There was a call to “Stop!” during the rehearsal of the Shakespeare play in the making at Kennesaw State University.
In the darkened corner of the stage, an old white guy and a black college student huddled together and started gesturing and laughing in a prolonged conversation, seemingly sharing a few private jokes.
It was clear they were buds.
For the past couple of months, the elderly gent, Jim Wallace, kept dogging me with the idea of writing a story for the AJC’s ongoing RE:Race series concerning a play he’s acting in.
Wallace, a retired 77-year-old IBM exec, is also a student in KSU’s theater department. Hmmm. Septuagenarian college student? I’ve written about older. College theatrical effort? Eye roll.
But his insistence wore me down, so I drove to Cobb County to meet him and a few other budding thespians. The group is practicing to perform the play “As You Like It,” the feel-good romp of 1603. It starts Tuesday and goes until next weekend.
“It’ll confront stereotypes,” Wallace vowed. The casting is nontraditional, he said: The brothers, the sons of a duke, are black. Their lifelong servant is an old white guy — him. There’s a mixed-race marriage. And two dukes traditionally played by white men are performed by women.
It’s the way of the footlights future as the smash hit “Hamilton” has Hispanic and black actors portray the dead white males who founded this country.
Rick Lombardo, a KSU professor and director of the play, said, “It asks an audience to question their assumptions, to question their biases.”
Lombardo said the subject is topical. Two weeks ago, Frances McDormand, who won the Oscar for Best Actress, called for stars to demand “inclusion riders” in their contracts that would call for a certain amount of diversity in future projects.
“You did this without an inclusion rider,” Wallace pointed out to Lombardo.
“A dialogue that this department is having is about inclusion, about what it means in terms of casting, of the stories that we chose,” Lombardo said. “There was a history in the department where it seemed that when students of color saw we were doing a classical play, they didn’t audition.”
To combat that, Lombardo went on Facebook to urge “every single student to audition. I want this to look like the community.”
The “community” of the 35,000-student campus is about 58 percent white. A couple of decades ago it was 12,000 students and 83 percent white. The change mirrors the demographic shift of Cobb County, a longtime Republican enclave that voted for Hillary Clinton.
KSU was the scene of a high-stakes racial drama last fall when several cheerleaders took a knee during the National Anthem and the university president, Sam Olens, was bounced from his job because of how he handled the controversy.
Brandel Butler, the young actor who joked with Wallace on the stage, said he had avoided the “classicals.” “I had a picture in my mind of what they wanted,” he said. “But I was wrong. I was being too close-minded.”
He ended up snagging the role of Orlando, the male lead. (Wallace is his servant, and there’s a scene where the older man collapses and Butler picks him up and lovingly carries him away.)
“America is made of different people from different cultures, different homes,” Butler said. “It’s important their stories are told because that’s who the nation is. It’s important for kids to see someone who looks like themselves.”
Butler grew up in Norcross and is the son of Bobby Butler, who played for 12 years in the NFL, including with the Falcons. His brother, Brice, recently played for the Cowboys.
David Wilkerson, a senior, hails from Carrollton and is black. He, too, steered clear of such plays.
“I’m guilty of not auditioning” in the past, he said. “I’ve not seen a black person in Shakespeare.”
Wilkerson, who has dreadlocks, plays the melancholy Jacques and delivers the line that’s among The Bard’s most famous: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”
He said racial relations are certainly better than in past eras. “We’ve moved away from explicit racism. But there’s implicit racism, which is harder to control. You don’t know it’s there. With the show, we’re chipping away at implicit bias.”
Wilkerson admits he might have held some of his own implicit biases when first meeting Wallace.
“Honestly, he surprised the hell out of me,” he said. “I never met anyone his age who was so open. I didn’t know people like him existed.”
Wallace grew up in an era when biases weren’t implicit. His graduating class in Oregon had just one black student out of nearly 1,000.
When his frat at Oregon State College was taking a new pledge, they had to investigate the student to ensure he was Hawaiian, not black, before he was accepted.
Years later, and in a weird twist, IBM was on a diversity push when Wallace, then a young manager in Seattle, interviewed a recruit who was of a darker hue than he. The company wanted to hire blacks, so Wallace asked the man for his birth certificate to prove he was really black, not Hawaiian.
Wallace wrote a long paper for a KSU class about his own journey on race. “It gives me pause to think of the friendships I would have missed out on had I remained a racist,” he wrote. Several years ago he endowed KSU’s theater department with a large check.
Wallace said one of the joys of being involved in this production has been watching L’Oréal Roaché, who plays the female lead of Rosalind, interact with Alyssa Egelhoff, who plays Celia. It’s intense, onstage and off.
Egelhoff, who is white, talked about how she and Roaché, who is black, help each other absorb the characters and, more so, the Elizabethan language.
“It seems crazy,” she said, “but memorizing Shakespeare is easier than contemporary language. You just get on a train and ride with it.”
“Something just clicked working with you,” Egelhoff told Roaché.
“I trusted you,” said Roaché.
“I trusted you,” said Egelhoff.
Wallace sat back in his chair and smiled.
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