This week, on our weekly Facetime, I remarked to my friend Kristin how I never thought that I would be an activist. She disagreed and said that she had long known that this was a possibility. This wasn’t the response that I expected. To my mind, I’ve always been a freewheeling, fun-loving, wisecracking man-child. But when I dug a little deeper in my memory, scenario after scenario came to mind that proved otherwise. I guess I have always been something of a Firestarter.
After my parents’ divorce, my father refused to pay child support. He even went so far as to demand that I take a DNA test. When we arrived at the clinic, he was there. The nurse asked if I was the child to be tested. He said that he didn’t know who I was. Sadly, the paternity test proved that I was in fact his child. In spite of that fact, he still refused to pay child support. Now, I have A LOT of issues with the US Navy, but they do take care of military families. They threw his ass in the brig, until he paid up. Rather than relent and go back to his normal life, he opted for early retirement, and collecting his pension. In spite of all this, my mother still made us go visit him every year. After the divorce, he no longer had the ability to abuse us, so I got bolder. I put my smart mouth to good use. One day, we were in the bank, and he was being super inappropriate with the teller. He kept talking about all the stuff he would do to her, if he was twenty years younger. She stayed professional, and yet continually shot him down. It was amusing to watch. It was so amusing, that I retold the story at dinner. That’s when I found out that the nice lady that we were having dinner with was his fiancé. He later explained to me that this was a marriage for finance, not romance. From that day on, my soon to be stepmother and I were partners in shade for the rest of the trip. From sunup to sundown, we had jokes. Jokes for days. Even as I write this, I’m laughing at the memory.
As a kid, I always hated being told what to do. Most of the time, I would obey, but I would resent it. Back then, I spent a lot of time in my room, watching television. That was my escape from a hostile world. Inevitably, my mother would bellow from the living room. She needed coffee, help finding the remote, or her cigarettes and lighter, and it was my job to stop what I was doing and fetch them. Which I did, while muttering under my breath. I would often make smart remarks about how people have children instead of servants. Even as a kid, I had this smart mouth. One day, I’m not quite sure why, I put some Epsom’s salts in her coffee. FYI- Epsom’s salts are a powerful laxative. I kept doing it for a week, before she figured out. Afterward, I went back to waiting on her as before. Only now, she also would add, “And don’t put Epsom’s salts in it!” That always made me smile.
My stepfather also joined in on the action. He came into our family with a bang. He thought he was the king of the castle, and I was Cinderella. I begged my mother not to marry him, but she did it anyway. On the day before their wedding, one of my cousins was cutting my hair, and he messed up, forcing him to shave my entire head. When people asked about my new cue ball look, I said it was a protest.
One day, he had cooked himself a big breakfast, and was in the kitchen eating it. I fixed myself a bowl of cereal and ate it. When I was done, I left the bowl and spoon in the sink. This made sense, since all the stuff he had used to cook was already sitting there. A few minutes later, he knocked on my door. “Are you just going to leave your bowl in the sink?” So, I went into the kitchen, made some dishwater, washed my bowl and spoon, and went back to my room. A few minutes later, the knock came again. “Oh, so you’re just going to leave the rest of those dishes in the sink?” This kinda pissed me off, because I hadn’t been the one to use all that stuff, and it shouldn’t be my responsibility to clean up after him. But, because I knew it would be useless to argue, I begrudgingly went back to the kitchen. Afterwards, I left the dishwater in the sink, so he could wash any more dishes he decided to use. As soon as I got comfortable, there was the fucking knock again. What now?!?! “Are you just gonna leave the water in the sink?” I explained the reasoning for my decision. “Boy, you better get back in there and let that water out.” So, I went back to the kitchen, yet again. I let the water out and went back to my room. You know what happened next. “Boy, go rinse out the sink.” Goddammit. Back I went, to rinse the sink. This time he didn’t even let me get back to my room. “Now dry the sink.” That’s when I snapped. “It’s a sink, you dumb motherfucker. It’s meant to hold water.” I got grounded for two weeks and forced to do all the dishes during my sentence. That just made my fire of rebellion burn brighter.
When I was in ninth grade, I had the HUGEST crush on my social studies teacher. His name was John Johnson. He was fresh out of college, and so very cute. I made my affections known the way that so many young boys do: By giving him absolute hell. I made lots of jokes about teachers being poor (oh, the irony). I always had a smart comment to give. I was a most frustrating student to have in class. On the one hand, I was a fast learner, but on the other hand, I did have that rebellious streak.
My crush made me do the unthinkable: Never having played the game before, I joined the soccer team, because he was the coach. It was grueling, but I did get into the best shape of my life. One day, we were doing a partner relay drill, and he was my partner. Sadly, he was falling behind. So, I decided to motivate him. “Come on, John!” I yelled. It definitely worked. He got back in record time. When he did, he just said, “Take off.” I don’t know how long I ran laps that day, but I do know that it was worth it.
In life, we are always learning. There are positive examples, that show you what to do, and negative examples, that show you what not to do. Sad to say, my first Education class was the latter. First of all, the professor was from Guyana. For those who don’t know, Guyana is a very segregated country. There are two races there, Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese. He was Indo-Guyanese. When I asked him how he felt about the segregation, and he didn’t actually condemn it, I knew he would not get along with my black ass.
Also, he told us this story about when he was teaching in Guyana: In the class, whenever a student would get an answer wrong, he would hit them on the back of the head. One day, his supervisor sat in on his class, and saw him do this. He said, “Hey, man, maybe you shouldn’t hit them on the back of the head.” He told this story as a joke, with absolutely no sense of shame. That’s when I knew that I did not want to learn anything this man had to teach.
As with most things in my time at UNCA, I was the only black person in the class. Also, most of the class was made up of non-traditional students who were doing course work for lateral entry. Lateral entry is a process where a person can earn their teaching license while already working in the classroom. Things started to get interesting when he was using Pascal’s Triangle to try to teach us something, but he was using it incorrectly. He claimed that the math only worked up to a certain point, but then I pointed out his mistake. After that, the whole class kinda went off the rails. Everybody whipped out their calculators, and it turns out that I was right. From that point on, nobody cared about his lesson. They were more interested in studying me and the way that my mind worked.
The final exam was actually the final nail in his coffin. He promised us a take-home exam, and he promised that it would not be cumulative. When we got the test, we found out that only one of those things was true. When we brought up the fact that this cumulative test was not what he had promised, he tried to gaslight us. He gave us this sob story about how the secretary spent hours typing it, and we didn’t want to make her do all those hours of work again, did we? That’s when I had to speak up and let him know that secretaries can type at least sixty words a minute, and his test would take about ten minutes of her time. At this point, everyone united behind me, and he realized that he was way outnumbered. Needless to say, we got our non-cumulative take-home final. The Revolt was complete.
When I was first teaching in Raleigh, I also spent a lot of time working in the local theatre scene. I belonged to an improv troupe, and I also auditioned for a lot of shows. At one point, I got cast in a murder mystery dinner show. It was a parody of A Christmas Carol, and I played Cratchitt. The show was cheesy, but fun. It made me happy to be able to play, and there were a lot of opportunities to ad lib, which I love. The owner of the company was impressed with my work, and asked me to direct the next show, which was a parody of Gilligan’s Island. But there was one problem: We never got paid from the first show. So, I took my cast into rehearsal, we rewrote the script, which was awful, and put together the new show. In rehearsal, I explained the pay situation to the cast, and we all agreed that we wouldn’t give them the show until everyone from the last show got paid, and they guaranteed that we would be paid in a timely manner for this show. Since they had already sold tickets, they had no choice but to give us what we wanted. Union accomplished.
When I was in North Carolina, I also got my first agent. It was a new company, run by a husband and wife team. Actually, it was an interesting concept. They were a talent agency/production company, which means that they could create projects specifically for their clients. They also would produce your headshots and all of your PR materials. This made a lot of sense to me. All I had to do was pay them $500. I know, I know. It’s a rookie mistake. (For the sake of those who don’t know, you should NEVER give money to an agent. They make their money from a percentage of your work. No legitimate agent will ever ask you for money.) I shot an industrial video for a construction company with them and was supposed to receive $500 as compensation. Well, time passed, and still no check. Every time I called, they said that the company still hadn’t paid them, and I would get paid when they did. After a couple of months, I called the owner of the construction company, whom I had met the day of the shoot. He informed me that he had paid them the day of the shoot. I lost my shit. I filed a $1,000 lawsuit against them in small claims court. I also reported them to the Better Business Bureau, and best of all, I contacted the media. I got interviewed by the consumer advocate for a local news station. With the lawsuit, they kept requesting continuances. The third time, I was actually in the courtroom when they went to get the continuance. When the case was called, I explained the entire situation to the judge, and she decided in my favor. In addition, she had a police car go to their house that night to deliver the verdict, with full sirens and everything. I never did get my money, but they eventually had to move, so I consider that a victory.
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Rent. I was one of the original Rentheads. On a school trip to New York, I played hooky from the planned activities for the day and sat outside the Nederlander for tickets to see the original Broadway cast. The cast album was a staple in my playlist for decades. That’s why when they announced an open call in 2001, I made it my business to be there. At the time, I was working as a night auditor at a hotel in Durham, North Carolina. I got a colleague to cover part of my shift, hopped in my car, and drove all night to get there. It was 1pm by the time I parked my car, and the audition line was around the block. I took my place in line and waited. About an hour later, someone came out and said that it was possible that they wouldn’t get to see everyone. That’s when the mood got ugly. I think the people in charge sensed this shift in the vibe, and were suddenly frightened by the possibility of a disgruntled mob of musical theatre kids, because shortly thereafter, they came back and said that they would see everyone, but you only got a chorus, a verse, and a bridge, a capella. Well, it was better than nothing. I sang Melissa Etheridge’s Come to My Window. The next morning, I drove back home, and didn’t give it a second thought. A few days later, they called to let me know that they wanted to see me the next day for the role of Collins. Unfortunately, I had to work that night, and I couldn’t afford another road trip so soon. She told me it was ok, and they would keep me in their files.
Over the next fifteen years, they called me in several times. The one that I remember the most, was not my finest hour as a singer. My audition was late, loud, and wrong in every possible sense. After the audition, the casting director followed me into the hall. “We really want you for this,” she said. “You ARE Collins. Go home and really work on the music between now and your next audition, because you are Collins.” I thought I understood what she meant, but I didn’t. I thought it was my whole teddy bear thing. Collins has that too. He’s the heart of that group. But he’s also something else. He’s an activist. He reprogrammed the MIT virtual reality equipment and turned it into an ACT UP protest. He’s an anarchist. Everything he does is about upending the system. He’s freaking Robin Hood. He rewired an ATM to give money to people in need. Now before you get all in your feelings about stealing, keep in mind that in 2017, big banks charged $34 billion in overdraft fees. They literally took this money from people who had no money. Who’s the real crook here? Anyway, even though I never got the part, I do know now that I AM Collins.
When I was in New York, I worked for an events company. My immediate supervisor was a friend. However, I watched the way that she dealt with people, and it didn’t sit right with me. But, because I needed the job, I didn’t say anything. She would never give you your schedule more than a day in advance. If you pissed her off, she would just tell you that you wouldn’t be needed the next day. Also, she worked background for the tv show Gotham. So, there were days when she would be onset, and she would just call from time to time with instructions. It was only after the fact that I realized that HER boss was unaware that she wasn’t at the warehouse every day. One particular day, EVERYBODY pissed her off, and she told everyone but me, not to come in the next day. This was some bullshit, because there was a ton of work that needed to get done. The next day, she was also back on set. That left me to do everything alone. Full disclosure, I had been out the night before, having the Big Fun, and was late to work, with a massive hangover in tow. She called to let me know that among other things, the tent company was coming, and that I needed to give them seven tents. Sometime around noon, the guy showed up for the tents. There were eight. I gave him seven and kept one. I went about my work, finished up around six, and called it a day. The next morning, she calls me screaming about how I forgot one of the tents, and she had to pay to have it sent back. She told me that my services were no longer needed.
I did my final time sheet and sent it in. Pay day came, but my money didn’t. I contacted her. She said she didn’t get the timesheet. So, I sent her a second one. Soon after, I had drinks with a mutual friend that she had also fired. She told me that after months, she still hadn’t been paid. The next pay day came, and once again, no money. I contacted her again, and this time she said that there had been technical problems with payroll processing. That’s when I contacted HER boss. I wrote a very professionally worded email, inquiring about the payroll problems and asking when I would be paid. As an extra measure, I attached my time sheet. She replied that there were no problems, and that I could expect my money by the next pay cycle. The day after, I got an angry text, asking how I could go over her head like that. At that point, she had known me for over a year. She knew of my low threshold for other people’s bullshit. What exactly did she expect me to do? And for extra measure, I passed my tactic on to my other friend. She too got her money.
Looking back on all these memories, I realize that I have always been a fighter. I have always taken on the big guy, so why should I question it now? Instead, I choose to embrace my role as Firestarter. I will continue to speak truth to power, fight against those who look to take advantage, and fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. I will slay the Big Monsters. I will snatch souls, read bitches to filth, throw Mazel Tov cocktails and shade in the name of The Revolution. I will keep fighting that fight until the next generation of Firestarters comes to take my place. Lookout, world. The Revolution is coming.