Laurie Carlos: It Began With This Picture by Daniel Alexander Jones

Photo courtesy of Daniel Alexander Jones
It began with this picture. I walked into Rice Hall in the Main Branch of the Springfield Public Library, in the spring of 1985, charged with finding a monologue to perform in drama class in my public high school. Not a year before, I was a hopeless introvert, with not one friend in the school. I lived my life at that time entirely internally, with just a few words exchanged with my compassionate art teachers and full of a brooding, bursting world of desire and joy and rage and fear. Through a series of experiences, the Universe reached deep into that internal world and pulled it inside out. One was when Patricia Keenan, the drama teacher, whom I had for study hall, saw the “star” on my forehead and told me to come audition for the drama club – even though I had not uttered a word to her all year. I dared myself to do it and overnight found a mode of expression that changed the course of my life. But that course was consecrated when I climbed up to the small section on drama and my fingers went instantly to a slim volume. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. 30 minutes later, shaking, sweaty and heart pounding in my chest, I had read the whole play and started thumbing back through the book to find that picture. This picture. Of this lady. The Lady in Blue. She had the monologue I liked best. No More Sorrys. I had been experiencing my first teenage heartache and every word, each rhythmic phrase made total sense to me (funny, perhaps, in retrospect, but true). I learned the monologue then and there and would perform it days later to a stunned crowd of drama students. The thing I did that I didn’t share with them was that I committed a cardinal library sin (especially in fastidious New England); I ripped out the picture of the lady. I brought it home and tacked it to my wall. I’d looked in the cast list.
Her name was Laurie Carlos.
In the fall of 1992, during my second year of grad school at Brown, Aishah Rahman was doing a workshop and asked me to come read scenes from Mojo and the Sayso. Her friend was coming up from NYC to do the workshop and was going to direct. Her train was delayed so we started “acting” and I was “acting” up a storm when her friend walked in. “OH!” she said to Aishah. “It’s AWFUL! Why do they teach them to do that? It’s so AWFUL.” All this, as I was “acting”. She stopped me and following a rapid fire series of questions, direct manipulations of my body and my breath, realigned me and stripped me of the affect I’d acquired. At the end of that time, chastened, humbled, and transfixed, I knew that I wanted to seize every opportunity I could to work with this artist again. Before we all went our separate ways, she looked me in my eyes, with a glimmer and some tinkling magic in her aura and said, “Ah, I know you. I. Know. You.” Weeks later it struck me like a ton of bricks. Aishah’s friend was Laurie. Laurie Carlos. {THE LAURIE CARLOS} That picture. It was utterly true, that I had found her all those years ago, and we had found each other in Providence.
In the summer of 1993, after a bruising Summer in Washington, D.C., I stepped out of the van that I’d been riding in with co-workers to attend the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. I’d finished Grad School and was utterly uncertain of what was next. I stepped out of the van onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel, looked up and to my shock there was Laurie Carlos, wearing one of her white flax outfits with silver rings. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “We’ve been waiting for you.” She took my hand, put it in a striking woman’s hand, “This is Greta (Gundersen)” and they spirited me away from my co-workers. We walked into the lobby, she introduced me to Ntozake Shange. Hours later we were at the center off site from the main performance spaces, the center where all the avant-garde work was happening. She sat me down next to a woman and a man. “Daniel, this is Robbie (McCauley) {THE ROBBIE MCCAULEY?} and this is Lou (Bellamy)”. We watched magic unfold as Sekou Sundiata and Craig Harris and Stephanie Alston performed The Circle Unbroken Is A Hard Bop. Over the next days and nights I would see Rhodessa Jones, Keith Antar Mason, Judith Alexa Jackson, Ntozake Shange… in the audience were luminaries like Rosalind Cash and Esther Rolle, and I met folks like Carl Hancock Rux and years later realized that I was there with folks I’d get to know like Joni Jones and Valerie Curtis-Newton… But the pinnacle was seeing Robbie McCauley and Laurie Carlos perform Persimmon Peel!!!!! That, that right there, was true north for me. I felt each cell of my body align with possibility. When it was time to leave, Laurie said, “See you soon. You’re an angel”.
At the end of that year, I was at the end of whatever little money I had saved up, no job prospects. I went to Providence to visit my grad school buddy, Shay Youngblood. She was just about to have her play, Talking Bones produced at Penumbra Theatre Company and was thrilled. Robbie McCauley was to direct. Laurie Carlos was going to star in it. The choreographer Marlies Yearby was involved along with a stellar group of designers. Wow, wow, wow! I remember saying. You know, let’s be bold, Shay said. Maybe you can assist Robbie?! Get coffee, take notes, whatever. Down for whatever, I was wholly game. She picked up the phone and called Robbie in NYC. “Robbie, I’m wondering if you might be looking for an assistant director, my friend Daniel… yeah, that Daniel… you what? You’ve been looking for him?” Laurie and Robbie had decided that I should play the young homeless poet, Oz, in Shay’s play, and had decided that in their minds after the Theatre Festival. They didn’t have contact info for me, so I had called right on time. Six weeks later I was winging my way to Minneapolis/St. Paul in the heart of Winter, to start rehearsal on my first Equity production. My first full-on gig, I was directed by Robbie and acted with Laurie Carlos, Kathryn Gagnon, Lou Bellamy and Amy Waddell every night. The first scene was just me and Laurie. A master class in E-VER-Y-THING! As I stood onstage I got chills every night thinking about that picture. And recognizing the FACT that there is so very much more at work in the Universe than what we can, or should, explain.
Over the next decade, I had the experience of learning from Laurie like an old-school apprentice. She saw me, true. She kicked my ass. She reminded me not to give a FUCK what others thought of me. She reminded me that the mirrors we make for ourselves must guide us, not those presented by the outside world. She entrusted me with many tools and secrets. Like she did for so many, she introduced me to Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry and gave me maps to other dimensions. She gathered so many together. I met the legendary folks who made up her art-family (Jessica Hagedorn, Nicky Paraiso, Grisha Coleman, Cynthia Oliver, Jake-Ann Jones, Seitu Jones and Soyini Guyton, Mike Wangen… the list goes on…) We were many things to one another; and we went on many journeys. I loved Laurie, was in awe of her talent, her surety, her metaphysical magic, her pure artistry, her stories, her ferocity, her warrior-commitment to young artists, to justice, to telling the stories of FREE people. She had no patience for self-obsession, self-pity, or wallowing. She demanded action. The list of artists she shepherded into the world is staggering in its breadth and depth. I brought her down to Austin, my other theatre homeland, to perform, and she ended up creating a whole new universe there. The work she did with Sharon Bridgforth ranks among the most luminous theatre imaginable. I often think about the stories of jazz musicians who apprenticed in a great bandleader’s band. At one point, we came to an unavoidable crossroads and we chose to go our separate ways. That’s the truth. What I’m clear about is that Laurie was a FREE person. And she wanted me, wanted all of the artists she mentored, to be FREE people. And freedom is not easy.
That, I believe, is what drew me to that photo of her in the book. Her posture, her power, her agency. I will write this again, better. I will remember more details. I write it to say thank you, again, so long after I had to say my personal farewell. But today, I needed to offer a little piece of the larger fabric of testimony that arises as this great artist leaves the plane. I would never have had a sustainable practice as an artist without Laurie Carlos. I hold the sound of her laughter as a perfect waveform in my head. She was never afraid to do the deep work. Now is the time for deep work.
This fall, Robbie came to see the show I did at Soho Rep. “I felt Laurie up there with you” she said to me. “Me too” I responded. We carry the archives in us, across time. Pass it on. I thought of the young artists I am mentoring. Humbled by the work at hand.
There are extraordinary people who shepherded Laurie through these days. I honor them, as we all should. It is a testament to them and to her, the love that they, together, shared. I think of her family/families. This online space is a way for those of us who knew her to connect. It is not a substitute for other forms of connection, nor is it a space devoid of contradictions. But Laurie was, like no-one I’d met before, comfortable with contradiction.
My memories of Laurie are all of her in motion. She charged the air around her. When she left a room, there was a wake, a tremble, like the sky, milliseconds after a flock of birds have flown across it.
She was the Angel.


Image Left: Lisa D’Amour, Laurie Carlos, and Shay Youngblood in Austin. Image Right: Robbie McCauley, Daniel Dodd Ellis, Daniel Alexander Jones, Jason Phelps, and Laurie Carlos, in Minneapolis, 1997. Photos courtesy of Daniel Alexander Jones.

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