Friday, September 21, 2012

Clayton Riley 1935-2008

This isn’t one of those blogs where I bemoan the fate of civilization because of the dominance of technology.  I’m only observing our uneasy evolution because of it.  The internet and social networking sites are continually upgrading ways for people to connect. (Yes, I know it’s ultimately about making money.)  And it seems to be working.  But sometimes I notice that what may seem like connection is such an awkward, discomforting thing as to be un-nameable. It’s the difference between shaking hands with an old friend and shaking hands with Robbie the Robot.  Still…

What brings me to this is death…and James Baldwin, of course.  I recently tried to track down an old friend, Clayton Riley, a playwright, director, cultural critic, biographer, radio personality.  Clayton was a one person cheering squad for African American culture, a walking history book of theatre, jazz and baseball.  But what I discovered was that he’d died in 2008. If I still lived in New York City I imagine I would have known when it happened; although despite his pre-eminence I can’t yet find a NY Times obit.  But surely I would have bumped into a friend on the street who would have known.

Like the last time I saw Clayton…we bumped into each other on West 12th Street and 6th Avenue.  We stood for close to two hours talking about, well, theatre, jazz and baseball.  I told him then I was starting work on a play about James Baldwin with our mutual friend Harry Waters Jr.  He was ecstatic…but he was an ecstatic as a person, made highly emotional by any bits of discovery.  He said how long overdue such a piece was and he thought I was just the one to do it because he felt I was respectful of Baldwin’s brilliance, not afraid of his gayness nor cowed by his international reputation. 

In the same conversation he told me about some new recording artist he loved, asked me about sales figures for my vampire novel, told me how Long Island had changed in the previous decade, reported on the Yankees and the Mets and wanted to know the last time I’d seen Morgan Freeman.

Back when I still lived in NYC I used to get up early and trek down to WBAI to sit in on the radio show he hosted.  It was always the most erudite moment in my day.  I’d bring in an album I thought he may not know (Joan Armatrading or Alive) and we’d talk about the music, the culture from which it sprang (British/Caribbean or feminist/jazz).  There was no topic for which he did not have a background story (tangential or not) which illuminated or expanded what you thought.

He was one of the first of my friends to read my vampire novel, The Gilda Stories.  He started his response with: “I don’t know much about vampires or lesbians.”  Then chuckled as he said, “Except you, of course.”  He proceeded to give me extensive feedback on the historical context of my book, the places where the mythology worked or didn’t, how to better shape the ending and then asked if there would be more sex.

We spent so many hours together in theatres I can’t walk into one without thinking of him even now.  I toiled away at the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop to which he'd invited me, where I met my first playwrights. I worked on a production of his epic play, “Gilbeau,” (featuring the magnificent singer/actor, Novella Nelson) as well as on a fantastic chamber piece, “On the Lock In,” by one of his friends,  David Langston Smyrl, which we staged at the Public Theatre and in clubs around NYC.  I began my theatre training with him in those intense and fulfilling moments of rehearsal and production, critique and commentary.

One imagines friends like this are just there, in the world always. Clayton was a prodigious thinker and talker, rhythmic, funny, righteous, who affected the lives and careers of a coterie of theatre folk (including Morgan Freeman) who were haunting the boards in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The heyday of Black theatre was waning but the energy and talent remained, in part because people like Clayton were there to keep stoking the fire and encouraging us to believe in our talent and worth.

So I discovered he’d passed on--four years late and am left with a very empty space.  There’s really no way to connect with his family that has meaning for them; they have no reason to remember me from among the dozens of people who followed him around to listen to his wild words and share his ecstaticism.  (Although I think of his beloved daughters and wonder if I'll bump into them one day.)
So I’m using the internet to mourn.  I’ve made Clayton a research project, looking for articles by and about him, photos, anything to help me think about who he was and honour our friendship.  Sort of like a memorial service without the overrun of homemade baked goods. 

It’s difficult to imagine the upcoming reading of “Waiting for Giovanni” without Clayton.  I was so excited to have him finally hear what had come of that long ago conversation on the West Village street corner.  But the reading will happen, actually close to the anniversary of his passing. I’ll imagine Clayton standing at the back of the theatre, his elegant, lyrical posture, one of his ubiquitous caps, a darting gaze and glittering smile, eager to give me notes.

His family created a fund in his name for students: Donations can be sent to the Clayton Riley Theater Fund at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY 10708. Attn: Carmen Ashhurst. Susan, Norman & Mark Riley