Having just lost Geoffrey Holder, legendary choreographer, director, actor and artist who was for 7-Up what Stephanie Courtney is for Progessive, I was in a state of mind going to the Gala. It felt sacrilegious not to celebrate him and his work, which includes dazzling spectacles on the Ailey company, and cracking us up in with that miraculously rich voice in “Boomerang.” But the Career Transitions for Dancers program was set to go at City Center, and scrambling a tribute would not have done him justice. Five minutes before the curtain, as I sat in my three-piece suit waiting for fellow SAG-AFTRA Board members, it was too late to volunteer to crash the show line-up with a solo or something in honor.
So I was feeling a kind of weird regret. Then Mike Hodge, my president, showed up and I stood to let him into the row of seats.
“Well hello Mr. Jones,” he said to the man behind me. And there he was, James Earl Jones, sitting in the orchestra aisle seat, looking just like himself. If he had opened his mouth and said anything I’d have recognized him right away.
It was a reprieve – Geoffrey Holder had moved on to some other celestial corner where, amidst directing a few planets maybe, he was laughing at me listening to the last two phenomenal basses on this one. I was excited finally to not only meet him, but be introduced even. But the other Board members arrived, pulled my focus to greetings. A sweet woman behind me got in on it, seasoning my torture with positivity I felt guilty about wanting to postpone.
I was fully seated in a conversation with Mike Hodge when I realized the moment of introduction had passed.
I swung around. “Well I know you too sir, or I’m going to say I do anyway,” I said to Mr. Jones.
He laughed his rumbling laugh. “Oh you know me too?”
Mike then introduced us officially, told me that they had done “Fences” together.
“Wait a minute, I saw that show,” I said.
“You were a kid,” Mr. Jones said. “Yes I was,” I said. “I also saw you in—” And this is where I lost my mind literally. I could not remember the name of the show and I felt crazy. Here I was about to offer the man praise on an American classic play I couldn’t remember.
“Not ‘Streetcar’ but….” “The other Tennessee…” Mr. Jones said. And that’s when I knew from the expressions on their faces that they had drawn the same blank. Long seconds passed. “Maggie the cat,” Mr. Jones finally said.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!” I said, as relieved at the fact that we got this out as I was by the fact that it was a group effort. We nodded as if we'd raised the Dow Jones.
I was also relieved that I got to meet him before he left. When he disappeared mid-show, it was to present the Rolex Award to Angela Lansbury. I was ecstatic. She mentioned that she and Mr. Jones had just done "Driving Ms. Daisy" or six months in Australia. Not prone to star "struckedness," I was immeasurably moved by the fact that these artists, fame be damned, believe in working for the art of it, and love what they do enough not to retire just because they can. It is one of the philosophies that motivates me to not think in terms of retirement.
Geoffrey Holder, who literally choreographed a dance from his bed the other night before transcending, had visited me this night once again. He wasn't done. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, whom I have come to adore over the years of rehearsing their curtain closer, shone. Ballet Hispanico was stunning. Kirven Boyd’s “Takedeme” was stellar and so were the other presentations.
Then I saw Keisa, one of my students from my hometown on stage as a Rockette. I was thrilled! Later we had a great reunion and I got to watch her explain to her old boss that I had some influence over her development.
After even the wealthiest and decadently dressed were unconcerned about sweated gowns, a tall, beautiful dancer from Ballet Hispanico came over to me.
“Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt your dancing,” he said. I begged him not to worry, told him I probably needed to be interrupted before I split my suit pants. He continued, “I know you’re Jamal Story. I have to tell you that I saw you dance years ago in a show at Central Park.”
“Francesca Harper’s show?” He nodded. “It had a really big impact on my dancing. Very big. You have no idea how much. I wanted to tell you that.”
I was moved. The fact that we seldom know the level of impact we have is clear, but I felt this on a visceral level. I had paid it forward and had the pleasure of seeing the flowers in full bloom on stage. Mr. Holder’s grand finale for the life experience he directed for me this night.
I thanked the dancer for sharing this with me, thanked God, and then thanked Mr. Holder. I suspect he will be choreographing and directing quite a few other life productions posthumously. And to think that there I was worried that he wouldn't be there...
P.S. It was a celebration indeed; we commandeered the DJ, taught a few millionaires how to wobble, closed the ballroom.