Monday, May 6, 2013

Portrait of the Actor as a Young Man: Kevin Gray, Rest in Peace

You know him as The Phantom, Mr. Saigon, Pontius Pilate, the King of Siam. This is a portrait of Kevin Gray as a young man, before all that. And perhaps some clues to the answer: What experiences forged him into such a powerful actor?

Act I, Scene I. Football Field, Coleytown Junior High School, Westport, CT.  (September 1972)

Hot, humid, muggy. Temperatures and humidity both in the high 90s, on a football field, Coach Ron Weir calls for the stick drill.  The dummies are placed 30 yards away, we sprint towards them, diving head first, face up, neck forward, grunts, face mask hits bottom of dummy, forcing it backward along the ground. "Stick!" we scream.  Next, 10 yards farther. Repeat. Next, 10 yards farther. Repeat. Next, running the full length of the field: "Stiiiiiickkkk!" Says Coach: "Good thing you're tough."  It made us all tough. Remarks Bob Wiggins, who went on to play college sports, of those practices: "They would be illegal today." On the field that day is a tall lanky kid with jet black hair and a broad white smile who would play Slot Back in the Belly Offense--Kevin Gray.
Coleytown Jr. High Football Team, 1972. Kevin Gray, # 90 (standing,
 8th from right) played Slot Back.

Act I, Scene II, The Locker Room (October '72)

We have lost another game and what promised to be a good season is very mediocre. The coaches are pissed and they show it. Fists are banged against lockers. There is one road to redemption. Win the final two games against all odds.

Act I, Scene III, Jr. High Football Game of the Century vs. Long Lots (October '72)

The Long Lots Jr. High School team was undefeated, ranked high in the State and a heavy favorite. If our school was the “freaks” Long Lots was the “jocks” and it would be an away game on their field.  During practices that week the coaches inoculate us with a positive spirit, a belief in the possibility that we can win. When the weather forecast is questionable, Coach says, “I wish it would rain – rain is an equalizer.”  He knows we need any break we can get.

On game day our team came to play and neither side is able to put points on the board.  Kevin is even taller in spikes and helmet,  mean and lean with shoulder pads.  In the huddle “Belly Right” is called. “Ready, break” the offense chants in unison as it breaks huddle and Kevin takes his position in the slot between right tackle and wide receiver. The quarterback takes the hike, pivots counter clockwise and carries the ball off tackle behind Kevin and two running backs who create a wedge in the defense. Kevin buts heads with a defender then leaves his feet to throw the “stick” block we had practiced so many times that summer. He rises from the dirt and this antelope trots back to the huddle for the next play.

We run the ball into the end zone and make the two point conversion for an 8 – 0 lead.  “If they score, remember you made the extra point,” says Coach. Indeed, they do score, but our defense thwarts their run for extra points short of the goal line.  We are ecstatic! We hold on to win and Kevin and our team have been part of the greatest upset in junior high school football history (at least in our minds, at least in our town). Despite the odds, we emerged victorious.  On the way back to school, Coach asked the bus driver stop at Carroll’s the fast food burger chain (there was no MacDonald's in town those days) and purchased burgers for all of us, including the driver.

Act I, Scene IV  The Jr. High Championship Game

There was one last game to play for the town championship that would pit the “freaks” against the “greasers.” As their stereotype indicated, the kids from Bedford were from the rough side of town (if there was such a thing in our suburban community just 50 miles from Broadway). Again, we were underdogs. Again we beat the odds and emerged victorious. Again, Coach ordered the bus to stop at Carrolls for another feast of burgers.

Coach instilled in Kevin and all of us toughness, confidence and the knowledge we would succeed when the odds were against us. One other memory: At the end of season banquet, Kevin’s mom made egg rolls for the team and our parents.

Act II, The Gymnastics Team (1973)

Ron Weir also coached the Gymnastics Team where the competition was against ourselves, to perform as best we could. Football was violent force. Gymnastics was strength, elegance, concentration, grace. Self-improvement and excellence required practice, practice, practice.  In the opening number, younger members of the team march in and perform simple, coordinated tumbling routines, while Kevin and the seniors walk 50-ft on their hands without losing balance.

Kevin’s main event was the pommel horse. He, my elder by one year, was the master and I the younger apprentice. “Justice, come here,” he called to me one day. “Hold your hands out with your fingers up,” he said and when my arms were raised and my hands showed 10 outstretched fingers he interlocked my hands to his and bent mine backwards into the patented “Kevin Gray death grip.”

Kevin Gray (standing, 5th from right) and the Coleytown Jr. High
Gymnastics Team (1973). His main event was the "horse."
 “Do you give up?” he asked, applying more pressure. “No,” I said defiantly. He applied more force twisting me down to the floor in agony.  I gave up to fight another day and remember telling him “Someday when you’re famous I’m going to tell everyone you used to torture me.”

I observed Kevin’s routine on the horse so many times I have it memorized. His signature move was making his body perfectly level, toes pointed. He removes weight from his left hand and while remaining perfectly balanced and level raises his left arm in the air – with all of his weight supported by one hand and his back and legs still ironing board straight. (This is not easy.) Then, he brings his left hand back to the horse’s pommel and from a level position extends his body into an erect handstand which he holds. A demonstration of strength, grace and athleticism. He dismounts to applause, one of his first acting roles.

Bobby Lyon, Co-Captain of the gymnastics team with Kevin, recalls that time: "Coach Weir recognized that Kevin was truly a performer. He was so much more than a kid barreling down the mats with reckless abandon. Coach Weir recognized the elegance that was Kevin. He saw a very modest kid who was beautiful, a body with graceful lines that he held with great posture. Kevin was steadfast and tackled things like the Horse which was one of the most difficult and disciplined apparatus. I have to give coach Weir a lot of credit, he knew about Kevin's presence."

At the end of our performances and the season we hold a celebration dinner at the Gray household. Two memories remain fresh – the sight of one team member completing 19 continuous back handsprings --  and a serving plate full of egg rolls. Kevin’s family is introduced. Is his mom Chinese?

Act III, Scene I Duke University, Branson Theater (Fall, 1978)

By coincidence or fate, Kevin and I attend Duke University and I arrive on campus 16 months after him. (I never asked him why he selected Duke? I will ask at his memorial.) He has already had a lead role in Godspell and has earned a reputation as a good actor before I matriculate. I hear he’s acting in a play set to the verses of Dylan Thomas. I go and remember seeing Kevin, whom I've always known with a gregarious Cheshire-cat smile, with an actor’s animated voice and an actor’s serious stare into the audience, frozen, as lights fade to black. He goes to London to study.

Act III, Scene II, Duke University, East Campus Quad (Spring 1979)

The Spring of Kevin's return from London I’m helping organize “Joe Baldwin Day” events, games and entertainment.  We invite Kevin to perform on the Quad and he graciously agrees. He will be singing.  I’m on stage assisting set-up and Kevin tells me he’s developed his own singing style. His performance starts and it’s not what you’d expect from a college performer. He sounds (to my uneducated ear) like a young Frank Sinatra belting out a Cole Porter tune. He’s making his own way in an era of rock and roll.

If there had been “American Idol” in those days I suppose Simon Cowell would have said, “Kevin, you have a good voice, but it sounds a little too much like Broadway for me.”

Act III, Scene III, Duke University, Page Auditorium (Spring, 1980)

Kevin Gray played Perchik in
"Fiddler on the Roof." 1980.
The Hoof ‘N Horn production Kevin’s senior year (1980) was Fiddler on the Roof. I’m friends with the director who needs a Stage Manager so I volunteer. Kevin auditions and is offered the role of Perchik - the intellectual -- which seems to fit Kevin’s sometimes brooding nature.  For most of the cast and crew, it is a tough few months as we try to balance a rigorous academic load with rehearsals and personal lives. (One of the actresses has married a Russian and was trying to get him out of the Soviet Union). The musical conductor for this production is Michael Kosarin who already seems to us to be a living legend. Everyone knows Koz is going to be famous someday. My memory of Kevin at that time are his seriousness – there are times as we near performance he spends off to the side, practicing by himself, improving, perfecting his role, getting himself into performance mode. There is one time he steps out of line – I can’t remember exactly what it was – perhaps late to a rehearsal or clowning around at an inappropriate time – and I ask myself, “Who am I to discipline my master?” I realize the best way to “manage” Kevin is to let him be, give him his space. His performance during Fiddler was strong. Everyone came through. We didn’t use microphones to amplify the performers’ voices. Kevin’s lyrics are heard at the back of the 2,000 seat auditorium. Like the victories of junior high football, the challenges and fun of the gymnastics team, and being a member of the Fiddler cast and crew, these are some of the best memories of our lives – as I’m sure they were for Kevin too.

Our adult lives were just beginning then, weren't they? The day after the last performance of Fiddler, Kevin graduated from college and we never met again. At least not face to face.

Act IV, San Diego, CA "Eggroll Deja Vu"

Kevin Gray 
Over the years, I heard about Kevin’s rise in the theatrical world and many of our classmates were able to attend his performances and report back. I remember hearing about the Phantom, remember hearing about some controversy with Miss Saigon and why wasn’t Broadway using more Asians in Asian roles? Then there was a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, and more. Life seemed to keep me from seeing him perform on stage.  I celebrated the year 2000 by making the trip back to Kevin’s 20th college reunion – to see him and his classmates I knew a year ahead of me. Yet he didn’t make it. His friends told me about his accomplishments and we were so proud of him, the man who almost broke 10 of my fingers simultaneously.

My own life journey brought me to the land of the Rising Sun and to a woman who could have been Madame Butterfly but unlike Pinkerton I married this cherry blossom and from that marriage a child was born, a 200% baby: 100% American and 100% Japanese. As she grew I encouraged her to participate in school plays and she attended college in Connecticut which was as far away from her parents in San Diego as she could get and yet Connecticut was still a home to me, as it was in ways for Kevin. Our daughter continued acting in college plays and even wrote her own and when she graduated from college she said, “Dad, I want to be an actress."  Her Asian education-mama protested and pleaded with her to  become a doctor while I advised her you need to pursue your dreams and my thoughts turned to Kevin.

The daughter is working as an intern at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and invites the cast to our house among the vines for a party and my wife the Butterfly is sautéing the vegetables in a pan and then placing them in wrappers and plopping them into the deep fryer and when golden brown extracts them and pats the oil and stacks them, a pyramid of Egypt on a serving plate.  Harumaki in Japanese. Chun Juan in Chinese. Spring Rolls in English. 40 years ago as kids in Connecticut we called them “egg rolls” and now my wife has become the Egg Roll Mother to my daughter’s generation.   I take a picture of the spring rolls and log in to Facebook and search for Kevin Gray and send a friend request. We haven't spoken in 30 years. Kevin has just joined Facebook that week. The date is May 9, 2010. Kevin, forever gracious, accepts.

Act V "Reunion & Reconciliation"

I write to Kevin about my memories of his mother's Spring Rolls and that we have become the Spring Roll parents of San Diego and that our daughter responded to a YouTube contest by a director of Miss Saigon asking people of color to submit a video exploring “What does Yellow Face Mean to You?” 

I write to Kevin, "It never occurred to me you were partial Chinese."

"I think that's been the case for most of my life -- people being a bit surprised when they learn my background. It's an interesting issue for many mixed ethnicity young adults, and seems especially so for Asians, reportedly the least assimilated of the major races in the U.S." he wrote.

"The 'least assimilated'?" I shot back. "Certainly not in California's major cities. Perhaps that's the exception. Perhaps we will be beyond race by the end of our lifetime ...."

I reminded Kevin of that kung-fu move he performed on me that almost crippled my hands.

“Did I do that?” he writes in Facebook. “Sad.” I thought it was pretty funny, but I always had a mean streak in me.

Kevin is new to social media, a subject I know something about, and it's time for the student to repay the teacher so I encourage him to use Facebook and YouTube as a way to post videos of his performances and information about his career, so people like me who have never seen him live on stage can experience his performances and follow him.  

I make plans to attend his 35th high school reunion in 2011 to see Kevin and his high school classmates but once again life comes up and I need to leave Connecticut early and head back to San Diego so we miss each other again. From living in Japan and learning to speak Japanese and Chinese and experiencing Confucianism I have an understanding of the important relationship between “senpai” and “kohai”, between the upper classman and the freshman and to me Kevin is my senpai and I owe him and his classmates my respect.

When I heard about his passing and his memorial on Broadway I realize this is Kevin’s last performance and this one I will not miss. As a winemaker, when it comes to weddings and funerals and special occasions my gift is wine because wine is my art and it comes from my soul. I send bottles of wine to two of Kevin’s classmates (Peter Byrne & Mark Miller) who are also my “senpai” as a gesture of thanksgiving for their guidance and friendship in earlier days. I have not seen them in 30+ years and it's time to catch up. A student should always pay tribute to his master. Kevin would have understood that and if you see me in the theater with a backpack there is likely a bottle or two of wine in it and if I know you then there's a bottle with your name on it that will be delivered in the fullness of time and if we haven't met yet then life's short so let's share the wine together while we're here.  "L'Chiam to life!"


After I've suggested how he can use social media to promote his professional career Kevin writes,  “You won’t remember this, but you already helped steer my career once. We were playing football at Coleytown and I was running down field on a kickoff and you cleaned my clock. As I lay on the ground and saw you run off, I clearly remember thinking, ‘Maybe acting will work.’”

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