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Theater Talk With Cultural Custodian, Carl Clay

Photo Credits: NY Daily News

Somewhere between prosperity and history, The Black Spectrum Theater convenes with a majestic purpose in downtown Queens, New York.

Carl Clay, Musician, Playwright, Author (Poor-Ducing Theater), Producer, Filmmaker, and Founder of the multifunctional auditorium, worked aggressively over three decades, keeping the venue open.

As an idealist, Clay, established the professional theater company in 1970 as a traveling cast of performing arts, centered around African American students.

In 1989, the ensemble grew tremendously, allowing Clay to move into the infrastructure at the Jamaican Queens location.

While there, Clay has produced over 100 theatrical productions, 17 short films, 150 plays, in addition to 20 jazz productions, with influential artist like Roy Ayers and Roberta Flack.

As personal achievements, Clay was awarded the AUDELCO Awards for Production of the Year in his stage play, “Deadwood Dick, Legend of the West.” He won an ASCAP Lyricist Award for his music in the 1970’s motion picture, “Coffey.”

He also won first place for a Lyrical Award in the “Annual Women’s Media” for the ABC TV Special, “Turkey Day.”

The fight for disparity within the black communities is a long standing war from past to present, and as an eerie reminder of such unfortunate consequences of being colored, Clay actually produced two films called “(What To Do If You Get Stopped By Police) and Justice Is Done,” moreover, “Urban Encounters.”

Both films received the “PBS” Award for outstanding youth programming in the years 2000 and 2001.

Clay worked with high profile actors and directors such as Denzel Washington, Richard Pryor, Bo Bridges, and Spike Lee.

It’s also denoted that Clay helped launch career of the sassy and politically correct apprentice, Lisa Carson, in addition to Desiree Coleman, Carlease Burke, Debra Burrell Cleveland, David Baptist, and Byron Mims, to name a few actors.

Clay is also working with Ella Joyce and Dick Gregory, from now throughout the earlier part of 2017.

Aside from that great memorandum, Clay’s latest theatrical, which he credits to the legendary playwright, August Wilson, is “Two Trains Running.”

The feature spawned from November 4 and its set is set to finish out on November 20 at the Black Spectrum Theater.

Tell us about the latest play.

The play that we’re doing is called “Two Trains Running.” It’s a Pulitzer prize winning production by August Wilson. It was on Broadway in the early 90’s. It opened here at Black Spectrum Theater on Friday November 4th, and it’s running until Sunday November 20th.

The show runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 o'clock as well as Sundays at 4 o'clock. Tickets are twenty-five dollars at the door, and twenty-dollars for students and seniors.

You’ve been doing this for a very long time, how does it feel to be that grand person in film, that can give advice to others?

In some cases, it’s a great feeling to be able to give advice and try to impart things you’ve learned over the years. Some of it is bittersweet because there are some things that you want to do, but weren’t able to do. You’re also very thankful and feel blessed that you’re able to do more than most-- to pursue an area that you wanted to pursue, is a blessing.

You’ve written songs, you play instruments, and you’ve written books. How do you find the time?

Well, I think time is a relative thing. You know, it’s how much space you can place in your sphere of the day, to be able to accomplish certain things. Part of it is turning off the television, and focusing. The rest of it speaks for itself—just being able to use your time effectively, I think.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Advice to my younger self? Wow… I would say, “Just continue to stay the course and get rid of any anxiety you have about the future or whatever. Just stay focused and stay the course.”

I think I’ve done that, but you can always up your game or whatever. I say, “Chill out a little more and keep tugging at it.”

What was one of the most memorable moments, when an actor pulled you aside to give you advice?

The person who pulled me aside was Arnold Johnson, who played the role of “Putney Swope.” I was a younger guy then, when he and my brother hooked up a meeting for us. He had just finished the movie “Putney Swope.” I’d say that he was the first person that gave me encouragement in that area. Also, people like Mario Herrera, who was one of the first drama instructors, and folks like that.

It said that you got your big break in film while you were a ticket salesman.

Yes, I was a ticket salesman for Melvin Van Peebles. I was part of “The Third World Cinema Training Program.”

The program was started by Ozzie Davis and Cliff Frazier, and when it was time to place people, because I was into theater and film, he said that he had a surprise for me, but he didn’t tell me what it was.

It ended up being Melvin Van Peebles. I went up and interviewed with him, and I got that job. I started my work with him, and he brought me on to manage his “Whiz Groups.” A lot of people didn’t know that when they used to call “Whiz” for tickets, they were actually calling Mario Van Peebles for group sales.

You have some memorable and lifelong jewels in the industry.

Yeah, it’s some really inspirational people within my music career and as a lyricist. I started with Roy Ayers. He was listening to a soundtrack for a play that we had done, and he really liked it.

He wanted to help us do the cast album, but we never got to the cast album because he called us and told us that he was doing a soundtrack for the movie “Coffey,” starring Pamela Grier.

We didn’t know much about her at the time. We ended up spending the next couple of weeks, held up in an apartment, working on a soundtrack for “Coffey.” Consequently, after that, I ended up doing another four or five albums with Roy Ayers and that spilled over into working with Norman Connors, and having the opportunity to do music for an ABC special.

When did you realize that you had a musical gene that would allow you to really do some stuff?

Well, I loved it but the lyricist writing piece came from using it and being stretched. There’s all kinds of things that we all can do if we get the opportunity, and have to stretch. When you stretch, you learn new things about what your abilities are.

Would you say up-and-coming actors should stretch? You have so many actors that focus on acting that they don’t want to learn anything new.

That’s a good question. I think that when young people get involved into theater, they should also have other skill-sets to go along with that. As an actor, there should be no roles that they turn down. As they say, “There’s never small parts. There are only small actors.”

When someone looks at a script and doesn’t see that many lines, they feel they aren’t doing anything. I’ve done it and I’m sure others have done it.

Without them realizing, not many lines, is where the real acting begins because it’s now all in acting. It’s not always in the lines. It’s between the lines—the lines that aren’t said. That’s where the acting is.

You get performers that worry about the lines, or they think they’ve already learned the lines, so basically, it’s not hard for them to do. Those are the actors who don’t go very far because the play just begins when you get your mind stamped. The rest goes from there.

Let’s talk about Black Spectrum Theater. How have you managed to keep it going for so long?

I ask myself that sometimes. I think it’s focus and sticking to it, as well as the ability to think about what the next step is, and not to mention, never getting funding from just one source. We were always challenged with going after many sources of funding.

Back then, I thought we were cursed because we couldn’t be like other groups and we could just get that one funding from one place, and not from anywhere else. It turned out being a blessing because no, one funding, could put us out of business.

We've also come up with strategies, to get revenue, to help sustain the organization.

We started a summer theater camp, and we do outdoor mobile stages. That helps us raise funds to help secure our overall mission.

It says that you have a museum tucked inside of the theater. What type of museum is it?

We have it down in the lobby of the theater. It’s a performing arts museum. We have the history of the theater, and the history of some of our great African American performers like Ozzie Davis—he cut the ribbon on the museum and donated things to the museum.

We have things like Josephine Baker, Hattie Winston, things from original Broadway shows. We have props and mementos from Ella Joyce, and just different things that we’ve collected to kind of make the case for spreading history.

What’s one of your favorite shows that you’ve worked on?

It’s hard to name just one. We’ve had a featured film called “Let’s Get Bizziee.” It’s about young people getting involved with voting, which is really popular right now. It stars “Dougie Fresh,” and Lisa Nicole Carson. (References for film:

Most of our films have been centered around Urban Teens, with Teen pregnancy, Urban Teens, What To Do If You Get Stopped By The Police, and Handgun violence.

Those are some of the films we’ve done.

Do you create more dramatized productions or edification series?

It’s both. We’ve done one unit as our professional programs through theater, geared towards entertainment for the African American community.

We do classical plays, and most of our plays, we try to hit on something of pertinent social significance.

Some of it is comedy and some of it is musical. We did Obesity in our Urban Community, Gaining too much weight, Facing Medical Issues, or the Healing zones—the problem or the issue between conditional and alternative medicine. Those are the things that’s brought up in the production, or something like aimless behavior. It varies. The films are primarily geared towards social issues.

Wrapping up or discussion, is there anything else that you want our readers to know?

We want to let folks know that we are on tour with “Two Trains Running.” We’ll be in Wilmington, Delaware, and we are open for bringing the show to other cities.

If there is an organization that wants to raise money, to get us to their city, let us know, or visit our website.

Cultural Treat From Black Spectrum

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Link for Carl Clay's book, "Poor-Ducing Theater"

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