The Trove: Erin Robinson
July 23, 2011

We’ve relocated! View Erin’s updated story at The Trove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With schoolgirls in Banda Village, Rwanda.
Erin Robinson loves summer thunderstorms and she got one as we chatted in her childhood home in Washington, DC over the July Fourth weekend, her sweeping gestures and sound effects underscored by the distant thunder and gentle rain. We noshed on fresh fruit and spoke of mutual travel glories: the spirit-lift from burning the Mexican tree resin Copal; houseboating in Kerala and bonding with rescued baby elephants. Her lovely mom Dianne played with Erin’s three-year-old niece Madison; her hospitable dad Harry made it back just before the rains after a round of golf. “We moved to this house when I was in first grade,” she says of the Tudor where she and sisters Kia and Leigh were raised. “I love the neighborhood we grew up in. All the kids would play dodge ball or foursquare or freeze tag and when the sun set we knew it was time to go home. I’d say 70% of the friends I have today are people I grew up with.” The Robinsons of Shepherd Park: Harry, Erin, Dianne, Kia Winlock and Leigh Warfield. When she wasn’t outside playing she was inside creating. From the age of two-and-half, her mom says “she would just sit and draw.” Erin recalls making shoes for her younger sisters out of the cardboard inserts from her father’s laundered dress shirts. “I would trace their feet for the soles, put labels in them and punch holes in the tops to lace them with ribbon. I was about eleven.” She declared she wanted to be a fashion designer, an illustrator or, like many children, a veterinarian. Her grandmother sent her to the Corcoran School of Art for Saturday classes from seventh to ninth grades. By high school veterinary science wasn’t a thought. “I had the Beverly Johnsons and Imans, the Gia Carangis and Janice Dickinsons pasted on my walls. I was obsessed with the movie Fame, saw it about 5 times. I really wanted to go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts but my parents thought I was going to be dancing on the lunch room tables, so I got sent to the nuns at Academy of the Holy Names instead. Upon graduation, Grandma once again advocated for her as an artist, sending her to Parsons School of Design in Paris for the summer. “I lived in the dorm and took illustration with Albert Elia, one of my favorite teachers.  I excelled in it. It was amazing.” Erin is ever grateful to her grandmother who passed away just days after she returned. She attended her father’s alma mater, Howard University, where he has held the posts of Vice President of the University as well as Dean and Professor of Urban Design in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her parents may have been cautious in their schooling preferences, but as Erin says “they were insanely nurturing. Markers, papers, triangles, whatever I needed,they provided.” That included a summer program the following year at Parsons in New York, where she’d wanted to live since she was nine. Deciding that Howard wasn’t the place for her, she set her sights on attending Parsons full time. “I was thrilled when I got that acceptance letter!” she exclaims. She lived with relatives on the Upper West Side and eventually moved with a roommate to a tiny apartment on Waverly and Perry in Greenwich Village. “It was a four-story walk-up, I had a fold-out chair bed and a little half-refrigerator and we thought, This is fantastic! ” She would then establish a long relationship with the great borough of Brooklyn where we met long ago through our dear friend Barb Chennault. Erin’s professional foray into fashion was designing sweaters for the Jaclyn Smith Collection, a Kmart property. Over a storied career with stints at the likes of Kikit and Abercrombie & Fitch among others she came full circle to become the vice-president of the baby division of Kmart/Sears Holdings, Inc.
With an eye on costume design, she decided to move to Los Angeles in 1992. “When you’re in your twenties you’re fearless, I didn’t have a pot to piss in, but I was going,” she says. Armed with optimism and a $500 parental subsidy, off she went. Soon after, she secured a job building costumes on the popular sketch comedy In Living Color where Barb worked in the wardrobe department.
From Fire Marshall Bill to Wanda, making costumes there “was like Halloween arts and crafts, ” she recalls. ” I mean it wasn’t couture, it was more like where’s the stapler? Hot glue gun? Maybe a couple of stitches?’ she laughs. “It was a career highlight, that job. I am still very close to the people I met there. There was a very small black wardrobe community in LA, we’d always look out for each other. The hours were crazy, but it was a blast! She left behind the grind of TV/film production to return to New York where she began her career in childrenswear with Baby Gap. Why kidswear? “Women’s is so nit-picky with 5 million different opinions,” she says. “Baby is sweet, cute, a lot of fun. You don’t have to be so serious.” That doesn’t mean she didn’t work hard. “I worked my behind off. It exposed me not only to some amazing, talented people but also to travel: Hong Kong, Europe and Tokyo.” During her seven-year tenure she designed newborn as well, but managerial differences sent her packing, at least temporarily, to fervent freelancing and traveling.  “I was hustling. I was like you’re gonna work this then you’re gonna get on an airplane.” Hired to revamp the Kmart brand, former Gap Executive Vice President Lisa Schultz tapped Erin to update the baby division. They literally did from the ground up out of Lisa’s apartment until the Midwest-based company secured New York offices. “It gave me this opportunity to utilize all my skills. It was insane at times but so creative. I’m proud of what we established.”

Beckoned by the bay.

As the business grew, so did corporate intervention. “I felt myself getting swallowed up, like I was drowning there and I just needed a change.” While in Hawaii for a wedding, she saw people cliff jumping in Waimea Bay and decided to go for it. She fretted a bit but found encouragement in the voices of kids shouting “lady, don’t look down, just jump.” She did. “It was like a cleansing, a baptism. When I surfaced I was on an adrenaline high and I set a date in my head and a plan in motion: this time next year you are going to be out.”

“My home is special to me, it is my sanctuary, It took me a long time to get it just as I liked it.”  But she packed up her life, gave up her space, and lived out of bags as she plotted her sabbatical to decompress, refuel and serve– perhaps in the Congo. She remembers sharing her plan with her mother. “My mom is really strong, protective and stoic. The look I saw in her face –the fear– broke my heart, but ultimately she offered her complete support.” Her father didn’t take to the idea as easily but once he came around he jumped into action suggesting items for her pack. “I actually found it quite comical and endearing. He made sure I was set and “saw me off at the airport with my little orange backpack.” Banda Village, Nyungwe Rainforest. She flew into Kigali, capital of genocide-ravaged Rwanda. “You feel the veil of heaviness of what took place. It’s hard to come across anyone that was not affected in some way.” Thwarted by advisories to stay out of the region, her plan to serve in the DRC was reconfigured to join Peace Corps workers by volunteering with Kageno.org in Banda Village. Walking through town. Aware of and grateful for her life’s privilege she wanted to somehow give back and as an African American woman to dispel the notion of the white savior. With her light complexion and green eyes the villagers called her mzungu— white person. For a girl raised in 1970’s Chocolate City, to be considered anything other than black took her aback. “Nitwa Erin,” my name is Erin, she asserted. Sustenance. During her stay, she assisted in any way she could from serving nutrient-rich Susomna to the malnourished children to painting illustrations of vocabulary words on the walls of the schoolroom. As she painted she played Brazilian music, a Pied Piper’s call to a quartet of young village girls, who came and doodled on the blackboard as she worked. Moved by the rhythm, their tiny hips started to sway. Erin will never forget the children’s stories of survival, like that of eight-year-old miracle, Rebecca. The back of her head is deeply scarred from a long-ago baboon attack. She’d been in the fields with her older siblings when aggressive baboons descended from the forest. Frightened, her siblings ran to get their parents, leaving the three-year-old behind. When they returned to the scene, Rebecca was gone. The beasts had carried her off, mauled her and left her for dead. It’s incredible that she survived and that her parents were able to find her. Of her new friends Erin says, “I want them to know I care, that it wasn’t a one-shot deal.”  She plans to return with clothing, necessities and prints of the many beautiful images she snapped. Bandan beauty. Heading north to the Virungas, a cluster of volcanoes bordering Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the trek was literally and figuratively breathtaking. The high altitude left Erin breathless as did the incredible vistas and the origin of the Nile. “We hung out with the gorillas– the original fam. They were picking and scratching and farting,” she chuckles. Up Virunga Mountain. Next stop, Nairobi, Kenya where she visited the animal orphanages, getting up close and personal with the endangered monkeys, giraffes, cheetahs and elephants. She then went to neighboring Kibera, originally developed by the British as a forest settlement for Nubian soldiers returning home after service in World War I. Today the impoverished residents live in squalid conditions. As Erin’s guide led her through the muck and filth to the slum’s center, she felt afraid for the first time on her trip.  He sensed her fear, looked at her very directly and said “Don’t be scared. We are not criminals, we are just very, very poor.” She was deeply moved and tried to hide her tears.  “Will you come back? “ he asked.  He found something on the ground to write down an email address.  She’s since written but received no reply. One of the many beautiful children of Kibera. From the motherland to Indonesia, the leg of her journey designed to “get balanced again… Bali is spiritual, so beautiful it’s ridiculous.” She began each day in meditation; on Mondays and Saturdays she took life drawing classes, something she hadn’t done since her Parsons days and she spent her first ever Christmas away from her family. “I stayed a month, but I could live there,” she says dreamily. In Bali, I cared for myself inside and out. I had an aura and I truly felt beautiful.” A morning prayer; a beautiful drawing. She left the calm for the cacophony of Delhi, teeming with people, livestock, dust and risky driving. “India is where I confronted myself and it was hard. A Delhi wedding. “They party!” She was glad to connect with her friend, travel writer Jonathan Yevin who traverses the globe with all he needs tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. They took the no-frills option from Delhi to Agra, the second-class train, made the requisite pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal and were invited to the nearby ultra-luxe hotel Oberoi Amarvilas for a tour and lunch. “ So we walked into the Oberoi, these two little raggedy vagabonds.” As at the Taj, there was a glaring juxtaposition of opulent beauty within the gates and extreme poverty just outside. Jonathan and Erin auto-rickshaw through Agra. A Brahman bull and petals at the feet of Ganesh at the Taj Mahal. In Jaipur, she felt a surge of creative energy. “It inspired me. Between the gold leaf and the textures and the walls, I designed a line of dresses. Jaipuri adornment on walls, domes even the camels. On the backwaters of the southern state of Kerala, home of “the nicest people ever,” she and a friend rented a houseboat under the palms as everyone back home in the eastern US was inundated with snow. Glimpses of Kerala. At the start of her adventure some questioned the wisdom of giving up her VP gig and fabulous two bedroom loft with Dad’s Eames chair, but the universe rewards the courageous. She’s returned to the team she loves at Sears Holdings and soon moves into a new apartment in the same beloved Brooklyn loft building…but with a firm commitment to giving back. Her Gemini twin selves seek beauty in the ethereal and the earthly, bound in loving sentiment by both. Here’s a look into some of the things she holds dear:  1. Daydreaming. “Anyone who knows me knows that I love to daydream.” The daydreamer and her untitled painting. 2. G10 Camera. An avid photographer and sentimental documentarian of life experience, she is seldom without it. The Canon Power Shot G10. 3. Tulum. It has become an annual ritual to visit the pristine beaches of the Yucatán peninsula for her late spring birthday or new year retreat. She looks forward to seeing the friends she’s made at Sueños Tulum, the eco-friendly Mexican resort. 4. Bali Rituals.  Fueling her pre-existing “incense junkieness,” she took on the clarifying morning practices. “They get up in the morning, gather the frangipani, the plumeria and they offer something to their gods whether it’s a Ritz cracker or a cigarette. And they light the incense and meditate with the Buddhas and the Lakshmis…” Aromatic, personal, spiritual. 5. Fragrant Florals. Her favorites are peony, tuberose and lilac. She tries to buy herself flowers once a week. She enjoys making her own arrangements.

6. Browsing Interior Magazines. Elle Decoration UK, Living etc. and the decor8 blog, Love these!” For inspiration…

7. Sasha Dolls. Introduced in the 1960’s by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler, the dolls were intended to depict a universal image of childhood. Dianne Robinson made certain that her girls played with dolls of varying skin tones, not just the blonde, blue-eyed offerings that lined most shelves at that time. Now collectible, the dolls can be found through sources like Ebay. Cora; and Palila from Allegro Melody Art Dolls.

8. My Mayan and Aztec Calender Necklaces.  “I like having the sun close to my heart.”

You rarely see her without one of the two.

9. My Sketch Books. Repositories of her incredible talent, they hold her inspirations, her imaginings and creative intentions.

The fruits of her Jaipur musings.

10. Daddy and Me at Dulles.  One of a couple of treasured photos with her Vietnam-bound father. “I look at that photo and thank the creator for the opportunity to experience my father and have him nurture me to who I am today.  I don’t have to make up stories or daydream about who he was because he came home.”

First Lieutenant Harry G. Robinson III returned from Vietnam with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to raise a beautiful family with wife Dianne and establish a long and illustrious career.

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The Trove: Eisa Ulen Richardson & Ralph Richardson
July 2, 2011

On the Fundy Trail. On each other: “He is my rock…She is wonderful, loving, giving.”

Capricorn hip-hop heads Eisa Nefertari Ulen and Ralph Richardson, Jr. lived parallel lives near to, yet unaware of each other. Born in the city of Brotherly Love, each eventually moved with their families to idyllic Columbia, Maryland in the 1970s. As young adults, they both lived in the Nation’s Capital. For years, their worlds hovered close, threatening to collide–their cousins were good friends; they attended some of the same memorable events; they both considered law careers until the Muse called and each followed her to Brooklyn. In 1999 at the junction of Fulton and Flatbush, defying the laws of physics, their parallel lines converged.

“He saw me walking ahead of him and he liked my posture,” Eisa says. They did a bit of a dance — he walking alongside her then dropping back in the cut when she failed to notice. Undeterred, he finally strode forward offering a bright smile and a hello. “We started talking and he told me he was a filmmaker,” she says. “I was like yeah and everybody else in this neighborhood.

“No, no, really I am,” he said and dashed into his nearby apartment emerging with a VHS tape of his first film, a black and white short called Kharja which they promptly viewed in the local video store.

“Absolutely, stunningly beautiful,” Eisa says. “Very well-done. So we talked about that and I told him I was a writer and he walked me home.” Since she’d just met him on the street, she was initially hesitant to give up the digits when he asked for her phone number.  “He said, ‘You know you’re going to give it to me’ and actually I did know. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, when I looked at him, he felt really familiar. I gave it to him and about 10 minutes later he called and read me a poem he’d composed about our meeting.”

“Off the top…I only make fresh-baked bread,” Ralph laughs. From that day on, every day they were in the same town, they saw each other. There was no singular moment when it crystallized for either of them, “other than just meeting,” he says, the infinity line touched in Fort Greene. “Things evolved organically,” Ralph says and they married July 5, 2004.

“We are committed to each other as loving partners but both having divorced parents we’re even more committed to the institution of marriage,” Eisa says. And now since the 2009 birth of their son, Ralph Everett Hooper Richardson III, their entangled roots grow deeper.

“Ralph is the one I knew was out there. I had opened up a space in my life for my husband to walk in and that’s when he came…and gave me a son.”

When I visited the Richardsons in their Fort Greene home last week, Ralph talked time theory while Eisa readied herself in the bedroom. “Time drags for the young. The older you are it seems that time quickens. I think it’s because you’re denied things when you’re young: I can’t wait to be this, I can’t wait to do that.  Anticipation elongates time and I think adults need to incorporate that anticipation to extend time.”  Two-and-a-half-year-old Ralphie popped out to give me status updates on Mommy. Astrology buff Ralph explained that their son is an Aquarius, the water bearer, “he pours the water into the river, conducting the flow.” When Eisa emerged she thanked her baby boy for keeping the communication fluid.

As I sat down with the writer and filmmaker to chat life, books and movies, the ridiculously cute Ralphie (a.k.a. Hoop) shared his artwork: mixed media on paper and a Cheerios butterfly which I awkwardly broke “Ooh Miss Sharon destroyed the butterfly,” Eisa laughed and quickly reassembled the pipe cleaner-clothespin-breakfast cereal creation.

Eisa holds dear the sense of place, lineage, history, being. She is fiercely proud of her stunningly elegant “Grandmom,” Carmelita, “the Philly fashionista,” and first black woman to become a nurse-anesthetist at the University of Pennsylvania. There are traces of her in Eisa’s graceful comportment. She is grateful for her bright, beautiful mother’s staunch support. She knows she stands on the strong shoulders of remarkable women (and men) and revels in “who I am as a woman right now.  The identity of being a mom, a wife, a writer… that’s really special to me.”

Ralph is a take-it-as-it-comes guy moving through life’s triumphs and challenges in good humor with an open mind, hearty laugh and belief in the power of dreams and embracing the fortuitous moment.

Not surprisingly, womanist Eisa’s favorite films are black woman-centered and directed, Daughters of the Dust and Eve’s Bayou. Ralph’s top three are The Godfather, 1 and 2, (“bar none, together they are my number one,”) Blade Runner and Scarface.

“I used to think of The Godfather as a gangster movie and what my husband taught me is that it’s a narrative about immigration,” Eisa chimes in. “And so it got me thinking Scarface and Godfather are really rich immigrant tales. Scarface had a lot of exploitative elements but it was riveting; that opening montage with the Mariel boatlift anchors the film in a powerful way. Ralph helped me differentiate between these immigrant tales and narratives of containment like Boyz in the Hood or Menace II Society. My favorite in that category would be City of God.” 

“Yes, awesome film, awesome,” Ralph agrees. “Probably my fifth favorite, with Alfred Hitchock’s Notorious at number four. I’m all into the conspiratorial, claustrophobic, paranoia-type thing. I’m a big fan of noir and it has those elements. My favorite books are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for Blade Runner. Ellison has those elements of claustrophobia and being oppressed …gravity, tremendous amounts of gravity.” Of his two favorite authors he says, “I’m gonna make a movie combining those two sensibilities and smashing them together.”

Eisa’s favorite books are all seminal works written by black authors: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Jean Toomer’s Cane and South African writer, Bessie Head’s Maru. Her own first story–written at about age four–on tipis and tulips, remains in her mother’s library.

 The gorgeous Ulen family in 1970s ubiquity: the Olan Mills portrait.

Eisa’s activist parents, Tony and Cheryl Ulen met as students of historically black Lincoln and Cheyney Universities.  They raised their infant daughter in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, they’d divorced and Eisa’s grandfather admonished, “get my granddaughter the hell out of there.”  Her mom, ready for a fresh start, took her ten-year-old to the relatively new planned community of Columbia, Maryland.

A proud alumna of Baltimore’s all-girl Western High School, Eisa “always did well in English class, contributed to the literary magazine and even wrote for the city youth newspaper.” Though black literature was prominent in her own home and her granddad was a journalist, she planned to become a lawyer. When a friend explained that she wanted to attend Oberlin College because they had a great writing program, she “opened a door of possibility for me,” Eisa says. “It was like ding ding ding ding…you can make a career of being a writer.”

A presentation at Western on Sarah Lawrence College (which also has a stellar writing program) sold her. “I was in love. The recruiter talked about the philosophy of the school, the culture and the school community.” The location,”right outside New York was ideal because I knew I didn’t want to be in the city, but I wanted to be close. I got the best of both possible worlds.” She wrote throughout college, contributing to school publications. She spent her junior year at Howard, “when DC was the murder capital. We lived at 111 Bates and I was sitting on the stoop when these two girls walked by who were about my age. I overheard them talking: ‘I’m gonna just go on and have this baby before he gets shot up or locked up’ and that stayed with me. It’s not like I went inside and started writing but I held onto the line,” she recalls.

During her senior year, she wrote her first nationally published story, “a remix of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for Urban Profile magazine.” She went home for a couple of years and taught school until she returned to New York to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and education at Columbia.

Upon examining the lives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston she realized that she didn’t have to be pigeonholed into one genre of writing. “I knew Langston as a poet and Zora as a novelist,” she says. “But there was so much more, especially Zora. She did the Bohemian Fire Dance; she studied anthropology, so she created scholarly work; she was writing essays; she did some freelance journalism; she taught; she worked on the play, Mule Bone; and her fiction, so many short stories and novels. It became very clear to me that I didn’t have to limit myself. Instead of saying I’m a fiction writer or I’m a poet or I’m a journalist I could just say I am a writer. I could be free to do all that.” And so she has, contributing to everyone from The Washington Post to Ms. to The Source to TheRoot.com while keeping her eye on the fiction prize. As a former fellow of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center’s Young African American Fiction Writers, she will be “eternally grateful to Fred Hudson, may he rest in peace for establishing a place for black writers in New York to really nurture creativity in black literary art.”

Her beautiful debut novel, Crystelle Mourning is not autobiographical yet it is imbued with the sensitivity of collective generational experience. “Even though I grew up pretty much middle class and had normal teenage stuff in my life, Baltimore had the highest assault rate then. It was the eighties and I’d go to parties and somebody would get shot and killed; I’d go to the Inner Harbor and somebody would start shooting in the air and everybody would be running.  I’ve had those physical experiences with what was going on statistically all around me. Our generation is not so different from generations before in that we had to learn to process terror.”

The response of the Afrocentric movement was, she explains “very male-centered, there was a gender-specific way of looking at what was going on, which makes a lot of sense because it was boys and men who were killing each other.  Girls weren’t out shooting each other, so I get that, but what became an interesting question for me as a feminist and black woman, a womanist was Well what about the girls and women left behind? How does their pain get expressed?

When she started writing Crystelle Mourning, Eisa thought it was a short story collection. She’d won the fellowship and joined a writers’ group with Brooklyn writer Grace Edwards. “Grace was the one who told me that what I was writing was a novel,” she says. “What became clear is that I was writing about the experiences of my generation and I thank that woman whose name I’ll never know from Bates Street that night because her voice guided me to this work. It’s really about these women: Crystelle, the title character, her mother and the mother of the boy she grew up with who lived across the street. It’s about what happens to these women after he is shot and killed their senior year in high school.”  

The story resonates deeply: “I’ve had women cry and come up and hug me after readings.”

In anticipation of Ralphie’s birth, Eisa quit her collegiate gig teaching English at Hunter. She’s now focused on raising him and throwing herself headlong into writing. Keep abreast of her insightful, incisive work at EisaUlen.com.

Boys to men: the Brothers Richardson, Ralph and Anthony with mom Diane and dad Ralph, Sr.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Diane Richardson sowed the seeds for life-long passion in her first-born. “My mom used to take my brother and me to the movies every weekend.” His first memory of seeing a film is from age three: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “That was the time of double-features for a buck. So I’ve seen all the blaxploitation movies in the theater, when I was like three, four, five-years-old– Shaft, Blacula, Rosey Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, Mandingo,” he says.I saw Jaws at seven.”

“I saw Bad News Bears,” Eisa interjects. She recalls loving the wholesome ET, Ralph has a different take: “Spielberg’s a great filmmaker. It’s cute, but I was like there’s no black dudes in the cul-de-sac and yet everybody loves this strange creature, I don’t see Julio from down in the schoolyard in there. About his adult-themed viewing he says, “it didn’t blanket my innocence, but it made me astute. I had an acute sensibility about what I did like.”

Although he and Eisa aren’t likely to allow their child to watch movies with mature themes, Ralph “wouldn’t change a thing” about his childhood. He was in no way traumatized, in fact he is ever grateful to his mother for the weekly cinema ritual. “It had to have inspired me,” the Widener University grad says. “I didn’t realize until I was 25 and had decided to go to Georgetown Law School that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I asked myself if I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I do? And this voiceless voice inside said film. Then all this stuff started pouring out. It was a very latent talent I hadn’t realized I had. I never hesitated, I packed up and rolled to New York.” Learning by doing, the self-taught filmmaker began his quest.

His roommates were all Philly transplants: stylist Debra Ginyard, model Belinda Sawyer and actress Yvette Ganier. “I was like Jack Tripper up in that piece,” he laughs. Debra suggested he get a headshot for acting opportunities while trying to establish himself.  On the day Tupac Shakur died the hip-hop fan co-directed his first film with a cast of friends, roommates and himself in the male lead from a script he’d written in 20 minutes (“it flew right out.”) His partner, a film school grad backed out of the project in post production, leaving Ralph to his own devices. Serendipity would have it that he found an editing bay made available for free during certain hours. By immersion, the novice learned to cut film the old-fashioned way, on a flatbed Steenbeck. The film won a New York Short Film award and ran for six months on Starz. “So I knew I could do this,” he asserts.

Shortly after moving to New York he had a vivid dream. “It was so visceral. I was in China. I was really there and had the greatest time.”  Two weeks later he heard from a casting director, We have your headshot. We want you to audition for this part shooting in China. “I don’t even know how they got the headshot,” he says.  He went in of course, to audition and when he blurted out about his dream he got the part. “The Chinese are very into fortuitous luck, so if you dream something like that, it means something.” Off he went to China, shooting for four months. “It was one of the best times of my life, it was incredible, I loved every moment of it,” he remembers.  “By six weeks I didn’t need an interpreter because I love people and being able to communicate with them.”

“Then I worked with RZA on this film I wrote, When Tyson met Tyra. It was my first feature, an urban Bonnie & Clyde.”  He has since directed and/or edited numerous filmed projects and additionally he covers film, television, and popular culture as a freelance writer for TheGrio.com, TheDefendersOnline.com and Time, Inc.

Posted today on theRoot.com is Ralph’s article on Video on Demand (VOD), the game-changing approach to film distribution he’s utilizing for his latest film now available via Amazon as well as VOD.  Sex, Drugs and Comedy, “is a wonderful trip on the road with some of the most brilliant comedians in the country.”

He runs down the first day of production: “I’m shooting on the bridges getting b-roll stuff for the road and this cop at the toll booth wants to confiscate the camera… on the path of the hero there’s always an immediate obstacle to overcome. Then we run out of gas and literally push the car to the gas station.  Then the car breaks down completely. We borrow a car, get lost and finally make it to the place with 15 minutes to get set up. We put the key card in the door to our hotel room, it opens, but it’s bolted. The promoter is having sex with a groupie. You can’t write this stuff…and that was the very first day.”

It’s a rough journey to the A-list. “The crux, the core of being a comedian is the hustle,” he says. “They’re like truck drivers, it’s a hard road.”

“They are the funniest comedians you never heard of,” says Eisa of the comics-on-the-cusp in the film.”Sex Drugs and Comedy is funny, but it also has a real heart and soul that’s poignant and makes it special,” she says proudly of her husband’s work. “Comedy is a brutal art.”

Before I left them to settle Ralphie into naptime, they shared a few favorite things: for Eisa, the stuff of memory, reflection and nostalgia and Ralph’s all kinetic energy: moving pictures, moving sound, moving the body.

Eisa’s Fave Five:

1.Old Family Photos. Represent, represent. Ralphie will know from whence he came surrounded by the faces of  family adorning the walls.  Years ago Eisa discovered a cache of photographs — from snapshots to formal portraits in a bag at her grandmother’s house which she painstakingly mounted for her in a leather-bound archival album. Now that Carmelita has passed on, she treasures the collection.

A few of the many priceless photos: Ralph’s mom Diane in her confirmation portrait; Eisa’s grandmother Carmelita in 8th grade; Eisa’s Bermudan kin evoke Daughters of the Dust; Ralph’s paternal grandparents, Doris and Gene Richardson; Ralph’s maternal grandparents, Cat and Sonny Jones and the treasured album.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God. She cherishes her dog-eared copy of fellow Capricorn Zora Neale Hurston’s classic.

Notes scribbled in the margins are clues to the person she was when she first read the seminal text.

3. The Blue Chair. A touchstone from her mother’s childhood home, it is one of many pieces of heirloom furniture which now grace her Brooklyn apartment.


It’s a Ralphie fave as well, a place to sit with his mom and drum on the djembe.

4. My Paternal Grandmother’s Portrait. Millicent Hooper Ulen was a cellist and pianist and like her father before her she was for many years the proprietor of Hooper Memorial Funeral Home. Her husband, Eisa’s “Pop Pop,” was a writer, the Capital Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier with an office at the Capital dome in Harrisburg. “I used to like to visit there with my dad, it was very exciting to me.


Millicent’s son, Lance now runs the family business and created this painting.

5. Composition Books. The classic ruled notebooks with their black and white mottled covers have housed her words from childhood on.

When writing non-fiction, Eisa types directly into the computer, but for her prose, it’s pen to paper.

Ralph’s Fave Five:

1. Great Underground Movies. Two that he likes are Shanghai Triad.  “Awesome, awesome movie, like The Godfather but set in 1930’s Shanghai. Beautiful!”  And Layer Cake, the British film with a pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig. “It wasn’t as popular, but just as good as Snatch.”

2. Snowboarding. “I love it because it makes me feel like the Silver Surfer.”

Via Lindsay Fincher.

3. Hiking. The self-described “transcendental mountain man” enjoys a good hike.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

4. Music.  Specifically, “this mixtape I’m still bumpin’ from last year called Radical by OFWGKTA , Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All…The essence of the music stems from an anarchists’ upheaval, Odd Future embodies that.”

“They’re like The Clash-meets-Wu Tang-meetsOnyx. Incredible. They’ve got gnomes as part of their staging. Gnomes! and a lot of smoke and zombies…totally cool.

5. Adventures with Ralphie. We just walk around and observe things. We don’t go to the playground, we don’t have any stress.  So he can not be on the same path all the time, we mix it up, find new things and explore ’cause kids love to explore. I’ll carry a ball, a basketball or a soccer ball and we’ll run the whole time, kicking it along the street.  But then we’ll stop at a sculpture garden…Look at flowers, identify them and I’ll put caterpillars in his hands… He’ll watch people play tennis at the park.

He enjoys the vicarious thrill of the excitement of being two. “You get to relive what you don’t remember.”

The Trove: Craig Wallace
May 11, 2011


We’ve relocated!  View our story on Craig at inthetrove.com.  Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Craig Wallace before his performance in Jennifer L. Nelson’s “24,7, 365” at The Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Though I met Craig Stephen Wallace, he of the resounding voice and commanding presence, about twenty years ago, I’ve seen him more in the past year than in all the years before, owing to seeing the respected thespian in multiple productions. I’d heard of the DC-based actor’s ascent over the years through our friend, filmmaker Kelvin Phillips, so when familial responsibilities brought me back to my native Washington, I checked out the prolific performer as he robustly embodied embattled arts administrator Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” doting father Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair” and bourgie bro’ Beau crossing the tracks in “24, 7, 365.” 

Fresh from an end-of-March appearance with John Lithgow in “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony,” at the Kennedy Center, Craig went straight into rehearsals for a unique Folger Elizabethan Theatre adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. We caught up for a very quick, but yummy bite at Capitol Hill lunch fave, We the Pizza to discuss his journey from an only child, “a shy kid who loved books, TV and music” to a confident, respected member of a thriving theater community.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York Craig stumbled upon his calling in high school when given a choice to take American Literature or Drama: A Practicum. He selected the latter thinking it was the easier of the two.  The instructor, actress Betsy Bourcy “saw something in me. I fought her tooth and nail but she forced me to audition (for the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls.) It was a watershed moment in my life, I never looked back.”

He spent his undergraduate years at Howard University deejaying frat parties and hosting college radio under the moniker Synbad Starr. “Truth was,” he says, “I was an egghead nerd trying to find myself.” He relishes those days. “College taught me how to have an opinion. At Howard I learned how to think, graduate school taught me how to act and in that progression I found myself.”

With fly folks, though shy, the future Funkateer always had presence.

An internship at The Folger was a career-making move. “I was watching the actors tackle the language and I knew that I wanted to learn the skills to tell classical stories. I also love the music of poetry and how rhythm plays such a vital part in speaking verse text. I did my first Shakespeare play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in 1987 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company was at The Folger.” He has since then covered most of the Shakespearean canon: from comedies “Twelfth Night” to “Troilus and Cressida;” tragedies “Hamlet” to “Coriolanus” and histories “Henry V” to “Richard II.”

Bardic: Caius Ligarius in “Julius Caesar,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) Othello in “Othello,” (Folger Theatre) Brother in a Caribbean-set “Much Ado About Nothing,” (Folger Theatre) Escalus in “Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) and in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Upon receiving his MFA from Penn State, he might have headed north with Broadway dreams but he returned south to the Districtbecause of a job opportunity. I stayed because I kept working. There was, for me, no real reason to leave. This is a flourishing theater community. I believe there are 80 professional theaters in the DMV region. I’m not sure it’s as diverse as it could be. I’m not saying there is racism involved, but in region where there are a lot of people of color, there should be more of us onstage….and I’m not sure if that’s our problem or theirs….probably both right?

Though he works steadily as an actor, he “began teaching acting at George Mason University just to supplement my income. These days, in addition to GMU, I also teach for The Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Theatre Lab and serve as a Folger Theatre teaching artist at Cardozo Senior High School.”

His passion for theater is shared by his girlfriend, Kimberly Schraf, whom he met when they both appeared in a 1994 production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.” They once again graced the same stage in last Fall’s production of “Sabrina Fair” with Kim in the deliciously witty role of Julia Ward McKinlock. She has also narrated over one hundred books on tape including Little Altars Everywhere, Bee Season and The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Outstanding Supporting Actress Nominee (for “Show Boat) Kim and Craig at the 2010 Helen Hayes Awards.

When asked about his influences he says “I have always been inspired by Malcolm X. He is discipline personified. Just got the new book on him, can’t wait to crack it.” He adds, “I do have directors and professors in my life that have given me insight on myself and my acting and I found them to be very helpful in my career.In that career he’s breathed life into the words of not only Shakespeare, but such esteemed playwrights as Anton Chekov, August Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Howard Sackler, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner (whose “Angels in America,” secured Craig a 2000 Helen Hayes Award nomination for his portrayal of the nurse, Belize.)

Clockwise from left, an illustrious career: Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” (Everyman Theater) Usumcasane in “Tamburlaine,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) “The Underpass” (Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University) Beau in “24, 7, 365,” (Theatre of the First Amendment) Flip in “Our Lady of 121st Street,” (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)The Mayor in “Fucking A,” (Studio Theatre) Brother in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson” (The Hangar Theatre)


Clockwise: Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” (Round House Theatre) Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair,” (Ford’s Theatre Society) The Aviator in “The Little Prince” and Booster in “Jitney” (African Continuum Theatre Company)

Craig was invited in 2006 to join a coterie of esteemed speakers at a birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. He honored the 16th President of the United States by reading  an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the staging of “Cyrano” he says rehearsal has been intense, “we started blocking the first day…As all good art it’s gonna get ugly before it gets pretty.”  Of his role as the villainous DeGuiche he says, “I just want him to be full-bodied and complex. If we do it right, you will hate him at first, but come to an understanding about him by the end. Phew!”

De Guiche taunts Cyrano (Eric Hissom)  Photo: Carol Pratt

What’s next on the horizon? “I’ve got some upcoming acting and directing jobs after Cyrano closes. Looks to be a busy summer and fall! I’m just beginning to direct. I’ve already directed a couple of things (“Tommy J and Sally,” “Mio Cuore – My Heart” and “Children of Medea”) and I’m still learning.

As I finished my ginger root soda, he bounded off to rehearse the show I look forward to checking out next week.  (The Folger Elizabethan Theatre production of Cyrano runs through June 5th.)

And without further ado, Craigslist:

1. Storm. Craig and Kim fell deep in doggie love eight years ago with the arrival of a gorgeous Husky mix in their lives. “Together we are three the hard way! And I love every minute of it.”

Snow Storm: in her element, achieving canine Nirvana.

2. Funk. “The music, the way of life.” On his Facebook “About,” he says simply,  “I’m just livin’ and jivin’ and diggin’ the skin I’m in.”

Classic funk: the landing of the Mothership.

3. Watching TV. As a child, it was “cartoons, of course and all the PBS fare–Sesame Street, Electric Company, etc.  As a teen, I was big into Twilight Zone, then 60 Minutes. For years I never missed it.” Some other faves include Treme, the Law and Order franchise, Dexter, Damages, The Wire and Flight of the Conchords.

The Treme opening sequence. Music by John Boutté.

4. Newspapers. Especially the Sunday papers.

He consistently reads the The Washington Post, natch, and the Sunday New York Times.

5. Shakespeare. The work of the Bard has been integral to his double-decade career.

Once you get the hang of it, it is really a wonderful feeling to have his words roll off your tongue!

6. Getting to know a new city when I work outside of DC.

His role last year in the pivotal role of “Boy Willie” in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson took him to the Hangar Theatre in the college town and gateway to the Finger Lakes, Ithaca, New York.

7. Cooking. “I look at the food section of The [Washington] Post every Wednesday. If something looks good, I’ll make it.” 


“My specialty is roasting whole chickens on the grill.”  Photo via Healthy Delicious.

8. Collecting music. The former DJ still has vinyl and says, “When I get time to find some room in the house, I’m going to set up me stereo, pull them out and have some fun.”

Some of the albums which “changed the way I think about music.”

9. Having Cocktails. He’s not beholden to any particular watering hole. “It’s more about the company than the spot.”

Photo Morgan Sheff via Cocktails and Cologne.

10. My Home.  After intense immersion in scripted lives it’s always good for him to return to his own.

Photo, Chris in Plymouth.