THE ASYLUM

What an excruciating experience, four days filming The Wayans Brothers Show for WB. Many words come to mind, unprofessional leading the pack. I came as close as I can ever remember to losing it and ‘reading’ my director in front of his charges.  John Bowab began by directing SOAP and perhaps has done some notable work, but he is presently presiding over the ASYLUM.  It is peopled chiefly by two additional (and perhaps superfluous Wayans – as if any were required to uplift our condition and inform future generations).  They are unremarkable in all respects, modestly talented, without any tradition of their antecedents.  Comedy has a storied history, examples abound of innovations, style, traditions.  They lack any appreciation for those before them; they are two young men who were handed the keys to the highway and never bothered to take driving lessons.  Which makes working with them somewhat less than a day at the beach.  They never bothered to introduce themselves to me, more an absence of common courtesy than any overt affront and this I forgave them, as well as their total lack of discipline or professionalism.  Why bother, when surrounded by industry forces willing to indulge their every misguided whim and attempts at humor, subverting the best efforts of any intrusion of taste, intelligence, wit from the sad souls assigned to lead/follow this rag tag wagon train into the depths of the lowest imaginable levels of what passes as ‘comedy’ these days on the ‘chitlin circuit’?

Once upon a time, networks excluded the participation of African-Americans…then began their inclusion, once discovering their market share, even producing a few shows specifically oriented toward their sensibilities and target audiences.  Over the years, they spanned the spectrum of quality, both in writing and production values.  Amos and Andy once set the standard…But in time, political correctness demanded less caricatured portrayals of minority life, which gave rise, initially to positive portrayals of minority characters… We had series that came and went, some better some worse, but the intent and direction was positive, we WERE being portrayed, often written and guided by Whites…. COSBY, supposedly a high water mark of quality became the new standard of quality and Bill became an icon of correctness….

Which brings us to the present day, with multiple programs on the emerging networks of FOX, UPN and WB, reaching the stratified audiences, the lesser, upcoming networks allowed to reach out to the waiting and deserving minority audiences, wishing to watch programs which reflect their own sensibilities.  And so we get The Wayans Brothers Show and others of that ilk.  I’d done MARTIN and was underwhelmed, both by the quality and intent of the writing -but it WAS the FIRST Guest Star role that I had a chance to portray on television and for that I give thanks.  I later did roles on Me and The Boys with Steve Harvey and Sister, Sister, none of which were particularly challenging, artistically, but fulfilling, for I knew my work was reaching my people, the minority audience, which perhaps didn’t see many of the shows I was doing on mainstream tv.

But this show is a whole new bag.  I don’t do caricatures, I create characters.  I don’t like approaching that point where “I don’t give a fuck”.  While fatigue may bring me to that brink, when I go to survival mode and ‘get through this’, I don’t like feeling the impulse to ‘just survive and go home’.  I LOVE my work…and always want to feel that way.  When I find myself in a work context where craft and professionalism is not respected or valued, I know how fortunate I’ve been to know better and realize that there is rarely enough money to justify this pollution.  This is not wholly a racial issue, for I’ve encountered it before in roles where I am the only minority artist in sight.  But sadly, it seems to be distressingly prevalent in many of the African-American television programs filming in the present, for several reasons; primarily because the principals are given vehicles, yet devoid of training, manners and a respect for that which preceded them and gave them the light of day.

I fault my director, John Bowab.  He is white, reasonably experienced and the commander, and as such both sets the tone and must take the responsibility of command.  While I acknowledge his difficulties as the presiding leader of this platform for undisciplined principals, I fault him for not protecting and supporting those professionals brought in to ‘man this mission’.  By catering to every untalented and ill-thought whim, he contributes to the lack of morale of both crew and cast.  Directors/Commanders set the tone; John failed in this regard, and for that reason, I did not bother to acknowledge him after the filming. I knew I would be unable to restrain myself from telling him just how disappointing an experience this had been for me, thanks in large part to his own failings.

I soon learned to expect little from the brothers, Shawn and Marlin, they’d been given license to run amok, and so they did.  But to have moments changed, without regard for the scene’s values, to have character and story values distorted or abandoned, simply to appease the ego of the STARS, and, most importantly, to FILM without first informing performers of key changes in the scene, were simply unacceptable and unforgivable trespasses.  I LOVE improvisation, I’d little fear of their momentary ‘inspirations’, even welcomed them, for I am as flexible an actor as I know, will always respond in character.  But I eventually accepted that while my flexibility might save takes and accommodate my STAR’S inconsistencies, the work I’d come to do was less important to them than placating them and producing ANYTHING remotely resembling the dynamics, script, and relationships initially intended by the writers.

The story was simple and a staple: Wealthy man has daughter, sought by the less cultured young man.  Promising premise…If one is a hunter and bags a lion or bear, one gains glory.  If one is a hunter and bags a chipmunk, one gains somewhat less glory.  By diminishing me as an adversary, the wealthy and imposing father, the stakes were lowered.  Ultimately, I was to be defeated, brought down by the script’s circumstances, an arrogant and condescending magnate who toys with less ‘cultured’pretenders to my daughters favors, but one who allows her the space to discover the error of her choices.  Shawn refused to accept the challenge of a simple action: to somehow ‘break’ a valuable piece of art, and then be discovered in the act of this embarrassment, by the father of the woman he hopes to win.  Instead, (because he as an actor was too lazy, probably, or too unimaginative) simply asked that the business be deleted…and thereby robbed himself of a lovely beginning to a scene, robbed the show and scene of a rich physical comedy sequence, which he could’ve  milked for DAYS.  Simply because he discovered (at tape time) that he couldn’t do, consistently from take to take, because he hadn’t done the homework in the prior three days. (The actor playing his father, John Witherspoon, in contrast, knew nothing of the violin, yet in two days, learned enough to ‘pretend’ to be a brilliant violinist, simply by watching the man ‘doubling’ for him…and thereby created a lovely sequence for the show and himself.)  Quite simply the difference between an actor and an undeserving recipient of timing, connections and Peter Principle.

(There are many Wayans…I do like Damon, he makes me laugh.  His brother, Keenan, has done much good work, created In Living Color,  but wrote Most Wanted, an amazingly silly and expensive film in which I appeared… and happily took their money.  A sister, Kim, who is certainly less attractive and interesting than many a performer…and then we have these two.  God knows how many others are waiting in the wings or are already afoot)

Unable or unwilling to hit a mark in the first scene, this Co-Blemish preferred the inspiration of his limited imagination to the structure of his pitiable writers. I will give thanks that I’ve enjoyed the creativity of more gifted pathfinders and do not depend upon the kindness of untalented strangers for my economic and artistic well-being.  This job was not fun, and though I was thanked for being a “good sport” by the brothers at the curtain call and acknowledged by the crew, cast and audience for my work and patience, few knew the cost. I do hope that either I refuse such future experiences, or extort absurd amounts of money. God knows how much I’d feel adequate to compensate me for such indignities, but a damn sight more than I probably got paid. Or I’m willing to tilt the windmills of propriety and convention to AFFRONT such insensitivity and ignorance with my own counsel, (devil take the consequences.) So that I might arrive home flat, expressed, and requited – instead of spilling out my bile in the shank of this evening, hoping to reach closure with so memorable and forgettable an experience.

15 January 1998

 

 

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