Barry Scott died yesterday. He was—among so many other things—an actor. So am I. And I’ve been called worse things.
You see, when you’re an actor, you’re in a unique conundrum. You are, by training and by experience, a Weaver of Dreams. Many lawyers, doctors, policemen, and random heroes grew up desiring their professions because of actors who portrayed characters so real, it sparked kids to dream dreams and to pursue them. As such, we are celebrated when we inspire and entertain the masses. Our skills of memorization, insight, articulation, voice projection, and structuring narratives are invaluable assets. Let us dare to bring our skills into politics, activism, business ownership, spirituality, and cutting edge thinking, however, and our craft suddenly becomes pejorative.
I’ve been in more than my fair share of debates around a social justice, community, economic or political issue, and when people on the opposite side find their arguments falling apart, they reach for a card they believe (in their minds) to be an insult:
“Well, you know he’s an actor…”
This is the equivalent of “Shut up and dribble,” an attempt to minimize a free-thinking human being who doesn’t gratefully go along with what mainstream society dictates. Thankfully, those of us who have had the blessing of being trained in the craft of acting know it to be what Sanford Meisner brilliantly defined it as:
“Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
The primary mastery of digging deep to find the truth in a character translates well into the world beyond the stage and screen. If you can find truth in the real world and apply that same truth to any circumstance, that is the very essence of authenticity. Actors are people who are obsessed with finding the truth, whether they are wearing the garment of a character, living their own lives and philosophies, or championing a cause.
William Barry Scott was The Truth.
As a little boy growing up in pre-gentrified South Nashville’s Kayne Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, I was a part of a special generation of post-civil rights era kids. We were the “next wave” of integration, following Barry’s generation into the belly of the beast, where we were were subjected to a minority status from a system bent on locking us into a permanent underclass in Nashville. Fortunately, we had a visionary church led by Dr. Albert G. Jones, and a space of creativity formed by The Princely Player’s Robert Smith, a Tennessee State University theatre graduate and lawyer. Smith started the “In God’s Name Players,” to empower young people through acting and the arts. Barry Scott, a church member whose father was a Deacon and mother was a member of the Mother’s board, was transitioning from high school to college at Tennessee State at the time.
Even then, Barry Scott was one of our heroes. He would take a break from this training at TSU, under the legendary professors W. Dury Cox, H. Deveraux Brady and more, and come down to 12th Avenue South to play Jesus in our annual passion play. We couldn’t believe the number of lines he held in his memory with just a few days of practice. I still recall the pride in being cast in my first cameo role opposite Barry, as Pontius Pilate. I had two major lines, “Art thou King of the Jews?” and “I wash my hands of this. I am innocent of the blood of this just person. See ye to it!” In response to my 9-year old soprano commands, Barry-as-Jesus (or was it Jesus-as-Barry?) would be hauled off to the cross.
Years of this cycle continued, with him whispering inspiration to us youngsters at rehearsals, always standing with his back straight, chin up, and what would soon become his trademark focused glare. We wanted the power, presence, and voice this man projected; This man who looked like us. This man who was one of us.
The church took van loads to his plays at TSU, then later to the Looby Center for his fledgling Black Tie Theatre Company, and MLK Day wasn’t MLK Day without a stirring, eerily spot-on rendition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Barry Scott; a treat soon the entire city and nation would come to enjoy.
When I entered college at Tennessee State, I saw pictures of Barry on my professors’ walls. They were proud of him, and every now and then, he would break from his local work in theatre, film, and television, and grace us with an appearance in the crowd at one of our shows. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, TSU was the Black Theatre Community in Nashville. Our shows had audiences of over 500 people in the old A-Auditorium, we were reviewed regularly in The Tennessean, and we were regularly featured on local television. Barry was always supportive of the students of his Alma Mater, and we all longed to work with him one day.
Let me be very clear about something that you may not read anywhere else: Without a Barry Scott, there literally is no Nashville Theatre Community. Do a roll call of his roles, and you’ll find him positioned, squarely, at the inception of just about every single lasting theatrical institution in the city: He was a founding member of Mac Pirkle’s Southern Stage Productions that morphed into the Tennessee Repertory Theatre (now known as Nashville Repertory Theatre); He anchored massive productions at The Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Nashville Children’s Theatre, often breaking new ground for a Black actor in predominantly white spaces. Partnering his B. Scott Productions with playwright and music row staple Jim Reyland’s Writer’s Stage Productions, he put tons of new stories into the world.
Barry Scott was a trailblazer.
By the time I became a grownup, and made the bordering-on-illogical decision to pursue a career in the arts, I couldn’t wait to work with him. By that time, he was launching a bold new concept: The American Negro Playwright Theatre, whose mission was “to tell stories that must be told.” I was excited to audition and even more excited to be cast in my first professional production, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun. Barry was, of course, Walter Lee, but I was cast in a meaty role, Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student who courted his sister. I pulled out all the stops, researching Nigeria, studying accents, and, on a brief trip to visit my brother who was in law school at The Ohio State University, drank in the rich cultural mannerisms of a great upcoming intellect, Ayayi Eneli.
Actors learn early on to put in the work.
The production, held in the 1300-seat Polk Theater of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, was an overwhelming success, and showcased a Who’s Who of the burgeoning Black Theatre Scene of the 1990’s. Barry, as Producer, brought the stars to the table. Jackie Welch, a founding member of Tennessee Rep, directed a show that starred Scott alongside the powerhouse Stella Reed (founder of Black Taffeta & Burlap Theatre Company), future Broadway performer Kimberly Jujuan, yours truly, the exceptional Ken Dale Thompson, and a young law student with a great stage presence, Tracey Kinslow. Looking back, it was Barry’s intent to send a very clear message:
Black Excellence is real. And it lives in Nashville.
From there, Barry continued to pour into young people and the larger community. He established a professional residency at TSU, and from there produced August Wilson’s Fences, the self-penned Harlem Voices, and many more shows. He pushed for partnership with predominately White companies, and as a result, Nashville got to see productions like The Piano Lesson presented in one of the largest venues in the city, directed by the brilliant Woodie King, Jr., founder of the historic New Federal Theatre in New York.
Many people in Nashville remember him for his stirring re-enactment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. From as far back as I remember, even back to the Kayne Avenue era, Barry was performing Dr. King, and what resonated the most was, again, not an ability to mimic MLK, but his ability to tap into MLK’s resounding Truth. Because of his appearances at the Nashville Symphony, Public Television, and more venues, there are people who will, forever, think of Barry Scott as MLK, reincarnated.
I caution you against this.
If we are to truly remember Barry in the proper historical context, consider what you may not know:
- Barry Scott learned MLK speeches because his father, an inspirational teacher at Maplewood High School, pulled out a record player on the night of April 5th, 1968, and played the speeches repeatedly to help his family navigate the overwhelming grief over his assassination.
- Barry Scott turned his MLK speeches into a full out self-written production, titled, “Ain’t Got Long to Stay Here,” that was picked up for a national tour and featured internationally known recording artist Jennifer Holiday. The show even did a week on Broadway in New York.
- Barry Scott had a recurring role on the popular television show, In The Heat of The Night, and appeared at regional theaters across the nation.
- Barry Scott discovered, hired—and paid—more Black Theatre artists than anyone in history before him, save the early TOBA touring circuits of the early 1900’s. He also integrated crews and spaces behind the scenes, exposing young people to legendary technical minds like Scott Leathers, Anne Popper, and more.
- Barry Scott’s voice can be heard around the world on radio, television, and in promotions for everything from professional sports franchises like the Tennessee Titans and TNA Pro Wrestling to public service announcements and awareness campaigns for social issues.
- Barry Scott lectured extensively at universities and corporations about human rights, dignity, and building community.
Yeah. Barry Scott was that guy. Multi-dimensional.
In 2002, Barry had the foresight to bring a new play to Nashville; a play that was a re-telling of the classic tale of Isis and Osiris, set in modern-day Washington, D.C. The play was called “Hieroglyphic Graffiti” and was penned by a lanky young visionary who had showcased the play earlier at the National Black Theatre Festival. As usual, Barry stocked the show with upcoming local talent. I came to the show to meet the earnest young actor/playwright, who was paying his dues in the trenches of regional theatre.
That young man was none other than our recently departed king, Chadwick Boseman.
Barry Scott, like Chad, lived a life of seeking truth, holding up a mirror to the world, leaving his soul exposed, while at the same time shielding us from the burden of sharing his agonizing personal journey into Life After Life.
Instead, he chose to continue to pour himself out into us, in hopes that one day, as he revealed in a prophetic speech at Future Break 2012, we all would, eventually, learn to see each other as sisters and brothers—and to govern ourselves accordingly as a city, a nation, and a world. I came to realize that’s why he came back to do those church plays, because there were a ton of Black kids who needed someplace to be somebody.
Considering the state of things in our society, that kind of utopian dream might very easily be classified as the ultimate imagined circumstance. The answers to the issues of racism and inequity can be found in the lives of men like William Barry Scott: be authentic, be real, be empowering, be bold, be different, be inclusive. Be Scott.
Stop pretending and start…well…acting. Because the root word of acting is act; and acting is doing.
I for one am grateful we had a man like William Barry Scott, who taught us not only to behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances, but how to navigate the real ones with dignity and honor.
Rest in power, my brother.