"Thanks for meeting me here, Miss Harris."
"Look, I thought about this undercover thing and I just don't think I can do it."
The man's voice is all business, cool and authoritative, fitting his position as an officer of the law. The woman is tense and jittery, a professional who's been asked to do something she cannot bring herself to do.
"What do you mean?" the cop demands angrily. "You're an officer of the court and there's a lot at stake here."
"Hey, cop!" she shouts, her voice trembling with anger and fear. "I am a prosecutor. I don't need any criminal-justice speeches from you!"
"Look," the cop says, trying to contain his emotions. "I had you checked out. They said you were straight and smart."
"All right," the woman says in a dismissive tone. "I gotta go."
"Oh, so that's it," bellows the cop. "You walk the hell away from your obligation to the innocent people . . . "
"I am pregnant!" the woman shouts tearfully. "I am pregnant by the guy you're trying to put in jail, OK?"
A long pause ensues. "I'm sorry," the cop says.
"Look," the woman says. "I gotta go."
A dramatic chord of music is heard, and a voice breaks in:
"Grand Boulevard. Back in a moment."
Every weekday morning at seven o'clock, the listeners of WJPC are taken on a five-minute trip to a place called Grand Boulevard, a major American city filled with philandering husbands, jealous wives, sophisticated criminals, and self-made millionaires. Meet Harrison Mitchell, media mogul who cannot come to terms with his son, who passes up a chance at his father's fortune to work as an undercover cop. Meet smart, calculating Iesha Blackmon, whose unhappy childhood has led her to pursue a life of crime in a mob called "the Family." Meet Richard Fortune, a private eye who's been summoned to investigate the whereabouts of the child of Paris Kane, the singer and nightclub owner who gave up her baby when a woman of ill repute. A society woman and civic worker, a criminal defense lawyer, a project boy who's turned to crime to get out of his neighborhood, a surgeon who works nightclubs as a jazz pianist, a judge with political ambitions, a stand-up comedian, a crime boss on his deathbed--18 characters in all populate the radio soap opera known as Grand Boulevard.
On the air since March 9, Grand Boulevard is the brainchild of Tony Green, a 40-year-old former civil rights worker, record producer, Walgreens manager, and assistant to Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson. The show is the first original radio soap to be produced in Chicago since Ma Perkins in the 50s. It's also heard on radio stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.
The actors on Grand Boulevard have worked on the stages of Northlight Theatre, Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre, the Chicago Theatre Company, and the ETA Creative Arts Foundation. A couple of them can now be seen on television advertising diapers or the services of the University of Chicago Hospital. Some have had bit parts in movies filmed in Chicago and a few never acted before in their lives. Every Monday night they come to Tony Green's cramped studio in an old graystone mansion on South Michigan Avenue to tape the next week's episodes of Grand Boulevard.
"Everything I have done in my life is feeding into Grand Boulevard," says Green, the show's writer, producer, composer, sales representative, director, editor, and announcer. "I live like a hermit. It is pulling the blood out of my nostrils and if I didn't love it so, if I didn't feel such a sense of mission, I wouldn't do it. It has music. It has writing. It has creative talent. I'm dealing with salespeople. I'm organizing everything. It takes everything I know how to do and then some."
It's late on a Monday afternoon and Green and I are talking in his studio before the actors get here. He looks bleary-eyed and exhausted as he sits in his black sweat suit, swigging a can of Strawberry Crush. He says he hasn't slept in 36 hours, and looking at him I can believe it.
The studio is about as big as a roomy broom closet. Sea green soundproofing foam is fixed to sky blue walls. There are tape machines, reel-to-reel recorders, stacks of record albums, and four keyboards on racks. Beyond a plaster wall is a room with two microphones that's even smaller than this one. Green has just returned from teaching a GED class at one of Chicago's city colleges and now he's about to make some calls to see if he can find sponsors for his show. He says that response has been good so far, but if Grand Boulevard is going to take off, a lot more work has to be done.
"Hopefully, it will hold its time slot," says Green. "There's a lot of silliness and a lot of just plain arrogance in radio. It's not a music program, and because of that there's a lot of resistance to it. But I look at it like this. Radio has got to come back to producing programs. They can't just play records because everybody's got records, and if you want to be competitive you can't compete using what everybody's got. There hasn't been a hell of a lot of innovation in radio in decades. The last wave to sweep radio was damn near rock and roll. It was Perry Como, then Elvis Presley, and that's about it. People get lazy because it's very easy to just put a record on. Records are cheap. They get them free. Production is zero. So why do all this other stuff? That's why I have a hard time convincing people that Grand Boulevard's really going to hit."
Green is aiming Grand Boulevard at an audience of black women over the age of 25. "Women control the radio," says Green. "You may have what you want on in the car, but when she gets in she automatically turns the radio to what she wants to hear. She doesn't even ask you, and if you say something she gives you a look that says, 'If you don't listen to what I want to listen to, there's going to be trouble in this relationship.' Women have a very strong habit of watching what they want to watch and listening to what they want to listen to, and men have a good habit of going along with them to keep the peace. Women watch soaps. When I was selling the pilot to Grand Boulevard and I was dealing with a male program director, I'd say, 'Here, take this home and give it to your mama or give it to your wife.' Women understood it immediately.
Whether it's ultimately to his advantage or disadvantage in trying to sell his soap, Green is virtually alone in the marketplace. With the exception of the occasional radio theater on WFMT, and WMBI's Unshackled, telling stories of Christian salvation, there is no radio drama in Chicago. There is certainly no other serial for black audiences.
"It's really an embarrassing indictment against the American entertainment community," says Green. "There are 31 million black people in the country and all there is is my little program. There are 31 million black people and there is not one black entertainment drama on radio or television, network or cable. Think about that. There's no soap opera on the radio. And there is no such thing as a drama by and for blacks."
Tony Green's journey from son of a pastor to soap opera producer has followed several paths. There was the civil rights path that led from a degree in political science to work as a government planner to a stint at Operation PUSH. There was the business path that led from a job as a supermarket stock clerk to another as a drugstore manager to owning and operating a laundry and managing real estate. And then there was the path of the entertainment industry pioneer, which has taken him from piano lessons to club gigs to work as a booking agent to a short-lived songwriting career and to Grand Boulevard.
"I always had each foot in a different place," says Green. "When I was growing up, I had one foot in school, one foot working, and one foot in the church."
Green grew up on the south side of Chicago and attended Chicago Vocational High School. One of his first encounters with the entertainment industry came when he got a job working summers at the old Regal Theatre at 47th and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive)--which, incidentally, was once known as Grand Boulevard, though Green claims that he wasn't thinking of that when he named his show.
"It never dawned on me," says Green. "But it fits, because 47th Street was to Chicago in the 30s and 40s what Harlem was to New York. Writers and politicians and entertainers worked in that area; 47th was downtown for black folks, but I never made the obvious correlation."
As a young usher at the Regal, Green brushed shoulders with some of the giants of black entertainment. He recalls standing backstage and watching Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack, and the Temptations.
"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," recalls Green. "This was the Regal. I shouldn't even have gotten the job. I told the manager I was 18 even though I was only 13. I lucked out and got the job. It paid one dollar an hour and that was a lot of money for a 13-year-old in 1966. They wouldn't let you eat the popcorn either. They would fire you for eating the concessions because that's where they made their money. I remember watching all of these great performers in my little usher's uniform and my flashlight and I started learning the qualities an audience responds to. You learn what really makes a great entertainer.
"One of the things that black people have been permitted to do and have excelled at is entertainment," Green goes on. "Entertainment for black folk has always been real important, and our standards for entertainers and entertainment are high as hell. If you turn on the television and watch Live at the Apollo you see the audience of all black folks, and they've got the performers sweating because if the performers can't do what they're supposed to be doing most excellently, the audience will have people in their family who can sing better than they can. Entertainment is something black folks don't mess around with.
"White folks aren't as demanding on black performers. You've got white audiences sold on black entertainers before they walk out: 'Oh, he's black. He must be good.' But when you came to the Apollo in New York and the Regal in Chicago, you had to come out with everything you had to entertain black folks. Black audiences would boo and run you off the fucking stage. Today, I go to a place like the Funny Firm and I sit there and I fall asleep. You go into a black comedy club and it's like gun fighting. I don't know if we have pride in it or what, but there was and still is a very high standard for black entertainers."
After graduating from high school, Green got a bachelor's in political science from Chicago State University and a master's in political science from Roosevelt. He says he never did particularly well in school because he did not feel challenged by most of his teachers. But in his final year at Chicago State he had the chance to work a year in Springfield as a legislative intern for Harold Washington.
"Even at the time, he was one of the black leaders of the legislature," says Green. "He was articulate and dynamic. Whatever he said, black leaders followed suit. I remember when I was being interviewed for the program, I went into this room and there were five or six people sitting at a table and they all started shooting questions at me and I started shooting answers back. So even though my grades weren't that good, they liked the fact that I could think on my feet. They said, 'Well you can't go to classes this year.' I said, 'Hallelujah! Get me out of these boring classes!'
"Harold Washington picked me and I was dealing with him and Cecil Partee, all of these black leaders. I was learning how to draft bills and research legislation and I began to see a bigger picture than anything I'd been exposed to in my life."
After Green left graduate school, one of his professors helped him find work as a city planner for Model Cities, which helped to organize a number of social service programs in the mid-70s. Model Cities was headed by Dr. Erwin France.
"This was the first time I'd ever seen black people, professional black people, running, managing, and controlling anything outside the church," says Green. "I remember seeing all these black people wearing suits and working like dogs. I would help to design parent-child centers and programs for the elderly and black folks would be running them. People were articulate and they just lived to come to work because they could see what they were doing was making a difference. Buildings were springing up. Programs were springing up. I couldn't wait to go to work. I remember Erwin France used to catch hell from the people on the City Council because he wouldn't let politicians put their hacks in jobs at Model Cities. The whole staff from top to bottom was quality. I don't remember a hack in the place."
After Erwin France was replaced by Cecil Partee, Green left Model Cities too. "Nothing against Cecil Partee, he just wasn't the same kind of guy." Green worked for a short while as assistant manager of economic development at the Chicago Urban League and made a little money on the side writing phony research papers.
After the Urban League, Green says he grew tired of working in social service with its unlimited aims and highly limited resources. "I saw the abuse Erwin France took. They would kick his ass right in the City Council. I didn't want to continue in that line of work."
So he signed up for the store-manager training program at Walgreens. Green says he'd decided on a career in the private sector and Walgreens seemed like as good a place as any to start. "They fired me in a hot minute," says Green. "After working with Harold Washington, Erwin France, and all these great leaders, managing Walgreens was ridiculous. It wasn't big enough or action-packed enough. It was a good American job but I failed at it. I was like, 'I know how to stock shelves. I did that in high school.' It didn't work out."
Green considered real estate. He says he even had a job lined up managing buildings for the Equitable insurance company. But just as he was about to accept that position a call came from Jesse Jackson, who had heard about Green from a professor at Roosevelt and who needed an assistant.
"I turned him down three times," boasts Green. "I wanted to have a nice corporate job at the Equitable. But then Reverend Jackson said, 'I understand they want you. But we need you.' He hit me in the heart."
Green joined Operation PUSH in 1980 and stayed there for a year as the "executive assistant to the president." His duties ranged from answering phones to traveling with Jackson to helping organize Jackson's office to coordinating Jackson's schedule.
"Jesse Jackson is as bright a man as I have met on this earth, period," says Green. "But he is not an administrator. He was getting all kinds of grant money but he was always out and gone, speaking and saving the race and going out and discussing whatever he felt was pertinent. Administratively, PUSH was in chaos."
During his year at PUSH, Green worked like an "absolute tongue-hanging-out dog. I was embarrassed not to work because everybody else was working so hard.
"I thought I worked hard before I worked for Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson would work all day and all night, work himself into exhaustion. We would talk at 1:30 in the morning and he would call me back at 5 in the morning. He'd say, 'Tony, I go out and folks will ask me all kinds of tricky questions and I stay up all night thinking of all kinds of ways to answer those tricky questions.'
"The Bible says a prophet is never honored in his own land," Green goes on. "On the road he was royalty. Absolute royalty. Here in Chicago, he's just Jesse. In California he was royalty. He'd get off the plane and the governor and the mayor would be there. There'd be a limo. Everything. I met Ted Kennedy and took him to see Jesse Jackson. Ronald Reagan came. It was cool, but when you meet all these people who you read about in history books, you almost shit your pants. Roberta Flack would call up--'Tony, is the reverend there?' Jayne Kennedy. Everybody. Everybody on earth that was anybody.
"Jesse used to say that information is king. Information is power. That man could find out what was going on in the entire country in 15 minutes just by the people he was talking with. President Carter would call up and I'd give him Jesse's travel itinerary. Big stuff. Big big stuff. It was a thrilling experience."
Green says he left PUSH after a year because he became disillusioned with the way the organization was headed. "Jesse gave me the impression that he wanted to build an institution. Institutions can change people but one man cannot, no matter how articulate, no matter how bright. I thought he would create another Model Cities program but this time on a national level. But as time passed, I began to see what was really emerging was Jesse and his little band of merry men. Jesse was the sun and all of us were little planets around the sun. It takes a certain kind of person to construct an institution that will outlive them and go beyond them. I realized that the civil rights institution I thought was going to be built wasn't going to be built. And I didn't want to be a merry man."
So Green got some money together, and with the help of his parents he opened a coin laundry. "The way to control a situation is to outwork everybody," says Green. "You can be as dumb as rocks, but if you just keep working you'll know more than everybody. I figured the worst idiot could manage a coin-op laundromat." Actually, the laundry venture flopped, but Green also took and held onto a job managing a senior citizens' building.
All the while, Green was dabbling in music production and management. He composed a few ad jingles, booked a few acts in local clubs, and hooked up with a singer named Paris Kane (now she plays a character with the same name in Grand Boulevard). He wrote a bunch of songs that she recorded, and got her regular bookings at Playboy clubs, but there were no major breakthroughs. "I said this girl is pretty. I can make some money with her," recalls Green. "You can make some money with pretty girls who sing." It didn't happen.
The closest Green came to a hit record was a "Super Bowl Shuffle" rip-off for the New York Giants. "Because I worked with Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson and Erwin France, I knew how to write songs," says Green. "It sounds funny, but it's true. Working for those men, I was used to writing around themes. You'd see somebody trying to get up on the sidewalk with a wheelchair, and the next thing you knew you'd develop a $10 million program around that. That's the same thing you do in songwriting. You have a theme and you organize a program around it.
So before the 1986 NFL playoffs, Green wrote, "We're the New York Giants / Don't you know we're great? / Football is our business / Pasadena we can't wait." The Giants did win the Super Bowl, but the record went nowhere. "I thought I was going to be rich," says Green. "I said, 'Lord, this is it! The Giants won the fucking Super Bowl! I'm gonna have a hit record!'" No such luck.
Four years ago, Tony Green had the idea of writing a soap opera for radio. "I was just sitting around trying to figure out how I could make some steady money in the industry," says Green. "It was just that simple. Necessity is the mother of invention. Being a small-time entrepreneur makes you find out creative ways to do things. The extreme limits on dollars force you to use your imagination and to keep things flowing because you don't have time or money to waste. I started from cold scratch. I knew nothing about how to do any of this. I started from zero and I had to think my way through each step. If you had told me five years ago that I would be writing and producing a soap, I would have told you you were crazy."
It's about seven in the evening and Tony Green's studios are beginning to smell a little like a gymnasium. The cast is milling about, munching down fast food as Green passes out scripts. The scripts are scribbled in ballpoint pen on notebook paper and are completed shortly before the cast gets here.
Actor Henry Harmon is complaining about the quality of his food. "She says, 'Anything else you want on those wings?'" he bellows. "I said, 'How about cooking them, please?' What do they want me to put on them? Grease?" Vance Williams, who plays noted surgeon and jazz pianist Dr. Michael Moses Foster, just discovered a problem with his lines.
"Here's my question, Tony Green," he says. "You have me saying, 'Is the juice machine ready?' If he's a doctor would he refer to it as that?"
"Why not?" Green asks. "He's a cool doctor."
"Everybody knows it's called a defibrillator," Williams says.
"No," Green says. "Leave in juice machine. I don't know what the hell a defibrillator is. No one in the audience is going to know what a defibrillator is."
"But juice machine? Would he say that?"
"He's a doctor. He says what he wants," insists Green. "These people aren't robots."
The order in which Green records his scenes depends on the availability of the actors. While the actors in one scene are taping, the others are spread out through the building's hallways and stairs rehearsing. Because of the neighborhood, Green usually has some actors stationed by the front door, so that anyone arriving late will be let in fast.
Tonight Green is taping the first scenes with one of his newest characters, Richard Fortune private eye. Clifford Adams, who plays Fortune, is standing in front of a microphone with some other actors while Green in the control room checks voice levels and sets up the tape on the reel-to-reel.
"Hey, who's in there rattling shit around?" Green demands as he whirls dials and knobs. "OK, now Clifford, you're a handsome man and you are just flat cool. All right? Now, Richard. Say your name."
"Fortune," Adams says suavely. "Richard Fortune."
"Say it again. Say it slow and cool. 'Fortune. Richard Fortune.'"
"Fortune. Richard Fortune."
"Again please. Could you get a little closer to the mike?"
This time, Adams is louder. "Fortune, Richard Fortune."
"All right, step back a little bit."
"Here?" asks a softer voice.
"That's all right. Now say your name."
"Fortune. Richard Fortune."
"Say it again please."
"Fortune. Richard Fortune."
"Now Penny, speak." Sanetta "Penny" Gipson, who's playing a disgruntled airline ticket clerk selling a ticket to Richard Fortune, takes her place by the microphone.
"Sir," Gipson begins exasperatedly. "Everybody in front of you and everybody behind you is in a great hurry. Starting with me. I'm in a hurry to get out of here. Now please!"
"A little more, please?" says Green, still setting levels.
"Sir," Gipson repeats. "Everybody in front of you and everybody behind you--"
"All right, all right," says Green. "Now Brian, speak."
Another actor approaches the microphone. "Long time, huh brother?" he says.
"That's 'Long line,'" corrects Green.
"Long line, huh brother?"
"Yeah, yeah. That's good. Now let's read the scene please."
"Long line, huh brother?" asks the man in line.
"Yeah, yeah," says Richard Fortune.
"Man, if my paycheck was as long as this line, I'd take a cab overseas. You know what I'm saying?"
"Next," interrupts the ticket clerk. "Next please."
"Excuse me," says Richard Fortune. "I'm in a hurry."
"Sir," the ticket clerk interrupts. "Everybody in front of you and everybody behind you is in a great hurry. Starting with me. I'm in a hurry to get out of here. Now please!"
"You don't understand," says Richard Fortune. "I'm in a serious--"
"Brother," asks the ticket clerk, "are you running for political office?"
"No," says Fortune flatly.
"Then quit giving speeches and give me your name. Last name first!"
"Fortune, Richard Fortune."
"That was weak," says Green. "Now when she says 'Give me your name,' give it to her slow."
"Fortune," says Clifford Adams in a harsh, snappy voice. "Richard Fortune."
"Now, Richard, don't get mad at her."
"I'm sounding too mad?"
"Yeah, you're not mad at her."
"I thought maybe I was upset because I'm trying to get on this flight and she's being, you know--"
"How can you be a cool private eye if some little woman makes you upset?" asks Green. "You're in a hurry trying to get where you're going and she's trying to do her job. Be polite. Say your name. Last name first. Pause before you say it. Then say 'Fortune. Richard Fortune.' Then I'll hit the music. Oh, and Brian, when you say 'Long line, huh brother?'"
"You gotta sound blacker than that. You gotta sound natural black. Not like you're reading-lines-in-a-soap black."
"You can't be laughing either," says Green. "Now go ahead and read."
"Long line, huh brother?" The scene continues as before, but Adams still can't figure out quite how to say "Fortune. Richard Fortune."
"I've gotta have a certain kind of rhythm between the lines and it's dropping," says Green.
"I'm dropping it?" Adams wonders. "Fortune. Richard Fortune," he says flatly.
"Oh, you ain't no private eye saying your name like that," laughs Green. "Shit."
"Am I still sounding too angry?"
"No, you don't sound dramatic," says Green. "You sound like you're saying your name is Joe Schmoe. The whole scene is just for you to say your name. That's the whole scene--to say your name."
"The whole scene is for me to say my name?" asks Adams. "OK, I see what you're saying."
"All right," says Green. "She says, 'Give me your name. Last name first.' You pause. You say very calmly, 'Fortune. Richard Fortune.'"
"Showing myself to the world."
"Yeah," says Green. "That's the whole scene. All of it is set up for your name. Pause. Then you say 'Fortune. Richard Fortune.' Just like I say it. In your deepest, most resolute 'Get in your drawers, woman!' voice."
"Fortune," Adams says, taking a stab at it. "Richard Fortune."
"You're supposed to be a private eye," groans Green. "You don't sound like no matinee idol saying his name."
"Fortune." Adams repeats it quickly. "Richard Fortune."
"No," says Green. "You're saying it too damn fast. Come on. It don't take 19 weeks of rehearsal to say your goddamn name."
They go through the scene again. And then another time.
"That was good," says Green. "But I want you to take a little pause before you say your name."
"Oh," says Adams. "I keep forgetting about that music you're going to put in."
"Don't worry about that," Green says. "The music comes in after you say your name anyway. I just want a little pause. She says, 'Give me your name. Last name first.' And you say 'Fortune. Richard Fortune.'
"All right," says Green. "Let's go for a take." Green rolls the tape and the actors perform the scene again. "Everything is good about the scene except the way you say your name," Green says. "The pacing is good, but the way you say your name it wouldn't get me excited. Even pull into the mike a little bit if you have to. Say 'Fortune. Richard Fortune.' Pause. Stop. 'Fortune.' Stop. 'Richard Fortune.' Say 'Fortune' flat. And when you say 'Richard,' go down. Go down in your voice on 'Richard.' Like you're trying to impress a girl with your deep voice. OK? Now let's just say the name."
"Fortune. Richard Fortune."
"No! No! Your voice went up! Fortune! Richard Fortune!"
They play the scene again and Adams jumps in with his name in a deep, confident voice. "Fortune. Richard Fortune," he says. Several actors applaud.
Green laughs. "Oh, you all like that?" he says. "Let me play it back. I ain't sure."
"I liked it too," offers Adams as Green listens.
"All right," Green says after he's done listening. "I'll keep it. It ain't really knocking me out of my drawers, but I'll keep it."
Next, singer Paris Kane, who plays the role of Paris Kane, singer and nightclub owner, moves to the microphone to record her scene with Richard Fortune. Fortune has come to find Kane's long-lost daughter.
"James!" shouts Kane. "James! Would you please move all that equipment off the stage and tell Maurice to bring the equipment from the storage room?"
"Paris Kane?" Richard Fortune asks mysteriously.
"Yes," Kane says quickly, and then in a sultrier tone, Yesss?
"Richard Fortune," says Fortune coolly.
"Yes," Kane says uneasily. "Reverend West gave me your card. Interesting slogan: 'Have brains. Will travel. Fax FORTUNE.'"
"Yes," Fortune interrupts. "Reverend West gave me a brief rundown on your situation."
"I'm kind of embarrassed," Kane says meekly.
"Secrets are my business," says Fortune. "Now I need to get some info on your daughter Penny Kane starting with the date and hospital she was born in . . ."
"Yeah, that's good," Tony Green says. "Yeah, that's the shit. Now, let's try it again."
"Originally when I constructed the character of Richard Fortune I constructed him to be a James Bond type," says Tony Green. "But I got a little gun-shy. James Bond is an icon in the American psyche. I remember seeing Dr. No at the Tivoli theater on 63rd and Cottage Grove. I sat in the theater and I watched James Bond. He was cool. He was slick. He wasn't like a total karate expert. He was super because he was human. He acted like a real man. He liked women. He always tried to get some pussy when he could, but he never forgot his duty. He was patriotic. He'd be in a life-or-death situation and you'd see him saying, 'Goddamn! How do I get out of this shit?' Just like a real person would do. And you would say, 'He's a bad dude!'
"When I was constructing Richard Fortune I said, wouldn't it be great if I could tap into that icon and create a black character based on James Bond? I am still grappling with Fortune. It's right on the edge between fantasy and reality. James Bond is deep in everybody's psyche and I don't know if I can make a black character out of James Bond and make him believable to black folks.
"The closest we've come to a character like that is Shaft, and he was a caricature," says Green. "If I have a black lawyer, I can make that believable. No problem. Doctor? No problem. Prosecutor? No problem. Nightclub owner? No problem. Secret agent? I don't know. Black James Bond. I don't know. I have backed down and instead of making him a secret agent I've made him a private investigator like Mike Hammer. Or Sam Spade. Don't say that name to black folks."
One of the many reasons he began Grand Boulevard, Green says, is to fill what he perceives as a void in positive portrayals of black Americans in the entertainment industry. Too often, Green says, blacks are written as either thugs or cool customers who have all the answers to everything, and these roles affect the way blacks are viewed by others and even themselves.
"Black characters are usually one-dimensional," says Green. "With rare exceptions, when you see a black character on-screen, you know in the first three minutes what they're all about. They will have a snappy line to say that will sum up their entire character. A white character will tell a black character, 'Hey, I'm not sure what to do here, John. My wife's causing me a lot of trouble,' and so on. The black character will just come out and say, 'Blah blah blah. What's messing with you? It's so simple.' Anytime a black character appears, he will say something on that order.
"They don't pray. They don't have doubts or reservations. They don't ponder. They don't talk to their mama. They don't sleep on shit. They don't go see the preacher. They just say 'Blobbedy skippy' or something that profound, no matter how complex the problem. They have a simple solution for everything.
"White characters have all the humanistic characteristics that bring you into them so you can relate. They might be great at work but terrible at home. They might be great at home but terrible in their professional career. That's the nature of drama, trying to figure out how someone can work through his difficulties. Black character, as soon as you see him--'Hey! How ya doin'? Blobbedy skippy!' He's cool, smooth, right on the surface.
"I remember watching Spenser: For Hire on television. Spenser was white. You'd hear his voice narrating. He was a good brother. He was philosophical. He'd quote great poets. Hawk, the brother? Always cool. Always well dressed. Car clean. Gun long and shiny. Always had a one-sentence answer for everything. He showed no weakness. He showed no frailties.
"Sometimes it's very cleverly done, but almost all the time you see stereotypes. It's always done so white folk will say, 'Yeah, he's a brother. He's cool.' Or, 'Yeah, she's a sister. She's sexy.' Nobody always has the goddamn answer. Nobody's got everything figured out. Black people don't have everything figured out. They don't have a lot of shit figured out. They ponder. They doubt. They cry. They pray. They do stupid and smart things. And yet I'm still worried that people, whether black or white, get trained to see black people in a certain way. I'm trying to train people to see blacks another way."
The scene has switched to a nightclub in Grand Boulevard where Dr. Michael Moses Foster is playing piano with the house band.
"Aww yeah," shouts a woman approvingly. "Swing on, doc. That Dr. Foster can really swing on the keyboards."
"Yes indeed," says another woman. "And he's a cutie pie too. What's his marital situation?"
"Excuse me," says the first. She takes an urgent call. "Hello? Yes, yes. I understand. Immediately." She hangs up the phone. "James, take this note to Dr. Foster. Immediately! They want him at the trauma center right away. Someone's collapsed at John Porter's bar-association dinner."
"Yeah?" says Dr. Foster. "Thanks James. Would you do me a favor and call the trauma center? Tell them I'm on my way. Hey fellas, gotta go. Thanks for letting me sit in. I had a ball. You can have your seat back on the ivories."
The music fades out.
Cut to the hospital, where Dr. Foster is operating. His voice conveys a sense of confidence and urgency.
"Give me a pulse reading, please."
"A steady 73 doctor."
"Very high, doctor: 210 over 183."
"All right, ladies. Let's quicken the pace. I don't want this man in shock. Jensen retractor?"
"Capsulot scissors? Capsulot scissors, please!"
"Sorry doctor. Capsulot scissors."
"How're we doing on that blood count?"
"He's in the red zone doctor."
"Get the ICU ready. Code blue. If he goes into shock, I'm going to jump start his system."
"I'm not a real doctor," jokes Vance Williams after they are done taping the scene. "I just play one on the radio."
"I develop one-liners that try to capture a character's philosophy," says Tony Green. "When I was doing the pilot for the show, I had the character of Tammy Cantrell Porter [real estate broker] saying she needs a contract, and she tells a man she's doing business with, 'Yes, dear. We can do business. Just as long as it's not underneath my dress.' It pulls you right into the character. I develop little scenes to show Dr. Foster's feelings about being a doctor. He says that he puts body parts together but God ultimately heals them. He understands that medicine only goes so far and there's a higher power beyond that.
"All of the characters in Grand Boulevard are professional people with moral dilemmas," says Green. "One of the hallmarks of the show is that none of the characters has a problem with race. I've got about 15 or 16 episodes in the can and I think I've mentioned race twice. I decided right off the bat once the idea for Grand Boulevard started to form in my mind that these people have no problem being black. Being black is a problem for white folks. They're black. So what? They're just going about their business doing the best they can. Race is not a factor. I think blacks and probably a lot of whites are getting tired of the race question. I want to try and get beyond it."
The plot line and the characters of Grand Boulevard are constantly changing in response to the talent and availability of the actors in the cast. Green jokes that if an actor stays out of town too long, he will put the actor's character into a coma and have Dr. Foster operate on him. Many actors originally cast as supporting players have had their parts expanded because Green liked the way they performed them. In one instance, Green killed off a character because he didn't like the way the actor was performing the role.
"Everything in the show is leading up to the bar-association dinner, because at that dinner one of the characters is going to die," says Green. "C.L. Cantrell is a young, intellectual criminal. He is an educated, polished, refined black man who has never suffered in life. He's gone to all the good schools, but he was offended that the black community didn't control big crime. He was going to follow the example of the Mafia and create his own organization called the Family that would control the business of crime in the black community.
"I conceived the criminal as a very smooth, very smart dude, a Type A driven personality, someone who accomplishes their goal by sacrificing everything to get to the point. Jesse Jackson used to say that when you sharpen a pencil, you lose some good wood and some bad wood, but you get to the point. That's all that matters to this character. You sacrifice soldiers to win the war. C.L. Cantrell was that sort of cold, intellectual criminal, but the guy cast in the part is very nice and very smart and he couldn't find that coldness in him. It wasn't hitting. I could tell that.
"But he's talented, loyal, and articulate, so I didn't want to let him go, so I recast him as the doctor in Grand Boulevard--Dr. Foster. So now I kill this guy's first character and now he's going to operate on his character as the doctor."
We're taking a break and standing outside the building on South Michigan that contains Green's studios. Tony Green and Clifford Adams are talking with Esikai Bantu, who plays Reverend West, and Paul Stott, who plays Jamie Briggs, a young criminal from the projects looking for a way out.
Green and Bantu are discussing the role of religion in black culture and in Grand Boulevard.
"All the characters believe in God in their own way," Bantu remarks, "but it's not necessarily the way that others perceive it to be. The bad guy believes in God, but only when it's to his own benefit. Everybody's got their own God and black folks got their own God. The unscrupulous only have their God when they want him. You can't lose your perspective in religion. You can't delve too deeply into it."
The conversation is interrupted by a pair of middle-aged black women in navy blue robes and white scarves. One woman talks rapidly while the other remains silent and nods.
"Would you like to make a contribution for the kidnapping of Mrs. Foster?" asks the talkative one. Her eyes are piercing and she seems planted where she stands.
"Who's Mrs. Foster?" Tony Green asks.
"Mrs. Foster is our mother," the woman says. Then she asks, "Are you in law?"
"This information was quashed," the woman says.
"When was she kidnapped?" asks Esikai Bantu.
"September 16, 1990. She's the daughter of Dona Marie of Spain and there was a written order for the press to quash the fact that our mother was kidnapped in Chicago and is being held in Chicago by the FBI at the Conrad Hilton where she has been held at gunpoint." The woman takes out some xeroxed photographs and shows them to us. "This is our mother. This is my sister. This is my father who was the nephew of the Emperor Haile Selassie. My mother was kidnapped after being run down by an 18-wheel truck. A number of people wanted Mrs. Foster killed after the assassination of my father in 1977."
"Where was he assassinated?" Bantu asks.
"Toledo, Ohio," the two women say in unison, and the talkative one asks again, "Are you in law?"
"No. Who was he assassinated by?"
"My dad was assassinated by his doctor."
"Why was he assassinated?"
"Money. My father was a multibillionaire."
"Who got all the money?"
"The money went to various corporations."
Tony Green whispers "I'm gonna take off" and goes back into the house.
"Would you like to read our paper?" the woman asks Bantu. Paul Stott has just chosen to vacate the premises as well. "Our paper has all the information you will need."
"Do you have the paper?" asks Bantu.
"No, but you can buy the paper."
"I want to buy it," says Bantu. "Do you have a copy I can look at?"
"It's over 300 pages long and it costs $27," the woman says.
"Oh, OK," says Bantu. "Well can I see the paper?"
"You cannot see the paper. It's not finished."
"OK, when it's finished, I'd like to buy it."
"Would you like to buy it now?"
"I can't buy what I can't see."
"You do it all the time," the woman says and insists on a meeting downtown where Bantu will buy the paper. She asks for our phone numbers.
"Can I have your number?" Bantu responds.
"No, our mother was kidnapped. We do not have a phone."
"You don't have a phone?"
"I told you," the woman says. "You're not listening. I'm quite astute. I'm telling you again. We do not have a phone. We are suing AT&T. Now, you'll notice that of the group the two that were more ignorant left. The man made a joke to the white man. I'm accustomed to that. I'm very intelligent. Now, if you can give us your number we will contact you."
Bantu says he'll meet the women at the Cultural Center next Monday at 11 AM. "I won't be there at 11," the woman says. "If you're not going to give me your number, I want to be specifically sure you're going to be there. I'm not up for 'trash talk' as you say. I'm dealing with the kidnapping of my mother and the assassination of my father. Queen Elizabeth called me a nigger in 1952 and told me she would never bow her knee to a nigger queen. Now if you want to buy the paper, you have to give me your name and a time other than 11."
"I'll be there to buy the paper," Bantu says.
"You'll be buying it in advance because we won't be finished with it," the woman says.
"Well I'll wait until you get it finished," Bantu says. "I won't buy it until you're finished."
"Good-bye," the woman says and she and her companion leave in a huff.
"You see," Bantu says, "what you do with people like that is you talk to them. You don't laugh at them because they're strange and they might cut your throat."
"Man," Adams says. "Tony should write a scene about them."
Back in the studio, Tony Green is rehearsing a scene with Tori Davis and Paul Stott, who play Steffane and Jamie Briggs. Jamie is going out for the night, and even though he's been known to deal drugs he wants to make sure that his little sister stays out of trouble. Davis, who works around Chicago as rapper Lady Storm, is having some trouble with her lines because they seem a little square for the role of the teenager she's playing. So she and Stott improvise as Green checks voice levels.
"OK, Steffane," Jamie says. "I'm leaving now."
"I know, I know," she says. "Do my homework. Stay off the telephone. Don't have no dudes over to the crib. Better not catch me with no drugs and I am on the pill."
"And please don't jam the box so loud," whines Jamie. "I don't want to meet 5-0 at the door when I come back!"
"And when will that be?"
"When I get back."
"You wouldn't mind if I played a little spades with the girls, would you?" Steffane asks.
"No, but hey, I'm out of here," says Jamie.
"Hey, ignot," she calls.
"Cut!" Green shouts. "What?" But they continue the scene.
"What?" Jamie asks.
"I got your back."
"What did you call him?" Green demands.
"Ignot," Tori Davis says, breaking character.
"What is that?"
"Ignot," Davis repeats.
"I can't have that," Green says. "I don't even know what that is."
"Ignot is just another word for idiot," she says.
"Ain't no 35-year-old-woman on the street gonna know that," Green says. "That's just too deep into street dialect."
"What about idiot?" she asks.
"Don't call him idiot. Call him Jamie."
"That's not what you had down here. You had me calling him a name."
"What did I have you calling him?"
"OK, call him big head. But call him big head sweetly."
"Yeah, you're right," Green agrees. "It is corny. Then call him Jamie."
"OK, that will work."
"Or just say hey!" Green offers.
"OK," Davis agrees.
"And Jamie will say yep?"
"Jamie saying yep?" Davis cringes. "Get out of here."
"What's wrong with yep?"
"Then what would he say?" Green asks.
"I'd say Yo!" Paul Stott interjects.
"That's what you say when you call somebody," says Green.
"No," Davis corrects him. "It's also an answer when somebody calls you."
"Here, here," Stott says, demonstrating. "Call me."
"Hey, Jamie!" Davis shouts.
"Yo!" Stott answers and says to Green, "You see?"
"All right, all right," Green says. "But deliver it softly. Sweetly. Whenever you're ready."
They start the scene again and it goes smoothly until the end. "Hey Jamie," Davis says sweetly.
"Yo," he answers.
"I got your back," she says sweetly.
"I know," he says sweetly. "I'll see you."
The door slams behind him as he goes out for the evening and Davis sings loudly. "Jam! Jam! Oh, Jammmmm!"
"What are you doing?" Green asks. "Are you going to sing? I thought I had the word party written down."
"Jam's the same thing," Davis says. "Trust me."
"You think jam's better than party?"
"Now this audience is a little older," says Green. "I know they understand party."
"Nobody says party!" Davis insists. "I can't say party right. That's why I changed it."
"Well can you say parrrrrr-tay?" Green asks.
"No, because I've never said it."
"You've never said it?"
"You're about the only black person I know who's never said it. What do you say?"
"Why can't she be getting on the phone and saying, "Girl, he gone! We gonna jam tonight?"' asks Paul Stott.
"No," frowns Green. "Then I'd have to put in all that dialing. That wastes time. Here. How about this? As soon as the door closes, you say 'Party! Jam! Yes! Yes!' Something like that."
"Why don't I just say 'It's time to party.'"
"Yeah, but like this," Green demonstrates, "'It's time to parrrrr-taaaaay!'"
"It's time to partaaaaay!" Davis says without much conviction.
"That was weak," Green says.
"I don't talk like that, OK?"
"I don't know about that jam," says Green. "I don't know about that singing. OK now, how about this? How about "Party! Yes! Yes! Party!' Can we try that?"
A long pause. "I can try," Davis says.
They go through the scene again. Davis finishes it saying, "Oh, yes. Yes. Party time! Yes!"
"I'll take it," Green says.
"Jamie's character I think symbolizes the frustration of a lot of young black men," says Tony Green. All of us are sitting in the hallway taking a breather; the studio has gotten so hot that it's unbearable. "Jamie grew up in the projects. He was in gangs because that was the Boys Club. Hell, gangs are the Boys Club. He had native intelligence and tried to find a way out. He saw people getting killed and he didn't want to get killed. He's really just a good dude who's trying to find a way out. Crime just seems to be the only way he can find."
"I see people like Jamie every day," agrees Paul Stott, who plays the role. "He's a thug but he's allowed to express his feelings, whereas most characters like Jamie are usually not so deep. Most characters like Jamie in the movies are very one-dimensional, but people aren't like that. Jamie comes from the wrong side of the tracks and he wants the best in life. But he just doesn't know how to achieve it."
"When I'm trying to get into character for a scene," says Tori Davis, who plays Steffane Briggs, "I think about my brother who's also named Jamie. And they are so much alike it's scary. Or I think about Roseland where my boyfriend lived. Crazy stuff like what happens between me and Jamie in the soap opera happened there. You always have to watch your back and things happen right in front of you. My father never wanted me over there because he's heard so many stories about Roseland. You see the drug dealers and the drive-bys and the people out to make some quick money so they can get out fast."
"Where her boyfriend lived, it's rough," says Henry Harmon, who plays undercover cop Henry Harmon Mitchell and has worked with Tori Davis in a rap group. (He also is starting a production company called Black Fist Productions.) "My character has to walk the fine line between the street where all the action is and the upper class where his father lives. When I graduated from grammar school I got lucky. My mom didn't want me to be in a gang, so she sent me to a boarding school in Wisconsin.
"So when I think about my character and how he has to deal with his rich father, I imagine myself in a small Wisconsin community of 500 people, where everybody has nice money and these morals that they show you like a neck chain, but they have all these secrets in the closet. And when I think about being a cop working the beat, I think about Roseland where the drug dealers are. I think about 113th and Wentworth, where everything happens, everything from people getting set up to getting shot. I picture my friends who went to jail and how the cops acted. Grand Boulevard is a place I drive by every day no matter where I'm going."
"When I was growing up I could never fit in," says Tori Davis. "Among my white friends I was too black. And among my black friends I was too white. For eight years I was called an Oreo. Everybody in Grand Boulevard seems to fit in just as they are. It seems like they don't have to put up a front. It's a place where I don't live, but it's somewhere I'd like to be."
"These are all real people. These characters exist everywhere," says Tony Green. "You see them every day. They're people you work with or they're people you know.
"Grand Boulevard is a social experiment," Green says. "I mean, first and foremost it's entertainment, but it's also sort of a civil rights project. It's a social experiment to find out how black people would like to view themselves. This soap is trying to capture the values that many black Americans aspire to. I'm trying to portray them as humans, people who laugh, people who cry. I try to show a sense of love and of family, but also one of reality.
"There was one scene that was so strong that I had to take the show off the air for a few days," he continues. "There was a scene between two criminals and they were arguing vehemently and the scene ended with one of the characters taking a shot at the other one, saying 'Tell your mother what funeral home to pick up the body from.' The phone lines lit up at WJPC and one woman called up and she said, 'I like the soap, but I really don't want to start off my day with that sort of hard crime. I live in that hard crime in my real life. I want a soap to take me someplace different. Have some reality, but take me someplace different.' So that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to show real people and show what people can do. But, I also want to take people someplace else."
Everyone's crammed into the studio and we're listening to an unedited tape of a series of upcoming scenes of Grand Boulevard. In one scene, media mogul Harrison Mitchell has taken his lover to his beach house. The only trouble is he's a married man. Dramatic music from Vertigo underscores the scene.
"This is a beautiful place, Harrison. How come you've never brought me here before?"
"Well, this is my secret place." A few actors are cracking up listening. "You're mine! Mine! Oh why do you turn your lips from me, Maggie? I desire you so!"
"Beg on, brother. Beg on!" laughs Henry Harmon.
The next scene is sometime later.
"Maggie, where are you going?"
"I'm leaving, Harrison!"
"Maggie, why? What's the matter? I thought you loved it here. I thought you loved me!"
"I do love you, Harrison. That's the problem! If I stay I'm going to do something I'll regret. I gotta go! I gotta go!"
"Doesn't love count for anything? You're just going to run away?"
"I'm gonna get his ass for saying that line," Henry Harmon laughs.
"Harrison, you've got it all. You've got a family, a beautiful wife, a career, this beautiful place. And I'm just bad news. Don't you see? I'm the bad girl. I'm the other woman in this story."
"This sounds like a Gene Tierney movie," whispers Paul Stott.
"Sounds like One Life to Live to me," laughs Tori Davis.
"I can just see Loretta Young running through the fields," says Stott.
"Yes," says the voice booming over the speakers. "But damn it, I love you. I didn't know what love was before you!"
The music swells and we hear waves crashing against shore. As the tape ends some of the cast laugh and others applaud. Tony Green is beaming from ear to ear. He takes off his headphones and takes the tape out of the player.
"That's soap!" he shouts. "That is soap!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.