When James T. Alfred was growing up in the Washington Homes on Chicago’s South Side, the idea that a kid from the projects would one day finish graduate school at Harvard was about as realistic as going camping on the moon.
Those dreams were for other people, perhaps fanciful billionaires, with intact families and the means to indulge their imaginations. They were not for a boy being raised by a devout single mother.
But, through determination and the community’s angels, the improbable happened. Now, Alfred, who has starred in such August Wilson dramas as “Fences,” “Two Trains Running” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” where he played cocksure instrumentalist Levee, is a talent on the rise.
And he also is spreading out.
Alfred has written a coming-of-age story, “A Brown Tale,” which is getting its premiere at Penumbra Theatre. It is one of two works in the St. Paul playhouse’s inaugural festival of solo shows. In two weeks, “A Brown Tale” will be followed by Debra Ehrhardt’s coming-to-America story, “Jamaica, Farewell.”
“This cat has a lot of talent and he’s a great storyteller,” said director Lou Bellamy, who has helped mentor Alfred for years. “We’re accustomed to seeing him live inside of other people’s words, but in this, he’s living in his own truth and power. Plus, the show is very funny.”
Alfred credits his mother, who enrolled him in sports and speech and debate competitions, with saving his life. Those activities, plus his good grades, helped him keep his focus on excelling, both in the Chicago public schools and later at the Piney Woods boarding school in rural Mississippi.
After graduating from Cardinal Stritch University with a bachelor’s degree in international business, Alfred got a job as a salesman in corporate America.
“I liked what I was doing, but it wasn’t the best thing for my soul,” he said. He quit to teach Spanish as a substitute teacher in Chicago. But then he began to ask himself hard questions about his life. He decided to pursue his real dreams on the stage.
“A Brown Tale” began around then, about 15 years ago. A friend suggested that he do a show about his life.
“I developed part of this show as a fundraiser to earn money for my expenses at Harvard,” he said. Alfred earned an MFA at Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training.
In doing this personal story, Alfred has found that he has an appreciation for his family and for other good people in unfortunate circumstances.
“The projects were not always gang-run, drug-ridden dwellings,” he said. “At one point, they were communities.”
Alfred describes the change from actor to writer as “surreal.”
“I’m used to showing up for work, taking a script and doing my work,” he said. “Now I have to confer with the director as a writer. I have to make sure the designers are clear on what I’m trying to achieve. Instead of me decoding what someone else created, I have to make sure that someone else understands me.”
Up from paradise?
Alfred’s up-from-the-projects story is followed by Ehrhardt’s account of her departure from her Jamaican homeland.
When she first told her mother, who still lives in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, that she was going to do an autobiographical play, her deeply religious mother became despondent.
“She went into deep depression and put me on every prayer line that you could think of,” said Ehrhardt, who trained and worked as a nurse for a decade before pursuing acting and writing. “She said, ‘Jamaicans don’t air dirty laundry.’ I said, ‘Mom, that’s not it.’ No matter where you come from, we’re all basically the same; we break down all these crazy invisible barriers. People can relate to my father’s alcoholism. They can see the struggles we’ve overcome, from being evicted many times because he didn’t pay rent. It really empowers us.”
When she was growing up, Ehrhardt’s most fervent wish was to live in the United States.
When she first landed, in Miami, she put herself through school and became a nurse, an esteemed but common goal for many Jamaicans. But she quit that job to chase her real goals.
She has performed the show all over the nation, and has drawn audiences well beyond the circuit of Caribbean expatriates.
She wrote the play about seven years ago. She hopes to make it into a film, and has had support from Tom Hanks’ production company.
“Jamaica, Farewell” is a story about a little girl with a big dream, she said.
When she does her play people often feel compelled to share their immigration stories.
“People from China, Korea, Vietnam, Libya, everyone comes up to me to tell me how they got to America,” she said. “For a lot of people, this is still the greatest country in the world.”