Speaks at the National Black Arts Festival
When a young black girl in Robert Townsend’s fifth grade class was called on to read “Oedipus Rex” aloud, probably no one outside of the west side of Chicago would have understood her abstruse Ebonics dialect. It was the 1960s, in a tough neighborhood in Chicago, and the only white person in the class was the teacher. When he called on Townsend to read Shakespeare, he was awestruck by this kid who sounded like he had been trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company. That’s because Townsend had trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company, sort of.
Townsend, who was interviewed by Spelman College history professor Jelani Cobb at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium at the National Black Arts Festival last evening, said he wasn’t fond of reading Sophocles or Shakespeare, so he’d snatch albums from school and listen to the recordings of their plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
He had been doing impressions of movie and TV stars since he had been a tyke, and his impressions were near spot on. He loved portraying characters and would imitate their sounds and movements. Years later, he noticed he was mainly portraying white performers, because they played the major roles. Blacks in film were few and they only had bit parts, usually as the bad guy or the ignoramus.
When asked how he felt about the lack of work in the film business for black actors, the CableACE Award-winner said he never let it bother him. He said having a good attitude is the most important thing, and having that can change your life, because you’ll attract more people and roles, and you’ll create your own work. Early in his career, at an audition for a black thug, he overheard a British casting director getting angry and cursing, because he was looking for a stereotypical black male and all the black actors he saw that day spoke too well. Townsend said, he heard him yell, “Get me a nigger!”
He lampooned the incident in “Hollywood Shuffle,” the 1987 critically acclaimed film he wrote, directed and starred in. In the movie, there’s a scene in which he’s holding a silver platter and is dressed like a servant in a tuxedo. When he speaks he sounds like a character out of “Amos and Andy,” like a poor field hand from the early 1900s who has lived his entire life serving a master on a Southern plantation. Suddenly, off camera, someone yells, “Cut!” Townsend tosses the platter, stands ramrod straight, and speaks in a stilted British accent. Ah, the joke’s on us, he operates an acting school that teaches actors how to “speak jive and talk and walk black.”
Townsend enjoyed mocking stereotypes of blacks and other minorities until he traveled abroad a few years ago and heard people in France and Africa use the word “nigger,” because they had seen it used in his movies and in rap songs. He said it made him realize that the way black people portray themselves affects people around the world, and these people don’t understand the content is written in jest.
These days, Townsend concentrates on creating characters with personal integrity. He has developed a production company with Bishop Eddie Long to produce films and Web-TV shows in which people have high standards and lift themselves up. The two are currently creating a half-hour Web series inspired by real situations called “The Gospel Music Theatre.” He’s also producing and directing another Web series called “Diary of a Single Mom,” which chronicles the challenges families face and the ways they overcome obstacles. And, he is working on a movie about the life of Richard Pryor, as well as a show called “Why We Laugh,” with Chris Rock and Bill Cosby.
It’s up to the individual to be successful, he said, not someone in Hollywood. He said the reason why more artists like him don’t make movies is because they let their fears stop them. He said nowadays, with computers, it’s relatively easy to make a film. He advised actors, directors, producers, playwrights and screenwriters to network and work together, to see plays and movies, and to go to the library and read about ways they can create their dreams. He said artists should dump people who don’t support their dreams. “It’s only the person closest to you who can ruin your dream. You can’t be wishy-washy about it. You must run towards your destiny.”