Mentor lives on, in ‘Picture Box’ words and deeds

[media-credit name=”Photo by Carmen L. de Jesus ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]
Left to right: Malachy Cleary and Arthur Frence as a Michigan hick and a Florida mentor.
 Negro Ensemble Company preserves legacy of a beloved caretaker

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  Cate Ryan was strapping herself into a homeward-bound aircraft on the runway in Florida, waiting for takeoff to New York, thinking of everything and nothing, “when the engines started roaring,” she says, “and I burst out crying. I realized I might never see Mackie again.”

At that moment she decided to write a play about him. She had written eight plays and done a ton of writing for television. “None of it came easy, but this one” — started there and then, on the plane — “went the fastest of all.”

Mackie, short for Masolinar Marks, was the tall, handsome, soft-spoken, thoughtful Negro who had gone to work for Ryan’s mother on the north shore of Long Island “when it was Protestant,” almost two decades before Ryan was born.

It was Mackie who had taken the neglected little girl under his own wing.

“He was my mother, my father, my disciplinarian, my everything. Very, very nurturing and very kind. Taught me how to think, how to love, how to plant my first garden. On the wall he had a sign: ‘AS YE SEW, SO SHALL YE REAP.’ “

A couple of years ago New Yorker Ryan had gone down to West Palm Beach, Florida to visit him, check on him.

“He was very frail,” says skinny, blonde, intense Ryan, “In fact, he passed away, at 94, just this past May. Died reaching for a cookie,” she says, waving her hands, her long slim fingers. “That was the end of it.”

But it wasn’t, because now Mackie lives on in “The Picture Box” (the play that Ryan started to write in that airliner speeding back north) and in the embodiment of Mackie by the perfect actor for the part — brave, thoughtful, dignified Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (NEC) veteran Arthur French.

This, by the way, is the same Arthur French who a few years ago gave a lovely performance as Doug, dignified old black member of a white Texan household, in the Broadway production of Horton Foote’s deep-digging “Dividing the Estate.”

The Mackie of Ryan’s play is called just that: Mackie. His story is told — up to and including his third wife, Josephine (Elain Graham) — with the assistance of a rediscovered shoebox stuffed with old photographs of the living and the dead.

“The Picture Box” is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on West 42nd Street, through January 29, in a staging by Charles Weldon — the hard-hitting actor-director who, with the help of the law firm of Proskauer Rose, has brought the long-dormant NEC (the great Douglas Turner Ward’s historic NEC) debt-free and back to life.

“I’ve been working with Arthur for 40 years,” Weldon says. “I actually picked cotton as a kid. Nobody believes that. Just out of high school in Bakersfield, California, I had a number one doo-wop record. Nobody believes that either.

“Arthur and I went to Broadway together in Joseph A. Walker’s ‘The River Niger.’ We’d come to the NEC at the same time, in Walker’s ‘Ododo,’ 1969-’70, before Walker wrote ‘A Soldier’s Story.’ Here I was, on stage with all these great actors but had no idea who they were. The second play I was in was Derek Walcott’s ‘Dream on Monkey Mountain.’ Showed me I wasn’t an actor yet.”
Weldon went on to prove otherwise for all these 40 years and more, and spent most of the past five years — with Doug Ward ill and almost 80 years old — resuscitating the brilliant Ward-Hooks-Krone Negro Ensemble Company through which every contemporary black American actor and actress of consequence had achieved that consequence.

Ryan didn’t know if the NEC was interested in works by white playwrights. A lawyer friend suggested she send a copy of the script to Charles Weldon, and Weldon started reading it at bedtime.

“Usually,” says Weldon, “if I can read myself to sleep with a script, I no longer have interest in it the next day. But this time I woke up and thought: hmmm, a man of color raising this white kid, and he not a nanny. That’s interesting.”

There are two halves to the intermissionless 80 minutes of “The Picture Box,” and it’s the second, or reality, half — the life and times of Masolinor (Mackie) Marks — that’s the most amusing, interesting and moving. It is preceded by a sort of comic book sequence in which a stick-figured couple of home-purchasing bigots from Michigan come down to Florida to examine their purchase and toss off vile anti-black clichés.

In just one half of one line — a few words said in irrelevant jest  (“I would have been tied up by my neck”) — cool, calm Mackie exposes the deep-dyed terrible reality that is every American Negro’s inheritance at birth.

But then comes turnabout. In the fall of the year 2008, the TV cameras scanning various crowds in these United States touched momentarily, here and there, on black men and women of a certain age wiping the tears from their (and our) eyes. The Mackie of Ryan’s “Picture Box” speaks for all who shared such moments of jubilation:

Never thought in my lifetime I’d be votin’ for a man with the same color skin as me. Never in my lifetime. My grandfather was a slave. A slave. Here I am, Lord willin’, eighty years old. Lived to vote for a young black man who wants to be the President of the United States of America. Somethin’ mighty fine. Mighty fine.

Rounding out the cast of “The Picture Box” are Elizabeth Norment and Malachy Cleary (as those two Tea Party types from Michigan) and Jennifer Van Dyck as a young white woman named Carrie (which is pretty close to Cate, yes?) who is forced to be civil while selling them her mother’s house.

The real Cate Ryan lives on Manhattan’s East Side, and says: “I do have a married name, but you don’t want to know that.”

Charles Weldon lives in Harlem and doesn’t pick cotton any more.

Written by Cate Ryan
Directed by Charles Weldon
Produced by the Negro Ensemble Company
Through January 29
Tues. at 7:30pm; Wed.-Sat. at 8pm; Sat./Sun. at 3pm
At the Samuel Beckett Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.)
For tickets ($36.50), call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com