In the Book of Genesis (KJV) 6: 1 – 4, we read this emphatic statement: “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose,” clearly a reference to Carmen DeLavallade, just as this is obviously a reference to Geoffrey Holder: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
On Friday, October 10, 2014, at 7:45 p.m., the Broadway League dimmed their marquee lights for one minute in memory of Geoffrey Holder, a latter-day son of God, mighty and renowned.
I knew Geoffrey for the greater portion of my 45 years as a performing artist, during which time my constant impression of him was of a half-man, half-god. Of the handful of individuals who mentored me in the art of the theatre, Geoffrey was the Master Alchemist who revealed to me the elixir of the calling, best expressed as an esoteric equation: grace + gratitude + generosity = growth.
I learned from Geoffrey how to cast off the fetters of theatre as a way of life, and put on the garment of freedom, which is theatre as a way to life. There is no greater service to be rendered by one’s imagination than the act of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, the pedestrian into the exceptional, the predictable into the unexpected, the commonplace into the exotic, the banal into the arousal of wonder, the mundane into the divine.
Few events better illustrate the effect of Geoffrey’s powers of transmutation than the pre-Broadway tryout of The Wiz. It was November, 1974; the production had concluded its first stop at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Md., and arrived in Michigan to begin its weeks of previews at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre. A combination of lackluster critical notices and dismissals in both the ensemble and artistic personnel had crushed the company’s customary warrior spirit, replacing it with a somber pall.
Then, on a frigid Tuesday morning, made even bleaker by the absence of the sun, when all seemed lost, general manager Manny Azenberg greeted the company with the news that Geoffrey—who theretofore had been the show’s costume designer—was also now the show’s director. A palpable hush consumed the hall. Then, after what felt like an eternity of silence, Geoffrey emerged like an apparition and assumed a position that can only be described as center-centerstage. Attired in black from head to toe, including japanned leather evening slippers, black cape and a towering Borsalino fedora to trump Pharrell Williams, Geoffrey resembled a gigantic mythic crow, clutching in each of his wings a smoldering bunch of sage. He instructed the company to form a circle around him, and then cawed in his rumbling thunder idiolect, “Leeson to muddah. Evrrryding will be allrrright.”
He then led us on a journey throughout the entire Fisher Theatre, smudging all that crossed his path. When he was satisfied that every unwanted spirit had been expunged, Geoffrey commenced his initial rehearsal as director of The Wiz. Seven magical months later, after arriving on Broadway, The Wiz would garner seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Geoffrey died on Sunday, October 5, 2014, at the age of 84, just 36 years short of the 120 years allotted by the Lord to the children of the union of His sons with the daughters of men in Genesis. What wonderment Geoffrey would have achieved in those remaining 36 years is unknowable; however, I recall attending in 1994 the memorial services for Tiger Haynes, the Tin Man from The Wiz. Geoffrey delivered Tiger’s eulogy, and closed with the following pronouncement: “Actors do not die; they simply go on tour.” I now wonder if that is also true of artistic giants.
Goodbye, Geoffrey. Have an “absolutely maaaaahhhhhvelous” tour!
André De Shields is an actor/singer/dancer/director/choregrapher, a Living Legend (so named by the National Black Theatre Festival), two-time Tony nominee and Emmy winner. He is currently appearing in The Fortress of Solitude at the Public Theater in New York City.
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