10 April 2005
NY Jazz Report's Will Wolf stopped by Rome Neal's dressing room at the Abingdon Theatre to have a conversation with the actor before he went on stage for Sunday's matinee performance of the one-man show "Monk."
Will Wolf: When you were very young, you came to NYC, to Brooklyn. You had been living down south, is that right?
Rome Neal: Yes.
WW: What year was that?
RN: It was 1952.
WW: And where were you coming from?
RN: Sumter, South Carolina.
WW: And what was that like, to come here? Was it something you were looking forward to?
RN: I didn't know too much about it, I was only a year old.
WW: What was it like music-wise, as you got a little older there in Brooklyn? What were you listening to?
RN: Actually, I was raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn. My family moved to, my recollections were early up in the Bronx, and then in Manhattan, 132nd Street. We lived there for a few years, and then we moved to 117th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I remember I was in the first grade then, PS 10 was on St. Nicholas Avenue across the street. I rememeber going to the first grade there for the first time. I never realized then, that right around the corner, after all these years, was the St. Nicholas Pub. And as I grew up in that area, for a few years as a kid I used to sell newspapers, I don't know how I did that as a kid, but I used to sell newspapers in the clubs, in the bars. I know I went into Minton's trying to sell newspapers. My route was 117th Street up to 125th Street, in all the bars.
WW: And how old were you then?
RN: I must have been about 7 or 8 years old.
WW: Were you into the music at all, or were you too young?
RN: I was too young.
WW: When did you start to become aware of music?
RN: Of music, or jazz music?
RN: I was aware of music when I was very young. You had the music of Motown, Jackie Wilson, he lived in the area, all the R & B giants, Chuck Jackson. I remember when I used to sell those newspapers up on 125th Street, Dinah Washington, all of them used to be up in those places, I remember the names and the pictures used to be on the outside. I heard jazz, here and there, remnants of it, but I wasn't into it that much.
WW: When did you start getting interested in jazz?
RN: I think it was the late 70's, it was the late 80's. I did a play at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, this was the early 90's. I did a play entitled "DON'T EXPLAIN" about Lee Morgan.
WW: The trumpet player.
RN: Yes. And that's when I really started to get into the music, and want to learn, you know theater is very important in my life, and you learn so many things from theater. And I'm glad because of the theatrical experience that it took me to the level of turning me on to the world of jazz, which I wasn't so much up on. With this play, "DON'T EXPLAIN" about Lee Morgan, I had to learn more about Lee and the music. I learned about Clifford Brown, and I learned about Dizzy, and all the rest of the musicians at that time. Then a love for jazz started to happen because I went out to a couple of clubs, just to check out things, the environment. Then later on came this play "MONK."
WW: Obviously, your love of theater comes first. How old were you when you realized that that was something you wanted to do?
RN: I started theater when I was in Baruch College, and that was in the late 70's, about 1974, I took a class, an acting 101 class. And the teacher of the class, who directed theatrical productions in Baruch College at that time, decided to put me in one of the plays, and that's when it really started
WW: What was your major at Baruch?
RN: My major was Marketing, Business, and Retailing.
WW: But you wound up taking the Acting 101, and that was it. That kind of got you going?
RN: Yes. It got me going. Then I took another class, then I did another play in school, and then I ended up writing a play, my first play, and had it produced in the school, and I received 3 credits for that.
WW: And now you're the Artistic Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
RN: The Artistic Theater Director.
WW: Yes, the Artistic Theater Director. How long have you been associated with them?
RN: I started at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the eary 80's.
WW: And how long have you been the Artistic Theater Director?
RN: I've been the Artistic Theater Director for about 15 years.
WW: At what point did you decide that you would like to do a Monk thing, when did you have that idea, when did you ask Laurence Holder to write it for you?
RN: Well, it wasn't me. There was a play that Laurence Holder had written earlier entitled "MONK AND BUD." And this great writer Phillip Hayes Dean who was directing this piece for Laurence somehow assembled two actors, and I was one of them. And he wanted me to play the Thelonious Monk character. I don't know why, I don't know how he got me or what. But I ended up in this theater space on 42nd Street, the two actors: myself and this guy Tony, I forgot his last name.
WW: And he was playing Bud?
RN: He was playing Bud. And with the director, we had a reading of the play. And something about that reading was in pocket for me. It was right on time. Right on the energy. The nuances, the way I read it, the way I felt reading it, was very special. You know, I've done a lot of readings over the years. This particular reading was really, really, very special to me. I really liked the character. I liked the jazz genre and what I was doing with it. And then I said to myself that I really wanted to do this play.
WW: And what happened with that?
RN: Something happened, I missed one of the rehearsals before the actual reading that he was going to have, and when I missed that meeting, that rehearsal, he dropped me from the project. But that was, I was so busy doing so many other things, anyways, that it didn't matter. But it still stuck in my mind that I liked that piece. Later on there were two other actors that had the opportunity to take on those parts, two other good actors whose names escape me, and they called me in to be the costume designer when they were getting ready to go up with the show. And I did it, I designed the costumes, I went and picked out some wonderful costumes for them to wear. And they went up with it at Theater for the New City. Later on, after the Theater for the New City, they brought it to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and they did it for a week or two there. And then they went on and toured around with it. I said once they did it, I said well it's done, that's the end of my Thelonious Monk thing that I want to do because someone else has got it. But later on in years, I met with Laurence Holder and I got the opportunity to direct other plays of his, one of them being a play called "RUBY AND PEARL" about women in the burlesque business, and then another play entitled "RED CHANNELS" about McCarthyism in the 50's. And we began to be friends and collaborated on this play "Monk" after we came back from the National Black Theater Festival.
WW: What year was that?
RN: This was about six years ago, roughly six years ago.
WW: You asked him to put....?
RN: I told him I wanted a one-man show about Monk. And he knew the trials and tribulations I was going through with other actors, and I was kind of disgruntled about the relationships that I was having in the business, anyway. And he saw the relationship between myself and Monk, anyway. And he always wanted me to be this Monk character.
WW: So he could see it, too?
RN: Oh, he definitely saw it.
WW: And he went to work....
RN: He went to work and in a week had me a script.
WW: He had your script within a week? A working script, I imagine since then it's evolved a lot, tweaking and changes.
RN: Yes, it evolved a whole lot. But the basic premise is right there. Everything that he's written is on point. We had three stage readings of the play over three months. And each month we would have a paid audience come out, look at it, listen to it.
WW: At the Nuyorican?
RN: At the Nuyorican. And give us feedback. And when they would give us this feedback we would take it in and either do re-writes, or if they said something that wasn't, if they said that something we didn't need, we didn't use it. But we had good people come in and give us good feedback. We tweaked it each time. It was nerve-wracking for me because each stage reading I had to, because I was prepared to memorize this script to go on for the actual show. So each time I'd get a new revision I had to change up things and do it all over again. So I could never set it down to memory until after the last stage reading. But after that, I had all these revisions in my head that was going around.
WW: When did it actually open at the Nuyorican?
RN: February 2000.
WW: And how long was it there?
RN: We did a two month run at the Nuyorican. But that two month run was like Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So we had four shows a week.
WW: And eventually you tooK it on the road?
WW: Now when you took it on the road did you, was there a time after the run at the Nuyorican when you stopped for awhile, or did you go right on the road after the Nuyorican?
RN: After good reviews at the Nuyorican, and winning the Audelco Award for Solo Performance for myself, we took it on the road. We took it to the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Then we took it to Philly, to the Cleft Note Club in Philly, actually we performed there twice. And Hartford, Connecticut to the Artists Collective.
RN: We went right on the road. Well, I mean you don't just go right on the road, you have to get your package together and prepare it, and send it out to people and see who wanted the play. Luckily, at the National Black Theater Festival one cat picked up on it, who wanted it for Philly, and he was really very much agitated about getting this play to the stage in Philly. And he worked on it very hard and he presented us twice. Then, Hartford, Connecticut, they wanted it, too. The Artists Collective in Hartford, Connecticut.
WW: At what point did you guys decide that you'd like to bring it Off Broadway?
RN: After we finished at the Nuyorican, in the beginning we wanted to bring it Off Broadway. We felt that it should reach a more diverse audience, and it should be more centrally located in the city so more people can come to the theater location to see it. The Nuyorican, although it is world famous, people find it hard to get to, they go through changes, people go through changes over anything, I find. So we wanted to always bring it to the Off Broadway stage, to take it to another level, anyway, because Off Broadway is more respected than Off Off Broadway, as we all know. And it's been our vision to do this, and we had a couple of setbacks over the years when people would promise to help us to get there and then they fell through. And then we had to, Laurence and I had to decide to do it on our own. We started to do it on our own, and then people said they were going to help us out, and then they didn't come through, so we really had to step to the plate and do it as our own independently Black-produced production Off Broadway.
WW: The NY Times, specifically Jason Zinoman, gave you and the play a very nice review a couple of weeks ago. And in that review, you'll remember, he was talking about you wearing so many hats, doing so many things. He said in a humorous way, everything but ushering at the theater. I notice that in your theatrical career you also wear a lot of hats, you do directing, you do producing, you do acting. Is there one thing that is more interesting to you, that you like doing better amongst those three?
RN: Well, in the beginning, it was acting. It was acting. But then I found out that no one was giving me jobs, the way I wanted to receive them. So I had to create my own work over the years. And in creating my own work I created this character Rome Neal, and I started producing him and his works out there so that he began to be a viable entity within the theatrical community. And people started to take him seriously. And then people started to give him work in other theatrical spaces. In the beginning, it was really acting. And then directing, most of the times I've always been directing myself, and stuff anyways, over the years. And I didn't want it to start out like that, but it ended up being that way, to direct myself in a lot of the pieces that I've done over the years. One of the pieces was a play called "SIGNS" by Gabrielle N. Lane which was done at Theater for the New City, a four character piece, and it went on to win me an Audelco Award for lead actor in that particular piece, a piece that I also directed.
WW: You've won altogether five Audelco Awards?
RN: Yes, yes, five or six. Two for acting, two for directing, one for light design.
WW: So based on what you just said, I might conclude then that rather than you liking one thing more than another, you kind of like doing all those different things, maybe all at the same time, producing, directing, acting. Not one in particular?
RN: Acting and directing, yes. Directing and acting, that's it. Producing, I'd like for someone else to come on and do that.
WW: You've only done it because you've kind of had to?
RN: I 've had to, and that's the bottom line to that, because I have to do the producing. I don't want to wear all these hats, I really don't. But situations happened, and I have to wear... Like I was doing my production of "SHANGO de IMA" which won eleven Audelco Awards. It was nominated for eleven, and it won all eleven Audelco Awards at the world famous Apollo Theater. It won the awards at the Apollo Theater. And when I did this play, I had a friend of mine who I wanted to be the light designer, but he couldn't do the lights when I wanted it to be done. So I had a technical rehearsal that night and actors had to work with their lights, so I had to design the lights for the show. I designed the lights, and lo and behold, I ended up winning a Audelco Award for director of "SHANGO," and light designer. And that was a surprise to me, to win an Audelco Award as a light designer becuase I was up against some heavy duty cats from the Public Theater, and people of that sort.
WW: That just goes to show you that you have a lot of creativity within you, when you need to use it, it comes out.
When I was here for the performance one thing happened that was a little strange. There was a fellow, some guy, he was either occasionally talking to himself or to somebody else. It didn't seem to have a major negative effect on the performance because the performance was very good. And you handled it, I thought, extremely well. As part of the performance when you were doing your Monk riffs, you looked towards that guy and said, "Shut the fuck up." And it fit in perfectly. And since then I read that when you had taken the show on the road, before it came here, you were in North Carolina and half way through the performance there some woman was having a coughing fit and that you were able to quickly think, because on stage you have some liquids there as part of your props, so you poured her some water, and as if you were Monk helping her out, you gave her some water and helped settle her down. It's almost like a jazz musician doing some improvisation while he's performing. It's the same thing that happens to you. I was wondering if there were any other episodes that you might remember that were similar.
RN: Well, that particular woman was a great, is a great actress, director Barbara Montgomery. She's been on TV, "AMEN" with Sherman Helmsley. She was in that. She's been on Broadway and Off Broadway. Great actress, and she was the one having that coughing fit. It was wonderful to have done it but to be written up in this wonderful magazine, North Carolina Magazine, they wrote up a wonderful article about people who generally just are helpful to other people, beyond the call of duty. But I had to shut her up before she ruined my show, so I had to give her that water. But, no. Improvisation is important. If you know what you're doing, than you can improvise. That's what the greatest thing about the jazz musician is, they know what they're doing, and they've been living this music for so long, improvisation, they can go out of the realm of the scheme of the music and come right back in, because they know what they're doing. Another thing happened, another great actor, I don't know if you know him, Bill Cobbs?
WW: I don't.
RN: Bill Cobbs has been in a lot of major films. Bit parts and lead parts in major films and television shows all over the place. And he was at the North Carolina Theater Festival and he had come in late. I think he had a cane or something, he was walking, he was very respectful of the performance, as an actor would be, and he said, " I can't walk across the stage to my seat because I don't want to interrupt Rome's performance, and besides my seat is right up front." So he can't just walk across. And I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and I said, "Hey, man, come on, take a seat right over here." And he just walked, just slowly walked across and took his seat. So that was another improvisational moment and then you got to get right back in beat because some of those things can take you out, because timing is important, you got to be up on the time, and if you blow that timing it can just like throw you off. I've been thrown off a few times but then I have to take it in and then think about where I was very quickly and come back into it.
WW: And obviously you have learned to handle those things well, and as you said about the jazz musicians improvising, if they know what they're doing they can do it, and obviously you know what you're doing so you're able to handle that.
RN: I've learned over the years, I've learned to be a jazz musician with what I'm doing. Actually, I've learned to be a jazz musician, period. When I first won the Audelco Award for lead actor as Monk, I had the opportunity to win it at the Harlem State Office Building in Harlem on 125th Street. And we all went over to Lenox Lounge down the, across the street. And in Lenox Lounge they have the nice bar area, and everybody went there and we were celebrating, people were drinking and talking loud and stuff, and having a good time, and in the back of Lenox Lounge they've got the doors closed and you've got to pay five dollars, at the time it was five dollars, to go in those doors. And they have live jazz. Jazz jam. And I'm sitting there at the bar with these people, just talking and talking, and b s-ing and it struck me, "Wait a minute you just won this award playing one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world, and besides, when you went up there to accept the award, you thanked everybody and you didn't even thank Thelonious Monk. So what are doing sitting up here bullshitting with these people. Take your ass back there and listen to some good jazz."
And, I went back there. And I sat down, and met a couple of musicians who played at the Nuyorican, and I told them I just won this award. And they said, "Oh great." They played me four Monk tunes. A singer came in and sang "AROUND MIDNIGHT." And I was blown away. And while I was sitting there it hit me that, "Rome, now you've been all over with this play, you've toured a little bit, and you won the Audelco Awards, you got great reviews, but you didn't touch base with this part of it, and this part is the jazz jam session, you didn't touch base with the jazz jam session and this is part of Monk's life that he lived for, all the great musicians they'd go all over the world, they'd get big bucks but they'd come back to these little dives and they'd give their heart and soul for these little jazz jam sessions. And you didn't do this."
And I discovered that that night, and I've been out to jam sessions ever since. And being out there, I've been able to become this jazz musician. I've learned to improvise with the jazz musicians. I'll get up there and do a monologue from the play. They'll play a Monk tune and I'll kick something from the play.
WW: Where have you been going?
RN: Lenox Lounge, St. Nick's Pub, Cleopatra's Needle, in Brooklyn at the Jazz Spot, Up Over Cafe, Just wherever I can. And just being around the music and the people, and I've learned so much more of a jazz musician and just hanging more with him that I didn't know at that time.
WW: And you may have noticed that it has probably helped your performance.
RN: Oh, truly so, truly so. And actually, I attribute this to the spirit of Monk that I have become a legit jazz singer because of that. So I can go out to a jazz club and hit a song on the dime.
WW: And you enjoy doing that?
RN: Oh, love it, man. I love it. I've discovered songs, jazz standards, and singing these songs, and it's taken me to another level. Sometimes even acting, when I'm going through all this producing craziness, I say to myself in the middle of all of that, and meeting with people, I say, "All I want to do is go to a club and sing a song tonight, that's all I want to do." And I feel so good.
WW: So you've been transformed in a way?
RN: I have, I truly have been.
WW: Now let me ask you this, the production here which is going along very well, is slated to end sometime in the early part of May.
RN: May 8th. Yes.
WW: What are the plans after it closes here. Is it going to be put to bed forever? Or is going to be resurrected somewhere else? Have you guys thought about that?
RN: Well, we've been invited back to the National Black Theater Festival, again. They don't usually do that too many times, invite shows to come right back two years later. We've been invited back again by Larry Leon Hamlin, the producer of the festival. So we're looking forward to going back there in early August. And some people have been asking for the play. I don't think we'll put it to bed. I think it's an important play and I think it needs to be seen throughout the world. We just have to get the right marketing, agent behind us or something, or put out the right packages and get this tour package around, because it's proven itself. When it goes on the road, like when it went to Detroit, to the the SereNgeti Gallery. Bill Foster at the SereNgeti Gallery, he brought it, two years ago he picked the play up to bring it out there, we did it, performed it for about six performances. And he loved it so much that he brought us back again. We celebrated the anniversary of the death of Monk on February 17th, both times.
WW: In what way did you celebrate it?
RN: With the performance, with celebratory performances starting that week. Monk died on February 17, 1982. So we had the opportunity to perform that two times. I like to perform the play during those times, his birth and the day that he passed. Because as you see, at the end of the play he goes, descends to bebop heaven. It's so apropos for that, to have the performance on that day.
WW: If we can separate, for a moment, you from the play, are there other projects that you may be working on now that are related to music, specifically jazz. What are you looking at, what's on the horizon?
RN: Laurence is working on a project now for me called "THE JAZZ SINGER," about a jazz singer whose been down on his luck, and just gets back up on his feet.
WW: It's going to be a fictionalized character based on somebody real, or is it going to be an actual real person?
RN: I think it will be a fictionalized character based on someone real, something of that sort, based on me really, maybe. And that's going to be something I would love to do. Because like I said, I've become this jazz singer and I love theater. So now I can put those elements together. it's not like I'm falsifying this, I can really get out there and sing a jazz song, and really sway and croon people. I had the opportunity, because after the show here, we've added an element to the show called the jazz jam session which starts at, half an hour before the show. So musicians are invited to come on down, if they can pay and they can play. They come down and they can jam with, in the beginning, because we have the piano there so, if it's horn players they bring their horns or what have you. Even drummers, G. Earl Grice brought his drums in, and he played, and a few other people, bass players. So we have this jazz jam session that happens before the show, half hour before the show. And then, I 've been doing it lately because I've been feeling it, and I've been singing a song at the end of the show. So I usually say thanks to the audience, and I usually close it with a nice song, and the song I like to close it with is "HERE'S TO LIFE".
WW: So let me at this point, close out our conversation and say, "Thank you very much, and here's to life."
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