My Children, My Africa
WHEN Previews 5/3-5/6: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM. Opens Mon 5/7, 7:30 PM. Through 6/10: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM
WHERE Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln
In 2001 Clarence Gilyard was at a crossroads. For nine seasons he'd played Chuck Norris's sidekick, Jimmy Trivette, on the TV series Walker, Texas Ranger, but the show was ending. Gilyard's work there had won him an NAACP Image Award as well as a solid fan base, and most actors would have started shopping around for a new series or a movie. But at the age of 45, Gilyard decided to go back to school. He and his wife, Elena, were living in Dallas, where Walker was filmed, and he was already teaching part-time at Southern Methodist University, so he enrolled in its respected graduate theater program to study with actor-director Cecil O'Neal.
O'Neal had come to SMU from Canada, where he'd been producing the Stratford Festival. Before that, in the 70s, he'd been a leading light in Chicago's off-Loop theater scene as an original member of the innovative Organic Theater Company, appearing in the troupe's hugely popular science-fantasy stage serial Warp! and other shows.
The Organic had also shaped Gilyard's career. As a fledgling actor in LA in 1981, he was hired for a role in the comedy Bleacher Bums, the Organic's Chicago hit about Cubs fans. Remounted in LA, it was a smash there too, and as the original cast moved on to other work they were replaced by Californians. Gilyard took over the role of the cheerleader, becoming the first black actor to play the part. The Organic connection helped forge a bond between O'Neal and Gilyard when they met in Dallas nearly 20 years later. "That's how we started chatting," Gilyard recalls. "We found we were kindred spirits."
Bleacher Bums had been Gilyard's stepping-stone to TV and film jobs: spots on Diff'rent Strokes, Simon & Simon, The Facts of Life, and CHiPS, a lead role alongside up-and-coming Jim Carrey on the short-lived sitcom The Duck Factory, four seasons on Matlock as the assistant to Andy Griffith's crafty lawyer, supporting parts in Top Gun and Die Hard, and the role of Pastor Bruce Barnes in Left Behind, a 2000 screen adaptation of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's series of apocalyptic novels.
"I had been trying to make it in show business without any real vision," Gilyard says of his journeyman career. "I was getting some success because I was a type--I had a quality that producers were looking for. But I wasn't controlling my destiny."
In 1984 Gilyard had been profoundly affected by an off-Broadway play from Johannesburg, the multiracial Market Theatre's Woza Albert! Writers Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa played multiple roles in the play, whose premise was that Christ had returned to earth and ended up in a South African jail. The actors' virtuosity and the work's melding of political and spiritual themes resonated strongly with Gilyard, whose black consciousness is informed by his Catholic faith. "To see those men do that was providential," he says. "It made me realize that artistically I have a lot of voices--but how do I articulate all those voices unless I put my trust in some type of technique?"
So when Walker wrapped up its long run, he says, "I wanted to start over." Also, "I was going to work on my new marriage. After 15 straight years of network TV I knew that I couldn't put a young marriage through that."
After receiving his MFA from SMU, Gilyard began teaching at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. But he wanted to return to the stage--and he wanted to work with O'Neal. The pair looked for a project they could take on together and chose another work from the Market Theatre canon, My Children, My Africa, a 1989 play by South African Athol Fugard. Written in the apartheid era, the drama focuses on a middle-aged black teacher and two gifted students, a poor black boy and a privileged white girl. The teacher urges his black pupil to work for racial equality within the system, but the youth is drawn instead to armed rebellion. Gilyard plays the teacher, a role created by the great John Kani.
Though set against the backdrop of a system that no longer exists, the play "speaks to continuing problems of oppression in the world because of racial, social, and religious differences," says O'Neal. "The debate at the core of the play is ongoing: how to arrive at a place of justice without armed conflict, through reason or through violence."
Gilyard adds, "I recently visited South Africa. There's still economic oppression and institutionalized segregation. There are millions of black youths in poverty--so much untapped, wasted brilliance."
Having settled on a script, O'Neal and Gilyard needed a theater. The answer was obvious: Chicago's Victory Gardens, which O'Neal cofounded in 1974 with a collective that also included Organic Theater director Stuart Gordon and Grease coauthor Warren Casey. Since Victory Gardens took over the Biograph Theater as its primary venue, it now has four auditoriums in its former home base, the Victory Gardens Greenhouse at Lincoln and Belden. The folks there were happy to slot My Children, My Africa on the first-floor main stage for a May 7 opening.
As it happens, O'Neal knows the space well: once called the Body Politic Theatre, it was the Organic Theater's original Chicago home. Coincidence? Fate? Divine intervention? "It's just supposed to be," says Gilyard. "We're supposed to be here, the play's supposed to be here. It's just supposed to be."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Photofest and Jim Newberry.