Alliance Theatre Playwright in Residence Pearl Cleage remembers her friend and colleague, actor Bill Nunn (Do the Right Thing, Spider Man), who starred as Sam in her world premiere production, Blues for an Alabama Sky.
Losing a friend who has a public life in addition to the private one in which they interact with you can create moments of unavoidable disconnect. Bill Nunn is a friend like that. The obituaries I’ve been reading begin with the moment the writer first caught sight of Bill in School Daze, or New Jack City, or Do the Right Thing or Spider Man. And I can’t find fault with that. Bill was a successful movie actor for decades. Spike Lee gave him a chance to play Radio Raheem and he never looked back. He became a household name and a recognizable face.
But I met Bill before all those films, before all those plays, before Broadway. I met Bill when he and I were both part of an amazing artistic Renaissance that took place in Atlanta in the 1980’s and 1990’s and brought together a passionate group of actors and writers and directors and designers, many of whom, like me and Bill, had received their degrees from the Atlanta University Center. Relationships that began in undergraduate school continued after graduation as we set out for the creative adventures that would become our lives. We were a family, a tribe, a collection of dreamers who would not be denied. We worked together, hung out together, had marathon discussions about ideas and aesthetics, critiqued each other's artistic offerings, and regularly broke each other’s hearts. But all the time, we never stopped fighting to do more and more of the work we all loved. We had each other’s backs and shared each other’s resources with an unshakeable belief that what helped one of us strengthened us all.
Years later, I worked with a lot of those same people at the Alliance Theatre. Kenny Leon commissioned three plays from me that premiered here. The first one, Flyin’ West, featured Carol Mitchell-Leon and Don Griffin. The second one featured Bill Nunn as Sam, the doomed physician in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Bill loved rehearsal and Doc’s habitual cry of “Let the good times roll!” became not only Bill’s habitual greeting, but our show’s unofficial mantra. Bill had just the right amount of earthiness and ennui to bring Doc to life for the first time and no one has ever played it better. As a playwright, I owe him for that performance. As a friend, I owe him for the pleasure of knowing him for so long and always feeling like we could pick up just where we left off, no matter how many years and tears we might have missed in between.
When I told my husband, Zaron Burnett, a writer, who was also a part of that Renaissance group, along with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Bernardine Mitchell, Don Bryan, Tom Jones, Marsha Jackson, Crystal Fox, Andrea Frye, Thomas Byrd and so many more, he remembered that Bill produced the first play we presented at the West End Performing Arts Center. Zaron and I were trying to get the new community based art center up and running and Bill and Carol and Don were looking for rehearsal and performance space for Anansi the Spider Man. Zaron instantly offered them both for free. The show played to enthusiastic audiences and the West End Center was on the map. Bill never forgot it, and neither did we.
Of course, there’s also the story of that night outside The Purple Parrot, right in the middle of Peachtree Street, when Zaron and I ran into Bill and had just persuaded him to come inside and have a drink with us when Tom Jones showed up, or the party at Kenny’s house when Donna and Zaron and Raina ate all the crabs in spite of me and Bill’s best efforts to save some for Carol who was running late. But those are not stories for the public good-by to a famous friend. Those are the stories we’ll tell each other late one night on Crystal’s new back porch when we drink a little too much and laugh a little too loud because we know he would expect it, and that he deserves no less. Because it’s always hard to say good-by to a friend like Bill. They don’t come around very often. When they leave us, it is right and proper that attention should be paid. And let the good times roll!
Pearl Cleage, September 27, 2016