By James Gibney
In 2005 at age 73 I finally “retired” from the mad corporate rat race. In the immediate aftermath, I felt like I had been on a treadmill and someone had pushed the stop button suddenly. I hit the wall. What was I going to do with the rest of my life?
My wife Marcia came to the rescue. She is a member of the Town & Gown Club in Berkeley, which produces a full-length play every March. She urged me to try out for a role in that year’s production of Charley’s Aunt. To my surprise, I was cast in a major role!
I then decided to enroll in acting classes at Los Madanos JC. There, to my continuing wonder, I was cast as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I had caught the bug, and I have been performing in amateur theater ever since. My recent favorites include Play It Again Sam and Chekhov’s The Bear.
But the show I remember most vividly right now is Permanent Collection, a true story about the famous Barnes art collection in Philadelphia. I played the ghost of Dr. Barnes.
Dr. Barnes assembled one of the most extensive collections of African art in the world. He opened his own private museum in a neighborhood on the main line of Philadelphia. He had strict rules about how and where each piece would be displayed and who would be allowed inside to view the art. It was all spelled out in his will. The city of Philadelphia and The Pennsylvania Academy of Art had salivated over the collection for years and had urged Dr. Barnes to move it to the city – but to no avail. When he died, he bequeath his collection to a Black school known as Liberty College.
The play focuses on the charges of racism that ensued when the collection was transferred from white management to black. This was my first experience of working with young actors both black and white. I was 84 at the time, and we spent our early rehearsals wrestling with the challenge of gaining one another’s acceptance.
We started our first rehearsal sitting around a table reading lines. There were six of us in the cast, three black and three white, three males and three females. Of the black actors, two were college-age and one was middle-aged. The white characters included a college-age girl, a middle-aged man, and 84-year-old me. We were, in short, a mixed bag.
At that first rehearsal, as soon as we started discussing the play’s message of racism, I felt high tension among us. In that context, I felt a need to prove to the black actors that I was not some 84-year-old white bigot. I made the very big mistake of trying to do this by recounting stories of my experiences during the Korean War with a fellow Marine and good buddy of mine, a Black man named John. One day in Korea, John and I were walking together when a squadron of US Navy fighter bombers mistook us for the enemy and started bombing, strafing, and rocketing us. John and I hit the deck – John said, “Shit Jim – you just turned black!” And I said, “Shit John – you just turned white.” In the course of many such moments of foxhole terror John and I became best friends. I then told the group that my first son-in-law was black: he’d married my daughter Colleen, but unfortunately the marriage didn’t last.
Well. my young castmates all started laughing hilariously. To them, I was throwing out that old liberal cliché “Some of my best friends are…”
I was stunned and embarrassed, and frankly I was angry. The race issue was a chip on everybody’s shoulder. They were getting into their roles—understandably. I left that first rehearsal in a state of shock. As rehearsals went on, however, our mutual trust and respect grew until we were a team. When we finally performed the play, it was a great hit with the audience. After closing night, we hugged and kissed. I miss them all and remain grateful for the experience.
But there’s a line I can’t forget from that play: “The accusation is its own truth”. It feels particularly apt today, and it applies to more than just the issue of racism. Unconstrained social media has made guilty-until-proven-innocent the norm we accept today. How do we turn it around?
Jim Gibney was raised in Saratoga Springs N.Y. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1951 and served in Korea. He graduated from Michigan State University in 1958 and retired from Marriott International Hotels in 1997. He has been pursuing an amateur acting career in local theater ever since.
Copyright James Gibney. All Rights Reserved.