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Ted Lange to Let Freedom Ring
at the Stella Adler

by Steve Julian | September 3, 2010

George Washington would have turned 114 the week some “black folks got together to protest slavery,” says playwright, director and actor Ted Lange. “This is 1846. Years before the Civil War begins and years after the American Revolution ends. Slavery is at its height. These black folks decide to do something to protest, something along the lines of the Boston Tea Party.”

They scheme to steal the uncracked Liberty Bell and ship it off to England where it can be stored until America abolishes slavery.

“The significance of the bell cracking later that year,” notes Lange, “is that you’re either on one side of liberty or the other. There were those who thought slavery should go on and those who thought it should end. The Liberty Bell becomes symbolic of the division in the country.”

The year 1776 has come and gone. South Carolina, one of the original 13 colonies, held out and precluded the end of slavery from inclusion in the Constitution. “And don’t forget New York,” says Lange. “It was the last to sign, which is typical of New York!” He laughs. “They’re always looking for a political end! ‘Well, let’s see how this turns out and then we’ll see about putting our names on it!’”

Ted Lange. Photo by Keven Major Howard

Ted Lange. Photo by Keven Major Howard

It was in New York, during a Broadway production of Hairspray, that Lange eventually would feel vindicated for writing Let Freedom Ring. We sit on the Stella Adler set with cast members Garrett Morris and Chrystee Pharris. The ensemble cast also includes Lou Beatty Jr., J.D. Hall, Christine Kludjian, Shani Shockley, William Christopher Stephens and Christopher O’Neal Warren.

“Sometimes I say to a person who happens to be white that something is true. They’ll look at me and tell me it’s not true. I say, ‘No, this is a fact. I read it.’ They say, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Now, they have no reason not to believe me. They just don’t believe me.”

This used to frustrate Lange. “I used to think it was just me. But the black guy in Hairspray sings this line, something like: ‘Why do people deny what I say I know is right?’ This is written by two white guys. They have observed white people doing this to black people. I say it’s something that’s been handed down. Certain white people feel superiority [over blacks].”

And that’s evident today every time you turn on the television, Lange believes. “Oh, baby. (He whistles.) I saw a thing recently that J.J. Abrams did a show with black leads and everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, that’s fantastic. That’s never happened.’ Well, Tim Reid did it years and years ago, a thing called Snoops. It ran after Frank’s Place went off the air. People forget.”

Lange recalls when Hollywood was planning to make the film Malcolm X in the ’70s. “You know who they wanted to play Malcolm? Marlon Brando.” Chrystee Pharris jumps in. “What! No way! Really?”

Lange continues. “I am not kidding you. They wanted Marlon Brando to play Malcolm X because that was the only way it was going to get a draw. And James Baldwin, who wrote the original screenplay, said ‘Over my dead body will you put someone white in the role of Malcolm X.’”

Garrett Morris may be best known for appearances in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live. “More to the point,” Morris says, “there’s the denying of actual physiology. There are a whole slew of African Americans who are so light you can’t tell they’re not white.” It’s a point of contention for Morris that blacks historically have been written out of scripts. Or worse, impersonated by use of black face.

Lange jumps in to say, “There are so many good people in Hollywood who are trying to bridge the gap between black and white. There are others who just don’t care. So you’re always dealing with this dichotomy.”

He considers himself fortunate. “For my part [as Isaac, the bartender] on Love Boat, they said, ‘Let’s get someone of color in there.’ They made a concerted effort. In other places, they don’t want to do it. You have Airbender with a white kid as the lead but there’s no story line to explain why he’s in the midst of Asians. At least in Karate Kid, they address why there’s a black character. That’s all I ask: address it! Don’t pretend it’s not there.”

Since his Love Boat days, Lange has kept busy acting, writing plays and creating a couple dozen webisodes, shot by Thom Marshall. Lange says penning Let Freedom Ring came by way of an accident. “I have a thing on You-Tube called Players at the Poker Palace. It was a way for me to vent my Hollywood frustrations.”

Lange put it to personal use. “I had actors say things we go through all the time as actors and, at one point, a black actor says to the white DP [director of photography], ‘Tell these guys about the movie you want to produce.’ The guy says, ‘Which one? The one about the black guy stealing the Liberty Bell?’ ‘No, no, the other one.’ ‘Oh, you mean the one about the black cowboy stopping the Ku Klux Klan.’ So it was just a joke in the middle of this thing but the actor playing the DP, Patrick Gorman, told me that’s a movie.”

Lange wasn’t interested. “It was just a one-line joke.” But he says the goading didn’t stop. Finally Lange acquiesced. “I said since everybody’s got a movie, I would write it as a play and know it would get done. I started looking at the Liberty Bell and thought, okay, if some black guys did steal it, who would those black guys be? I started doing research into 1846. After that, things just started falling into place.”

Lange held readings around his dining room table, in Omaha, then in New York. “It got to where everyone liked it except the woman playing [Pharris' character] the barmaid: ‘How come the black woman gotta do this? How come she can’t teach the white woman something?’ Good point. What would be relevant in that time? Quilting. Quilting was used as a way of communicating through the underground railroad. If I picked a woman who was an abolitionist and wants to learn about quilting, it fits right in. So they each give the other something they want.”

<p>Ted Lange, Lou Beatty, Jr. Shani Shockley,Christopher O'Neal Warren, J.D. Hall, and Garrett Morris</p>

Ted Lange, Lou Beatty, Jr. Shani Shockley,Christopher O’Neal Warren, J.D. Hall, and Garrett Morris. Photo by Mary Lange

Phariss says the same thing is true for her and Lange. “Ted always calls me right when I’m going through something in my life similar to what’s going on in his play.” She was going through a divorce when Lange asked her to play the slave, Oney Judge, in his play George Washington’s Boy. “And in this role,” she adds, “I love that Ted isn’t dealing just with race but also with the suppression of being a woman.”

Yet it’s race that colors this conversation. Morris points to the innumerable black actors shunned by Hollywood. Lange looks for a sense of optimism. And Phariss embraces the struggle that older generations have endured. “It makes me want to fight harder to make it. I want to make them [Lange and Morris] proud.”

Physically, Morris and Lange are dark-skinned African Americans. Phariss is much lighter skinned. Has her race hampered her career? “Of course,” she says. “There have been some incidents where someone told my representation that they’re ‘not going to go black.’ On the flip side, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities. But if I sat here every single day and thought about it, sure, I could get depressed and want to leave the business. I’m fortunate to be riding on the backs of guys like Ted and Garrett, knowing they went through all the struggles. I don’t have to go through as much.”

She points to being at the top of the call-list at CBS and ABC. Would she be there if she were as physically dark as her co-stars? “I’m sure because of my skin color; I am the Hollywood All American black girl. But even that doesn’t always work. I had a commercial where they loved me more than the others but the producer said they’d never go black as a lead.”

Lange nods. “It’s in the DNA, this superiority complex.” If some whites feel superiority in their DNA, I ask, what is in the DNA of the African American? “Survival,” Lange emphasizes. “Survival. We’ve survived to the point where we’re able to see a black president. I know back in 1961, nobody ever thought they’d see that in their lifetimes.” Garrett sounds off in agreement. “Now what’s in this guy’s [Barack Obama's] DNA? Survival? Perseverance?”

Let Freedom Ring is the second play in Lange’s American history trilogy. ‘It began with George Washington’s Boy and will conclude with a play about a black man who got away from Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown and others were caught. No one talks about Osborne P. Anderson, the man who escaped. But this is our history. This is American history. And this trilogy brings us to a time, from the Revolution, through slavery and the Civil War, to a point where we can elect a black President.”