- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2021

ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) - Anderson-based actor and director Clark E. Nesbitt says it’s vital for theaters to be inclusive.

“It’s important, seeing people at the front door when you go to the theater who look like you,” said Nesbitt, who is Black.

Nesbitt, 67, recently agreed to serve on two theater boards: one for the South Carolina Theatre Association and one for Spartanburg’s Proud Mary Theatre Co.

Nesbitt said he feels “a sense of responsibility” to the theater community as a person of color in a space that is still predominantly lacking diversity.

“I came up during a time when even seeing Blacks on TV was rare,” Nesbitt said. “The Supremes on the Ed Sullivan show was not something usual. That had a profound effect on my life, without me knowing it. … As I grew older, I saw the damage that stereotyping did with Blacks in certain portrayals and broken English.”

African Americans need to part of performing arts productions, Nesbitt said.

“Often in Black communities, opportunities are not there, to go to a theater school to learn directing and lighting and acting. A lot of opportunities are based on formal training and theater education. Sometimes, we don’t even know we’ve done certain things because we don’t know the technical terms for them.”

Nesbitt said while growing up in Greer, he was fortunate to have people in his life early on who fostered his love of theater.

The first live dramatic piece Nesbitt witnessed was in a Black Baptist church during childhood - James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” - part of Johnson’s iconic “God’s Trombones” subtitled “Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.”

“The Creation” is told from a preacher’s point of view and details creation of the world and man.

“Later on, my seventh-grade teacher stepped on top of her desk and recited it as an introduction to our class in the days before integration of schools,” Nesbitt said, noting the work pays homage to the rise and fall of vocal tone and pitch of sermons in the Black church.

His sophomore year at Greer High School, during the first year of non-mandatory integration at Greer High, Nesbitt approached a member of his childhood church about helping him learn “The Creation” to perform in the school talent show.

“Mrs. Edith Mack Sullivan wrote it for me by hand, because it wasn’t in the library,” Nesbitt recalled.

Nesbitt placed second in the Greer High talent show with that piece and was also cast in the school play that year.

“The school had some 1,100 students at the time, 50 of whom were Black,” Nesbitt said. “There were only two Blacks in the drama club and I was cast in a nontraditional role. I played the principal in ‘Up the Down Staircase.’”

Midway through studies as an English major at Benedict College in Columbia, Nesbitt said one of the first productions he was involved with was “God’s Trombones.”

“Since then, I have performed almost every sermon in that piece and I was invited to Delaware some years ago, to take part in a performance, in celebration of a church’s 150th anniversary,” Nesbitt said. “The work is embedded in Black culture.”

A speech instructor at Benedict, who had a degree in theater, recognized Nesbitt’s acting passion. The school did not have a theater program. That teacher approached a dean at the college about Nesbitt studying theater independently with her, for credit hours.

“My tests I took at her desks,” Nesbitt said. “English was the closest thing we had to theater, so that’s why I majored in it. … My mother was my biggest fan as an actor and my father never missed a performance after he first saw me on stage.”

In addition to Johnson’s works, Nesbitt is also noted for one-man shows based on Langston Hughes’ works.

Nesbitt’s first job out of college was as an audiovisual specialist for Pickens County Library System. From there, Nesbitt went to work with Greenville’s Phillis Wheatley Community Association.

After college, Nesbitt auditioned for a Greenville Little Theatre production of “My Fair Lady” in the mid-1970s.

“I wanted to be one of the dancing cockneys,” Nesbitt said. “I was not chosen. … I decided to go to every dance rehearsal and sit and watch. Then, I went home and practiced.”

Practice paid off when someone had to drop out of the show before opening, Nesbitt said.

“I was ready and was asked about performing cartwheels, in addition to dance numbers,” Nesbitt said. “I later did sound effects for another production, ‘On Golden Pond.’”

From there, Nesbitt became involved with theatrical productions with another church, Evangelistic Temple.

But, his theater work grew to focus on a repertory theater program with the Phillis Wheatley Association in Greenville, a community organization dating to 1919.

“It meant something to be a role model for Black kids,” Nesbitt said. “I was over children’s and senior’s programs at Phillis Wheatley and I helped start the repertory theater, where Dwight Woods and I worked for years.”

For three decades, the PWA Dwight Woods Repertory Theatre has trained youths in dance, song and stage acting.

In 2007, Nesbitt saw a casting call seeking a Black actor for a lead role in a new play at Greenville’s Centre Stage theater.

“I auditioned and got the role,” Nesbitt said, noting he had not, for a period of about 12 years prior, participated in predominantly “white” theater.

“I had become so desensitized to what was available to me as a Black person that I no longer sought the traditional or mainstream,” Nesbitt said.

He was also listed with the Millie Lewis Agency at age 27.

On Centre Stage’s schedule for the next season was “Driving Miss Daisy.” An artistic director asked Nesbitt to consider the role of Black chauffeur, Hoke.

Nesbitt said he had misgivings initially, but he has now performed in that role multiple times, at Centre Stage and Greenwood Community Theatre. He also directed Greenwood Community Theatre’s production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“In the (‘Driving Miss Daisy’) script, it said Hoke had about a fifth-grade education and that he was a chauffeur and a farmer,” Nesbitt said. “My father had a fifth-grade education and was also a janitor. My father provided for his children very well.”

Nesbitt said he thought about how to play the role of Hoke, and honor his father.

That role, Nesbitt said, is not one for non-traditional casting.

“You have to be careful not to change the narrative. … You have to look at whether the play calls for a white person in a role or a Black person. I take issue with a white person playing Martin Luther King. … You have to be conscious. You have to be careful. You have to be sensitive and you have to keep biases in check.”

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