I wanted to be an actor, and I am. Fortunately I’ve managed to make my living doing theater for more than ten years, and gained a little bit of fame to boot. I’m also a writer, and I seem to have carved out a niche in the arts, often referred to as solo theater, performance art, griot and, most recently, hip-hop theater. I’m lucky. I haven’t really done anything avant-garde or new. I’ve just done what the actor has done for thousands of years. I play characters and tell stories about my diverse community in New York City, and about my incomparable and ever-changing hip-hop generation: community and generation.
I never wanted to do theater to get “discovered” by Hollywood. Discovery makes me think of Columbus. The idea of some Hollywood entity “finding” me and exploiting me to make me into a “star” makes me want to commit suicide. Yet although I’m happy doing theater and affecting people in an ancient way, there is always the temptation to reach…a wider audience. And of course to make more money–money to invest in my community and generation, at which my government does such a shameful job.
So, along comes Hollywood knocking at my door. For years I had turned down offers in movies and television shows that not only ignored the realities of my community and generation but often reduced those realities to glorified stereotypes and minstrelsy. However, trying to be fair and give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt, not wanting to be a righteous socialist, I took a chance. I took several chances, expecting Hollywood to hand over some power, some money, some screen time. After all, Hollywood owes theater billions of dollars. Before there were actors in front of a camera there were actors on a stage. And before that there were actors in the bush, representing and reflecting the problems, ironies and stories of their communities. Hollywood has been stealing our actors, writers, directors for seventy-five years. Not to go off on a tangent, but it makes me want to shoot up a movie studio when Hollywood folks come to my shows in New York or Los Angeles and actually expect to get “industry comp” tickets at the door. “Oh, we’re from MTV…we’re from Paramount…Miramax.” Go fuck yourselves. You can’t pay a $15 theater ticket? A price that was deliberately made low, to give low-income youth access to theater. But you can spend $25 million on some film that has nothing to do with anyone’s community–anywhere on the planet–without blinking.
Among several Hollywood offers I indulged, I was asked to guest-star in an episode of Seinfeld. I was honored because I didn’t even have to audition. They just wanted–me. But when I got to the set, they asked me to play a Puerto Rican “pool guy” who cleans up towels and jumps around like an idiot and talks with a “funny Spanish accent.” I argued respectfully with Jerry and his crew of distinguished producers about the offensiveness of what they were asking me to participate in, about the power of their show. I argued that people in Idaho, Australia, even in government were already forming their opinions about Latinos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans from the one-dimensional image “opportunities” that existed for them in film and television. When I asked how they (and I) could traffic in these stereotypes, I was swiftly removed from the role and sent back to New York. When I wrote about the experience, I was criticized for “attacking a Jew who is innocently entertaining us with his show about nothing.” Some even accused me of being anti-Semitic. I wonder if they would have seen Jerry Seinfeld as anti-Semitic if he burned an Israeli flag, instead of the Puerto Rican flag they burned and stomped on during the last season of his show.