This week, I’m talking with Tom Key, Executive Artistic Director of Theatrical Outfit, a company that has its home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, the first restaurant in Atlanta to voluntarily desegregate in the 1960s. From a new work dealing with desegregation called Waiting to Be Invited to Mahalia, a musical about gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Theatrical Outfit (www.theatricaloutfit.org) tells stories that stir the soul—plays about community, spirituality, and racial understanding.
As a solo performer, Key has been in demand across North America for three decades. He is well known as the actor and creator of the off-Broadway musical hit Cotton Patch Gospel. He has been featured in the award-winning television series In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away, as well as the Mirimax Family Films Gordy and The Adventures of Ociee Nash.
LeAnne: What are one or two of your favorite roles?
Tom: One favorite role was The Rev. Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath at The Alliance Theater [in Atlanta]. He was a great example of a saint who, no matter how addicted and broken he was, and no matter how fiercely he tried to flee from holiness, God would not let him go. His story was a great illustration of the translation of the 23rd Psalm which reads not “…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” but rather “…surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life”. His prayer for Grandpa Joad, which he is practically forced into saying, achieves the level of poetry.
Another favorite role (actually to choose among these is like choosing favorite children) was Athol Fugard’s The Bloodknot at Theatrical Outfit. I was playing the half-brother of a black man, played by actor Kenny Leon, in apartheid South Africa. We share the same mother who was black but my father was white and my brother’s father was black. I have passed as a white man, and my black brother has worked a menial job. I have never had children because that could expose me and, not being able to stand the double life anymore, I join my brother in a hovel. It was an exhilarating challenge because the conflict as ancient as Cain and Abel was dramatized in the microcosm of the brothers’ relationship. Living that, just with two of us on a set over the course of three hours in front of 200 people, was extraordinarily powerful. We nearly kill one another and then are given a breath by which we escape primal violence and are left with each other. When Zach, my brother, asks me what just happened (the violence that overcame both of us), I respond with, “It’s called the bloodknot, the bond between brothers.”
This to me seems like our greatest challenge to which we must now attend: either we learn how to live with one another as children of God on the earth He entrusted to us, or we destroy the earth and one another. My hope, of course, is the first, and the dramatic story empowers our ability to imagine such a solution.
LeAnne: What about Theatrical Outfit has you excited right now?
Tom: I think I am most excited about directing an early Horton Foote play, The Chase, which hasn’t been done since it was produced on Broadway in 1953. Because there was a bad film made about it with a script NOT written by Horton, it killed interest in the play. He encouraged me to read it—and not to see the movie—and indicated that he would very much like for it to be produced. I did read it and think it’s one of his finest works—it has the Foote signature of nuance of character of Trip to Bountiful or Tender Mercies and an extremely forceful plot. So, I feel like we have an opportunity to re-discover an early work by an American master.