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When Academy Award-nominated and legendary actress Ruby Dee witnessed Daniel Beaty perform “Emergency” - his one-man show with more than 40 characters - she described it as “a performance that jolts the senses to attention.” But Ruby Dee also told this incredibly talented writer, poet, humorist and actor something else: He was the artist, she said, who was continuing her legacy and the legacy of her late husband Ossie Davis.
“It’s been such an incredible honor, “ said Beaty, a Yale University graduate and 2007 Obie Award for Excellence winner for his writing and performing in Off-Broadway Theater. “I’ve had a series of angels, the grace of God and a really blessed journey,” he told the L.A. Sentinel in an exclusive interview.
His 80-minute, non-stop, performance takes you on a spell bounding journey through the lives of the 40 plus characters - all of whom Beaty essentially morphs into right before your eyes. You get to witness all of them (black, white, Latino, immigrant, gay, transsexual and otherwise) react to a slave ship suddenly appearing out of the Hudson River right next to the Statue of Liberty in New York’s Harbor.
Beaty’s writing is well beyond his 28 years and you can tell he’s well-studied, well-educated and enjoying every minute of his work.
The youngest of 5 children, Beaty was raised by his hard-working mother in Dayton, Ohio. His father was a heroin addict who was in and out of prison his entire life. His older brother: a crack addict with very violent tendencies.
“I had these really negative images of Black men but at the same time I was a student and saw an image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of all these people and I was inspired and said, ‘I wanted to do that,’” said Beaty. His third-grade teacher, Mavis Jackson, saw he was inspired and told young Daniel, “if that’s what you want to do, I’m gonna help you.”
Thanks to Mrs. Jackson, Beaty wrote his first speech at the age of 9, “I think the Best, I Expect the Best.” Ms. Jackson made sure everyone in town including the NAACP knew about her exceptional student. While life at home was chaotic, Beaty was accepted into a program known as “Academically Talented” and he started giving motivational speeches at regional and state conventions all across the country.
It was all a pleasant premonition of what was to come.
Beaty not only received a scholarship to Yale University, but he led his class at graduation receiving one of the three highest honors. He made a few stops on and off Broadway, traveled the world performing on television, acting in theatrical productions, singing leading roles in operas and giving solo concerts. He performed at the White House and has graced the stage at the Kennedy Center in tribute to Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
And when it comes to Slam Poetry, he’s a champion winning the 2004 Grand Slam at the world famous Nuyorican Poet’s Café and the Fox Network’s Redemption Slam Champion.
Beaty has performed with Jill Scott, Mc Lyte, Mos Def, Tracy Chapman, Phylicia Rashad and Deepak Chopra. He recently released his first spoken word and music CD entitled, “Introducing Daniel Beaty.”
All of these achievements at such a young age, Beaty remains poised and grateful for the thunderous applause he’s receiving nightly at the Geffen Playhouse.
His director is the very accomplished Charles Randolph-Wright. His producing director: none other than the man who has produced the Oscars for much of the last 10 years, Mr. Gil Cates. Cates says when he first saw Daniel Beaty perform “Emergency,’ he was floored. “Daniel’s storytelling has brought the past right into the present and parked it in front of the Statue of Liberty for all of us to see.”
Why the name “Emergency?” “As much as there are major things happening in the African American community - Black CEO’s, possibility of the first Black Democratic nominee or President, there’s a huge segment of our society that is still disenfranchised, particularly as it pertains to young people in our inner cities,” said Beaty. “The statistics are really terrifying and I really believe we’re in a state of Emergency.”
Why a slave ship in the NYC harbor? It’s Beaty’s way of reaching into our history to examine the present. “My real question is how can we be more free” he said. “So many of us are consciously or unconsciously living the slave experience psychologically, mentally and spiritually so I wanted to tell a story, really entertaining, but ultimately uplifting and though provoking about how we can be more free.”
Beaty said the first question he started asking himself was why are so many people I know in pain? Pain is feeling bound and not feeling free. “So I needed a metaphor to encompass this journey of all of these characters endeavoring to be free. So, I said what’s the greatest symbol of freedom in this country? It’s the Statue of Liberty. And what’s the symbol when there was not freedom? Slavery.” Let’s bring a slave ship up in present day time in front of the statue of Liberty and force America to look at the question of how free we truly are metaphorically.”
His 40- plus characters from the African American community with names like Rodney, Freddy, Shrita, and Ashes include: the grandmother, the child, the homeless man on the street, the sassy female, the scholar, the bold and openly flamboyant gay guy, and many others. “I really wanted to make sure the full African American family was represented,” he said. And Beaty does so with all the flavor he can muster giving these characters “heart, soul and humanity.”
How does he do it? He prays before every performance and acknowledges the ancestors. ‘It’s clear I’m just the vessel for this and the reason it’s so transformative is because it’s something greater than me moving through me.”
“It’s old griot magic type storyline and people see someone else appear right before their eyes.”
You can see Daniel Beaty transform at the Geffen Playhouse 7:30pm nightly until June 1. The Sunday, June 1st performance is 2pm.