Today’s Renaissance Woman, Barbara Lewis Talks with Today’s Renaissance Man, Playwright Laurence Holder (Part I)

Lawrence Holder
Lawrence Holder

In May 2016, Barbara Lewis was privileged to interview Laurence Holder, just after a successful run of his play, Sugar Ray. Starring Reginald L. Wilson, the 75-minute biographical drama, directed by Woodie King, Jr. had a long, well-reviewed stay in Harlem at the Besame Restaurant, on the same site that Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989) once had a restaurant and business office near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Harlemites used to see Sugar, the legendary boxer in the Joe Louis era, driving his pink Cadillac up and down the avenue, with one lovely or another at his side, as his wavy, processed hair blew free in the wind. This is the first in a longer conversation with Laurence Holder, who has chronicled the urban history of African Americans, starting in the Harlem Renaissance, and moving forward from there.

“Every character is different. That’s one of the nice things about human beings. We are all unique and yet we’re different from each other,” Laurence Holder, New York playwright extraordinaire, tells me. “So there is a wide variety of stories that I can whale on. I move from Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed, iconic characters, to Zora Neale Hurston to Valaida Snow, a musician who was known as Little Louie. She spent time in a Nazi concentration camp. Everybody has something that attracts me to them. For Zora Neale, it was her ability to stay ahead of the crew, ahead of the game. She was a woman and she had to move quickly and smoothly. And she wasn’t always successful. She had a lot of men, some of them good men who still opposed her for just being a woman trying to express herself.”

                  At the end, though, Zora did fall behind the crowd, I counter, thinking of her later years when she was politically reactive.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is still new. It is such a seminal novel because it cuts everything that everybody else was writing to death because it dealt with love. I look at Richard Wright who is looking at the hypocrisy of racism, which is not so interesting to me. Langston Hughes stayed in the country. He stuck it out. I don’t like the notion of Wright running away. But Langston was up against it too, and he stayed. Some other artists have gone away. Langston was nailed in that congressional inquiry. But he took it on the chin, he kept on plodding, kept on writing, kept on expressing, kept on moving. That is what interests me. … You go back to those first two paragraphs of the novel and you won’t find an introduction more fabulous than that. In terms of her getting older, and having written regressive stuff, so much changes when you age. Aging is a big time deal. The older folks don’t always tell you that, but it’s a major number. A lot changes then. When you get older, you got to survive.”

                  I also remember the play that you wrote about May Chinn, the first black female doctor in Harlem in the 1920s.

“Someone presented me with a project, and I thought I could do it. And so I did.”

                  Your work fascinates me, Laurence, because it is so strong in history. It brings what was into now, but that history is not always appreciated.

“Your reading is dead on, Barbara. The reason why I’m interested in African American history is because our tales are not told. I was just talking on the phone with a friend and we were amazed that Prince and Michael Jackson coexisted at the same time, doing all of the fantastic music and creating music at the same time. Our artistry and our stories are always being separated out.”

Are there some plays, three to five, that are your favorites?

“The ones that come to mind right now are When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, which came early in Denzel Washington’s acting career. Woodie King did it at New Federal. There’s the 1990 version of Zora Neale Hurston with Elizabeth Van Dyke acting and Wynn Handman directing, Monk, about Theolonious Monk, with Rome Neal, and Sugar Ray, about the 1950s fighter. That’s my latest favorite. Sugar Ray is going to be done at Theater for the New City for fifteen minutes for Memorial Day. I have five volumes of plays out, called the Renaissance Series. They are all self-published. Ruby and Pearl is another favorite play of mine. It’s a morality tale about two aging burlesque dancers past 35 who don’t want to take it all off anymore. But I can’t really say that they are my favorites because I keep remembering different plays that I’ve written during my career. I’ve got at least forty, if not fifty years of writing. So I keep forgetting all that I’ve written – until something reminds me.”

                  Tell me about the title Ruby and Pearl. I am reminded of Alice Childress’s play, Trouble in Mind, which talked about black actresses always being named after some gem or flower. Was that at all an influence or is it a coincidence?

“It was just a coincidence. I wanted a black woman, Ruby and a White woman, Pearl, who are very close friends. They are strippers, starting to go on to the other side of beauty at 35 years old. And they resist the temptation and money to strip all the way, to bare their privates. So it’s a favorite of mine.”

                  Because it is about individual decision and will?

“Yes. And because they keep their friendship, facing every pressure to turn against the other because of racism or sexism or all the other pressures brought to bear against them. They weather the storm. They hold on to their friendship. I thought that was significant. For me, women represent an urge on our part, the part of humanity, to improve things. We’re seeing that now in this election campaign. Women bring another intelligence, another sensitivity to the world. And let’s face it. More than half the world now is made up of women and more and more women are showing up. And they deserve their right to speak up and be heard.”

                  So what were you like as a child?

“I was basically an only child for the first six years. Then my brother came. I was probably spoiled somewhat by my mother. My father was a disciplinarian. They were Barbadians and deep into education. I was reading newspapers when I was five and six years old.”

                  Did you grow up in New York?

“I was born in Brooklyn. Then we moved to Queens when I was twelve. I went to a Brooklyn Technical High School. After that, I went to City [CUNY]. Got two degrees there, fourteen years apart. I created a television show called Watch Your Mouth. Ellis Haizlip was the executive producer. Haizlip and I had a falling out but I got co-creative credit as a writer. I had representation from the Writers Guild in 1975. I had started writing before that, but after 1975 I really started to write. I have five volumes of plays with, but I have many more sitting in my vault. I had started writing in 1969, the year I had my son. I was thirty. Then, I was running a high school equivalency and college preparatory school in Newark, next door to Amiri and Aminia Baraka’s elementary school and near another alternative elementary school, African Free School. We shut down for the Christmas holidays, and I wrote a play. And I just kept writing. That play was called Open and it was about the educational situation then. It was never done; but it was the impetus, the first play in what I call my Urban Decalogue of ten plays, all of them unpublished. Closed is the last of the series. It was all an exercise. I was learning to write. Learning how to have my voice come through, how to create characters, five or six at a time. It was a while before I came down to working with just a few characters. For me, that is more powerful because I concentrate and store more in just one or two or three characters. Chickens, which highlighted an early Malcolm, came off very nicely. And of course I had really excellent actors and a great director.”

                  Do you consider Chickens your professional debut?

“No. That was a play called Bird of Paradise, which I wrote in 1974. Basically, I took some of my poetry and converted it into dialogue. Jackie Berger, Jewish lady, was the first director of it. Then I showed the piece to our great Ornette Coleman, R.I.P., and Ornette really took it out. I was at his studio. I showed him the play. This is the play, he asked. Yes, I said. He took the play, and threw it up in the air, and the pages came down. Page eighteen became page one. Novella Nelson had directed me to him. She has played a seminal role in getting me to some good people. And Ornette was a good person, a great musician. I didn’t necessarily always like all his music. But he was a great musician. He could really play. He was a creative guy. And I’m drawn to creativity and intelligence. That’s what attracts me.”

When do you sleep?

“I get my rest.”

                  It seems that you have written so much that you haven’t had time for much else besides writing.

“I have three children. So I found time for other things. And now I have seven grandchildren. Been married six times. This last time to a wonderful actress. And don’t forget I taught too. I was at John Jay College for over twenty years. And when I wasn’t writing or working, I was figuring out how to get into trouble. And I did my share of that as well.”



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Barbara Lewis heads the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, where she is a faculty member in English. As a Francophone scholar, she co-translated Faulkner, Mississippi by Edouard Glissant, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. As a cultural historian, she has published on lynching in drama, the minstrel stage, and the black arts movement. Dr. Lewis has taught at City, Lehman, New York University, and the University of Kentucky. She also blogs for The Public Humanist, and is a board member at New Federal Theater.

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