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Ted Lange's Lady Patriot plays at the University ofRichmond’s Camp Concert Hall from May 23 to 25.
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The Lady Patriot cast includes (left to right, rear) Robert Pine (Mr. Slydell),Connie Ventress (Elizabeth Van Lew), Ann Johnstonbrown (Varina Davis), GordonGoodman (Jefferson Davis), Chrystee Pharris (Mary Bowser), Lou Beatty Jr. (OldRobert), Paul Messinger (Judah P. Benjamin), Windell Carmichael (wardrobe),Mary Lange (producer), Ted Lange (producer/writer/director).
For a solid decade and every single episode of the ABC series The Love Boat , including the made-for-TV movies, Ted Lange portrayed Isaac Washington, the bartender afloat on the Pacific Princess. In one of the episodes he directed, Lange became acquainted with Lynn Redgrave, one of the show's celebrity guest stars. "And we were quoting Shakespeare to each other and she says, ‘Ted, why don't you go to the Royal Academy [of Dramatic Arts] in London?'"
Lange chuckles over the memory in a recent interview. He replied, "‘I'm already a television star ― why do I need go off and learn Shakespeare?' And Lynn Redgrave says to me, ‘What kind of actor are you if you don't want to learn more about your craft?' And, well, she told me."
He figured out a way to take courses around the show's shooting schedule, but the school required a letter of recommendation. Lange got one from Redgrave, a member of one of England's venerated acting families. The ensuing workshops and classes became one of the high points of his professional life. He bankrolled a film version of Othello a few years before Laurence Fishburne's. "Before me, no African-American actor had taken it on. By all rights, James Earl Jones should've done it, but it was my money, so I did it."
When we caught up to him by phone, he was about to go on a radio program to promote his latest directorial effort, Classic Couples Counseling . The Lloyd J. Schwartz play ran through April 27 at The Secret Rose In North Hollywood. The show involves characters such as Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia and Hamlet, Desdemona and Othello, all seeing a therapist to celebrities. "The challenge here was to cast actors who can do Shakespeare ― who are also very funny," Lange says.
He parlayed The Love Boat into directing television shows from Moesha to Dharma and Greg , The First Family and Mr. Box Office . All along, he's kept busy writing and performing on stage. His Lady Patriot , playing at the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall from May 23 to 25, concludes a trilogy of plays pertaining to niches of United States history.
His George Washington's Boy concerns William Lee, the slave-valet who served with Washington through the American Revolution and two terms as president. Lange learned about Lee through historian Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington . "And I thought: This is a story that needs telling. But I was a little too old for the part, so I wrote it."
The nearly three-hour play puts into context a possible Washington tryst with his sister-in-law's slave Venus Ford, resulting in a son, West. New York's Playwrights Horizons turned it down, he says, despite "a great character and great dialogue" because of its "historical" nature, though it's been performed in California. "But there's a big play on Broadway about Lyndon Johnson right now," he says in a verbal shrug. Lange also wrote The Journals of Osborne P. Anderson . Anderson was an educated free black who joined the insurrection of John Brown at Harper's Ferry and the only African American in Brown's group who lived to tell his side of the story. "It's a big cast," he says. "It's never actually been produced." But more than 20 of his other plays have been put on the boards, including a comedy with a historical twist, Let Freedom Ring , described as "a historical dramedy about the Liberty Bell, the play is based on a true story…almost." Taken together, Lange's history plays tell a complicated story about a knotty thread woven into our culture, but he's quick to point out that these historical characters are people, flawed and contradictory. In Lady Patriot , some of those portrayed are held against their will in physical bondage, while others are mentally held hostage to their own status quo. "There is inherent drama and in the way I write, there is also comedy. People are surprised to see Varina Davis, Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew portrayed on stage as human beings, not-cut outs. Out of this comes organic laughs through the storytelling process, and my hope is that people get educated and entertained along the way." Lady Patriot started in 2011 as an attempt to partner with his friend Jack Kaplan, who'd written scripts for shows as disparate as Tony Orlando & Dawn and Hill Street Blue s. Kaplan introduced Lange to the 2005 Elizabeth Varon biography of Van Lew, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy . The relationship between Van Lew and Mary Bowser ultimately intrigued Lange, as did the figure of Confederate cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin. Kaplan lived near the town from which Benjamin left the country after the Civil War to begin a new life in England as a barrister. "Jack's Jewish, I'm black, and I thought I'd write the Mary Bowser stuff, and he'd write the Judah Benjamin stuff." Lange urged Kaplan not to outline, but to write scenes of Benjamin using the material that moved him the most. Those sections would be fit into a finished play. Lange wrote three Bowser scenes, but Kaplan didn't follow up with Benjamin. "He said, ‘I can't write like that.' So it was kind of a tutorial that went awry," Lange says. He then took up studying Benjamin. He read other biographies and visited Richmond. "I stayed at The Jefferson Hotel. I took the tour of the Confederate White House. The guide who took us through was absolutely wonderful. It was good for me to be in that place, and walk those same halls." While in Richmond, he visited with friends and fellow actor-directors Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid. The first performance of Lady Patriot was held on Sept. 7, 2012, at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles, and it was staged again at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., on July 29, 2013. "It was the only play in a black theater festival with only two black people in it," Lange says, but that didn't prevent a prolonged standing ovation. He refers to the show's performers as "The Informal Ted Lange Repertory"―actors with whom he's worked over the course of several projects. "It's gotten to that wonderful place where we can speak in short hand about direction," Lange explains. These are working actors with long lists of credits whom you may have seen in film or on the TV shows Glee , Castle , Scrubs and Grey's Anatomy , or heard their voices in audio books or seen them in another play. They are Anne Johnstonbrown, as Confederate first lady Varina Davis; Connie Ventress, as Elizabeth Van Lew who, through Lange's writing, has different faces depending on what she needs to do to get information and not reveal her motivations ― that of crazy person, seductress or patriot; Chrystee Pharris as Mary Bowser , a free black woman who partners with Van Lew to smuggle information out of the Confederate White House; veteran actor Gordon Goodman as Jefferson Davis, who is by turns kind and cruel to his servant Old Robert, portrayed by Lou Beatty Jr. (see our related interview with him); and Paul Messinger as Benjamin. In addition, Mr. Slydell, a journalist, is a Van Lew contact played by Capt. Kirk's dad ― that is, Robert Pine, father of Chris Pine, who plays Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise. "When Chris was a kid, he used to come see his dad in my plays," Lange says. "This is a great ensemble cast." Lange's next personal project is a comedic take on contemporary relationships set in a Starbucks. Lange says, "The theater tradition has all kinds of plays set in bars, like Time Of Your Life . To me, the new bar is the coffee house." MORE: