TOM: The other part of it—what I also bring to this conversation, and the conversation I have with men in general—is, I made very, very profound mistakes in my life. I had to look in the mirror and try and figure out a way to redeem myself. And so, when I go into prisons, or when I go talk to boys at boys’ schools, I say we all make mistakes, profound mistakes. And, as my grandmother told me at the time when I had my fall from grace, she said, it’s not how you fall, it’s how you pick yourself up. The fact that all those men are locked up, and that we as a country aren’t giving them any chance to redeem themselves, we’re just writing them off because they’re bad people, because they’re black, that’s the part that gets me the most—and supposedly we’re all such born-again Christians about it; that just drives me insane. I just don’t view the world that way. I don’t believe in the death penalty. I don’t believe in any soul being worthless.
DAVID: One of the most important performances we did for the show was with the Theater Development Fund. They bought out two performances, two matinees, for high-school students in New York. Every seat was filled with a high-school kid from New York, and most of them were black. Most had never seen a show before, or if they had, not one on this level. We weren’t sure exactly how the audience was going to react. We’d done student matinees in the past—they can be kind of a field-trip day for kids, and can go south pretty quickly. But those kids were sitting forward. All of their phones were off. There was no texting, no phones, no nothing. And they were sitting so far forward, they weren’t moving—it was incredible, like they were hardwired to the story. They were laughing, they were screaming, they were gasping, they were laughing louder than I’d ever heard anybody laugh. And they were more live than I’ve ever heard an audience, especially toward the end.
There was something that just resonated with those kids, seeing primarily African-Americans onstage, telling the story of injustice. They got it, at the deepest levels—afterward there was talk back, and the person who organized the event got onstage, and kids called out questions. And the questions really reflected an ability to look at a very complicated idea and process it. One kid asked, “If you were in a situation where you had the ability to be paroled if you just lied, would you do it?” Somebody else asked, “What was it like to put on blackface for the first time? And what’s it feel like to take it off?” Another kid asked, “Now that you’ve been in the show, what is your opinion about the death penalty?”
This was very sophisticated for a group of kids everyone thought was probably going to be doing nothing but texting. These kids were so on it, it was breathtaking. That notion of being able to have a very complicated, intelligent conversation with the younger generation of students was so rewarding, while meanwhile, the next day, a group of people were out in front of the theater protesting—really celebrating their own ignorance.
And I have to say, it made me feel a lot of hope, that a lot of these issues—who we are, how we view ourselves in this society, some of the bigger issues that we’ve got to deal with, whether it’s blacks in prison or the marginalization of different groups—we’re so on it. You felt confident that a conversation could continue in another generation, with another generation, and it was exciting. It was very exciting.
TOM: I’ve done probably 50 events across the country where we show a little of the stories of men in our DVD, or share my story, or one our contributors comes along. People always ask me which audiences “get it.” And my response is, there are three audiences that get it right away. One is women, who definitely want to talk about what it means to be a good man. Second, prisoners, who have nowhere to go and have a lot of time to think about what they’ve done wrong. And the third is boys. I think our boys are being assaulted with this stuff, and no one is really talking—no one’s talking about race, no one’s talking about divorce, no one’s talking about war, no one’s talking about pornography. And these boys are trying to figure it out. They want to be good. They want to have an impact on the world. And in a way, they’re much more open to that conversation—just as you’re explaining about the show and race—than the adults are.
I went to Belmont Hill School here in Boston with Andre Tippett. He’s a football player and one of the guys who wrote for our book. And there were 400 boys, ages 12 to 16, packed into this chapel. And I’m telling my story of flipping a car, being an alcoholic, all this kind of crazy stuff. And Andre’s talking about growing up in Newark with no father, and learning karate to protect himself. And you could have literally heard a pin drop. Every one of those boys was engaged. The questions they asked were just as you mentioned. Little kid in the way back, African-American kid, raised his hand and said, “So what you’re saying is that if I make a mistake, I can still grow up and be a good man?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s it.”
TOM: The headmaster afterward said he hadn’t seen those boys so attentive since they had an instructor come in and lecture them on oral sex. (Laughter)
TOM: It’s like, well, if I can rank with oral sex, I’m pretty good. (Laughter)
DAVID: See, there you go, though. It doesn’t matter if people disagree or agree, but it’s just that you have the dialogue. It’s actually the only place where we can ever move forward.
I don’t know when things start to seize up in our lives. When we stop trying to think about the truth. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been living on people like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. But there’s a part where, if we have that dialogue, we can continue to move forward.
That’s what I’ve been most proud of with this piece. I’ll be sad when it closes, but I don’t think that the conversation we started will end. I think the piece will continue to have relevance.
TOM: Our focus is what it means to be a good man, and in every audience I go to, some guy raises his hand and says, Give me the answer. And I say I have a definition for me, in terms of my life, that’s been kind of hard-earned—but the point is, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. I’m not God. I can’t tell you the right answer. We have to have a conversation about it. In fact, we tell these stories because we find these men—whether they’ve been in Sing Sing, covering the war in Afghanistan, or growing up fatherless in Newark—to be inspiring and heroic, and they have defined goodness in their own unique way.
DAVID: Yeah. And it isn’t black and white. The great thing about the human mind is, we have the ability to take many conflicting thoughts in the forefront of our mind at the same time. And we have to be encouraged to continue to do that, so that we don’t have to make everything so simple.
But, yes, the work that you’re doing is unbelievable and important, and so much of that, driven from that same sort of need to tell a story or to involve people in the conversation that inspired John and Fred and Stro and me to get this piece off the ground.
TOM: Well, congratulations on an amazing piece of work, and an amazing conversation. I really appreciate and admire you for it.
DAVID: Thank you, thank you so much.
—Photo via Musicalcyberspace.wordpress.com