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When I Knew Them When

So, yes, I worked in theater for ten years.  I actually studied acting, got into stage management instead, and spent ten years at it.

And I’ve seen a lot of people go on to other things.  Mostly I’ve seen people turn up in bit parts in films – I watched one actor I know beat up Oscar Isaacs at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, and a former acting studio classmate had a stint on a short-lived show about classic-era Hollywood on AMC.  Plus all the people with guest spots on Law and Order.

But four people have gone onto fairly major, “oh yeah I know who you mean” status; one of whom just had her big break.  And fortunately, all of them were fantastic people.

For example.

I studied acting in college, as part of New York University’s partnership with the Lee Strasberg Institute. I had classes on campus, but the bulk of my acting training was there; and I was there pretty much all day three days a week, as were all the other NYU students in that program.

The NYU students were there often enough, in fact, that we all started recognizing each others’ faces from passing each other on the stairs on our way up or down to one class or another.  Most of the time we’d maybe just nod, maybe smile a bit, but there was one guy who was a year ahead of me who always, always, would smile broadly and say, “hey, how ya doin’?” as he passed me.  Not just me – he did that to everybody.  He had such a broad, friendly smile that I always found myself smiling and answering back, even on the days I was half awake.  A few times over the next couple years, we’d also sometimes pass each other on the street or elsewhere on NYU’s campus – and still, every time, his eyebrows would lift in recognition, and he’d nod and smile and still say that same “hey, how ya doin’?”  And I’d always smile just as warmly back, even though for the life of me I never knew the guy’s name.

I think he went on to a different studio after a year or so, and graduated ahead of me, so I never found out who he was – until 1999, when I saw an X-Files episode about an alien who’d fallen so in love with baseball that he was living undercover as a member of a Negro League baseball team in 1947.  I recognized the broad smile on the alien’s human guise, and at the end I finally learned his name – Jesse L. Martin.  Somehow I’d totally missed him in Rent, but caught him in Law and Order a year or so later.  And I’m still waiting for that biopic of Marvin Gaye he’s apparently been trying to make for years now.

Briefly, in 2002, I was the assistant stage manager to a musical about vampires someone was “workshopping” – we never did the show for an audience as such, it was just a test performance with a bare-bones staging for an invited audience of potential investors.  We rehearsed for a handful of weeks on location at a high school, then did three performances and that was it.  The cast was full of young fresh-faced musical-theater folks – chorus parts and bit parts off-Broadway or Broadway, but no one who’d Made It Big yet.  Our lead was a young woman named Cote, with a fabulous voice, stunningly gorgeous face, and a sweet temperament; but I was too tied up and busy with juggling the show to pay much notice.

Then six months after we’d closed, I was browsing in a kitschy shop in Chinatown and felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around, and there was Cote – who broke into a huge smile.  “Kim!  I thought it was you!” she crowed, giving me a huge hug.  “I haven’t seen you in so long, how are you?”

“….I’m honestly stunned you remember me,” I admitted.  The crew doesn’t always enjoy the same level of bonding during a show that the cast does, and as the assistant stage manager I thought she’d have noticed me even less.

“Of course I remember you!” she chided, and we spent the next ten minutes catching up.  I told her about the shows I’d been working on since, and so did she – in fact, she’d just gotten a role in a musical in Los Angeles, something based on The Mambo Kings.  “It might even go to Broadway if we do well,” she said, excitedly.  “Wish me luck!”  I cheerfully did.

Sadly, the Mambo Kings musical wrapped up in Los Angeles.  But Cote decided to stay put there, and went out on a couple of auditions – and fairly quickly, she was cast in the show NCIS playing an Israeli Mossad agent named Ziva David.

I didn’t even know about it for a couple years, until one day I was channel-surfing and came into a rerun of one of her episodes.  I dined out on that news for quite a while – when I mentioned this to my parents over dinner, my father nearly dropped his fork and gasped, “you worked with HER???”  Mom explained that Dad had a wee crush, and Dad spent the next five minutes pumping me for details.

The show happily put Cote’s singing voice to good use once, in an episode where her character was working undercover as a night club singer.  The episode only used about twenty seconds of her singing a jazzy cover of a Tom Waits song, but they filmed the whole thing just for fun.  And to bring things full circle, some hardcore fans of the show even dug up a recording of her big torch song from that vampire musical, and have used it to make scores of NCIS-themed fan videos. I ran into the playwright from the vampire show a couple years back and told her about that; we both agreed it was unbelievably surreal.

A year after working with Cote, I worked on something called American Ma(u)la surreal show about a dystopian future United States.  The ensemble cast cannonballed their way through all sorts of wacked-out parts – a robotic president, a Ru-Paul-esque talk show host, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, and there was even one moment where one actor played both a Mississippi state trooper and the trooper’s dog simultaneously.  A guy named Colman played Thomas Jefferson – among other parts; his favorite part, though, was that of a homeless man who kept wandering around the background of another scene, in search of his best friend and periodically calling out her name.

And through an unbelievable twist of fate, his character’s friend’s name was “Kim.”

Colman had a looooooooooot of fun with that.  We staged the scene so Colman was wandering around in the audience on his search, periodically shouting “KIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIM!……KIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIM!”  as he made his way to the stage proper.  About halfway through his search, he would pass by my control table – and on a couple of nights, he would stop at my table, turn to me with a mischievous grin, and holler his line directly into my face: “KIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIM!” before moving on.  For the closing night show I got him back by putting on a mask of Oprah Winfrey right before he stopped at my table, to freak him out.  He barely flinched.

In the years following, I heard of Colman appearing in one or another thing in passing – small shows, a spot on a sketch show, things like that.   I friended him on Facebook early on.

And that’s how I’ve basically had front row seats as his career took off – first with a one-month stint as Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway.  Then with a part in the ensemble for the show Passing Strange, where he stole the show with a stint as a performance artist named Mr. Venus.   That lead to a cameo in the Spike Lee film Red Hook Summer, followed shortly by another turn on Broadway in The Scottsboro Boys – he’s the one in the red coat, in a role which later saw him win a TONY nomination.  And then back to the movies, where he turned up in the very first scene in Lincoln  – and in fact, delivers the very first spoken line.  And then biggest of all was this year – he plays Reverend Ralph Abernathy in Selmaand so I’ve been seeing his face all over the posters and trailers as well (in 90% of the scenes in the trailer, Colman is standing either to the left or right of David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, and Colman’s also the one who bolsters his spirits in a jail cell).

I have to be honest, I was hoping to see Colman’s name in the Best-Supporting-Actor nominee list this year, so I could say I worked with a nominee once.  Next time.

Three years after American Ma(u)l, I did a show about the American and Chinese ping pong friendship games from the 70’s; a funny, sweet little show which imagined the outcome of an American team member falling in love with a Chinese team member.  The production was a joy – the technical stuff was fairly simple, the script was sweet, and everyone in the cast and crew was a delight; our female lead, Constance, not excepted.

But Constance also had a little spice to go with the sweetness.  She was just starting to get sick of playing the very kind of ingenue parts we’d put her in, and tried to break out of the “cute” mold whenever she could.  But she was hands-down adorable, so it was a struggle – a couple times in rehearsal, I’d hear other cast members in the room utter heartfelt “awwwwww!”s as they watched her.  One time she did something so adorable that we all cooed, and she stopped the scene, turned to us all and barked, “I’m not cute, dammit!” before picking the scene up again.

She really livened things up in one late rehearsal. One of the other cast members was more proficient in Mandarin than she was, so she sometimes pumped him for language lessons.  Then one day she learned some special words elsewhere – and spent most of her down time showing off her new knowledge, teasing him with a stream of utterly filthy talk in Mandarin that the rest of us were chalking up to “language practice”.  We had no idea what was going on – they maybe were a bit more giggly than usual – until suddenly he burst out in English: “what the hell did you just say about my penis???”  The director and I gently encouraged her to play nice, but we were laughing too.

A few years later, Constance moved away to Los Angeles; she got some small movie roles here, some small parts in TV there.  And then, two days ago, she made her debut as Jessica Huang in the show Fresh Off The Boat.  

I didn’t recognize her face at first – but I definitely recognized the attitude.



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