Putting Words In His Mouth Cleavon Little Acts 85 In 'All God's Dangers,' Play Based On Award-winning Oral History

Posted: October 26, 1989

NEW YORK — "You know, it's funny," Cleavon Little says in a voice that makes you realize this is funny-serious, not funny-ha-ha. "Here I am, acting the part of an 85-year-old man in this play, 'All God's Dangers,' and that's exactly the age of my own father.

"Last time I was on Broadway, I was in 'I'm Not Rappaport,' and the man I played was 81. And that was my father's age at that time, too. Think that means anything?"

Cleavon Little won a Tony for his first Broadway musical, "Purlie." He won the hearts and laughs of thousands as the hilarious lawman of Mel Brooks' ''Blazing Saddles." And he took on the "I'm Not Rappaport" role as an 81-year-old before he was even 50, dusting his hair and beard with grey.

This time, he's done even more. He's shaved his head to look the way he thinks Nate Shaw, the elderly Alabama storyteller, and fiercely independent sharecropper, whose life he portrays in "All God's Dangers," would look.

But isn't shaving your head a risky thing to do, he's asked. Are you sure it's going to grow back?

"No, I'm not sure at all," he answers cheerfully. "There's always a wig . . . if I need one.

"I've been looking for years for a role like this to do, a real character," he said, warming up to his subject, Nate Shaw. "But how to get it started, I didn't know. A friend of mine called me from Chicago to tell me she had gone to hear Howard Rollins doing a reading of this play, and said it was a great project, I should look into it.

"Then the Hadleys (Jennifer and Michael, a brother-and-sister team who co- wrote the script with Theodore Rosengarten, author of the book on which it was based; they're the producers as well) asked me if I'd like to do a reading, as Rollins was doing something else.

"Well, I don't much like coming in second on things, but when I read this, I thought I had to do it. So I did the reading, and when I did, I knew it was for me. I've turned down some TV roles and some movies - good paying jobs - because I really wanted to do this."

So here he is, sitting in the comfortably intimate Lambs Theater, where ''Dangers" opened over the weekend. The story he enacts is a true one; Rosengarten won the National Book Award for his oral history in 1974. What makes it doubly intriguing to Little is that every word he speaks was Nate's; Rosengarten has over 200 hours of tape of Nate talking that he recorded over two years.

"And man, could he talk!" Little says, somewhat in awe. "Could he tell a story! I listened to the tapes so I could pick up the cadence of his speech, so I know how good he was. He was the kind of storyteller who'd become each of the characters in his tale, act out their parts, bring 'em to life. That's the way I try to do it on stage."

After Little rehearsed the play with director William Partlan, they tried it out at the Cricket Theater in Minneapolis and then at the Alabama Shakespeare Theater, and it was well received in both places.

"Funny," he says again, "The Alabama production was like 30 miles from where this whole play took place. But I never had the time to go and see his place.

"Nate's real name was Cobb. It was changed in the book to protect the innocent. Or the guilty, I don't know which. I did meet Nate's children and grandchildren in Alabama, though, and it was funny - I was looking at them through his eyes. I even knew the moment I saw one of his grandchildren and knew immediately - the way he spoke, how he moved, his sense of humor - that he was a clone of Nate's.

"But what I really like about this play is that it isn't black against white, us against them. It's the greatest challenge I've ever had as an actor. Nate has his problems - he spent 12 years in jail - but he had a great personal dignity, and that's what this play is all about.

"You know, in Alabama, the audience at first was mostly white. But maybe

because they were Southerners, I don't know, they identified a lot with Nate Shaw. More black people came later on in the show, and they were very responsive, too. I hope we get a mixture of black and white while we're here."

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