This is part two of our Theatre in Community interview with Clayton LeBouef. In this part, Clayton discusses the idea of community in both TV work and in theatre, focusing particularly on his experiences performing the role of Colonel Barnfather in Homicide: Life on the Street. Clayton also discusses his love of music and the production of his new play RS/24 at Anacostia Stage prior to the pandemic.
A quick note to listeners: On each episode of our Theatre in Community series, we include a glossary of theatre terms and names referenced in the interview.
Michael: I like that concept of, what, deep issues?
Clayton: Yeah. That’s what people call deep issues. Yeah.
Michael: Yeah. And frequently, I think that audiences don’t necessarily like going into deep issues—they’re resistant, let’s put it that way. They resist going into deep issues, but that makes a theater piece that invites them, encourages them, or nudges them to go into that space—
Michael: —all the more challenging and rewarding. Can you maybe talk about some of your experiences with plays about connecting with that deep issue?
Clayton: Connecting. That’s what I lean toward.
Clayton: Some people have even said, oh man, some people that say you’re, my daughter told me one time—Jane—she said, she looked at my DVD collection, she said, “You have to lighten this collection.” You know what I mean? “It’s heavy.” And I just cracked up, actually went out. It was a Friday, I actually went [00:52:00] out after she said it and picked up a nice little, a little piece to watch.
But it’s called life. Some people call it deep issues. It’s called life. And one thing you have to be careful, I have to be careful of is, there’s two masks, right? There’s tragedy and comedy. See, and if I don’t balance it out, then it’s too heavy for me, too. See, so that’s the beauty of theater again. It’s like in Africa, they had come up the greatest mask work that you’ll find in the world is in Africa. In my opinion. And that’s proven, right? Mask work. And they have joy and pain, sorrow and happiness. And balance, if you balance them out. I work to balance. I can be very funny. I’ve been in some comedies, and I have to do, you do more of that.
But to answer your question, I have to give a shout out to subscriber bases. They are not afraid of the deep issues. People who have subscriptions to shows, I love those folks, because see, they’ll come out in the snow, you know what I mean? They’ll come out, they’re into the deep [00:53:00] plays. If you have any subscribers or angels, they call them angels. Their names are on the program. You got to check those people out because—
Michael: Molly said the she subscriptions were down, that people are doing—
Clayton: Oh, is that right?
Michael: Maybe that was Joy.
Clayton: You know what? That, again, we can attribute that maybe to the stream—there’s so much to watch now.
Elizabeth: Right, right.
Clayton: But back before this, when you look at a subscriber base, when I worked over at Arena Stage, they would come out, and these were elders, too, driving—young people, “It’s snowing out there!”— some of these elders, right? And I have a deep love for audiences in theater.
Clayton: Because they could stay home, they stay home and watch television, so there’s a deep respect for subscribers and people who pay. And sometimes they’re subscribers and they don’t know what they’re getting. These are new plays. Or older plays. I love they, they’re, to me, they are what I would call experimenters, like when you buy records, and you’ve never heard it. [00:54:00] I buy records, and I’ll look at the album cover, and I’ll buy it sometimes based on the album cover. And it becomes an adventure. Whoever heard it over—
Elizabeth: Yeah, a leap of faith.
Clayton: Yeah, leap of faith. And subscribers are like that. Now, the other community, as you say, they may be, they work hard, so they want to be entertained. And that’s the other side of it. They don’t want the deep issues. It’s, “I work hard, that’s deep enough.” You know what I’m saying? Give me a musical, that’s deep right there. I’m not trying to do no apartheid and Ti-Jean and His Brothers, which was entertaining though. So, the great art, the challenge of theater is to make it entertaining, and to touch on deeper—and those two things are difficult for writers, maybe, to do, but I love it when it’s balanced like that. If I’m answering your question.
Elizabeth: Speaking of people staying home and watching television, you, we knew you as a stage actor and I think we’re all great lovers of that [00:55:00] theatrical process, but most of our listeners will probably know you as a television and film actor from your work on Homicide where you had the regular role of Captain George Barnfather and, as well as your regular role of Orlando Blocker in The Wire. Can you rewind the videotape a little bit, if you will, and talk to us about your transition or at least that addition in your actor life from stage work to TV and film. And talk a little bit about the differences between acting on stage and acting for the camera.
Clayton: Yeah, there’s magical things that happen to you, that you think you start reflecting on. I was in a bookstore, a B. Dalton bookstore—and this is a true story—and I was looking, and sometimes books, their covers will call you. You just look and it finds you in that way. You know what I’m saying? I know book lovers can understand what I’m saying, right? You’re not looking for the book, but you’ll glance and whatever the book—and I looked up on the [00:56:00] shelf and this black book with red letters called Homicide and it was a thick book, and I grabbed it. Now, this is before meeting. This is my introduction. I picked the book up, and, how did they say it? Life on the Killing Streets. That was the subtitle. And, but when I read the flap, basically it’s about Black young men in Baltimore and the problems of homicide. This terrible word that we have, which means there are men and women who have to find out who killed somebody. It’s like, it’s a homicide. There are men and there are people, medical people, who have to look into your body and take the bullet out. Heavy, again, right? Deep stuff.
I read the book by David Simon, and it was fascinating. Fascinating because he was able to hang out with these people who do this work. Also, it’s [00:57:00] another deep topic about the community that I come from. This is something ever since I was a child. You hear about gun violence within your own community. Some people call it “Black-on-Black crime.” I say I can’t go with that because I don’t know Black people who manufacture bullets and guns. If you show me a Black gun, bullet manufacturer, then maybe I’ll go with Black-on-Black crime. Okay? See?
Elizabeth: Follow the money, yeah.
Clayton: Because they say it’s a gun problem, but it’s a bullet problem. You got the gun, but then there’s ammunition that finds its way into our communities. So that’s another topic, but that’s how I do. That’s how I roll.
I pick that book up, it found me, I read it, and then next thing you know, I’m working at Center Stage with Irene Lewis, doing theater at Center Stage, right?
Elizabeth: In Baltimore.
Clayton: In Baltimore. August Wilson, Shakespeare, I did Romeo and Juliet, I did, what’s the other one, Pericles. You see what I [00:58:00] mean? I’ve done a couple of shows, a number of shows at Center Stage. And they commissioned the play that you mentioned in your intro. And I found out that they were auditioning for a television show that was coming into the town. And it was the book that I read. And I’m like, wow, this is interesting.
Clayton: David Simon, right? So I go and I audition for, not the character that I end up playing. Then when I go in and audition, they have all of these people sitting at a desk. They have seven or eight. It’s not like a theater with you two, two people. It’s seven or eight people watching your audition. And one guy gets up and comes around the desk. And he walks right up to me. I don’t know who he is. And he says, “Listen, if we give you this role of Barnfather, would you cut your hair?” Because I have a lot of hair and so I, he said, if I give you, “If we give you this role, would you cut your hair?” And I said to him, “I’m an actor.” And that’s [00:59:00] all I said. Yeah. He looked at me. He smiled.
I later found out that I answered in character. My character was Barnfather, the politico. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. I said, “I’m an actor.” So that’s the smart mouth. But it can help you sometimes, right? Cause he smiled at me, and I didn’t know, he gave me like a little smile, okay. And walked away, I found out it was Tom Fontana, this really strong, talented producer of television. David Simon wasn’t even in the room. I don’t, I didn’t know him.
But anyway, they cast me. And I went on to have one of the greatest experience, my introduction to a television series. I had done TV before that one show called The Eagle and the Lion, which is fascinating. That’s the first TV thing I did in Baltimore and that comes from the community. Arena Players. [01:00:00]
So these are transitions, see. And that’s why the term, when I found out “nonlinear,” I love it because that’s how I speak. That’s how I talk. But I like to try to make it relate to other things. I find it’s a way of expression, whether people enjoy hearing you go into other aspects of what you want to, and what you decide to speak about. You see what I mean? If it doesn’t answer a specific question, maybe the story will reveal something to you where the answer comes from you, rather than the person that is speaking. Because a story is being shared and you can find the answer within yourself and have an insight rather than the answer being you being told. So that’s what nonlinear speaking does, that’s what storytelling does for me. And that’s what I enjoy doing, whether I’m speaking to colleges, universities, or whether I’m shutting up and playing a character that doesn’t have much to say, with pantomime or [01:01:00] whatever.
Michael: Now, the difference is, because you’re, you’ve done stage work and digital work. And I’ve done a little bit of the digital and so I know the experience of, sometimes you don’t meet the other actors in the show, you’re just doing your take, your shot, and so the whole concept of community in a digital space is, I found it almost nonexistent, right?
Michael: I mean, on stage you’re meeting other actors.
Clayton: That’s right. Your technical people, your prop people, yeah.
Michael: Can you talk about how those, contrast those two experiences of working in a digital space where there is no audience except the camera itself and, versus stage where you’re, got the actors there, the technicians and you have audiences.
Clayton: In the film and TV world you have these wonderful technicians. See, I have a deep respect for the whole collaboration, right? The actors are the actors, but you have the costumers, you have the makeup people, you have the cinematographers. Watching these guys work, that’s not the stage, right? You’re [01:02:00] seeing cameramen. And gaffers and grips and people, what they call behind the scenes, but they’re really not behind the scenes. It’s called below the line. There’s above the line, is the creative side. That’s the film terminology. And then the behind, the below the line, are your technicians, right? So I just enjoy watching. You can learn so much about collaboration and getting along. Tech people, they get along. Like, the lighting people, they’ll have a problem. Instead of arguing about it, they’ll find a way to solve the damn problem. “Oh, we gotta get this particular light bulb. We gotta do this. Look, the sun is shining. We can’t film now. Let’s change the, let’s change up the whole setup that we initially had.” And instead of arguing about it, they’ll disagree, but they’ll find a way. That’s why I dig television. That’s why I dig film, because I’ve watched technicians solve problems.
You hear about these wonderful stories from Orson Welles on his set [01:03:00] and his cinematographers and different people coming up with ways to solve, to get a shot that they want. That’s not in the script. The director comes up. But then, on stage, you do have that audience connection, that deep ensemble work. Where it’s a little jagged on television, right? You know what I mean? They can stop. “Let’s stop, let’s cut.”
Elizabeth: It’s not live.
Clayton: Yeah, we can, if the actor messes up, we can do it again on stage. You ain’t coming back. And see, that’s why the stage, a lot of folks are like, ooh, you know what, if you mess up, you know you mess up.
To have a balance of both—the people that I worked with on Homicide, one of the reasons why Baltimore, I have to shout Baltimore out, Baltimore is miles ahead of some cities in terms of deep storytelling. The people there, the tech people in Baltimore, what’s happening is you had a lot of shows and Homicide was the beginning of it. It started. [01:04:00] This was a network television show that was miles ahead of the technical game with the camera movement, with the casting of Black actors. This was before, again, #OscarsSoWhite and all of this stuff. The type of collaboration between major actors Yaphet Kotto, Andre Braugher, but then they would pull people from the community. Do you know they pulled a cat from WPFW radio here, Nap Turner? Nap Turner had a wonderful little role on Homicide, so they were pulling actors from—
Elizabeth: DC, yeah.
Clayton: You know what I mean?
Elizabeth: And there was this one woman actor who was a local Baltimore actor who had a featured role, but she was actually from the streets of Baltimore.
Clayton: Let me see who that might be. In Homicide?
Elizabeth: Oh maybe I’m thinking of The Wire.
Clayton: Might have been The Wire. See, that’s what I mean. I’m mentioning Homicide because without Homicide, you wouldn’t have The Wire. What was happening is the tech staff, for seven seasons, right? When I say the technical people, the lighting, the sound. [01:05:00] They are so sharp. Think about seven seasons, you get a team of people operating on a high level with Barry Levinson’s scripts. Or producing scripts from a wide group of Black writers, Black, female, whatever, directors, major studio directors, Oscar winners that was coming through. Melvin Van Peebles had a role in it. Moses Gunn. These are heavyweights coming to Baltimore. So, the technical people were so in tune with each other by the time they got to The Corner. Then by the time they got to The Wire, oneness.
Clayton: So people are saying, man, how is this beautiful work coming out of Baltimore? I said, they got the production designer. You see what I mean? When you’re working that intensely together over a period of years, you can think on your feet. So if the actors are rolling, your tech people, you get The Wire, you’ll get Homicide, you’ll get [01:06:00] The Corner, you’ll get Something the Lord Made. Think of all of the series that have come out of Baltimore. Veep. What was the one with Kevin Spacey in it? Oh I forget the name of it. I didn’t do any work on that one. But look at the names. Look at the names. Look at the quality of work.
Elizabeth: House of Cards.
Clayton: House of Cards. Look at the quality of work recently that has come out of Baltimore, Maryland. And I live there. So, the point is, it’s right up the street from DC, but what’s up?
Elizabeth: Yeah, but it’s different. And I agree. Homicide, we were just deep fans of it.
Clayton: Amazing show.
Elizabeth: The storytelling, the layers. It set a standard for television.
Clayton: One episode I did was with Kate– Kathy Bates.
Elizabeth: Oh, the great Kathy Bates.
Clayton: There’s an episode where Kathy Bates is directing an episode about the nation of Islam in Baltimore. Talk about deep. And she was one of the directors that, what you would call actor directors. Meaning that some directors in television come, [01:07:00] they’re not necessarily there for the actors. They’re there for the shots, the setup. They want to utilize their creativity on a technical level. Let the actors do what they want to do. Kathy Bates being an actor, she comes from a different school. So she was there and it’s almost like theater now. “What’s your motivation?” But some of them other directors come in, “Look, we ain’t here to talk about none of that theater stuff. We’re trying to get the shots.”
Michael: Yeah, “Just give me the shots.”
Clayton: Yeah, “We’re trying to be creative on another level.”
Elizabeth: I want to ask you a little bit to rewind back to the theater landscape and the sort of showbiz landscape in this metropolitan area, because you’ve been in and out of the Baltimore–Washington region for many decades and from those early days when we met you, in the early days when people could actually perform shows in poor churches and on shoestring budgets to the present day, which in the theater landscape has transitioned and transformed to these [01:08:00] theatrical castles of magnificent buildings and multiplexes and these really extraordinary works of architecture. So the theater landscape is much different than it was 40, 50 years ago. Do you have insights in how you feel about the theater landscape and how it’s changed in your lifetime? In these, from these small, kind of gritty productions to these magnificent buildings.
Clayton: Yeah, I like architecture. I’m glad you mentioned it. In Show Me a Hero, the piece I did for HBO, I talk about that. There’s an architect character in there. Once again, people focus on the racism. I said, you can watch that yourself. But if you have me come to talk about that particular piece, I’m going to talk about the architect in the piece. Because he was talking about how architecture affects community. You watch it, you get the racism story. I’ll talk about the architecture. You see what I’m saying? So we got the balance.
And I love architecture, so the grand spaces—I lived in Yonkers, New [01:09:00] York, as I said. I could walk to three theaters, so there was the RKO Theater, five minutes, ten-minute walk away from me. Grand Theater to watch movies. And so I love the big spaces. Arena Stage, obviously working in an arena is amazing thing for an actor because you have to work like that.
But I know that there are a variety of plays, that’s all. Certain plays call for intimate spaces, like we did when I did in high school, right? And so once again, if we could balance it out, if certain people want to see the big stuff, and then there’s other people that want to see smaller—what that will do if we balance it out and build smaller spaces—working with Pat Sheehy, with The Source, she’s really concerned about The Source theater changing. I think they’re going to try to, raise the bill, not raise the billing, but change it. And hopefully she’s saying, look, let’s try to keep it. Mr. McGinty had the Takoma Theater [01:10:00] here. 500 seat. He, he wanted to tear it down and, but they stopped him, but it’s no longer theater. We did lose the Takoma Theater, but it’s a children’s hospital of some sort, which is cool. But we lost a grand space.
So, talking with theater people or financiers, I think playwrights are going to benefit from people who come together and build small spaces. Because when you’re building, when you have the big ones, only certain playwrights get handled. If you got a season of shows to select, you’re not going to select anything intimate.
Elizabeth: Yeah, if you have a 500-person house to fill.
Clayton: You better put Oklahoma! up in there or something, you know what I’m saying? Or something big to fill the seats up. And that’s where maybe you’re answering the question. That’s what we’re losing. We’re losing playwrights who have certain things. But one thing I do see that the bigger theaters are doing, or I guess what you would call mid theaters at certain levels, 10-minute plays. [01:11:00] That’s something that’s now been growing. And I like that. But I just think that if we can build small spaces, that would be great. And we’d probably see—or if not build them, transform spaces into theatrical spaces. They don’t have to be theaters per se. You can set up different places and put theater up in spaces. People have been doing that for years as—
Elizabeth: Yeah, site-specific productions.
Clayton: Yeah, going to the prisons, going into restaurant spaces or recreation centers. We actually, at Source Theater, we did A Soldier’s Play right here at the Martin Luther King Library.
Elizabeth: Right, right.
Clayton: The whole play was done here at the library.
Michael: Oh, so you moved it from the Source Theater—because I saw it at the Source Theater back in the day.
Clayton: Yes. Yeah. We actually—Pat had a program here. I think Pat was running it at that time. And if she wasn’t, I forgot exactly, sometimes you lose track of these things, but they would put [01:12:00] the plays up and certain plays, like soldiers’ barracks, it doesn’t call for much. I just came back from the Hartford stage. My daughter, she’s a costume designer and she did costumes for Trouble in Mind and that takes place in a rehearsal hall. There you go. A little dirty, put something dirty up in there, put a dirty trunk, put a dirty trunk on the stage, and some—
Elizabeth: A little grease paint and you’re ready to go.
Clayton: Yeah, that’s all, and you got your set. But obviously there’s an art to that as well. So, I think balancing out, I think we’re going to—I think I want to do that, actually, too. I want to own a theater myself.
Michael: Let’s go back to this, because you mentioned in your conversation with Zelda, she said why don’t you do both? Both work independent, but also work in this professional environment. Clearly, you work at Arena, then you start doing TV and movies, and so you become the professional actor. But now you’ve returned, I think you’ve returned, and are doing much more independent work. So can you talk about that decision to recommit to independent work?
Clayton: Wow, [01:13:00] Mike, you’re on it. Oh, Lord, here we go. You’re being so specific. I was in a show at Center Stage. What was the show? Romeo and Juliet. I was playing Benvolio, and there was a guy that made the swords for the show who was also in. He had a tendency to mess with people in rehearsals. And I said to myself, if he comes this way, cause he would do it, we have people who mess with people. They call it, “Man, I’m just playing,” but certain people don’t play a certain way. Okay? And he was one of these guys, bothering people. Big dude. He actually made the sword, so he was talented. But he had a little role. And I just said, man, I hope this guy don’t come over here playing with me because I’m going to have to tell him I don’t play in this manner. He didn’t. He didn’t. Until one production, [01:14:00] I was in the dressing room, and—Terrence Johnson, remember the name, Terrence Johnson is George Floyd. There are many George Floyds. See, I’m not into the one George Floyd thing. There are many. I would’ve been one of them.
But Terrence Johnson, check that story out right here in Washington, DC. He was a young man who shot and killed some policemen in Prince George’s County for messing with him inside the courthouse. Not the courthouse. The, the police station. He literally took the gun. Homicide did a little episode and took from this. Okay? So what am I leading to? I’m saying that this man, Terrence Johnson, I’m surprised how he lived. He went to jail and got out and started studying law. He wanted to go to Howard University. He lived in the Woodner, and at that time I was living with my family in the Woodner, so I would see him. This is after he served [01:15:00] time for killing two cops who were abusing him, as the story goes. But he got their gun and took them out. This is right here in Washington, DC.
I’m in the dressing room and this guy that was messing, Terrence Johnson, was shot and killed. Okay, I don’t know who did it, but he was up there talking about, “Eh, he need, he needed to be.” He was talking about this. I asked him—“Yo. Yo, Clayton, did you read the story about—” I said, “Man, please don’t speak to me about that.” This is during the show. Upstairs. The scenes are going on. I’m not on stage and he’s doing, I said, “Could you please.” He kept going. I lost it. That’s why your question. I went over to him and cursed him out right there. And guess what I hear on the monitors? “Clayton LeBouef to the stage.”
Elizabeth: Oh, my gosh. Your cue.
Clayton: I missed my cue. My entrance cue. [01:16:00] True story. I’m answering your question, man. “Clayton LeBouef to the stage.” I stopped and realized—now I’m three flights up. My queue line is my entrance. I’m three floors up, I’m supposed to be entering? Oh Lord, I’m saying this on the podcast. I’m supposed to be, I’m supposed to be professional. But I’m answering your question. I have never run so fast in my life. I probably could have broke my neck. I ran down those stairs so fast.
Dennis McIntyre was the guy that was playing Romeo or somebody else. And I guess when he realized that, he jumped from up because he gave me the cue line where he couldn’t see me, if this is making any sense to your listeners. But when he realized I wasn’t going to respond, he jumped down to see and I wasn’t there. So he [01:17:00] started swashbuckling. Just to keep—
Elizabeth: Just to fill the space, yeah.
Clayton: Now I run three flights down, I’m breathy, but when I walked in, I was cool as a cucumber. See, I’m a, sometimes I’m a good actor, I was acting like I was cool. And the audience was quiet, they knew something was up. I called everybody into the green room after the show and told them—to answer, finally answer your question—“I have to return.” I said, “This is not real. There’s some real things going on in the community.” Yeah. He’s looking at me to see if I was going to blame him ‘cause I called all the actors to apologize for missing—Irene Lewis, who was the artistic director, she had no problems with it. Once she heard just, to not like, that’s all, you miss—it’s just the worst thing you could do, which is not cool.
But I’m being very honest here. Terrence Johnson is George Floyd of that time. And my brother’s name is Terrence. And for that [01:18:00] actor, who I knew in rehearsal was somebody that I probably, I’m going to butt heads with this dude somehow, if he—not me, cause I’m a peaceful man, I might mess with people on some levels, but he was one of these guys that would do things like take food off your plate. See, certain people don’t play like that, okay? So when he was pushing that, “Yeah,” he was, “Yeah, they took him, they finally took him out.” See, this kind of thing. I’m like, “Bro, you don’t know. You don’t know that, you know, who I am, what I represent. And what moves me to even be in theater in the first place.”
Elizabeth: Speaking of what moves you in theater, one of the things that you’ve done in recent years is truly a labor of love, which is your play, RS/24. You talked a lot about your respect for the industry, the film industry, the music industry, musical greats. And then we’ve been talking about [01:19:00] working locally versus in on-stage work versus nationally in film and television. But can you talk a little bit about your play, RS/24, that was produced twice at Anacostia Playhouse in DC, both in 2018 and then back by popular demand in 2020. Tell us what that play was about and who were the, who were the characters and what was your inspiration for that particular production? And what’s next?
Clayton: Yes, I’m screening that here today. I’m screening it twice at the Martin Luther King Library. I’ve screened it once in Delaware, Ohio. And the first screening was done at the Analog Market in Silver Spring.
But, again, I had, five uncles who I’ll start with. And they were deep into music. And my community, my mother, my father, music is the life blood. You see what I mean? This, of expression, right? It’s a healing [01:20:00] force. It’s—I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like music. You know what I mean? And there’s so much of it in America. It’s one of the greatest things America does have is this beautiful history of recorded music, right? And all the different genres. There’s so much music to study. I’m still learning and I’ve been fortunate to know enough about the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. You know what I mean? All of the music. And when I look back and I see how my mother was healed by music, my father, my uncles, like the community that I mentioned, Schlobohm, the housing community, how we discuss music along with the issues. Because in our music, in Black R&B, soul, hip hop, all of the various genres, we deal with what they call issues. Life issues. Police, I mentioned earlier, [01:21:00] brutality. Michael Jackson has lyrics about that in some of his songs. The Dells, a singing group, they have lyrics about this. Marvin Gaye, listen to his song. He talks about finger happy policemen in one of, one of the great songs in his album.
It’s such a healing force that I think it has held America up. Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Minnie Riperton. It goes on and on. This healing force is here. And I know it. I think everyone else knows it. But, if it’s utilized now within a theatrical framework, maybe even more. If it’s utilized more in theater productions, and it is, Michael Jackson’s on Broadway now. My daughter did the, was on the costume team for that show. Makes me feel so proud, right? Who else is on Broadway? Donna Summer’s show. Carole [01:22:00] King. You see what’s going on? Carole King is a wonderful writer. My sister brought that album into our apartment. It changed the whole atmosphere. You know what I’m saying? My uncle brings in Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, changes my whole attitude about rock music, which is actually Black music as well. When you go backwards. And the blues musicians are griots that live in America. You had the African griots that told the stories. The bluesmen are the African griots. They just happen to be in America, playing a guitar rather than an African instrument, a certain African instrument, right?
When I looked at my own life and spinning music in clubs, which was a great experience as well, connected with my experience in theater, in television—I met Mr. Levinson, [01:23:00] and I said, “You know what I think is the problem with television in America?” And he said, “What?” I said, “They don’t, they only utilize black music for commercials.” But, but where is it to underscore some of the other stories that have to be told? The depth. Now they’re doing that. Homicide did it, that’s why it’s not being streamed. Most people ask why Homicide is not being streamed. I found out it’s because they use music and they haven’t cleared. I don’t know if that’s the situation, but that’s what I’m hearing, right? The movies started doing it after Shaft. Isaac Hayes, which is a direct connection to Gordon Parks. See, Gordon Parks directed Shaft, but Gordon Parks composed music for his own major motion picture The Learning Tree. It was the first major motion picture shot, or a major [01:24:00] studio, directed by a Black man.
And we’re gonna get over this as well. Because Black people have been involved in film from the time they were picking cotton because that’s how film is manufactured. Did you know film is made through cellulose nitrate, which is a derivative from cotton?
Michael: I didn’t know that.
Clayton: So, dig this. So, let’s get deep.
Elizabeth: Talk about blood, sweat, and tears, yeah.
Clayton: Let’s get deep with this. Stop all this talk about people’s shade because if it wasn’t for enslaved Africans, there would be no American film industry. And when I say that, it’s, okay, well just check Kodak. What they did was they take cotton fibers, right? Run it through machines. And what happens is cellulose nitrate comes down, they add emulsion to that, and you make film. They had to change it from cotton because it could burn, and that’s when you had your fires in your early days of film, right? So [01:25:00] then they changed it, so you don’t have the fires anymore. So they don’t even use cotton, I think, too much more. But this is something that’s very important. Because once people get the stories about achievement rather than somebody’s skin tone, we will see what somebody’s skin tone looks like, but we’re into what achievement is. So when you have people picking this natural resource called cotton and it’s turned into film, then you have filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and others who are making movies without the major—you get off of these arguments. You see what I mean? And you should now people are clear, you’re going to have arguments anyway, but at least it levels the playing field and you’re not into this woe is me, we’re the first to do, the first Black to tie his shoe and the first—
Michael: But everything you’ve been saying over—and it’s been wonderful—you’ve talked about, yeah, so the music, sort of the historical connection of music, the importance of music to the African American community, and that’s the, your play is built around that. And then you’ve talked about the [01:26:00] importance of architecture, and then the theater has, and the music store s a community gathering place.
Michael: And theater is a community gathering place. So I was wondering if you could maybe talk about maybe the importance of having an African American theater space as a gathering place, because it seems like it’s so important to have a place where people can gather, people can look at the vinyl, look at the playbills, and it would just percolate sort of the community issues and stuff.
Clayton: Thanks for bringing it back. Because the question, you see when I say about nonlinear, the question was about my play. But you see where I went. You know what I mean? I went into the fields where the people are.
Michael: Yeah. And I’ve also just been thinking of the last, you’ve been in DC, what, for almost 50 years?
Michael: You’ve been connected to the area.
Clayton: Yes! Yes.
Michael: And so you’ve seen that evolution of the space and the struggle for an African American theater has been constant.
Clayton: Because it’s money. They say it’s money in space. But what it is, no, [01:27:00] a deep commitment. That’s what it is. All right? It’s about we know it’s about money, that’s a given. But it’s about a deeper commitment. It’s about actors committing. And like I said, so you bring it back to my play because the question again was the play, the experience. But the space. So through this play that I’ve written I’ve looked, I utilized, it looks like the record store, see. The space, it’s a theatrical space where different community characters come through. That’s what I recall when I was young. You go to Soul Shack in Washington, DC. The various characters, the people, people who dress a certain way. It’s called the Black aesthetic. It’s a hard word to describe. But what is the aesthetic? It’s the way some people wear their cap, the way they talk, hip hop, the slang. This is all aesthetics, right? And it’s, certain people have certain aesthetics. The Irish, the Italians. We say Black, but there, there are many phases of Africanness inside Black, right? So you have this aesthetic.
When you’re in space, you have dances [01:28:00] that are built. So a place like the Mark IV Supper Club where I used to spend records, it’s a theater to me. When I go see Earth, Wind & Fire or Parliament-Funkadelic, it’s not just a concert. That’s theater.
We have these labels and terms that I believe once we have a fuller overstanding of what these terms are, then when we do get those space, you pull the dancers in, you pull the hip hop, the poets that are in bookstores, they can come inside the theater world, in this space. You have the hip hop instead of hip hop being rap, you have some of these young women and men in nightclubs with open mic poetry, they’re just as strong as Langston Hughes or anybody. But when you hear the word hip hop, some people just think it’s the gangsterism. I say, no, you better go and check out what some of these young people are doing with literature and word play.
So what you’re saying, Mike, is if you have a space in DC—we [01:29:00] had one. It was the Takoma Theater. But we had a unique man that owned it that was a playwright, that he’s more of a businessman. He wanted to sell his own—it’s the saddest, one of the saddest stories that I’ve witnessed in this city. How do you have a playwright—he’s passed on, so, God bless him, because he did some great things—but how do you have a playwright that owns a 500-seat theater, and he wants to tear it down? Have you ever heard of anything like that? And I believe if the community would have rallied around it, that space could have happened to be going, it would be one—there was one lady that was a member—matter of fact, to get back to the play—one lady, her name is Cheryl Hawkins. She, I met her in trying to save the theater, just like Pat Sheehy trying to save The Source. And there was a movement to try to save the Takoma Theater and weren’t able to do it. [01:30:00] Now it’s, again, like I said, Children’s, but it was, Cheryl Hawkins took me to another young lady who had a company called All About the Drama. They may be the one that emerges with a space. I’m working with it now, helping them. And they both produced my play RS/24. So in a way—in Anacostia. Adele Robey, she’s very, yeah, very important to helping to put the piece up. So maybe in that space in Anacostia, maybe that space you’re talking about, Mike, can emerge there. And I’m talking with people about that.
Michael: And how do you think that the media, which obviously is always a big thing for theater.
Elizabeth: The press. AKA the press.
Michael: How has that sort of helped or hindered this quest, this, sort of, establishment of a space, or just the theater community in general?
Clayton: In this particular city—I don’t think in New York they don’t have this problem, in Baltimore they don’t have it. [01:31:00] Washington DC knows there’s two papers that are read all over the world. That’s The New York Times and The Washington Post. And when you, they’re very careful about who they spotlight because that goes all over the world.
I was at Arena Stage, when I got there, I was teasing the actors. I told them that I was going to say what you’re not supposed to say when you’re doing, when you’re talking about a particular play called the Scottish play, I heard about the Scottish play, and they said, “You’re not supposed to say the real name.” So I was threatening to say the real name backstage. See that’s it, I’m talking about somebody messing with people. You know what I mean? And then here I go. But I don’t mess in certain ways. But, anyway, they believed me. They thought I was gonna say—I said, they said, “Clayton, don’t—.” They, and when I saw how serious—this is the professional people—see, I come off the street, right? I wasn’t professional, but when I saw how serious they were about this, I said, “Don’t do [01:32:00] it, Clayton.” I said, “Don’t do it, don’t say, don’t say the word.”
Elizabeth: Messing with the spirit world here, yeah.
Clayton: But I told them also, and they said, “And we don’t read reviews.” I said, “I read the reviews.” I said, “Because if I’m involved in something, I want to know what somebody is saying about it.” And then that made them think a little bit because I think half of them were lying. Yeah, a lot of actors, “I don’t read the reviews.” Yeah, that’s what you say.
Michael: I have someone read them to me.
Clayton: Yeah, how about that? But if they’re not—the point I’m making is that I said that I’m going to read the reviews because I want, because and I said because the Washington Post is read all over the world. Now that’s when they say, okay, this guy got a little head on his shoulders, a little something, right? I say, it’s read all over the world. And I think the reason why they don’t carry certain stories or spotlight certain people is because certain people are doing certain things that they don’t want people to know about. That’s just the fact of it, right? And that’s any—that’s the Black newspapers as well as the White newspapers. [01:33:00]
So theater people, again, are not famous a lot of times. So the point is, well, why would we do a story on them? If somebody comes famous in town, we’ll do a story. They did something on Robert Hooks. He came in to be honored and I read what they put in the papers here. Not, for what this man has done for theater. Robert Hooks coming out of Washington, DC. Weak. In my particular—
Michael: This was in 2018?
Clayton: Yeah, they had a reunion where he came back in town, right? Let somebody else come in town, somebody that has achieved what he’s done with another shade. I think people know what I’m talking about now. Oh, and it’s so grand. This man is the co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. Not only the Black Repertory Theater Company. Groundbreaker in television, helping other people’s careers out still. His son is one of the, a great director, Kevin Hooks. There’s some deep, I don’t call it talent, but I say beautiful people that [01:34:00] come out of the Washington, DC area, both in music and theater, but they struggle to get that media, to answer your question. So it has to be magazines.
Elizabeth: We’ve been talking to other theater makers, and one of the questions that sort of comes up is the revolution, as Molly Smith called it, that, that’s going on in the theater biz, where the workforce of the theater industry is really pushing back on the intensity of the work that—and I’m speaking just about theater, live theater as opposed to film. I’m not sure what’s going on in the film world, but there are theater makers who are pushing back against the intensity and the extra, the long hours and all of the numbers of productions. And there’s a pushback that is rooted around having more work-life balance and issues—it’s a complex issue. And I wonder as someone who has a family, who’s been able to have a stable home life with your long, wonderful wife, Zuella, can you speak just briefly about this pushback about [01:35:00] work life balance and the intensity and “the show must go on” and what’s happening in the field?
Clayton: Yeah, that’s a personal thing where sometimes certain industries, whatever you work in, theater or certain industries, there’s pressures that’s put on you because of what you have to do. But then there’s also control pressures from people who are off into controlling your life. These are called control freaks or your supervisor people. And it gets difficult in any work environment where you have to make a living, earn a living, get financing to take care of your family, but you’re having problems. That’s teachers that we mentioned earlier, any profession. So, I know that.
So, inside the theater world, again, you have people who want to try to control or put pressures on you, demands upon you, right? And then they do it in a certain way because there—what do you call it? You would call it, they’re [01:36:00] going through some personal things themselves. It’s almost like saying, “Oh, he’s a tyrant.” You hear that in the theater world. And I’m like, yeah, okay he ain’t gonna be a tyrant with people who make up their mind that they don’t take that. There are directors that have reputations of embarrassing actors or putting pressures on people. I’m like, okay, if y’all want to put up with that’s what you do. So there’s demands where you make a small amount of money in what you do, but the demands from the people are crazy. And people who put up with that, they have to learn. You see what I mean?
Elizabeth: Speaking of learning, one of the last—this has been fabulous, Clayton, we’re so excited to talk to you—so, one of the last questions we ask our interviewees is what advice they have for our listeners on how they can nurture and sustain their own creativity. As someone who’s been in this creative field your [01:37:00] entire life, what practical, concrete advice would you give to our listeners on how to nourish and sustain their creativity?
Clayton: That’s the question that I answer first with I don’t give advice. I share stories and experience. What I have found out about advice in the field that I work in is that people will try to do what you say, and if it doesn’t work, they blame you. That’s what advice does. “My headshot. He told me to have the headshot this way.” You see what I mean? “He told me not to look at the auditioners when I auditioned. ‘Don’t look directly—.'” And see, you get all of this in your classes, your acting classes, and there’s different schools of thought. So, I just start with, I don’t give advice.
What I’ll share is experience. And I would say, to start off, listen to some very challenging music. Get deep [01:38:00] into the ocean that America has of music. Even if you feel you don’t like it at first, because sometimes things are in a quiet taste. I would share that experience that I’ve had with anyone listening or is thinking to get into the field of acting, storytelling, is that if you make music, a bed, it’s a soundtrack for your own life. You’ll find the magic in your own life by listening to a wide variety of music, from classical—all of the labels, see, throw the labels out. There are some stores, one store called Mojamala that’s up in the Analog Market. It’s upstairs in the Analog Market in Silver Spring. He doesn’t have categories. And I told him, “Yo, you’re on it.” You flip through his bins, there’s no categories. You’re just flipping through the bins. And I think that’s very progressive, right?
Elizabeth: So, the last thing we want to ask you, to riff on [01:39:00] what you’ve just said, is what you can tell our listeners is next for you. I know you have a showing that you’ve got to zip out of here for, but with the proviso that this will probably air sometime in August or September 2023.
Michael: Early August, probably.
Elizabeth: Early August, yeah. So, what’s next? How can people find out more about you?
Clayton: If you, my Facebook page, I’m not on the Instagram or anything like that, but I do share on my Facebook page, which is Cowealtha Clayton—C-O-W-E-A-L-T-H-A Clayton. That’s just on Facebook. That’s basically where people can tap into some of the things that I’m doing, right?
What’s next is some of the projects that I’ve been developing over the years. Certain things take quite a long time to truly develop. Plays do that. And so, there are plays that I have written, The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis. The Eagle and the Lion is something I want to talk to Michael about. I had mentioned [01:40:00] to you and Michael that’s a piece that I did with Arena Players in Baltimore years ago, but it’s never been put up. It was done as a teleplay, but it’s never been put up on the stage. It’s a wonderful story and that’s next for me.
And to finish up is that I’m looking for musicians and band members ‘cause I’ve expressed myself vocally as a singer in certain productions. I love music so much that now I want to explore putting a group of musicians together and bringing song-stories—that’s all songs are—in a theatrical way.
Elizabeth: Oh, this has been fabulous. It’s been so wonderful to talk with you at length.
Clayton: It’s been a reunion.
Elizabeth: It has been a reunion. This has been our old and wonderful friend, Clayton LeBouef. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And thanks to everyone for listening.
Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.
Special shout out to Creativists in Dialogue’s production team: Audio engineer Elliot Lanes, social media manager Erin Dumas of Dumas83, and transcription editor Morgan Musselman. Thank you all.
For more information about Creativists in Dialogue, please visit creativists.substack.com or our Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages. To learn more about our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com.
The Creativists in Dialogue podcast is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and subscribers like you. The Theatre in Community podcast series is supported in part by Humanities DC. Thanks.