George Faison sits in the living room of his Upper West Side home, talking about his life and career, and the challenges of opportunity that have shaped both. His conversation percolates with the staccato rhythms of a dancer, jumping from opinion to fact to insight into his critically acclaimed production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, which is playing at the American Place Theatre in an extended run through October 29.
"I saw the original production in 1977," he begins, "and I thought it was harsh, which, in retrospect, was good for all of us. It was the first time we heard Ntozake Shange's expression of the anger, pain, sorrow and ultimate joy of being a black woman. It has taken time to reflect on the complexity of the poems and to appreciate them. They make us look back and realize that we still have to solve problems that were raised 25 years ago."
The seven actresses in the cast, ranging in age from 20 to 60, are categorized by color. Faison sees the younger women as those in Red (vibrant), Yellow (innocent) and Orange (adventurous), while the Woman in Brown acts the earth mother, the Woman in Green signifies new growth and Women in shades of Blue symbolize dark phases. Directing and choreographing the show has made Faison examine women's rights, what men and women can achieve together and the divide between them.
"We're all trying to build something that's worthwhile and that will benefit others," he says, "and it's insensitive for men to think we're doing it alone. Looking at for colored girls today, we have to realize that women are everything men are. If that isn't understood, it's going to hold us back. Ntozake may have been alone in 1977, but she has been joined by a chorus of women who embrace the same thoughts, energies, wants and needs. I hope that the new voices will resonate to young women in the audience and that it will help young men understand."
Faison grew up in Washington, D.C., and it was, he says, a regular childhood with two parents, four siblings, and a nurturing home on a tree-lined street. He chose the arts, with some skepticism from his parents, after performing in shows at the American Light Opera Company in Georgetown. By the time he arrived in New York in 1965, he had done Kiss Me Kate, Pajama Game, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy, but was without formal training.
"I learned how to dance standing on my feet," he laughs. "I acquired a technique in a matter of months. When I first came to the city, there was nothing happening on the employment front, so I decided to settle down and learn how to dance." He took three classes a day before landing in the first integrated chorus on television. The show was Stage 67 on ABC, starring Lauren Bacall and John Forsythe; soon after he began working with an arts group in Harlem when a $50 a week stipend was enough to provide a level of survival.
"New York was incredible in those days," he says. "You could go downtown to Avenues A, B and C and be a part of a melting pot. There were musicians and actors driven by the sheer force of creativity and the fact that there was an audience there to enjoy it. The myth of New York was a reality."
Faison toured with Alvin Ailey from 1966 to 1969, a difficult time for a black artist to run a dance company. Although Ailey faced the obstacles of race, lack of funding and often an uneducated audience, the tour propelled Faison's dream to a reality. Getting the chance to see Africa and Europe, coupled with exposure to Ailey's gift for storytelling, made Faison determined to be a performer.
"I'm grateful that I got that early on. It enabled me to be the kind of person who won't wait for somebody to do something when I know I can do it myself. It boosted my tenacity to create something out of nothing and to market it." And Faison worked constantly: on Broadway, on television, with dance companies on tour. While performing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, he was approached to choreograph The Wiz, for which he won a Tony Award.
Faison does not hesitate to contrast that charmed capsule of time with the current theater community. "We're doing something else now," he begins. "Disney is manufactured, homogenized, pasteurized, signed, sealed, boxed and delivered. Kids had spirit then, as they do now. But today parents push them to get the training and get the knowledge, and then when they get here there are no jobs. It's ludicrous what we ask our children to do, and the responsibility we won't take to bring their dreams to a reality."
Taking on that responsibility himself, Faison has purchased a firehouse on West 124th Street which he plans to develop as a base for young artists. He hopes to build a theatrical home where performers can exchange experiences, and where isolation can be traded for inspiration.
"If you have a gift, you have to give it up," he says. "You have to be free enough to do that. Playwrights need an actress' experience, and performers have to seek out writers. Put down that martini, come out of that spa and get off that treadmill. You can't hold on to talent. We are closely connected on all levels, and we have an abundance to share from the knowledge that we have gathered in life."