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Lou Beatty Jr.
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Beatty hopes Lady Patriot will raise funds to match a $200,000 grant from theRichmond-based Mary Morton Parsons Foundation.
Lou Beatty Jr.'s portrayal of Jefferson Davis' servant Old Robert in Ted Lange's Lady Patriot , at the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall from May 23 to 25, isn't just a role. It's a mission.
Beatty, a Detroit native and career actor, graduated from the St. Emma Military Academy in Powhatan County. The lessons he learned at the place he believes was the nation's only military school exclusively for African Americans are ingrained. He humorously says that 51 years since his graduation, the term "As you were," has never left him. "If I was a spy and in clandestine service, and someone said, ‘As you were,' I'd be found out."
Sister Maureen Carroll and others connected to the schools kept loosely in touch with Beatty. She and representatives of the nonprofit preservation group FrancisEmma Inc. attended a performance in 2012 at the D.C. Black Theatre Festival of a one-man show by Norfolk writer E.L. James, Nobody Walks Like My Daddy . They took Beatty to lunch and explained the endangered condition of the remaining buildings and the commitment to saving them. The tenacity of the sisters impressed him. He visited St. Emma, part of which operated in the pre-Civil War Belmead mansion, and St. Frances de Sales, the school for girls that operated at nearby Rock Castle. The dilapidated conditions shocked him.
"I cried for half an hour," Beatty says. "The only place standing where we went to school is the old mansion," Belmead. "Seeing the place like that was hard on me."
These schools were two of the 60 institutions founded by the canonized Katharine Drexel for the education of Native and African Americans. "When I learned that this property was on the verge of being lost and separated from the effort of St. Katharine Drexel, who started the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, it was obvious to me that I had to do whatever I could to help."
A fundraising production of Ted Lange's Lady Patriot then appeared not only obvious, but also vital. Beatty wants this brief run of the show to raise funds to match a $200,000 grant from the Richmond-based Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, due in June.
The cast is made up of an informal repertory group of performers whom Lange often calls upon. This is a play about a little-known aspect of Virginia history ― that of the spy team of the wealthy Richmond widow Elizabeth Van Lew and a freed black servant Mary Bowser. "These women, and those who assisted their work, helped free us from bondage," Beatty says. "And it happened right there in the Confederate White House, in Richmond. I know it needed to be done there and the nuns needed this."
This journey for Beatty began in the North End of Detroit, where he attended a small Catholic school. His eighth-grade graduating class numbered an apostolic dozen. He remembers his neighborhood as "the most magical musical place in the world." Neighbors became part of the cultural lexicon. The Beattys lived four doors away from Diana Ross. He sang in the church choir with one of the Vandellas. The girl who lived behind him grew up to perform with Bon Jovi at President Barack Obama's first inaugural. "Everybody was in the North End," he says. "Everybody."
Beatty's father was a tradesman. "My family built Aretha Franklin's church," he says. As a general contractor, the senior Beatty united the artisans to rehabilitate St. George Church in an old Lithuanian parish. "That church was gorgeous. Such a wonderful feeling to sing in that choir," he says. The community then was safe enough for the adventurous youngster to ride his bicycle almost everywhere, although he got into scrapes.
"The public school kids wanted to beat me up," Beatty remembers. "I used to run ― I was very fast ― and I never got caught." Once, one of the three boys in his class, named Carl, came to school bruised from a thrashing meted to him by some of the pursuers. "They caught me," Carl explained. "But that's not the worst of it. They thought I was Lou."
Beatty laughs about the incident now, but it was another assault, this time against his older sister, that caused the nuns to tell his parents that he should be sent away to further his education.
If young Beatty was to attend a distant school, the question became where he should go. His mother was a friend of record producer Berry Gordy's sister, Esther Edwards, and her son, Robert Bullock, attended St. Emma. St. Emma and St. Francis served black children from throughout North America. Beatty recalls, "Famous musicians' kids went to St. Emma, [and children of] diplomats from around the world, educators from all over. We had students from Panama, Puerto Rico. These schools were really internationally known." From St. Emma, Beatty embarked on a journeyman actor's career of more than 30 years on stage, television programs and commercials. He's had small parts in big movies, like Fight Club . "I was edited down to one line," he says. "I guess I haven't hit it big, but I work. I paid for kids to go to college, and all that. I don't have the name recognition, but I've had some fun along the way." He's performed opposite some of our best-known pop-culture figures, including William Shatner and Betty White. The Shatner connection comes from Beatty's repeated appearances as Judge Gordon Kolodny on Boston Legal . Of Shatner, Beatty says, "That man is absolutely alive. Once, during this tense courtroom scene, somebody's cell phone goes off. And the director is incensed. He wants to know who did it. And this well-known actress meekly raises her hand. And Shatner pipes up, ‘Don't tell him that! Blame it on an extra. Do you tell him when you fart?'" Beatty is one of Betty White's band of merry, though elderly, pranksters on NBC's Off Their Rockers . It's a kind of Candid Camera real-world stuntmaking for the Geratol generation. "Betty White is one of God's gifts to the world," he says. "She's one of the treasures in this or any other business; at 90-plus years old ― she comes, she has an attendant, a driver, she has what she needs ― but nobody can perform with help. She's on her mark, consistent, and I don't know 19-year-olds that can do that, let alone 90. She might blow a line or two, but who doesn't? I keep a picture of her in the green room wherever I go. She's an inspiration." Of his role as "Old Robert," a house servant for Jefferson Davis, Beatty says he has no difficulty in the portrayal. Theirs is a complicated "loving and loathing" relationship. Robert worked for Davis' father, watched him grow up, "And they have a darn near familial connection," Beatty says. Lady Patriot shows the vernacular and attitude of the time in which it is set, as well as the humanity of those who are caught in the events. "These people aren't totally the devil," he says of the Jefferson Davis aristocracy. "It's their of sense of status. One group lifts itself up by stepping on the other group. You know this gets comfortable if you're not the one getting stepped on." The fire breathing Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin, toward the war's end, complained about his slaves running away, including one whose leg was malformed. Ruffin sniffed in a letter that he never expected the man to work ― why would he want to leave? Beatty laughs big and loud. "That's exactly what we're talking about here," he says. Beatty also knows of another Richmond legacy, that of dramatic actor Charles Sidney Gilpin. His name was bestowed upon Richmond's first housing project for African Americans. Gilpin enjoyed rare success for a black actor of his day when he chosen by playwright Eugene O'Neill for the titular role of The Emperor Jones . The play was criticized in the white press for proving that blacks couldn't resist the laws of the jungle, while black writers said that the play needlessly demonstrated the worst characteristics of both races. Gilpin played the Emperor Jones hundreds of times, and the script required him to use racial epithets that remain controversial. He and O'Neill almost came to blows over Gilpin's onstage alterations. Before the show went to England, O'Neill dropped the tempestuous Gilpin for a young law student named Paul Robeson. Beatty has portrayed that activist entertainer in Philip Hayes Dean's play, Paul Robeson . "In the show, Robeson talks about Gilpin coming to see him in The Emperor Jones and how he's a shell of a man. He never recovered from losing the part. My point is: When people have extreme talent, like Gilpin, and they don't get to use it, this is devastating. I've learned this ― lesser talented people, with drive, can go further than those with extreme talent who aren't able to make things work for them. I have seen it happen many times." Of Lady Patriot , he says, "We want everyone to come for the entertainment and leave with the history. This isn't a stodgy costume piece. Even the husband dragged along by his wife will find something for him in this show." MORE: