Clayton LeBouef Transcript

Our Theatre in Community interview is with local stage and TV actor Clayton LeBouef. In part 1 of our interview, Clayton speaks about how he discovered his passion for storytelling, his move to DC from his native Yonkers, New York, and his early roles at Source and Sanctuary Theatres. Eventually, he is recruited by Zelda Fichandler of Arena Stage to join the company’s acting ensemble. Part 2 of our interview focuses on Clayton’s return to the local theatre scene after his roles on Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire

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. 

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Theater in Community podcast of Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: And our guest today is longtime friend and theater colleague Clayton LeBouef. Clayton is an American actor, playwright, activist, and producer, best known for his recurring television role as Colonel George Barnfather in Homicide: Life on the Street and in the 2000 epilogue, Homicide: The Movie.

In 2000, he also appeared in the award-winning miniseries, The Corner, and in 2002, he played Wendell ‘Orlando’ Blocker in the renowned long form television drama, The Wire. Clayton also appeared in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made with Mos Def and in many episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law and Order: SVU. His portrayal of barbershop [00:01:00] owner Tom Taylor in the short film The Doll won him “Best Actor” honors at the San Diego Black Film Festival.

As a stage actor, he has performed widely in the Washington, Baltimore region and nationally, including in Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, directed by Molly Smith, and August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Arena Stage, in Soldier Story at Source Theater, at Anacostia Playhouse in his play RS/24, and as the title character in Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean & His Brothers at Sanctuary Theater.

A playwright, DJ, activist, and spoken word poet, Clayton’s play Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis, was commissioned by Baltimore’s Center Stage. His play Tied Apart addresses apartheid in South Africa. And his recent play, RS/24, features a record store owner selling vinyl of the musical greats. Born in Yonkers, New York, [00:02:00] Clayton attended Carnegie Mellon University before moving to Washington, DC in 1974. He is married to Zuella Evans, and they have two adult daughters. Welcome, Clayton.

Clayton: Thank you, Elizabeth and Michael. It’s a pleasure.

Michael: We like to start our interviews off, Clayton, with some early memories of creativity. Now you’re from Yonkers, New York, and most of our listeners will know that’s a community just north of Manhattan.

Clayton: Yes.

Michael: Okay, so what were some of your earliest memories of creativity, either as a participant or as a witness?

Clayton: I grew up in the Schlobohm Housing Projects, which is a famous—or infamous—housing project now. And inside that housing project, there was like eight buildings. And there were seven stories of each building. So it’s a pretty nice sized project housing. And we created street games. Or they were created by others. [00:03:00] And some of these games were just fascinating, Cross The Plank and Join The Crew.

Michael: That was the name of one of them?

Clayton: The names of them. Right.  Hot Peas and Butter.

Elizabeth: Hot Peas and Butter, alright!

Clayton: Yes. Buck, How Many Fingers Are Up? Ringolevio.

Elizabeth: Ringolevio.

Clayton: Which was the ultimate game.

Michael: Oh my goodness.

Clayton: Yeah, it took almost maybe about seven hours to play.

Elizabeth: Wow! So this is—

Clayton: Of course, the other one, Stickball, that we would play on a curbside. Running Bases. The creativity was amazing in terms of street games. That’s how I’ll answer your question first.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Michael: Wow.

Elizabeth: Wow. Did you become interested in theater as a teenager? And if so, what were your first experiences as an actor or as a playwright or something else?

Michael: It sounds like some of these games might have been very theatrical.

Clayton: Exactly right. And then theater is creativity, right? People coming together and collaborating. So the street [00:04:00] games serve for improvisation. You see what I mean? The street games served in many other ways. But also, on the other level, crayons, chalk—when you’re gifted with crayons and chalk, and you see some of the way people create on streets, street art, the graffiti. I didn’t do, I wasn’t a tagger, per se, that came later. But we would take chalk and express ourselves on the street.

Elizabeth: So these games that you all made up, these were created with your—

Clayton: They were created probably before I was born.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Clayton: But we had our own little style to it.

Elizabeth: But they were specific to that housing project? Or were they from some other place?

Clayton: No, some of them, if you could get books on them.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Clayton: So some were specific or the way they were played. We had marbles, that’s not specific.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Clayton: But the way we—bottle caps, now that was an interesting one. They’re called Skelly in other neighborhoods, we just call it bottle caps, where you would put a diagram on the curb side or the sidewalk and [00:05:00] flick your bottle caps with your hand. We put wax inside the bottle caps to make them heavier. And you would click it and go. And you can knock people off their, off their courts.

Elizabeth: Yeah, like shuffleboard or something.

Clayton: So it’s just amazing to get up in the morning. And then you had basketball and the rest of it.

Elizabeth: So, id these games have characters? Did you, were they imaginary theatrical games? No. Or were they competitions or contests?

Clayton: They were actually sometimes violent as well. We had something called Bumps and Bruises. Okay? Now that wasn’t a game per se, but that was part of another game that if you were caught in your apartment. See, it was a game that we were playing where you had to look for people, hide-and-seek or Hot Peas and Butter, you had to look for people. They would hide, because look, seven buildings—eight buildings with seven floors. When Halloween came around, you should have seen my bag. For the candy? That’s why my stuff is messed [00:06:00] up now. But, can you imagine? So you’re hiding within laundromats. You see them all throughout these buildings. But if you were caught going into your apartment that’s off limits ‘cause nobody can find it. But we’d do it all the time. Go in there and eat, sit down, watch one inning of—while everybody’s watching for you, watching one inning of a baseball game. But if you were found out by the person—

Elizabeth: Oh, then you get bumped and bruised.

Clayton: There you go. You’d go back. And plus the characters that you asked, they’re all in the neighborhood.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Sure.

Clayton: The characters are the people.

Elizabeth: So these games went on into your adolescence or was this when you were younger?

Clayton: All the way up to maybe, let me see, when I left to go to college—I was early, like, I graduated high school at 17. So up to that point.

Elizabeth: Speaking of high school, did you do theater in high school? Was there any kind of drama?

Clayton: Yes, I did. That’s where it started. On, on, on the real side.

Elizabeth: So tell us about that.

Clayton: Yeah, there was a gentleman there that I talk about. His name was John Federico. A brilliant man. And he was head of the theater, he would put up the [00:07:00] plays, but he would do the set, he’d score the music. Michael, I have to say, you remind me of him to that degree. A full theater cat. You see what I mean? He wrote—I don’t know if you write music or compose.

Michael: No.

Elizabeth: Don’t ask him to sing. Whatever you do, do not ask Michael to sing.

Clayton: John Federico didn’t sing either, I don’t know, but he came up to me one time. And he just said, “You should try out for one of the plays I’m doing. I wrote it.” I was known in the school. I was the president of the school, I got voted. Didn’t do anything, but, so he asked me to be in an original play called The Sophisticated Touch.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Clayton: It was a musical and that was my initial—however, though, the second one is what did it. He said, “I’m going to cast you in Amiri Baraka, which was Leroi Jones.

Elizabeth: This was Leroi Jones.

Clayton: The Dutchman.

Elizabeth: The Dutchman? You were in The—were you the Dutchman?

Clayton: In high school.

Michael: In high school!

Elizabeth: Boy, that’s an intense play.

Clayton: Let me tell you something, it was so intense, the board of directors didn’t want us to do it.

Elizabeth: I bet they didn’t, yeah.

Clayton: And this guy, Mr. Federico, he [00:08:00] said, “I’m gonna try my best because Clayton and I want”—and we had a young lady, because you have to have a strong woman to play that role.

Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. It’s a two-person—

Clayton: Charlene was her name. She was excellent. But they told him, “If you do an after show discussion, you could mount the play.” After we did that play, the after-show discussions were amazing. And that’s when I realized what theater can do. ‘Cause the people—

Michael: So, is it, the after show discussion, was that like with parents?

Clayton: Yes. Parents.

Michael: Wow. That must have been intense.

Clayton: What he did, he was brilliant, what he did, schools have these large auditoriums, what he did was close the curtains on stage and put benches. In baseball, what do you call the benches in there?

Elizabeth: Yeah, so intimate theater place.

Clayton: Intimate. And put, and made a set of a subway stop. So we had a number of shows to fulfill the large—or so rather than having a big large high school auditorium, this play was so intimate He put it on stage—

Elizabeth: So this is you can explain briefly what the plot of The Dutchman is, it’s a Black man and a White woman on a—[00:09:00]

Clayton: Oh, yes, Black man on a subway train—

Elizabeth: —and they get into a conflict. It’s a complex—

Clayton: Yes. She seduces him and once he gets interested, she turns on and then they have this very intense—so you can imagine what the after-show, so Charlene and I, we sat there and answered the questions and they were amazing. I was sitting there acting like a host now, not just the actor, but seeing how people, how real it felt to them because we had, he hooked up the blood bag because the young lady—what do you call them? spoilers—she stabs him. And he put a blood bag on me.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Clayton: This is how tight we were. The show was so great, we were asked to participate in a college theater festival. We were the only high school.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Clayton: In the college—and that’s when I started saying this theater thing is people believed what we did.

Elizabeth: As an adult, once you got further into theater, did you ever go back and talk to this teacher?

Clayton: No, I haven’t. And that’s something that, yeah, I think about. [00:10:00] I heard he had married someone that I knew, not well, but she actually went to the school. He was a smooth cat, he rode with the Jaguar. Oh yeah, Mr. Federico.

Elizabeth: In Yonkers driving a Jag.

Clayton: Oh yeah, he had the Jaguar there, but he’s a musician too. See, so he was deep into the jazz. You see what I’m saying? And he had some contacts in what you would call, I think, the professional world. One guy’s name was Vernon Washington and then they cast me in another show called This Street in Greenberg, New York. Then that was the show that they really started saying, “Clayton, we have a backer’s audition in New York for This Street. And it might go off Broadway. And you might have to have a tutor for your next year.” And that’s when I started really thinking of this thing as a profession.

Elizabeth: So, word of your success as an actor must have gotten back to him somehow. Do you think? Through the grapevine?

Clayton: I’ll be finding out. But when I go to Yonkers, I’m going to inquire. I’ll be hitting the school up again because I’m starting to do a lot of that traveling and sharing with schools and universities.

Michael: Let’s get you to DC now.

Clayton: Sure. Sure.

Michael: Because you came to DC in the ‘70s. ‘74?

Clayton: 74.

Michael: So what were your first experiences of theater like in DC and what factors played into your decision to make DC your base?

Clayton: That’s a very good question because it’s really very serious. I had an uncle here, my father’s brother, who took this town over. He took the town over. His name was Petey Green. If I had to describe him really quickly, he was Richard Pryor of Washington, DC.

Elizabeth: Wow. Great description.

Clayton: That, that gives you an idea. But outside of that description, he was a folklorist type. I don’t like to call him a comedian per se. He was an activist, a folklorist—Marion Barry, anybody. He had his own television and radio show, however, he and my [00:12:00] father were not close. And when I found out about him, I was going to move to California after I got interested in theater from high school, and then I went to Carnegie Mellon. But I only did two years at Carnegie Mellon. And I learned quite a bit, but it was a lot of money to go there, certain things, family, I just did two years. So when I got back, my father said, “Why don’t you move to DC before you head out to the West Coast because I got a brother down there.” And I started learning about my father’s brother and they weren’t close.

My father was born in DC, but he was sent to Yonkers, New York to live with Mr. Eugene and Ella LeBouef, that’s where the name comes from. My full name is Clayton Green LeBouef.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Clayton: So my father was born in DC, but he was sent to live with Mr. and Mrs. LeBouef, who adopted him because here in DC, [00:13:00] Petey, him, a lot of family troubles. My grandfather was sent to—what’s the prison up there? Alcatraz. My grandfather was a terror in DC.

Elizabeth: Oh, in DC?

Clayton: Yeah, my grandfather. His story will be told, but Petey, Petey went to jail, but they knew about his father. So when Petey got out of jail, he went on and became this huge, wonderful presence. And so, I moved down here to check him out, but I knew there was some—he had some things going with him, right? Not the easiest guy to get along with. However, I also knew that Arena Stage was here. I had learned that at Carnegie Mellon. And I knew the DC Black Repertory was here.

Elizabeth: Founded by Robert Hooks.

Clayton: So I had those two. So I’ll go down there and let me see what’s happening with family. And then I’ll also see what’s happening with the theater. That was my decision.

Michael: Sure.

Elizabeth: What were some of your first [00:14:00] experiences? of theater in D. C. Can you walk us through those early shows you did?

Clayton: Yes. Very quickly, I have to first mention Michael Murphy from the Touchtone Theater. I was actually living in Arlington, Virginia, and I hadn’t acted in ten years. When I left school, I came to DC, but I started making money as a disc jockey working the clubs here. The top clubs. It was an amazing, that’s a whole ‘nother story. But I was doing that. Then, I stopped doing that. I wanted to, see what else—I started selling clothes. The club scene changed up a bit. And I got off the subway at the Ballston Metro stop, newly opened. And there was a sign that said Touchstone Theater. And you know how that goes. It called me and I went in there, met her, she was from Catholic University. She cast me in a play called Triple Play. I met some of the actors there that were DC actors. [00:15:00] Jerry Paoli, Ron Canada.

Elizabeth: Oh, Ron Canada.

Clayton: A couple of other people. And they were like, “Yo, bro, where you, where’d you come from?” I played an older man. And then they said, are you know you, I said, “I live in Arlington.” He said, “You should come into DC.” So, bam. That puts us there. So the earliest was meeting Pat Sheehy at a reading and Pat and I—

Elizabeth: Pat Sheehy, Artistic Director of Source Theatre.

Clayton: Yeah, at that time she wasn’t. She was actually just acting.

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s right. Okay.

Clayton: When I first met her.

Michael: So you first came to DC in ‘74, but then you basically got into the DJing and other things. And what, to ‘83 or ‘82 or something?

Clayton: Thank you. Thank you. I’m not good with dates, but it took a minute.

Michael: Something like that.

Clayton: Yeah, it’s not like I dove right in. I came into DC Black Rep, Mr. Hooks had left, so they were still around. I caught some of their shows. But also to try to make that money, I came with records in my suitcase. I knew that, because I had been spinning records in Yonkers in the housing project and also in school, I knew that music could get me through and so I didn’t jump right [00:16:00] into theater right away.

Michael: We first met you in the early I guess 1980s and you played the title character in Derek Walcott’s play, Ti-Jean and His Brothers, which is this epic, sort of, Caribbean folktale with music and song. And it deals with three brothers struggling with the White plantation owner, who happens to also be the devil. Can you maybe just talk us through that experience with Sanctuary’s Ti-Jean back in the day?

Clayton: Thank you. Thank you. That was a piece that’s very close to me because Derek Walcott, obviously—is it the Pulitzer Prize, was it?

Michael: No, Nobel.

Elizabeth: No, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Clayton: Nobel.

Elizabeth: The time we did it, he was a MacArthur genius.

Clayton:  MacArthur, that’s right. But I was doing at Source Theater with Pat Murphy, Sheehy now. I was doing, I forget exactly what play, cause I did a number of plays there, but I remember going to the bulletin board and seeing Sanctuary Theater [00:17:00] audition—

Elizabeth: Audition notice.

Clayton:  So I dug the name right away, cause I know what sanctuary is all about, and went up there, met you two and you explained what’s the deal. And so I went—I forget what, how I auditioned though. I think you guys asked me to do something prepared, if you can recall, but—

Elizabeth: Nope.

Clayton: Whatever it was, you hand me the script, “Here, take the sides and let’s hear what you got to say.” But anyway, I did, and I do remember you guys’ reaction.

Elizabeth: Oh, what was that?

Clayton: You know, I think—

Elizabeth: Did he laugh? Michael?

Clayton: No, you didn’t wait to tell.

Elizabeth: He didn’t? Oh—

Clayton: You didn’t wait like some people do. Some people wait. They see actors and say—what I recall is I do remember this, “We found our Ti-Jean.”

Elizabeth: Yeah. Okay. Obviously.

Clayton: That’s something that I remember. Either you or—

Elizabeth: Well, that makes sense. Good for us.

Michael: You gotta have a Ti-Jean.

Clayton:  Where are you going—and, but I was looking forward to it because of the epic scale [00:18:00] of it. I had been in plays before, small intimate plays. The Soldier’s Play was intimate.

Elizabeth: Realism. Yeah.

Clayton: Yeah, realism. But this was what they call magical realism. Animals in the piece, unborn child in the play.

Elizabeth: Creatures, spirits, yeah.

Clayton: The devil and this young—so I was really looking forward to it. Meeting you two was interesting because I saw how you work together. Very beautifully. Balance is my favorite word.

Elizabeth: Oh, good.

Clayton: Yeah, balance is my favorite. It’s what you actually, it’s a financial term. That’s what you check. That’s what you check—

Elizabeth: That’s true. Balance your checkbook. Checks and balances, yeah.

Clayton: So on another level, there was a balance there. And then the theater space was in the church. What was that church?

Elizabeth: It was Calvary, at that time it was Calvary United Methodist Church, later it was called Calvary Casa del Pueblo United Methodist Church. It was the old sanctuary of this old church. And there was a larger, quote, “newer” sanctuary, but it was this 10,000 square foot space with these high ceilings and arches and—

Clayton: [00:19:00] Let me tell you something, it was an amazing experience for me and I thank you both for that, because to do a play in a church—I had never done. I went to church as a child. But I didn’t do a play about the devil inside the church! I’m like, wait, who are these people here? What in the world is on their mind? But I remember Kathy Kelsch, a violinist. You had the musician Gary Hart.

Elizabeth: Gary Hart.  

Clayton: Gary Hart. It was like a Caribbean, Caribbean sound.

Elizabeth: Yeah, Carribean music.

Clayton: I also remember the choreographer that played the character of the unborn.

Elizabeth: Oh, Laurie Leshin. Yeah, Bolom.

Clayton: Laurie Leshin. She created, you guys created—you did the costumes, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I did the costumes. Jack, the late Jack Gidone, the late, great artist, Jack Gidone, did these extraordinary masks.

Clayton: Yes. Matter of fact, I just met someone that knew him. And when I told him, and you guys have to meet him—

Elizabeth: Yeah, this was Janet Stanford’s son.

Clayton: Is that right? Yes. David.

Elizabeth: Yes. Janet Stanford, who’s the artistic director of Imagination [00:20:00] Stage.

Clayton: Imagination Stage, yeah.

Elizabeth: She has an adult son. Theater kid.

Clayton: So when I told him that I had new the mask maker for our show, Ron Tucker was with me, he came to hear me spin—I’m spinning now, again at a shop up in Silver Spring once, once a month, every Saturday. It’s a beautiful place and it’s almost theatrical. So that experience with Ti-Jean real, and it blew this city up because, again, not to put you guys on, to make you embarrassed or, shy, you were way ahead of what people talk about now with this term “diversity.” You guys were way ahead of the game because every show that I recall you did was cast with all kind of people. I believe every show.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we, it was it was nontraditional casting before that was even a term.

Clayton: That’s what I’m saying.

Elizabeth: Blacks and Whites and Egyptians and South Africans.

Clayton: That’s what I’m saying.

Elizabeth: We even had multi languages!

Michael: We tried to, sort of, reflect the city in our casting, yeah.

Clayton: And you did it. And it was, again, it was way ahead of the times. Yeah. It was [00:21:00] way ahead of, and maybe the terms have to go. Just do it. You see what I mean? There were people in the professional world that were just talking about doing this, but you were doing it. Fanshen. I can name some of you. The Tree Climber.

Elizabeth: Yeah, The Tree Climber.

Clayton: Athol Fugard.

Elizabeth: Statements after an Arrest, yeah.

Clayton: And then, of course, Ti-Jean. And then, of course, my play Tied Apart was done in that space.

Michael: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: To linger on the Ti-Jean experience a little bit, as you recall, we were talking the other day about when Derek Walcott, the great Derek Walcott, now deceased, came down. He came down from Boston to see the show and to lead a discussion afterwards and party with us a little bit afterwards. And he had, we had an extraordinary discussion with the audience afterwards and with the cast. One of the things that I was always struck with was Walcott’s insight into the stature and historical significance of those writers and those artists who first give voices, give voice to oral cultures of endurance. I don’t know if you remember that [00:22:00] discussion, but can you talk about your own embrace of cultures of endurance?

Clayton: Very good question, yes. What he was talking about is where it began, Africa. At least, we can, people can debate where theater began. I know that the Greeks studied Africa. You have traditional storytelling, you have masks, you have, what do you call it? You have dance. You have drumming. Great storytelling coming out of Africa. Just look at the costumes of the people who celebrated life and celebrated what they called death. I don’t call it that anymore. I call it transitioning, call it joining the ancestors. But I believe that’s what he was talking about. Now, whether or not he said that himself, that’s what you’re asking me. Is that.

I go back and I dream, and I astral travel, and I [00:23:00] watch the beauty that comes out of that continent. And we all know some of the other things that have come out of it, and there’s too much of a focus on the ugly side, which is called enslavement. But when you focus on the beauty of that continent, and the stories, and the richness—I was fortunate enough, we had mentioned high school, with Mr. Federico, there was another teacher that I had named Mr. Waymire. And you remember names of teachers. And God bless teachers.

Elizabeth: Yes, indeed.

Clayton: I don’t even call it a job. They got a mission. And they should be paid for taking care and trying to encourage young people who have things on their mind, trying to deal with society.

And Mr. Waymire was teaching us in Yonkers High School in the sixth or seventh grade about the grand kingdoms of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai. I [00:24:00] think he was not on the script.

Elizabeth: He was not—he staked certified curriculum.

Clayton: I ask people today, I said, “Let me share that story with you. Do you think he was going along with the board of educate—”

Michael: “The curriculum?”

Clayton: Thank you. “Curriculum.” Everybody I asked, they said, “Nah, bro.” Not following the curriculum at that time. So I got early in that short—just in that class with him, though. I went on to, everywhere, that’s seventh grade. And when I found out what that was about, no more questions. Black people are, been there, been sharp, been telling stories, been beautiful. So all of this other stuff that comes along with the ugliness. I’m like, nah, I balance it out. And, and that’s when my, theater—Baraka, I told you. You start delving into the beauty of storytelling. [00:25:00] You look at The Lion King, that’s not in Europe. The Lion King takes place in Africa and they’re telling the story about the young woman that comes back and tells—and Rafiki is one of the most unique, everyone talks about the Lion King, you better check Rafiki out. That’s the mystic, that’s the storyteller. So, you see, we have so much in Africa we’ll continue to share and bring wonderful things to the world. Watch.

Michael: This gets me to my next question. Because for me, this, we hear that theater is the act, relationship between the actor and the audience. But really, for me, it’s between the story and the community.

Clayton: Come on.

Michael: And when that bond between story and community is really in sync, then the performer, in many ways, is telling the community’s story. And the community is helping that actor tell that story.

Clayton: Yes.  

Michael: And that’s a rare, not necessarily rare, but that’s a powerful experience. Can you share some of your [00:26:00] experiences of theater where that connection between the story and the community was most evident?

Clayton: Yeah, I can start, the first thing that comes to my mind is just recently I put a play up in Anacostia, you know, about the record store. And what is happening now is vinyl. People are saying it’s having a resurgence, but what is really happening is it never really went away. It’s just that the technology has grown. Downloading, digital. But the community was about vinyl records back in the day. You would go to a record store, you would talk to the people in the record store, they would tell you about what was in their collection. You’d carry your record over to someone’s house that they didn’t have. You’d listen to Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark with Ray Charles, Live at the Fillmore West with a crowd of hippies in California, turning a crowd of hippies on to a church experience, Black, that they had never. So I would encourage anyone to pick up [00:27:00] Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West and that gives you a theatrical, audio theatrical, of what you’re talking about. Community, Fillmore West, the community in L.A. Aretha’s in there with Billy Preston. Aretha’s in there with Ray Charles. Lighting up the place with a church sound.

So, community and church, right? Church, community, theater. Many theaters, many churches have plays, but in the Black community, we struggle with language, cursing. We struggle sometimes with what you would call controversial subjects. So it’s not like you’re going to get so deep into certain subjects in Black churches, right? So that’s where my, you’re asking me the question, some of my interest in theater is to say, okay, this is very spiritual. To me, theater is spiritual. So the community comes in, [00:28:00] they’re watching something. Nobody’s preaching to them. They’re watching a story unfold. It’s not like someone’s standing up preaching to you, telling you what to believe. You watch the story unfold. And I love to see the community, so in the play that I just did in Anacostia, the people came out, right? And they’re watching a time when record stores were like a sanctuary, like a church. I say a prayer before I go into record shops, think about all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into recording, the people’s feelings.  

So if that’s answering your question about community, the community has, they have to deal with the pandemic. They have to deal with people who make decisions. How do you deal with forces, people who make political decisions that affect your life. And sometimes those decisions come from a story. You can watch a story. It can help you make a decision. Particularly if it’s a playwright that has that on his mind. [00:29:00]

Michael: Did you have discussions maybe with some of the audience afterwards or just people afterwards?

Clayton: Yes.

Michael: And did the play inspired nostalgia or desire to own some vinyl to get back into that?

Clayton: Yes, we had a—

Michael: Are there those kinds of sanctuaries now?

Clayton: Yes, there’s a place called HR Records, Black-owned record store in Washington, DC. Where I spin sometimes, up there, it’s called The Analog Market in Silver Spring. You guys came and stopped through—

Elizabeth: Right, right. Beautiful place.

Clayton: I hadn’t seen you, I hadn’t seen you guys in 40 years and that’s where we met, up at the Analog Market.

And those are just two that I, that I know about. But younger people now, especially after the pandemic, they’ve been on screens for so long—telephone screen, TV screen, movie screen, whatever. Now they’re hitting buttons so much when they pick up an album, the artwork, the album cover. Because back in the day, as they say, we would read the album covers, learn the credits—

Elizabeth: Right. The inserts.

Clayton: —read the inserts, the, [00:30:00] matter of fact, yeah, it’s called the inner sleeves. And the photography. You look at Marvin Gaye’s picture on What’s Going On, which is a landmark album, you have discussion. So what is happening with a lot of the younger people who, it’s new to them—turntables, this kind of thing. So I merged my love for theater with my love for music into this piece I call RS/24 stands for record store 24, open 24 hours, like a 7/11.

And so, community on another level with Tied Apart, where, that I did on the—now, that was something that was truly amazing. We can talk about that as well.

Michael: Sure.

Elizabeth: To go back to what you were saying before about blood, sweat, and tears, one of the things that has come up in my imagination when we’ve been talking is this whole notion of epigenetic memory. The way in which the body remembers not just its own experience, but the experiences, the suffering, perhaps the joy, of ancestors, of [00:31:00] blood relatives from parents to grandparents. And there’s scientific evidence now that there is a kind of cellular memory that is passed on from previous generations.

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: So, you, Clayton, are someone who’s drawn very much upon in your work as an actor and a playwright and a human being, as a son, a father, a member of the larger community. Can you speak about that connection to the ancestors?

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: You were mentioning it before.

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: But I’m wondering if you could just elaborate it.

Clayton: I’ll start with my mother and father. They both have joined the ancestors and I’ve been blessed. I had a mother and father that were amazing, humane people, you see what I’m saying? They also had an interesting balance. My mother, she came from a family of nine. She didn’t graduate high school but the wisdom that she had, quiet woman, but she had deep wisdom. She didn’t have to say much to put across. My father was totally opposite. He was somebody that was very vocal like [00:32:00] me, yeah, I tend to, people say I’m long winded, but—hopefully I’m saying something. But he was, and Petey Green.

But I draw on my mother and father the stories the lessons, not so much that they were performance—my father I understand wanted to sing and be an actor, but he never told me. I found that out from some others. So this is answering your question. Sometimes within a family there are people who want to do certain things and it doesn’t work out for them and they take another pass, but he sang at the Apollo Theater in a contest.

Elizabeth: Really? Okay.

Clayton: I found that out, right? And he also would share things with me that made me say, “Well, he does know.” He would say, “What you do, man, if you want to be an actor, you know, you start tending bar at night so you your days will be open to audition.” And I’m listening like, okay, Dad, you seem to know a little bit how this thing goes.

Elizabeth: Meet all those producers after the show.

Clayton: Yeah, you seem to know, so he would drop [00:33:00] things on like that. And then he would also—he didn’t like television. He couldn’t stand TV. Because he said it made you silly. I would watch it with my mouth open as a child. “Close your mouth, man. You’re watching it and you’re looking all silly.” I’m fascinated by television. I would keep my mouth open for some reason. When you’re fascinated as a child, man, close—he would say, “Watch PBS if you’re gonna watch something. Watch that PBS. Watch the public television.” He couldn’t stand it. I draw on him a lot. My mother loved TV.

So whenever I’m acting, whenever I’m auditioning, I pull on stories. I did it for Ti-Jean. You see what I mean? Yeah, the body, you say using your body. One thing I love about theater is, like television and movies, the camera dictates where your eye goes unless you want to watch the background or something like that. But theater, your eye is free to watch [00:34:00] whatever you want to watch. If you want to look at the set, if you want to take in another actor while the main actor’s doing his main monologue. If you wanna watch the—

Elizabeth: Upstage you up there.

Clayton: If you wanna watch the spear carrier while the, the main guy is waxing poetic, you can do that. You know what I’m saying? But theater allows your whole body. So when I did Ti-Jean, one thing I can say about Ti-Jean, again, it freed me up deeply as an actor, physically. ‘Cause I had to dance in a way. Move in a way. Childlike, right? And I can’t recall if I had ever had to do that before in a show, be youthful and free and talk to animals, that kind of thing.

Michael: That’s, to shift things, because you did two shows at Arena Stage with The Great White Hope, that iconic show from the ‘60s, that’s when the Arena first did it.

Elizabeth: James Earl Jones and—

Michael: James Earl Jones.

Elizabeth: Jane Alexander originally.

Michael: Yeah. And then there was Gem of the Ocean. And if you could maybe just share some of your experiences with either one of those two shows, or both, [00:35:00] just the development of character, the building of a community there at Arena Stage, what have you?

Clayton: There’s a connection I must talk about that can lead me into that. When I did Tied Apart at, we produced it inside Sanctuary Theater, I received a call from Benita Hofstetter, who was calling on behalf of Zelda Fichandler. And she said, “Zelda wants to meet you.” I was not a professional actor at that time, quote unquote “professional,” right? And she was more nervous than I was because Zelda is the lady. She said, “I hope you have two monologues prepared, because this woman wants to meet you.” I think she had heard about my work.

Elizabeth: Great.

Clayton: Over there. Because I was pulling, y’all know. You guys know. I was pulling actors together.

Michael: Oh, yeah. She followed Sanctuary and we know—

Clayton: Oh, she did?

Michael: We got a note from her once.

Elizabeth: She was very sweet. She sent us a nice note.

Clayton: Oh, here we go.

Elizabeth: Personal note.

Clayton: See, now I did not know that.

Elizabeth: Just “Congratulations. Go for it.”

Clayton: See, she knew what you were doing. [00:36:00] Yeah. And so when I received that call, I was like, oh, man, this lady, I knew of her. And I met her. And it was just us, her, myself, and Jerry, was it Jerry Whitten?

Elizabeth: Jerry Whitten?

Clayton: It might have been Jerry Whitten or the other—

Elizabeth: Artistic Director of Roundhouse.

Clayton: He could have been. No, not Jerry. No, I’m sorry. It wasn’t Jerry Whitten. I forget his name right now. But it was only two people there.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Clayton: And myself, in that big, huge theater. And she said, “Clayton I’ve been hearing about what you’ve been doing. And I wanted to meet you.” And she said, “You have”—so I did my two monologues. And she asked, “How much would you like to work here?” I said thank you for asking.

Elizabeth: What a great actor question.

Clayton: As a matter of fact, I thanked her—

Elizabeth: Scale of one to ten, you know—

Clayton: —while I was getting my answer together. I’m saying thank you, but I’m trying to get my answer together. And I said to her I said, “Thank you for asking.” I said, “I would love to work here.” And then I said, “However.” And my defense, I think my defense mechanism kicks in. I said, “I am working on my own stuff.” ‘Cause, see, I grew up with people who say, do your thing, [00:37:00] don’t always depend on somebody. Create.

Michael: Sure.

Clayton: So I was—and then, but this is what she said to me, “Clayton, I realize that.” She said, “Maybe you can do both.”

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s great.

Clayton: And that was a, and then, yeah.

Elizabeth: I’d love to see a reenactment of that movie.

Clayton: Yeah, because that comes up.

Elizabeth: Clayton and the great Zelda Fichandler.

Clayton: Oh, let me tell you something. That comes up. That, she said, “I realize you’re doing your own thing. That’s why I called you.” You know what I mean? “But maybe you can do both.” And that was her invitation to say, come on into the professional world as well. And I got it. And I hear that from time to time when I’m wavering with the this or that. It’s not either or all the time. It’s both.

Elizabeth: That leads us to talk, to switch gears a little bit, but to just keep going and talk about your work as a playwright and producer, because as we were just discussing, you formed a production company called The Genre Group—

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: —35, 40 years ago.

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: And that was the entity that produced your play, Tied Apart. So can you talk about your experiences forming that production company and how it came about and who [00:38:00] was involved?

Clayton: Yes, my interest is so varied because I am a person who lives here in the country rhat has so much going on, right? And so they have this word, G-E-N-R-E, genre. Then when I got hip to the word, I said, “Oh wow, that’s interesting.” A kind or a type. And I’m interested in different types of stories, right? Westerns, out of space, sci-fi, different jazz, genres. And I said, “That would be a good name for a production company.” You see what I mean? So I took it.

But then, I found the second meaning of genre. And that’s what really kicked it off. The second meaning, or one of the meanings, is a painting in which subjects from everyday life are treated realistically.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Clayton: Now isn’t that interesting? I found that in a dictionary in the Arlington County Library. I looked up the word G-E-N-R-E and that’s what was in the dictionary, and it fit my mission. You guys write mission statements up. I’m like, wait a minute. Not only is it a good name. That’s the [00:39:00] mission. I want to treat Black people specifically in a realistic manner because too many times it’s just not done in certain, certain productions. They just don’t do it. And there’s still a lot of controversy about that, whether it’s the major studios or Broadway. Sometimes we don’t see certain stories told, first of all, and then the portrayals are, there’s always some kind of controversy or back and forth.

So anyway, because I’ve wanted to do, when I did get here, a lot of the actors were complaining about racism inside the theater. “Arena Stage don’t do this.” This don’t do that. And I was like, what are we going to do? And I had asked some of the actors and that’s when I went on to ask various actors in town, look, let’s get down. I’ve got a play here. I’ve got other things I’m working on. I’m sure you do. Ron Tucker is someone that I met and you guys worked with Ron, I think, a couple of times. A couple of shows. Wonderful actor. Still a good friend.  I go to baseball games with Ron.

Elizabeth: Oh, great.

Clayton: Yeah. I just went to a baseball game with him. [00:40:00] He’s a good baseball guy. I am. But anyway, he heard me one day after we finished Ti-Jean. And I told him, just depend on grants and other people to do things sometimes, it’s just one way to do it. And he heard me and he said, “You have this play, I’d like to help you produce it.” And that’s how we put it up. So then when we put it up, back to Zelda, when she asked me to go, say, “Would you like to join the company?” So I joined the company and she never directed anything, but she was the head, but I became what they call a professional, got my Equity card in a production of Les Blanc by Lorraine Hansberry, which was out of this world. I did more. I did about seven shows over there.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Michael: Oh, did you?

Clayton: Yeah, but the ones that you’re, you’re focusing on, that’s August Wilson. But I did about six to seven shows, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Conquest of the South Pole, which was an amazing, you guys should read that one. Conquest of the South Pole. What else did I do, man?

Michael: So you became part of their [00:41:00] ensemble.

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: Yeah, which was one of the few resident companies in the country.

Clayton: At that time. Yeah, and a young lady named Margo Hall, who now is the Artistic Director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco. So, they brought Margo and myself on as company members. I did Midsummer Night’s Dream there as well. These productions were Liviu Ciulei.

Elizabeth: Oh, is that what you say it? I said liv-you sil-wee—

Clayton: I that how? I thought it was—

Elizabeth: Famous director.

Clayton: Yes.

Elizabeth: He did Crime and Punishment.

Clayton: Did he?

Elizabeth: At Arena, I think.

Clayton: Did he do Crime? I didn’t know he did. But all of the work over there was amazing. And then Molly came in and continued the legacy.

Michael: She got rid of the ensemble, the company.

Clayton: And maybe that was a smart move. Because as I look at theater as well, to build a theater now, I’m thinking it’s put the play up. Because sometimes to get [00:42:00] the board of directors, that’s just one way of doing it. Sometimes we have to just think of different ways of doing stuff. You don’t have to do the same thing all the time. So I think just putting, and that’s what I’ve done. Someone say, “Clayton, you always talking about there’s not one Black Equity theater company in the DC area. Why don’t you try to form one?” I said, “I’m putting plays, I put them up.” And then if you keep doing that, maybe it’ll form that way. Rather than going the opposite way and doing the administrative style. Trying to start it from that point of view and then coming down. That’s where I think the problem lies. When you’re trying to do it from an administrative side. Unless you have administrative people who know what the hell they’re doing.

Elizabeth: Right. Administration equals money.

Clayton: Yes. But if you do it like some people do, there’s independent production. There’s one particular guy who’s a multi-millionaire who owns his own studio now who started that way. His name is Tyler Perry.

Elizabeth: Exactly. He’s got a whole studio in Atlanta.

Clayton: He put a couch on stage and, you know, had these stories that he told and look where he’s [00:43:00] at now. See? It’s not like he had to do the board of directors, get the grants. Do it in that manner. That’s one way. And if we open up into other ways, we’ll see a resurgence in theater. Which I believe is here.

Michael: I was talking to someone just the other day that was talking about forming a nonprofit, the board, etc. And I was saying, when you’re starting a theater or when you’re doing a production—and this feeds into what you were just saying—he said, the main thing is that you’re creating a community.

Clayton: Yes.

Michael: Around that production, around that group, that’s sort of the vision of that group or that theater.

Clayton: Yes.

Michael: And some of the discussions I’ve had with you about your play Tied Apart, it sounds like you created a community of people around that.

Clayton: Yes.

Michael: The idea of putting on that show.

Clayton: Yes.

Michael: Can you maybe talk about just the community? Participants and theater goers that formed around that production.

Clayton: Yes, that was interesting because I do remember upstairs, you had a [00:44:00] balcony upstairs too, right?

Michael: Yeah, an old choir walk.

Clayton: I remember giving an envelope to the actors at the end of the run. And there was nothing in it, a couple of dollars. But I was showing them, look, this is how the process works. You open it up, don’t look for a whole lot of money in the envelope, but the point is, that’s what I said when I gave the envelope out, “See what the process is.” Because I had to work hard to pull everybody together. So what happens is, I started, I was really studying what was happening in South Africa. And it was hurting, when you got women and men killed and the government is sanctioning it. And I’m over here with, in relative peace, I’m like, this is madness. This is inhumane. It’s insane. And it’s happening to people of a darker shade and it’s just continues. First there’s enslavement. Now you got this. It weighs heavy on us. Anyone who is humane and sensitive, whatever shade they are. But I have a shade that [00:45:00] connects in a certain way. I’m feeling this thing.

So I wrote the piece and I went on a mission. I stopped DJing and I went on a mission to find. Fortunately, I found Ron Tucker who said, look, I can, help you finance it. And then as I started auditioning actors, I took it through the process you guys did. Put up notices in The Washington Post, what is it, Guide to the Lively Arts.

Elizabeth: Guide to the Lively Arts, yeah.

Clayton: Yeah, no, no board of directors. You see what I mean? No grant. Coming from the heart with this thing, because I’m like, this issue has to come out. And so the play was about, if you recall, a rhythm and blues singing group that got an offer to perform in Sun City. And at that time, they were—they, meaning the South African government, or entities—were offering American musicians a whole lot of money to perform there. And the United Nations had a cultural boycott on. So I finished the piece [00:46:00] right on time. They were actually, Stevie Wonder and them, they were, what do you call it, protesting at the South African Embassy during that time. We had a couple after-show discussions with TransAfrica, a group called SAS, South African Support Project. Building the community was I was finding actors when I auditioned them, I was asking them what they felt about the, what was happening. And when they answered me, I was leaning toward working with actors that were feeling it. Not so much actors that had a deep resume. Community again. Come on.

Elizabeth: That leads us to talk to you a bit about your activism, because in addition to being an actor and a DJ and all these other—you’re a playwright, you’re also an activist. Your work on the South African issue is an example of that, but you were also very outspoken some years later and very much of a community leader in the efforts to bring back the schoolgirls who were abducted in Nigeria back in 2014.

Clayton: Yes. Yes.

 Elizabeth: [00:47:00] Among other issues. Can you speak about how you’ve been able to intertwine your artistic life with your activist life?

Clayton: That word is interesting because it’s become, just like a lot of things, like a label. But when you’re black and you’re living in America, you’re basically an activist when you’re born, if you choose to. I’ve been, I’ve never talked about how much men who work in the police force, the problems that I’ve had growing up. I’m fortunate to be here. So the term is interesting to me. You’re an activist. Look, I’m a citizen. And I’m dealing with certain things, like a lot of people who have a darker shade have to deal with. You see what I mean? The imbalance. That’s why I say balance is my favorite word. Whatever shade you have, you’re going to have problems in life. But when those problems are exacerbated by unfair laws, unfair treatment—we don’t have to get into it. We know it. So in a way, the term is interesting. I don’t use it too much anymore, like I, I [00:48:00] appreciate when people say you’re an activist, but the point is I’m just a person living in this country and I have to choose to deal with certain things. When cops are putting guns to your head for traffic light stops. You see what I’m saying?

There was an incident I had in Florida where six or seven cop cars came out of nowhere. And they literally did the SWAT thing.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Clayton: SWAT. Over the roofs with, what do you call it, the bullhorn.

Elizabeth: Out of the car, you mean?

Clayton: And my life flashed in front of me. Yeah, with the bullhorn out of the car. We didn’t do a thing. So I’m looking at all of these guns over the car roofs. SWAT.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Clayton: Knowing that I didn’t do a damn thing. And my life is flashing in front of me. Mistaken identity. Okay? So, mistaken identity, some car, somebody robbed a hotel. They say we look like it. And so I can go on with that. The point is that, so the term activist, it’s utilized, [00:49:00] you deal with it. The term actor, you deal with it. I like storytelling now. I like theater arts practitioner now. I like different terms. We’re struggling with terms.

So, as an activist, I was outspoken, meaning that I would just challenge actors in town to stop complaining, work together, put up shows, stop focusing on what somebody is not doing for you. You see what I mean? I would also discuss even with the theaters, people that I work with over at Arena Stage, various issues. Because one thing about Zelda and Molly, they were—how about this label they probably don’t like—liberal. These labels are crazy after a while. Sometimes they’re just passe. We’re, I think we’re at a time where we’re still dealing with them, but we’ll get over them. But anyway, they were putting up shows, Zelda was putting up Les Blancs. People think Lorraine Hansberry wrote one play—

Elizabeth: Oh, Raisin in the Sun.

Clayton: —and that’s called Raisin in the Sun. You’re going to do Raisin. [00:50:00] But do you know I had to throw a hand grenade at a missionary in that play? That’s Zelda. I’m in the play and I gotta come out of a foxhole with a hand grenade and throw a grenade, and they had the grenade, they blew up, they had a warning in the program. “If you’re sensitive to smoke.” Now, that’s Lorraine, her genius, when you read, anybody want to read Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, it’s deep. It’s dealing with what they call deep issues.

So an activist has a heavy burden on him when he’s even labeled that, because some people look for you to be a troublemaker when all you are is trying to be humane.

Michael: Sure.

Clayton: The Black, I don’t call them the Black Panther, I call them the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. That’s their term. When you say Black Panthers, now you’re just into the hat, the leather coats, and the guns. But when you say the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, it shows you that they were, they had problems with the cops, and if we [00:51:00] don’t put this on stage—so Muhammad Ali goes on stage. He’s doing plays. People don’t know Muhammad Ali was an actor.

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