For decades, Laurence Holder has been showing and strengthening his mettle with words on a page, working in the arena of character, meaning, and emotion, going inside history’s twists and turns.
Sugar Ray, Laurence’s latest effort, which was on view Memorial Day Weekend at Theater for the New City on the Lower East Side in New York, started out as a film script and then evolved into drama, which is his favorite medium, bar none. “What came my way,” Holder said in May, “was the notion that someone might be interested in doing a screenplay. Sugar Ray Leonard was supposed to be the actor. He was going to play Sugar Ray Robinson to whom he’s often compared. But then he withdrew and so that project fell to pieces. But I didn’t let that stop me. I admired Sugar Ray too much. He’s a fabulous character. I didn’t want to let him go so I made him the star of a play. Sugar Ray and Joe Louis. Those were icons of a given time, especially for black men. They were good fighters. They were strong. I hadn’t written anything for seven or eight years, and then there was Sugar Ray. I was retired. I had paid my dues to my muse. But the muse woke up for a minute, and I do what the muse directs me to do. But it also felt fine not writing for a while. One gets tired of jousting at windmills. I was writing and writing but the work wasn’t always getting done. Samuel French wasn’t publishing me so I published myself. I own my work. No one else does. Sugar Ray was the one who brought me back, and it feels good.”
Is he the first fighter you’ve written about? You’re something of a fighter yourself. You don’t give up.
“I’ve written about Bussa. A lot of people don’t know about him. He was a revolutionary. A long time ago. Actually, this is the bicentennial of the revolution he led in Barbados, back in 1816. That’s where my family is from, Barbados. So that’s my heritage. There were these three uprisings in the Caribbean, pretty much on the heels of the Haitian Revolution. The first one was in Barbados. That was the one that Bussa led during Easter time. Maybe the slaves thought they were going to resurrect themselves. The next one took place in what is now Guyana. That was in 1823. And the third one, the biggest of all, about 60,000 slaves moving together was in Jamaica, around the time that Nat Turner started to move. Some of the English abolitionists supported the slaves. William Wilberforce was a friend to Barbados. The Caribbeans are still carrying a heavy burden because they pushed for freedom. That is why the Haitians are still suffering. They started that revolutionary ball rolling, and they are still being punished for it today. Even now, the Dominicans hate the Haitians. They occupy the same island, with just a mountain between; but they haven’t made peace. Everyone is still living the same old story.”
You are a torrent of a writer, writing not only plays but poems and novels too. But I am curious about something. What do you see as the difference between you and August Wilson? From my perspective, the two of you have a similar commitment to history and a similar commitment to urban characters steeped in the vernacular.
“I’ll tell you a big difference between August and me. I didn’t have Lloyd Richards as a friend. So I wasn’t part of the Yale power network. My issue is not with August. I did what I know. I went the way the Barbadian mind goes. I asked myself, what can I afford? So I went to City. I didn’t have Harvard or Yale money. Good for August that he was able to get into that crowd, however he did it. If I had hooked up with a prestigious circle, with the cream of the Ivy League, it might have been different for me.”
What appeals to you about theater above the other genres in which you have written?
“Theater is immediate. You get a couple of actors together. You give them a script, and you can hear what you’ve written. You don’t need a camera or a tape recorder or anything. Just the performers. And then you know. You feel when it works and when it doesn’t. You hear it. You hear what’s missing. You know when you need to fix something. And so you do it. It’s personal. It’s intimate. You write a five-character play. You invite five friends over and they read the play. You’re in the moment together. They’re doing something they enjoy, something different. And you can hear and sense what works and what doesn’t. You make your mental notes and respond accordingly. Film. That’s too long a process. Novels. You got to get them published. Theater is always in the present tense. It’s always right now.”
Is there something you would like to do in writing that you haven’t yet done?
“Yes, I’d like to get up to the next level. I’d like to get beyond Off-Broadway. I want to have a play on Broadway. I want to show the world what I can do. It would be great to get past the roadblocks, past the closed doors, past the bottleneck. I keep running smack up against closed doors. Here’s an example. We’re doing Zora Neale Hurston at the American Place Theater, which is the highest level I’ve been able to get to in the theater in New York City. The play is packing the house. So I look at my contract thinking there might be some payoff for me. And I go to Wynn Handman, the producer, asking him if I could get a percentage. He snarls No at me. So I get an agent. And then I get a check for a few thousand. I’d like to be treated right and respected. The writing has always been good, but getting the work produced has not been easy. Some producers take more than royalties. A couple of times my work was put on with someone else claiming authorship. And then some of my plays are not even reviewed. Monk, my play about Theolonius Monk, has never been reviewed. Another play I haven’t mentioned yet could easily go to Broadway. That’s the Mandela Saga, which is a new take on the Mandela situation.”
Did your parents get to see any of your success?
“Yes, they did. They had a little scrapbook for me. My father was always circumspect. He didn’t say a lot. They saw Chickens on tv, but the producer there didn’t want to give me author credit.”
How do you see strengthening the visibility and potency of African heritage theater so this kind of thing doesn’t happen? Do you see it in the cards for African heritage theater to get stronger, more supported, more appreciated?
You need to build the appreciation. The black community is not really encouraged to go to theater. Those encouragements happen when you are in grade school. Artists and performers are brought to the auditoriums for assembly, and that inspires and stimulates the young. In New York City, especially, they are not even teaching music any more in the public schools. In the most cosmopolitan of all the cities in the country, music is not being taught. Much less history. Much less African American history, which is part of the greater fabric of history. And if we were all taught history the way we should be, as history, then we would all know about African American history, Spanish history, European history, Asian history, Native American history. There are fabulous civilizations out there that we know so little about. We think we are the cat’s meow. But there is so much more we could know. We have to take a greater interest in who we are; but we are not doing that. We just watch television and see films and take in the narratives. Kill, kill, kill is the message. That’s where the American dream is now.”
So, the answer is keep fighting the power.
“Yes, like Sugar Ray and Bussa. Fighters have to stay strong, ready. You never know when the clock may turn. A new direction might be coming, right around the corner. I keep fighting and learning. When misfortune knocks me down, I get back on my feet. I listen to my muse. Ellington said music was his mistress. Mine is drama, and there is struggle in it. But in the end the struggle is always worth it.”