grier, and he's nominated for a Tony for his role of Sporting Life in the Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess," and he's probably best known for the characters he did in the sketch comedy series "In Living Color." He was nominated for a Tony for his performance in David Mamet's play "Race" and so on.

OK, so you're not an opera singer, but in "Porgy and Bess," the character of Sporting Life is usually not, not always, but often not an opera singer. He's been played by Cab Calloway, by John Bubbles, by Sammy Davis. Did you feel like you were up for, you know, a singing role?

I know your first role on Broadway was in a musical about Jackie Robinson, with you in the leading role, but I presume it's been a while since you sang seriously on stage?

GRIER: You've got to sing, I mean, you know. Diane(ph) put me in the room. I sat - Phillip Boykin would sit behind me, and he would sing my parts. We started with the most difficult, "Killing of Robbins," which is so vocally and musically challenging. I was totally lost, but he said look, you can do this, it's fine, it's wonderful.

It was very challenging, but you just jump in. They cast me. Someone believed in me.

GROSS: Wait, the killing of - I'm trying to remember what you sing there.

GRIER: Well, "The Killing of Robbins" is when Crown comes in, in the very beginning of the opera, and he kills Robbins. You know, there's a crap game and then a fight.

GROSS: Right.

GRIER: Well, vocally, there's all this counterpoint, point, counterpoint, you wait 12 bars on the flatted fifth, David you come in, you hold this note once, you go out, you count another seven measures, you come in - oh. You know, all these vocal things. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming.

But so we're all working on this stuff, and we work for a few weeks, we put it together, and it's so intricate. Funny, at the end of the day, Diane goes look, we're going to clear this up. And she cut my parts. It was in the staging, and I very gallantly said if you insist, I will adhere to your artistic choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: I was like thank God, I don't have to sit there and count.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you're not on the cast recording on that?

GRIER: No, I'm not in the - I don't sing in that part. I don't sing in that part because it was cut.

GROSS: Because I don't remember hearing you. So I was thinking like oh, why was that.

GRIER: It was cut out. It was cut out. But I'm telling you, it was like one, two, three, four, five, oh, kill him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: (Singing) Is he dead? Oh, Crown is very drunk. He's very, very, very drunk, oh. You know, so - and running around the stage. I never got the part right, and I would stand behind Mingo, and he would - if he turned his face right, I could copy off of him like a kid in school. I could see where we were supposed to come in because his part was the same as mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: It was very - yeah, it was wild. It was wild. But we got through.

GROSS: Well, let's hear something that you are in. Let's hear one of the most famous songs from the show, "It Ain't Necessarily So," which is Sporting Life's song, and set the scene for us. This takes place at a picnic on a little island that all the people from this little fishing village are there. Bess is there. Porgy has stayed home. And you're kind of like preaching a sermon, and it's a pretty religious community. So set the scene for this song.

GRIER: All right, well, part of - you know, on the picnic, it's very pivotal for Bess because she is being integrated and accepted into this community, a formerly scorned woman. The women of the community have invited her out, and they're embracing her. You know, we're with Porgy now, you are one of us.

As in every community, there is a very religious person there who's admonishing everyone don't drink, don't gamble, you should all be in church. You remember that, you know, this is how we're supposed to live as good Christians. And what motivates the song is Sporting Life making fun of her, making fun of Serena, like yeah, right, that's not the way it is, it's not, this is garbage.

GROSS: OK, so we're going to hear this. It starts with Serena, and then, you know, Sporting Life comes in right after. So here's David Alan Grier as Sporting Life on the new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")

BRYONHA MARIE PARHAM: (as Serena) Remember children, at the end of the day, like the Bible say, you reap just what you sow.

GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) You reap just what you sow?

PARHAM: (as Serena) That's right.

GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. The things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (as characters) (Singing) Won't you tell us more?

GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) Now, little David was small but oh my, little David was small but oh my. He fought big Goliath, who laid down and dieth, it ain't necessarily so.

GROSS: David Alan Grier will be back in the second half of the show. The cast recording of "Porgy and Bess" was released today. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Alan Grier. He's nominated for a Tony for his performance as Sporting Life in the Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." Grier also received Tony nominations for his performance as Jackie Robinson in the musical "The First" and for his performance in David Mamet's play "Race." Many people were introduced to him through the sketch comedy show "In Living Color." The new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess" was released today.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a very famous and controversial letter about your production of "Porgy and Bess" before it even started previewing. It was a letter that was published in The New York Times in reaction to a feature story that quoted Diane Paulus, the director, Suzan-Lori Parks, who did the adaptation of the book, and Audra McDonald, who plays Bess, and based on what they said, based on the revisions that they said they wanted to make, Stephen Sondheim was outraged that they thought they could improve on what the Gershwin's originally came up with. And I could see how that might be very demoralizing for the cast and producers, writer, director, etcetera.

So I read in The Times that you really helped boost everybody's spirits. If that's true, what did you do?

GRIER: Well, I came in and I said, now listen, I don't know who this Steven Soderbergh is...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: ...but I've never liked his films and I didn't even know he's an opera fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: So I told Audra that and she fell out laughing. And so, that's what I said basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did it get you down?

GRIER: Listen, I'm going to be honest. I read it first thing in the morning. That's what I do. I read The New York Times. And I was titillated and excited because I will tell you why. That is what theater is supposed to do. I didn't think people would get this excited and heated over a simple musical production. I want to be in that production, you know what I'm saying? The comments were, I think there were like 400 comments, people going back and forth. At the end of the day, it was a letter in response to an article about a production that no one had seen and had not even opened. So, at the end of the day, I felt confidence in what we were doing, OK? No one's seen it. Come see it and then make an opinion.

GROSS: I wonder if Sondheim's seen it.

GRIER: I don't know, but one time I thought I saw him.

GROSS: Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Yeah. There is a joke like every so often in the beginning. We'd be there and some - one of us would mutter to the other during a curtain call, (whispering) Stephen's out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: (Whispering) I think I saw him. Yeah. I don't know if he has.

GROSS: So even though he wanted to be a musician when you were younger...

GRIER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I read that you didn't do musicals in college because you thought of it as men in tights.

GRIER: Well, they were.

GROSS: What was your problem with musicals?

GRIER: Well, you know, I went to Cass Technical High School in Detroit, I was in the art curriculum and they did "Godspell," like every other high school in I don't know, '70-something. It wasn't what my, where my head was at. It was just for me at that time it was lame. I didn't want to do that. And, no, I couldn't. There was no way.

GROSS: Was it because it was "Godspell" as opposed to...

GRIER: It was not cool. It was not cool.

GROSS: Right. OK.

GRIER: People, it was very "Glee." People in the theater department...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: ...were nerds, were nerds. We, you know, we smoked marijuana and went to rock concerts, that's what we did. We thought we were cool stoner kids. I didn't want to - no, it was just not cool. That's the best way I can tell you.

GROSS: So how did you feel when you first big break was playing Jackie Robinson in a Broadway musical?

GRIER: Well, my by that - at that point, much like Bess, I had been turned out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: I started acting...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Yes. I started acting when I went to the University of Michigan, I think in my sophomore year. A friend of mine recruited me. He needed people on stage. He had his own theater company and he jumped me in, like I was in a gang and once I came in, it was just that simple. It was like this, for the first time in my life I felt this is a career, this is a life that I think I can grow old doing. You know, I absolute love at first sight. I loved being on stage and learning and reading these plays. And so it was great. I mean, it was great.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you about your father's influence. Your father, William Grier, co-wrote the book "Black Rage," published in 1968. How would you describe it?

GRIER: He was an angry black man, you know, I mean basically what it, at the heart of "Black Rage," I think was a lot of it was about the residual effects of racism, and in particularly, slavery has had on the African-American psyche and our community to this day.

GROSS: So what did your father tell you when you were growing up about what it meant to be African-American in the U.S. and what you needed to know about slavery in the U.S. and African-American history to understand the world that you were growing up in?

GRIER: Well, I can give you two examples. One time in 1965, our family, we all piled in the car and we drove across country to California. The car broke down in the salt flats. I remember going to a gas station and my father gets out, because our air-conditioner was broken. He must've been in there for 10 minutes, he got in, ashen faced and quietly said, everyone stay in the car. They don't like Negroes here. So, that was a rude awakening. So we had to spend the night in this small town, desert town. My father and my mother told us not to play in the pool, to stay in the room. So it was bewildering. It was not psyche-shattering because I didn't grow up in that kind of world.

My grandmother was born in 1900 and she would regale me with tales of, I call them like "Little House on the Prairie" tales. But really, they were tales of a segregated and racist America in the South growing up in Alabama and Mississippi where she came from, and she would tell me these stories as I fell asleep in her arms, you know, when I was a very little kid. Our household was infused with black history. I grew up in a home and in a world in which you can do anything. We were all expected to go to college. My father was a doctor. All of my contemporaries, my friends and their families were doctors and lawyers and dentists and we all went to private school.

GROSS: Did you live in a predominantly African-American community or a mixed community?

GRIER: We did. In Detroit we grew up in the Boston Edison area, these big beautiful homes. It was a great life. I mean - and also at a time, you know, watching and marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the '60s, until '68 anything was possible. This world is changing. The world that my mother and my father and my grandmother would talk about this segregated world; it was amazing and interesting to me but that's not my world. That was not my world. My world was a world of anything was possible. We were going to the moon. We could do anything. So it was to their credit that they nurtured us in that environment.

GROSS: So your father's book was "Black Rage," kind of explaining what the anger was all about. Did he want you to experience that rage or to just be so informed about it that you could process it and not have to experience rage, just experience like comprehension?

GRIER: He didn't have to. That's kind of like me asking you, as a woman, did your mother want you to experience the oppression of being a woman? No. You're a woman. You're going to...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: ...this is your life. As you walk through the world you're going to experience it. Why? Because you're a woman. So that's what it was. I mean it wasn't like he wanted us to experience it. We didn't have to. In the '60s?

GROSS: No. No. But the question of how you process what it is that you experience. Do you let it...

GRIER: Ah.

GROSS: Does it turn to rage or does it turn to something else?

GRIER: No. It didn't turn to rage to me. I mean, there are incidents of racism that I experienced as a child, but I didn't grow up in a segregated community. I went to private schools. I was a blerd, as I call it which is a black nerd.

GROSS: A blerd? Oh.

GRIER: A blerd, a black nerd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Get with it, Terry. Come on, girl.

GROSS: Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Right. Right. So, you know, I didn't experience that. But I'll tell you what, you know, in the '60s nothing was sexier than like the Black Panther Party. Nothing was...

GROSS: Yeah, you tried to join when you were 15.

GRIER: Of course. But I mean, I remember watching H. Rap Brown doing a press conference and at one point one of the reporters goes, Mr. Brown, will you be returning to Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts? And he says I don't know, Honky.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: And he goes, did you say you would shoot so and so? I may shoot you, Honky. Well, me and my brother were laughing and clapping and running around the living room. We couldn't wait to grow big huge Afros because at that age we wanted to be screaming black men. That was cool. I mean, yes, that's what I wanted to do.

GROSS: Did you tell your father you were trying to join the Panthers when you were 15?

GRIER: I was younger. My brother, I think he was affiliated or something. To black parents, to middle-class black parents, that was frightening. That was akin to joining the Crips because Black Panthers were being slaughtered, murdered across the country. So, no, they were frightened. That was probably the most frightening thing you could say to your parents in our community. No. They want us to shut up, cut your hair and go to school, and don't cause trouble. And please don't get killed. So that's, as any parent, that's what they wanted.

GROSS: So you, I guess it was in the '70s, you are in an NEC production of "A Soldier's Play" and then in the film adaptation, which is called "A Soldier's Story."

GRIER: Right.

GROSS: And NEC stands for Negro Ensemble Company.

GRIER: Yeah. Hold on. Hold on. That production was in 1982 or three.

GROSS: OK.

GRIER: Yeah. That was what I - Charles Fuller.

GROSS: So how did it feel from going from like I want to be a Panther to I am now in the Negro Ensemble Company?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Well...

GROSS: Did the word bother you?

GRIER: No it didn't. I mean at that point it was the prestige of the company. Douglas Turner Ward was, he still is, he's one of my theater heroes. The Negro Ensemble Company was a legendary company of actors. And many of the actors who I idolized when I first started acting and the productions that they did were legendary. So to be a part of that production, a production which won a Pulitzer Prize, was one of my fondest memories. Adolph Caesar was in that production. Sam Jackson was in it. So to sit in that dressing room, that dressing room was the best. That was really awesome.

There's a picture that's out there that - who came? That all of us - you know, most of the play is us in our underwear. So we had like boxer shorts on and these T-shirts, but all of us standing in the dressing room - that we took with Sidney Poitier and we were all given a copy. Of course, it's in storage somewhere. I can't find it but it's out there.

GROSS: I remember I saw the movie. I remember people being more in uniform than in their underwear.

GRIER: Yeah, well, I'm just telling you, off-Broadway, that's the way it went down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: None of us, because we were all in the barracks. I mean, in various, I think we had pants on part of the time but, you know, yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Alan Grier and he's nominated for a Tony for his performance as Sporting Life in the Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess," and the cast recording has just been released.

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is David Alan Grier, He's nominated for a Tony for his performance as Sporting Life in "Porgy and Bess." He also received a Tony nomination for his performance in David Mamet's 2009 play "Race." Many people were introduced to him in the early '90s when he was in the cast of the sketch comedy series "In Living Color."

So an "In Living Color" question. Honestly, and this might be an embarrassment to me. The first time I heard snaps, was in your sketch...

GRIER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: "Men on Film," which I'm going to ask you to describe and also ask you to describe where the snaps came from.

GRIER: All right. Well, we would rate - Damon and I would rate - Blaine and Antoine - we would rate movies using snaps.

GROSS: And this is Damon Wayans, one of the stars of the show. Yeah.

GRIER: Right. Right. Right. The fun of "In Living Color" was exposing black culture, and in that sketch, gay culture, that I don't think America had ever seen at that point. I had already done "Dreamgirls" and on Broadway, you know, and being in a musical and working with other performers who were gay, I was privy to that vocabulary backstage. It was, you know, they were being themselves. So a lot of it was hijacked from what I heard in the theater and what was permeating around. So the snap thing was if at the time, you know, me, if a gay person - a gay man - were going to read you it always came...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAP)

GRIER: ...reading meaning - tell you off - it was always accompanied by snaps. Now, I don't know if it was, it became a gay thing, but it's also a very black thing, and I'll tell you. So in other words it was like, Terry, (clapping with each word) I don't like your show. That's how it was told.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: You understand?

GROSS: Yes.

GRIER: Don't call me. You know, and stuff like that. Or they'll go no, I don't like you. And they would put a snap on it. So that's where it came from.

GROSS: And it's fine how you'd use it in "Men on Film."

GRIER: But we would go, you know, we would review a movie and we'd say we give this two snaps and it'd just, you know, in a Z formation and we would make it up on the spur of the moment to, you know, rate these movies. But I have a quick story I gotta tell you.

GROSS: Please.

GRIER: "Race." David Mamet's "Race." There was one performance of "Race" where my character comes out and he says, you know, sit down. You know, you want to tell me about black folks - to Richard Thomas, who's white and privileged. I begin to, you know, spew this monologue. This particular performance, every time I would say you want to tell me about black folks, I'd hear this in the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SNAP)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: You can't tell me about black folks. Why? 'Cause you're white.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SNAP)

GRIER: And it was like every point I made, somebody in the audience was going...

(SOUNDBITE OF A SNAP)

GRIER: ...Mm-hmm. So it was pretty funny and we were laughing. It was like that person was miked.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Yeah. Yeah. It was pretty funny.

GROSS: So isn't "Living Color" in syndication now on a cable channel?

GRIER: It's somewhere everyday. It's here in New York. It's on a Spanish channel that's like never ending. Fox has celebrated their 25th anniversary and I love those guys. I love the Wayans and working with them and fond memories.

GROSS: It was such a great show. Well, David Alan Grier, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GRIER: Now, wait. Did I answer all your questions?

GROSS: Well, here's one that I thought of asking you that I didn't ask.

GRIER: All right.

GROSS: This gets back to your father again.

GRIER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So your father's a psychiatrist.

GRIER: Right.

GROSS: He taught at the college level. Did you feel like he was - that he had these, like, special insights into your mind because he was a psychiatrist when you were growing up? That he was - a lot of kids feel like their parents are kind of omniscient. Did you feel that any more so because he was a psychiatrist?

GRIER: Yeah. Listen, if you're asking me did he ever pull the psychiatrist thing with me, no. Why would you say that, Terry?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: And how were you feeling when David said that to you? I'd like to hear your thoughts. No, he was a father. He would: Sit down and stop fidgeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: That's very un-psychiatric. But I will tell you this. My father has always been very intimidating, and I'll tell you what. I was doing Shakespeare in the Park with Charles Dutton; well-known actor, spent time in prison. Nobody should intimidate him. He was there and I introduced him to my father and he walked away and he went, man, that dude is really intimidating.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: Because he is. He just has that. He's the smartest man I know and it was more that, to try and live up to what he'd done and to impress him in his eyes. And quick story. My father has been very ill.

GROSS: I'm sorry.

GRIER: He's not able to travel to see "Race" which I know he would've loved. Why? Because I was a screaming black man. He would've loved it. He finally came to see "Porgy and Bess" and I asked Audra and Norm to come out. As they came out, my father grabbed Audra's hand and just began to weep. Members of the company that I'd asked came out and surrounded him and hugged him and he kept telling Audra, you have made my life so rich.

So it was a wonderful, wonderful moment and I'm so glad that he got a chance to see "Porgy and Bess."

GROSS: God, that is really moving.

GRIER: Oh, it was - it was great. It was great.

GROSS: What did he think of your performance?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRIER: He was sweet. He was very sweet. He really loved it. He really loved it and he sent me this email and just said how amazing and wonderful it was. He was leaving the theater and I caught him and we all came out and grabbed him in the house and said hello. And so he was overwhelmed. He really loved the performance. He thought I was quite good. For him that's a rave.

GROSS: That's really great.

GRIER: Yeah.

GROSS: It was really great. I'm glad he got to see it.

GRIER: Mm-hmm. Me too.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRIER: Thank you so much.

GROSS: David Alan Grier is nominated for a Tony for his performance as Sporting Life in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." The cast recording was released today. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Christopher Tighlman's new novel "The Right-Hand Shore" set on the eastern shore of Maryland where his family has had a farm since the 17th century. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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