Leading Man -- This Seattle Actor Has Paid His Dues To Get Starring, Challenging Roles
CUTLINE: ABOVE - THE CLOWN JUMPS OUT OF THOMAS IN THE MOORE THEATRE DURING THE RUN OF MACBETH. SOMEONE SCRIBBLED AN ``F'' ON THE WALL, TURNING ``STAGE RIGHT'' TO ``STAGE FRIGHT.''
CUTLINE: ABOVE LEFT - THOMAS PLAYS AGING FILM STAR NORMA DESMOND, USING PINK CURLERS AND A MAUDLIN STARE TO TWIST HUMOR OUT OF SELF-PITY IN HIS BENEFIT PERFORMANCE FOR THE ALICE B. THEATRE.
CUTLINE: LEFT - IN THE BASEMENT OF THE MOORE THEATRE, THOMAS RECITES HIS LINES FOR A PREVIEW OF MACBETH, WHILE ACTOR CRAIG HUISENGA DRESSES AS THE GHOST OF BANQUO, A CHARACTER MACBETH ORDERED ASSASSINATED AFTER MACBETH BECAME KING.
CUTLINE: AFTER TWO YEARS OF TOURING RURAL CANADA WITH A HARD-ROCK BAND AND SEVERAL SUMMER GIGS AS A SEATTLE STREET MUSICIAN, THOMAS CHOSE THEATER OVER MUSIC. HERE HE'S REHEARSING ``BUCKSKIN AND SATIN,'' A RECENT BATHHOUSE SOUTHERN FOLK AND COUNTRY MUSIC REVIEW.
CUTLINE: THOMAS SAYS IT'S AT REHEARSALS - LIKE THIS ONE AT THE PHINNEY RIDGE NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER - THAT A CHARACTER COMES TO LIFE. PERFORMANCE IS WHERE THE CHARACTER LIVES THAT LIFE.
CUTLINE: ABOVE - THOMAS, WHOSE STAGE NAME IS G. VALMONT, TALKS ABOUT SHAKESPEARE'S WORD CHOICE AND CADENCE IN AN ADULT THEATER WORKSHOP AT THE GOODWILL LITERACY CENTER. THE MORE KINDS OF PEOPLE INTRODUCED TO THEATER, THE MORE KINDS OF PEOPLE WILL ATTEND THEATER, HE SAYS.
CUTLINE: LEFT - DESPITE AN INTENSE REHEARSAL AND PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE, THOMAS SWEATS THROUGH HIS AEROBICS CLASS WHEN HE CAN.
CUTLINE: ABOVE - ON A BENCH BEHIND THE BATHHOUSE THEATRE, G. VALMONT CRACKS UP HIS DAD, RETIRED ARMY LT. COL. H.R. ``ROCK'' THOMAS.
CUTLINE: RIGHT - THOMAS AND HIS WIFE, SHASHI, ARE STARTING A FAMILY THIS YEAR. JOINING THEM AT A SHOWER PARTY ARE KEN BOYNTON AND KEVIN HAGERMAN.
CUTLINE: WITH FIVE MINUTES UNTIL THE CURTAIN RISES AT THE BATHHOUSE THEATRE, THOMAS STROLLS IN SOLITUDE, STEPPING QUIETLY INTO CHARACTER WITH GREEN LAKE RIPPLING IN THE BACKGROUND.
His eyes grip emotion like a tool. They can strike sadness, widened beneath a furled brow, or cut laughter loose with a sideways glance.
You may have seen these eyes in the early 1980s, behind the grill at Eggs Cetera on Broadway, or in the cashier's window at the adult Amusement Center Arcade on First Avenue.
You won't see them there now. These eyes, illuminated by floor lights, followed by a spotlight, now create illusion for a living. More likely, you may have watched them on stage, as Macbeth at the Bathhouse Theatre, as Dr. Frank N. Furter in the ``Rocky Horror Picture Show'' at The Empty Space Theatre, or as the servant Yasha in the ``Cherry Orchard'' at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
They are a deep brown, almond-shaped, with the slight tilt of an ancient Egyptian's. They belong to Gregg Valmont Thomas.
Thomas is 30, the son of retired Army Lt. Col.
H.R. ``Rock'' Thomas and Connie Thomas, a former English teacher. The family settled in Tacoma in 1974 after 20 years of military mobility. Thomas' talents grew locally: in Tacoma at Wilson and Clover Park high schools, in Bellingham at Western Washington University.
In Seattle, Thomas has worked in every Equity theater except the Intiman. That's a major accomplishment. From the polished Tony Award the Seattle Rep recently won for outstanding regional theater, to the raw, quirky sell-outs at The Empty Space and The Group theaters, Seattle regional theater is reputed nationally among the best.
It's an even bigger accomplishment for a black actor.
Theater is steeped in tradition, and the traditional skin color is white, a monochrome homogeneity from the top down. It's a tough shell to crack for most actors of color. But Thomas has been dubbed the hardest-working actor in Seattle. He gets more roles than any other black actor in the city. He has crossed the color barrier in theater to play Shakespearean and contemporary roles traditionally off-limits to nonwhite actors. Some people wonder why. The people who know G. Valmont Thomas - G. Val for short - know why.
It's a Monday afternoon in mid-April. Thomas is billed in an Alice B. Theatre benefit show at the Washington Hall Performance Gallery on Capitol Hill. The cast for the show, a campy version of ``Sunset Boulevard,'' reads like a who's who of Seattle theater: Thomas, Intiman director Elizabeth Huddle, veteran actor John Gilbert, comedian and actress Peggy Platt. Eight Seattle actors - four men and four women - are all taking a shot at the role of the aging film star Norma Desmond. Thomas enters the theater in his usual color-coordinated casuals: purple cloth hi-tops, a sweat shirt and black faded jeans. The pin on the lapel of his worn denim vest blurts, ``Obviously, I've made a serious vocational error.''
Backstage a few minutes later, Thomas emerges from the curtained dressing area in a backless floor-length navy-blue negligee, topped with a sheer navy wrap and pink foam curlers in a brunette wig.
``Look for red, way red,'' the make-up artist suggests for lipstick as Thomas sits down in front of the lighted mirrors.
Gilbert steps from the dressing area in a strapless black-satin formal, topped with a black tutu skirting and a full beard. ``John, John, please, cover it up,'' Thomas pleads, glancing disdainfully at Gilbert's graying chest hair.
Thomas was stepping into his character. But he was also looking beyond, to the next one. As he sat waiting for his stage cue, Thomas marked the sentence cadence in his script for his debut as Macbeth, one of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare, and the toughest Thomas has played yet. The play, set in the 19th century Wild West, completed a six-week run July 1 to good reviews.
It's a Monday morning in late April. A thick overgrowth of rhododendrons obscures the large, old-fashioned wood-frame windows in Ann Schuh's Garfield High School English classroom. Perched on an aged green filing cabinet, Thomas is sizing up his audience.
``Who knows the story of Macbeth?'' Thomas asks. Most of the dozen students who showed up for the Bathhouse's theater workshop raise their hands. ``Shakespeare wrote about people, the human condition. He wrote for everybody, not just people who are scholars.''
Thomas is explaining how Shakespeare uses soft and hard consonants and vowels to create a mood, such as the edgy ``D'' repetition Macbeth mouths when pondering whether to kill King Duncan: ``If it were done,
when 'tis done, then 'twere well it was done quickly.''
``It's overkill, but having those words and sounds in your mouth helps you to feel the feeling,'' Thomas says. ``As an actor, it is hard to know what someone would feel after they have slit someone's throat, and I am not about to go and find out.'' Laughter.
It's a Wednesday in May, opening night at the Bathhouse. Thomas as Macbeth half-crouches at the edge of the stage. His stage-blood-coated hands drip and hang like flexed claws. Crazed fear is writhing across his face, quickening in intensity. He has just killed the king:
``What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes!
``Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
``Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
``The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
``Making the green one red.''
G.Valmont can act.
Some fellow actors say he's close to the top among the local Shakespearean talent. In reviews along the way, local theater critics have applauded his ascent. But critics also caution that acting is a fickle field and the footholds are loose and treacherous. Still, Thomas continues to climb.
Thomas began his ascent at the Bathhouse. In 1984, he auditioned for a part in the Bathhouse production of ``Twelfth Night.'' He had recently returned to Seattle after two years of touring Bellingham and Western Canada in a hard-rock band.
He was broke. He was hungry.
Thomas landed the role of Fabian. Bathhouse founder and director Arne Zaslove set the production in 1920s America and made Fabian a black chauffeur. Zaslove also asked Thomas to join the company as a ``utilitarian'' actor - moving furniture and playing music and bit parts.
Thomas choreographed furniture moving into an art form. Several theater-goers would sit through intermissions to watch Thomas move furniture in character. Thomas would lumber in with an oversized chair, aim it toward a corner of the stage and plop the chair down and himself in it. Feign boredom. Pick through the contents of a tea tray. Snooze, until his fastidious partner burst on stage and prodded him up. The intermission audience would occasionally applaud.
Thomas loved it.
Thomas' first big break sprang from a series of character roles in the 1986 Bathhouse production, ``Johnson Over Jordan.'' Some critics panned the play. But they praised Thomas' versatility, ushering him into the limelight that led M. Burke Walker to cast him as the intergalactic transvestite Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Empty Space's 1986-87 box-office smash rock-'n'-roll musical ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show.''
It was the classic casting scene. Thomas showed up the last day of auditions and landed the lead role. But Thomas had been hesitant to audition. In previous stage and theater versions, Frank N. Furter was white. Thomas hurdled the barrier.
Take thick thighs. Add a rock-'n'-roll musician's repertoire of raunchy stage moves. Slip a rich alto voice between the layers. Slick it with adrenaline, and you have Thomas' audition for the ``Rocky Horror Picture Show.'' He sang the ``Sweet Transvestite'' and bowled over Walker, then Empty Space artistic director.
With bulging biceps and defined deltoids, Thomas' drag characters achieve a femininity worthy of envy. With his thick, muscled thighs, the 6-foot Thomas can straddle the masculine/feminine contradiction. Thomas turned the erotic science-fiction musical into family entertainment. Entwining the lulling innocence of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme with the
sinister suspense of Edgar Allan Poe - both his favorite childhood authors - Thomas created a character who could simultaneously milk scorn and sympathy from his audience.
Thomas had some practice for the part back in his rock-band days.
In 1981, new-wave music and heavy metal were cresting simultaneously. And the five-member band New Moon Rising was caught in the riptide.
Thomas, the lead singer and bass guitarist, leaned toward the screaming guitars and thrashing heavy metal sound, but loved the lyrical quality of new wave. His tastes spanned from rockers Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa to guitarist Leo Kottke, pop gospel singer Billy Preston and new-wave veteran Elvis Costello. So each night, hard-rock AC/DC crossed currents with new-wave XTC. Finally, hard rock won. Within a couple of weeks after they hit the road, the band members tossed the skinny ties and suit jackets for Spandex, leather and chains. Rural Canada was happier for it.
``We were totally living on the edge,'' says Chuck Cross, who was the band's drummer.
Cross, now a Seattle bank analyst, first met Thomas at the WWU freshman orientation dance. Thomas - always the showman - was the guy in the bright-orange shirt who jumped up on stage and started singing and dancing with the hired band. The crowd loved it.
Once in his own band, Thomas developed a reputation for the outrageous. And the nasty. He's impulsive. He likes to tease.
But after two years of thin-walled hotel rooms and five-night-a-week gigs, living on the edge got old. The money was weak. The guys disbanded in the fall of 1983.
People like Thomas. People remember Thomas. Part of the reason is his appearance. Part is his personality. Part of it is he doesn't let you forget. Thomas makes a lasting impression.
WWU drama professor Tom Ward remembers Thomas showing up with his father at WWU in the fall of 1977. Eager to ply his trade, Thomas left WWU in 1980 without finishing his degree.
``I saw the energy, and I thought, anybody who has that much energy, if he can get it focused on the stage, is going to be something special,'' Ward recalls. ``The energy I saw him exude in the `Rocky Horror Picture Show' is the same energy I saw he was capable of up here. He is learning how to make that energy work for him, regardless of the style of the play.''
Thomas is versatile. Thomas is funny. He aims one-liners with a marksman's skill. He sings, dances,
has a flair for comedy and drama and plays seven instruments. He added the washboard to his repertoire in the recent Bathhouse Southern folk and country music review, ``Buckskin and Satin.''
Local musicians are impressed with his musical abilities, comedians by his zany sense of humor and actors by his dramatic flair. Thomas says he has landed so many roles because he's ``a theater slut.'' He pounded the pavement when he arrived in Seattle in 1980, and again when he returned to acting in 1983. He would take any kind of role. But that time, he says, is past.
In his first three professional roles, Thomas was cast as either a slave or a servant: The understudy for Shadrack, a slave boy in ``Huckleberry Finn'' at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1980; the servant in ``The Servant of Two Masters'' at the now-defunct Conservatory Theatre Company in 1981; and a servant in the Helen Keller story, ``The Miracle Worker,'' at the Seattle Children's Theatre in 1981.
``There are roles I am sure I have been considered for just because I am black, like in `Huckleberry Finn,' '' Thomas says. ``When I got that job, I don't think it was just because I am Gregg Thomas and I could do the things I can do. It was because I was nice enough, I wasn't going to cause any trouble, and I could do the `black thing'; whatever the director thinks is the way blacks are supposed to act.''
Thomas is often described as a physical actor. Off stage, he strides with a bounding gait. He watches people with Argus eyes, keenly observant, vigilant. He used to fuel his seemingly boundless energy level with peanut M&Ms and Cup O' Gold coconut chocolate bars. But his recent weight-watching has forced candy from his grasp. He sips a mocha espresso now and then.
The energy remains.
On stage, he's confident. He puts his visual vigilance to practice. His directors say he has a quick memory. He responds spontaneously, dressing characters with the bits of mannerisms he has watched and mentally stored.
His physical presence both pushed him toward stereotypical black roles, and helped him break through the stage color barrier.
``There are people who say Gregg gets roles because the Bathhouse is looking for a black gimmick,'' says Platt, local comedian and actress. ``I get visible goose bumps when I hear that stuff. If at any time he was hired as a token, I think the people would have to admit they hired the right person in spite of themselves.''
Thomas credits Zaslove for giving him a chance at roles reserved for white actors in traditional theater. Thomas has played the heights of Shakespeare at the Bathhouse: Macbeth, Othello, Feste and Fabian in two separate productions of ``Twelfth Night,'' and Lysander in ``A Midsummer Night's Dream.''
``I was one of the first in the city to cast blacks in roles traditionally played by whites,'' Zaslove says. ``I am not totally color blind, but I do look for ways of breaking down society's prejudices. People are more and more attempting color-blind casting, but it is still a long haul.''
The majority of playwrights whose works are produced in Seattle are white males. The artistic directors of the main-stage theaters are white. Only one is a female. Local black actors and actresses say they get called by the main theaters for parts as maids, butlers and slaves, but not often for lead roles. Smaller Equity theaters offer a wider range of roles, but they pay half the scale of the main theaters. Most of the actors of color applaud Thomas' main-stage credits but shrug over why the main theaters - the Seattle Rep, the Intiman, A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) - resist nontraditional casting.
``Gregg is the one who works all the time,'' says Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, a local actor/director who studied Shakespeare in England and performed on Broadway. ``Gregg is very talented. But he is not the one and only black actor. The point is, he has been invited into the big house, and the rest of us are still in the fields.''
Even at the Bathhouse, Thomas has had run-ins with racism. Just after joining the Bathhouse company, Thomas was cast in a small role in ``Juno and the Paycock,'' set in Dublin in the 1920s.
``I had some lines in the show, and I was working on my Irish accent,'' Thomas says. ``I overheard the guest director in a conversation with Arne, arguing that there were no blacks in Dublin in the 1920s. Arne says, `Well, there are in this play.' Later the guest director gave my lines to another actor and says, `Why don't you do the heavy lifting. Be the strong back-up guy.' ''
But when Thomas played Macbeth, the Scottish king was black. Thomas researched black pioneers such as George Washington Bush, who founded Centralia and Bush Prairie near Tumwater. He discovered that in the 19th century west, black pioneers were often judged as much on their skills as their race.
His own skills and race ranked equally in the all-black cast of ``The Colored Museum.'' The Empty Space 1988 sell-out was a satire of African-American stereotypes, from Buppies to finger-snapping drag queens. The relentlessly hilarious yet biting humor gnawed at the root of the color contradictions in Thomas' life.
As an Army officer in the '60s based mainly in the South, Rock Thomas be came a point man for armed forces integration, and his three children - Raymon, Gregg and younger daughter Bronwyn - were right on the front lines of social change.
``My mother always told us that the racists had the problem, not us,'' recalls Raymon Thomas, 34, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney.
The brothers discovered that growing up black among white people sometimes meant defending yourself from both sides.
``For us, being black was not knowing the popular culture or the latest dance step, but having an understanding of ourselves and our people,'' Ray says. ``The same black people who would accuse us of being white could not name five black people in American history. Gregg was always frustrated by this.''
Gregg was born Dec. 15, 1959, in Germany. The family returned to the United States in 1961, where home was Army-base housing - Fort Benning, Ga.; Armed Forces Staff College housing in Norfolk, Va.; Fort Lewis, Tacoma - and the road trips in between. Rock Thomas served two terms in Vietnam.
As a child, Thomas felt insulated from the overt racism of his parents' generation. The Thomases immersed their children in education and athletics. And laughter. Imaginary characters such as Nasty McGee, who made hamburger patties with his armpits, followed them in the station wagon. Thomas was reading road signs at 3, acting out TV commercials at 6.
Reminiscing with his parents on a picnic bench behind the Bathhouse at Green Lake, Thomas slips easily into his favorite childhood commercial characters. Thomas does commercial voice-overs, but shuns on-camera commercial work.
``In one of them there was this guy walking in a blizzard,'' Thomas begins. His dad smiles approvingly. His mother has already started laughing. They are proud of their son. ``The guy looks at the camera and says, `I'd even go north for Southern Made Bread.' ''
Thomas affects a southern accent as he crosses his arms, rubs his sides, and shivers. ``Then the guy bumps into this polar bear, who goes, `Roarrrr!' The guy jumps and says, `Well, it looks like I went a little too far north!' ''
The Thomases laugh like old times.
As Gregg Thomas reached his teens, racial contradictions at school increasingly troubled him. In 1971, on the steps of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School in Norfolk, he ran into his first black-on-black class prejudice. He broke his lunchbox fending off an attack by a few black students. Thomas gets a wild-eyed look as he tells the story, expressing the confused rage he felt.
``We were military kids who got off the bus from the military base. That was one strike against us. At that time in that school, not a lot of black students were excelling academically. That was strike two. Before that, the only problems I had had were with real southern white folk who you could spot a mile away. I always knew how to deal with that. But when black kids started wanting to beat me up, I couldn't understand it.''
Things picked up for Thomas on New Year's Day in 1974, when the family was transferred to Fort Lewis after three years in Japan. He played football at Woodbrook Junior High School until the second of two serious knee injuries put an end to a sporting career. While recuperating in study
hall during recesses, he wrote a play, ``Santa's Dilemma,'' about Santa's search for cool. The school performed it, and Thomas played the lead: a thin Santa in a big superfly brim and Afro, high-waisted pants, platform shoes and a hip walk. During his rounds, Santa discovers being cool is being himself. The play was a hit. Thomas' popularity soared.
``People liked it, people liked me. I got popular. It was really cool. It made me proud to be who I was.''
He joined the Thespian Society at Clover Park and Wilson high schools in the Tacoma area and performed skits during school assemblies. He also started hanging out at the Centurion Theatre in Fort Lewis where at 14 he was cast in ``Fiddler on the Roof.'' Connie Thomas remembers well.
``That night he came back and said that is what he wanted to do,'' Connie Thomas says. ``We were reluctant because he was very young and he would be around adults. But they promised they would take care of him. And they have.''
Thomas is an individual. His expressions are quick. A slight smile can draw up along the cheekbones, split into a grin and disappear all within a few seconds. He is quick with a hug, and sometimes, a temper. He jams when he can in an unnamed hard-rock band formed with friends from his Seattle street-music days. He relaxes with his bass guitar. Acting is now his career.
Thomas had two small movie roles, including a cab driver in the recent film, ``I Love You To Death,'' which was shot in Tacoma. He wants to do more films, and, like most local actors, is eying the Rep main stage.
``He has played a lot of the major Shakespearean roles, but he is still very young,'' Zaslove says. ``These roles ordinarily come in the middle of your career. He is still in the beginning of his career. He has been very successful as a young man in developing his talents. Now he has to have more life experiences to gain the maturity that will give him more strength in his roles.''
It's early Monday evening, one of the few Thomas has free. It's the back porch of the second-floor duplex Thomas and his wife Shashi rent above the Montlake Cut. Shashi has come out, straight auburn shoulder-length hair clipped in a barrette. She'd been napping inside. Thomas watches the commuter traffic stalled on Highway 520. The young couple expects their first child this month.
Thomas lounges, relaxed, as few people can be, on a backless pea-green picnic bench. A red plastic diner-counter ashtray seems to float on an opaque glass-topped metal side table. He's trying to quit. He's down to five cigarettes a day. He lights one and talks about creating a character.
``Aren't eyes the mirror of the soul? I never thought, `Oh, I'll use my eyes,' but I do a lot of visualizing. On stage I am often looking at something that is not there. That helps tie me in to
how my character is feeling.
``You take pieces of yourself to form a character. You take whatever part of yourself is most in the direction of the character, look at it, think about it, then back up, run and jump past it. You have to do your homework, and use what the character knows. But it is dangerous to just do a role as yourself. You lose your ground zero,'' Thomas pauses, repeatedly swatting at a swarm of gnats as he tells an animated anecdote about a cloud of bugs blocking his view at a drive-in movie.
``I am still in the process of becoming who I am. But it is just amazing that I am this person now,'' Thomas pauses again, his eyes focused in thought. ``Everybody has creativity. Some people are just not encouraged to spend time with that part of themselves.''
MARY ELIZABETH CRONIN IS A REPORTER IN THE EAST BUREAU OF THE SEATTLE TIMES.
Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.