Playwright Uses Theater to Educate
Sitting five to seven hours every day in Starbucks can be hazardous to one’s health, playwright Layon Gray discovered — but it can also provide the ideal atmosphere for writing. A few weeks before he was to board a plane from Los Angeles to New York for the opening of his play “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” Gray experienced swelling in his leg. Thinking it was a sprained muscle, he applied topical ointments and took ibuprofen. A later diagnosis of a blood clot led to a regimen of blood thinners and self-injections, but didn’t waylay the award-winning writer, director, and actor from his New York debut. Gray shared his story in an interview with Education Update.
Growing up in a small town in Louisiana, Gray knew he wanted to play professional football. His father had groomed him from early on, enrolling the now 30-something in peewee leagues and attending his high school games wearing his only son’s football jersey. Gray attended college on a football scholarship, playing quarterback.
Seeing a touring theater company’s production of the musical “Grease” changed his life. “I was like, wow. This is where I want to be.” Much to his father’s chagrin (he was convinced Gray wouldn’t make any money as an actor), Gray changed majors at the expense of his scholarship. “I had always done acting imitations before my family,” Gray said, and he began auditioning for college productions. After graduating in 1995, he wrote and produced his own shows for a few years and then moved to Los Angeles, where he acted in “sleazy vampire horror” movies, before turning to writing, and his “office” at Starbucks.
“I love watching people and listening to conversations,” said Gray, adding how being in New York and riding the subways also provide excellent fodder for his writing.
Though not all his plays focus on aspects of African-American history, Gray’s two productions in New York highlight topics he believes few know little if anything about. “I didn’t learn about the Tuskegee Airmen until my sophomore year of college, and I went to an all black high school. Black airmen? Tell me more.” Seeing America’s first black military airmen receive the Medal of Honor in 2007 further inspired Gray.
“I saw these men on television, in their 80s and 90s, some in wheelchairs, and I was awed,” said Gray. The play, initially intended for a limited run of a few weeks, has been extended many times. School groups have attended matinees, and Gray has produced 30-minute versions of his plays to bring to schools. “I get e-mails from hundreds of kids, saying how much they loved the play and wish their teachers would give them more information.”
The play was performed at the Airmen’s national convention, and a second cast will open in Atlanta in a few weeks. For Gray, its success is more than he ever imagined. “It’s a simple story about guys who wanted to do something great. The audiences seem to relate to it and the Airmen love us,” he said, his Louisiana accent dragging out “love.” When he knows an Airman is attending a performance, he invites him on stage to share his experiences.
The second play, “All American Girls,” features the women in the Negro baseball leagues during World War II. Gray wanted to try writing a murder mystery, so the plot unfolds when the coach, a tough-love woman modeled after Gray’s high school football coach, goes missing.
Gray lists playwrights August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tennessee Williams as mentors, but insists he’s developed his own style. “I use music and light as characters. And while he’s adamant that he “loves my people and loves telling our stories,” his writing takes him in different directions. “I don’t want to be labeled as a writer who only writes about educational things,” he said, adding he’s working on a play about an immigrant Irish family.
To relax, Gray takes what he calls a “Lay Day” where he sleeps late, turns off his phone, eats out, and then watches movies into the early morning hours. He plays flag football and is an avid Steelers and Saints fan.
His two sisters aren’t in theater, but his young nephew thinks he wants to be like Gray. “I tell him, ‘do something else.’ You have to have a strong mindset for this. You’re constantly out of work, constantly looking for your next job. There are times when there’s no money coming in and you scrounge around looking for pennies so you can buy Ramen noodles to eat.”
He attributes his own luck to his parents. His mother always told him, “You can do whatever you want to do.” His father instilled in him to hustle. “He’d tell me: ‘Don’t wait for anybody. You go out and get it. A lot of people dream, you have to be a doer.’ I relate that to everything in life.” #
Layon Gray’s plays are running in repertoire at the Actors Temple Theatre. For more information, visit http://www.layongray.com