The envelope looked like so many others I had received. It had my name and address on the front, written in my own hand. It was folded into thirds, so that it would fit into another envelope. A rejection letter. I had once wallpapered my room with rejection letters, until the joke had stopped being funny.
The postmark was New York City. But I had identical envelopes with postmarks from cities all across the country. Including New York.
A friend of mine was visiting, and I had casually picked up the mail on our way out of the house. As he was about to get into his car, I tore the seal and began to read the letter.
I suddenly let out a whoop.
He stopped and turned around. “A production?” he said.
I slapped the letter against my palm, then held it up in the air.
“New York City!” I shouted.
The letter was from Scottie Davis, producer and owner of the New Ensemble Actors Theater of Manhattan. She had read my play “Asylum” and wanted to produce it at the Lincoln Square Theater in New York.
I vividly remembered the night I had finished writing “Asylum.” I had gone up in a high-rise building and looked out at the lights of the city and thought, “I’ve created something that didn’t exist before.” And that was enough. If the play was never produced, if I died or burned the script, it was enough that I had created it, and that it had existed.
And now I held in my hands a letter from a New York producer who wanted to mount the play in Manhattan. Scottie Davis is an amazing, feisty, brilliant African-American woman who had carved out her own unique niche in the New York theater scene. Always following her own taste, she was willing to throw the entire resources of her organization into a project she believed in. And she believed in this unknown author from halfway across the country. There were contracts, negotiations, discussions. We talked by phone and by mail. I came to love and admire this human firecracker long before we met. She worked out of several different Off-Broadway theaters in the Amsterdam area of upper New York City.
I still remember the day the first check arrived, an advance for $100. I went to the bank to cash it and told them I wanted a single $100 bill. For days, I carried that bill in my pocket, fondling it as I walked along. No matter what twists and turns life would bring, it would always remain a fact that I had broken a barrier that many writers never see—I had been paid for my writing.
The flight to Manhattan was a magic carpet ride. Having grown up in Denton, Texas, I can tell you without question that the distance from Denton to New York can’t be measured in miles.
The stewardess liked the outfit I was wearing and told me I looked sharp. She asked me why I was travelling to New York. I handed her one of my newly printed business cards, and told her I was flying up for the production of one of my plays. There are certain moments that money just can’t buy.
I met Scottie Davis for the first time in her basement office, connected to the Lincoln Square Studio Theater, an underground theater space where we were to have the rehearsals. She had beautiful ebony skin, and the long, lean features I associate with African royalty. She introduced me to Tim Taylor, the director, and the three of us discussed the play and the production. We then went to get something to eat before the actors would begin to arrive for that night’s rehearsal.
As the three of us walked the streets of Manhattan, I felt I was playing a scene in a movie. My producer and director and I were grabbing a bite to eat before heading back for the evening’s rehearsal of my New York premiere.
The coming weeks were one of the most amazing periods of my life. Scottie had arranged for me to be the guest on a late night/early morning New York radio talk show. We did a segment for cable TV about the creative process; Scottie, Tim Taylor, and I being interviewed on the set of “Asylum.” (For years afterward, friends in New York would tell me the segment was still playing on late-night cable TV.)
There was opening night; the laughs, gasps, and applause of the crowd. There was the morning I knew the review was coming out, and I bought a newspaper from a street vendor, and sat on the massive steps of the main New York post office, and read the headline: “ASYLUM: GRIPPING, WELL ACTED PSYCHODRAMA.”
And there was closing night, which drew the biggest crowd of the run. And something happened which I didn’t think ever happened in real life. As the crowd came to their feet, applauding, there were shouts of “Author! Author!”
Tim Taylor and I were at the back of the theater. At first, I honestly believed I was hearing wrong. Then Tim put his arm around my shoulder, and the two of us ran to the front of the theater. He gently pushed me out in front of the crowd, then made a broad gesture with both hands, presenting me to the audience. I took bows amid the applause.
There are certain pivotal moments in a man’s life. The day he takes his first step. His first kiss. The first time he falls in love.
And the day he opens a letter from Scottie Davis.