You Want to Be a What?

Newark native Richard Wesley and his father scrapped over Richard’s post-college career. Now the playwright reflects on what it meant to be young, gifted, and black in the 1960s—and what it means now.

Richard Wesley and his generation of African-Americans have traveled an often tortuous road. But looking back at his accomplishments and ahead to his students’ prospects, the award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and professor has come to enjoy the view. “My career and the careers of my contemporaries point to how much things have changed for the better in this country,” says Wesley, 62. “I’m so proud and fortunate to have been a small part of that change.”

As an example, Wesley cites the 2007 Oscars—a remarkable year for African-American actors. Three Dreamgirls cast members, among them Eddie Murphy, were nominated (Jennifer Hudson, in her screen debut, won Best Supporting Actress). Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) each were nominated as Best Actor.

“It’s not only the number of African-American actors,” Wesley says. “It’s also that no one made a big deal about it.”

Racial identity has long stood at the center of Wesley’s writing. His complex protagonists have included aging gangsters in Newark (The Mighty Gents, on Broadway); the dazzling dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, once the highest-paid black entertainer in America, who nonetheless died without a dime (Bojangles, for Showtime); and the polar opposites Nelson Mandela and South African President F.W. De Klerk—the former the world’s most famous political prisoner and  the latter the unlikely conservative who set him free and helped end apartheid (Mandela and De Klerk, for Showtime).

Born in 1945 and raised in the Ironbound section of Newark, Wesley belonged to the first generation of Americans influenced by television. Ironically, it was a TV series that dealt in stereotypes that first convinced him that he might transcend those stereotypes.

“I watched Amos ’n’ Andy on TV,” he says, “and thought mistakenly that the show was the work of black writers.” Fortunately, TV also exposed him to the real thing: “Channel 13 had Langston Hughes’s musical, Simply Heavenly, and after that I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.”

Wesley’s father, George, was a laborer at the Sherwin-Williams paint factory in Newark. His mother, Gertrude, was a homemaker. He has a younger brother, Leonard, who today lives in North Carolina. “My parents wanted me to attend college,” Wesley says. “But they couldn’t afford it. So after I was accepted at Howard University, I took out a college loan. Then I got a part-time job so I could pay the $44 a month.”

At the Washington, D.C., campus in the fall of 1963, Wesley found the civil rights movement in full bloom. Among the first people he saw when he arrived was the civil-rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who was a student at the school.

“Freshman orientation began right after the March on Washington,” Wesley recalls. “I had seen Dr. King’s speech on TV; Stokely, who was two years ahead of me at Howard, had been at the March. We didn’t have a chance to talk until a couple years on, when he was opening up the D.C. office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was very idealistic and intelligent. For someone so young, he had been around the movement long enough to see a number of his friends die. Later, when he became so angry at the slow pace of change, I could understand his frustration.”

Soon Wesley’s classmates and friends included Hattie Winston, later a fine actress on Broadway and TV; Donny Hathaway, the gifted R&B composer and performer; and the formidable mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman. He also got to know the actress who would become a star of Cosby under her married name, Phylicia Rashad.

As a sophomore, Wesley wrote a one-act play, Put My Dignity On 307, about a black factory worker who plays the numbers in hopes of rising into the middle class. He showed the play to his mentors, Owen Dodson, chair of the drama department, and Ted Shine, his playwriting teacher.

“When I returned from summer break, I learned that my professors had submitted my play to the Samuel French Playwriting Competition, and I’d won an Honorable Mention, the only undergraduate to do so.”

During Wesley’s sophomore year, another black playwright and Newark native, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), made news. Jones, who also had been a Howard student, won the 1964 Obie Award for his racially charged play, The Dutchman.

“To see that play succeed meant a lot not just to me, but to everyone in my class,” Wesley says. “It meant that many of the things we dreamed were possible.”

There was just one problem. “My father thought I was going to be a journalist, meaning I would have a job when I graduated—black journalists were being hired in the mainstream press by then,” Wesley says. “But he was disabused of that notion when a letter arrived from Howard with ‘Drama Department’ on it. He wanted to know what in the world I was thinking.”

Wesley stuck to his dream. He graduated in 1967 and returned to Newark a week before the riots. He had landed a job in New York with an anti-poverty agency.

His father was finally happy, telling him, “Richard, you’ve got a real job now.” A few weeks later, however, Wesley learned that his father had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

“Our relationship had its rough edges, but now we did things together,” Wesley recalls. “I remember we went to a Mets game at Shea. My father was confident in me, but he died right after Christmas and never saw me become a man. Mom never really recovered from his death, and it took me eighteen years to come to grips with it myself.”

That moment came in 1985, when his mother passed away. “My dad had been buried in an old Newark cemetery, and it was falling into disrepair,” Wesley relates. “My brother, Leonard, didn’t want to bury Mom there. He said, ‘Rich, we’re both doing well. Let’s find a nice place for them.’ We found a cemetery in Union, and then we went there to watch the workers disinter our father.

“We hadn’t been able to afford a vault when we buried him, so his coffin had broken up into metal scraps, and the crew had to go down to bring up his remains. I saw his suit, his good suit, the one he only wore on special occasions, and his shirt and tie, the whole outfit almost completely intact, and his funeral came back to me in a rush. Then the crew brought up my father’s bones, and I helped move them. I held them in my hands, and it was as though I was holding my father again and looking into his face. I was 40 years old, with the career and family I wanted, and suddenly I was completely at peace. I accepted that he was gone.”

But in late 1967, Wesley was still struggling. He lived in his family’s apartment to help care for his mother, who ten years earlier had contracted multiple sclerosis. He took a job as a United Airlines ticket agent at Newark Airport. “In those days, passengers could buy their tickets at the counter, and I had to keep track of the money,” he says.

This seemingly irrelevant experience proved priceless. “I ran into a classmate of mine, Charles Wright, who was working at the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem,” Wesley explains. At Wright’s suggestion, Wesley joined the playwrighting workshop there. Later, “I learned that they needed a managing editor for their in-house magazine, Black Theater. The job entailed running the office and keeping the books.” Wesley’s experience at the United counter helped him land the job.

Honing his craft, Wesley in 1971 completed a full-length play, The Black Terror, in which a group of black radicals puts its violent rhetoric into practice and pays a terrible price in bloodshed.

“I modeled my group on the Black Panthers,” Wesley says. “I was trying to ask people, ‘Is this what you really want?’”

Director and producer Joseph Papp saw The Black Terror and decided he had to have it for his Public Theater. “Joe loved to stir a pot,” Wesley says with a chuckle. Clive Barnes, the New York Times theater critic, praised Wesley’s writing as “strong and forceful” and called Terror “a winner.”

“I’m 26, and I have Clive Barnes extolling my virtues—I was terrified,” Wesley admits. “I was too young for this kind of attention, and I didn’t really know how to write.”

The Black Terror won the 1972 Drama Desk Award. That same year Wesley married his former Howard classmate, Valerie Wilson (later the best-selling author of the Tamara Hayle mystery series). They had known each other in college, but not dated. After marrying, they lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before moving to East Orange in 1973 and Montclair in 1978, where they raised their daughters, Thembi and Nandi, both now in their thirties.

Soon after the wedding, Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier saw Wesley’s play, Gettin’ It Together. “Sidney’s assistant called and asked me to come to his office at 1860 Broadway,” Wesley says. “I was stunned. Sidney was one of the biggest stars in the world.”

At their meeting, as Wesley tells it,Poitier said, “I’d like to star in and direct a comedy that involves as many top black comedians as possible.”

Wesley said, “You mean for Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson?”

“Precisely,” Poitier replied. “Do you think you could write the script for me?”

Wesley recalls, “I had no idea if I could. But I wasn’t going to say no.”

Back at his desk, the writer remembered an account of the 1970 Muhammad Ali–Jerry Quarry fight in Atlanta. The match proved to be a major media event and, according to boxing historian Bert Sugar, “marked the greatest collection of black money and black power ever assembled up until that time.”

Ali dispatched Quarry in three rounds. What intrigued Wesley was what happened at one of the post-fight parties. A number of big-time New York hustlers were robbed by some local talent. The haul was estimated at $1 million in cash and jewels.

“I based Uptown Saturday Night on that robbery,” Wesley says. “Sidney loved the story, hired me, and flew me down to his house in Bahamas to write the script.”

Starring Poitier, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson, and Richard Pryor, the movie earned box-office gold. Suddenly the playwright was writing for movies and television while continuing to write plays. The Mighty Gents, opening on Broadway in 1978, won an Audelco Award for Wesley and the Clarence Derwent and Drama Desk awards for actor Morgan Freeman.

Wesley had always felt an enormous debt to his professors at Howard. So, at the height of his career, he began teaching at colleges. Since August 1995, he has been on the drama faculty at New York University.

“Students now are smarter than we were,” he says. “They process things faster. It’s funny—when we, the Baby Boomers, came along, we were considered the fastest and smartest. But to see how much farther these young men and women have come is amazing.”

Yet, he adds, “Although today’s students seem to have a greater sense of entitlement, they also appear to lack the self-confidence we had. Their instinct is to stay in line, to conform, and just take care of themselves.

“This is not the best frame of mind for an aspiring playwright. You must challenge everything—including your own reactions. I tell them it is their job to translate the dry language of the social sciences into drama. That is the calling of the playwright: To let society know who they are, where they are, and what condition they are in.”

Peter Golden is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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