In the morning in New York on the subway, I stand at one end of the car and watch people read my newspaper column. If one of them dares look up before the last sentence, I become enraged. Once, on the E train coming from Queens, a woman—oh, a foolish-looking woman—read about a paragraph-and-a-half, then dropped the paper on the empty seat next to her. Immediately a man, and you could see right away that he was an imbecile, picked it up, glanced for only an instant at the column and began turning the pages furiously. You both should be put into labor camps, I muttered. When I see somebody with my novel on the subway, I figure out the page he is on and then wait to see the smile at what I know is an outrageously funny passage. The person reads on, face frozen, and I immediately tell myself that of course I have it wrong—the reader actually is at a place in the novel where you have to think hard.
Always, I do this without ever speaking to the reader. I write in silence and privacy; I watch in secrecy from a nook in a subway car. It’s a great way to work. You do everything by yourself.
Then one day, I received a letter from Jon Jory and Michael Dixon of the Actors Theatre of Louisville offering me a commission to do a play for their Humana Festival. (It better be a commission, because I don’t write without money and I don’t know anybody else who does.) I had never done a play before but what difference did that make? I’ve done novels, columns, won prizes. I am a tradesman; I do my job. And of a cold rainy morning in Manhattan, my friend Dessi Crofton, who once had a bar next to the theatre in Galway City, Ireland, said to me, “A script is way easier than a book. In a book you write from one side of the paper to the other, all the way down the bloody page, too. A script has the odd two or three words on a line and then you go to the next. A man writing a script must be finished so fast he doesn’t know what to do with all his time.”
As a novel takes years, the idea of finishing something fast was tremendously exciting for me. I called Louisville and started work. At first, it sure seemed easier than a novel. Once I did one draft I didn’t even complain about the next two or three, even through we now were into months. When I finished what I thought was the last draft, I told Michael Dixon that he shouldn’t let anybody see it for a while.
“Theatre is collaborative,” he said.
“Well, I still don’t want you to be showing it around until I tell you.”
I was asked to come to this large bare room on 13th Street in Manhattan. I sat at a table that was covered with papers, throat lozenges, pads, coffee containers. There was a group of people sitting with me; I didn’t know most of them and wished they were not there. Suddenly, a woman walked in, handed me a picture with a résumé pasted on the back and went out to the center of the bare room.
“What are you reading for ?” the Louisville casting woman, Zan, called out.
“Juliet.” That is the name of the lead character in the play. The woman now looked at some sheets of paper.
“What’s that she’s got?” I asked.
“Pages,” Zan said.
“Of what ?”
“What is she doing with them?”
“We got them to everybody about a week ago.”
“I’m not ready to have my play read out loud.” I picked up a newspaper from the table. “Here. Have her read something from this. Tell her to read the story about the fire in the Bronx.”
Nobody listened to me. Now here in this cold room the actress suddenly began to read and act out the lines from Juliet’s part in the play. Right away I was so mortified that I dropped my head and looked at the floor. I never had heard somebody read aloud lines I had written and had no idea it was this painful.
Zan told me to pick up my head. I refused. “You must,” she said. “Theatre is collaborative.”
“Where were all these people when I was writing the play alone?”
“All of us were reading it and thinking of how we could make it better.”
I wanted to choke her.
Now the first woman was gone and I looked up and here was another woman, this one with the Yale Drama School school on her résumé. She said proudly that she was up for The Cosby Show. Beautiful. My play, which is called Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit, is about a black woman trying to survive in Brooklyn today while surrounded by crack, the likes of which this country never has seen. The woman resists eviction with some humor and gallantry. The play is cold truth and in the language I hear on the staircases and kitchen tables in the Brooklyn housing projects where I make my living as a newspaper columnist. No writer of any color knows this territory better than I do. Only by giving people truth, not some half-wit illusion—by showing crack and theft and black people speaking and believing as they really do —can you force whites to recognize the sacrilege of racism. Whites adore Bill Cosby because he doesn’t seem black. At the theatre, there are huzzahs for plays about blacks in South Africa, because that is 11,000 miles away, and for plays about blacks in Pittsburgh in the 1930s because that too, is good and far way. My play is about poor blacks in Brooklyn today, and they scare people. Good.
But here reading my lines was some woman who spoke with ivy in her throat. Marvelous. When she finished, she walked over and said, “I have some ideas about the lines. I could help you improve this play if I had a chance to work with you.”
I waited for her to leave the room. Then I called out, “I hate her!”
I now was into something I could not get out of. This was because I had cashed the first check Louisville had sent me and the money was gone. Everything now took months. “It is a process,” people kept saying. “Yeah? You can process canned asparagus, not words!” I yelled. But as the time went on I kept reminding myself that I was an old tradesman and could do anything for money. And while I detested the idea of collaborating with anybody, I began to work with a literary editor and a director and lighting men and, finally, actors and actresses.
On a February night in Louisville, I sat in the theatre with my wife, Ronnie Eldridge, and waited for the play to open. The theatre was crowded, and I had no anxiety. “It’s just the same as making another edition,” I said. “The only difference is that I usually never wait around for the paper to come up.”
“You’re not nervous?” Ronnie Eldridge said.
“About this? What am I, some kid? I’ve had novels published. I’m just coming off covering shootings in Brooklyn. Forget it. But I do think it’ll be really interesting to see how they do all this.”
The play started and I sat calmly. There were these lines and movement leading up to one line that was supposed to produce a laugh. I looked at the audience. I don’t know if they’ll even smile. “Your fault if they don’t,” I reminded myself. When the actress came to the line that was supposed to make them laugh—at least smile—the actress stood on the stage in front of the large audience and she did not say my line. She did not say a line of her own. She said nothing.
The theatre was a bit quiet.
Once, when I was a kid, I was hit by a car. I also was punched real good by some guy in front of the Jefferson Diner on Rockaway Boulevard, Ozone Park. But never have I been hit by anything like the punch that came through that dark and dead silent theatre. A whistling left hook. The punch lifted me out my seat and spun me around and I went right for the two doors and into the empty lobby. I wound up against the wall by the payphones next to the men’s room. I have no idea how long I was there. I know that for a long time I was frozen. I remember that somewhere in there I picked up the phone and called my friend Jose Torres in New York. He once was the light heavyweight champion of the world.
“Jose, what was the hardest punch you ever got hit in your life ?”
“Florentino Fernandez. Left hook.”
“How bad was it?”
“Oh, man, he hit me so hard the referee stops the fight.”
“Yeah, well, Florentino Fernandez hit like a girl compared to what just happened to me.”
“Who hit you?” Jose said.
“An actress just knocked me out.”
“What did she do it with?”
“With a collaborative.”
Jimmy Breslin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit, which 26 premiered in March at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
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