Warren Bowles as Mammy

Warren Bowles as Mammy in NEIGHBORS

We are sharing memories from some of our favorite shows every Friday. Here is Jack Reuler’s perspective on opening night of 2011’s production of Neighbors.

Theater practitioners all have “war stories.” They get together and compare stories like Quint on the Orca in Jaws, one upping each other over and over. The bigger the gasp, the wider eyed the reaction, the better the yarn. On September 16, 2011 I earned bragging rights that one up the uppiest…and wish I hadn’t.
A 26-year old Brandon Jabobs-Jenkins had been in residence for four weeks with Nataki Garrett as director on Branden’s controversial NEIGHBORS and September 16 was the opening night of the show, of the season, and the first day of the launch of our much ballyhood Radical Hospitality.
In NEIGHBORS, an African American professor, his white wife, and biracial daughter (played by Bruce Young, Sarah Agnew, and Brittany Bradford) move from the west to east coast to take on an adjunct role at a prestigious institution. The professor sees the Black neighbors as iconic minstrel archetypes – Zip Coon, Mammy, Sambo, and Topsy – who disrupt his perfect post-racial upwardly mobile world. It’s wild, lewd, and, mildly, provocative. Several actors boycotted auditions.

September 16 was also the first day Jamil Jude was Mixed Blood’s house manager and the first performance for which Amanda White was Director of Radical Hospitality. The audience filled exactly as the architects of Radical Hospitality had planned and hoped: young, spanning the racial and economic spectrum, and eager. Mixed Blood’s entire board and staff were there as were the families of the cast and crew.
While we pride ourselves on the four best words in the American theater (90 minutes no intermission), NEIGHBORS was 2-1/2 hours long. Inspiring wrath and outrage, some people left at intermission. With 15 minutes to go, actor Warren Bowles – in blackface and dressed as Mammy with ballast breasts that shot fluid in a projectile manner – was delivering a monologue during which he performed the greatest stage fall in the history of drama. For a nanosecond the entire audience thought, given the unpredictable nature of their past 135 minutes, that it was intentional. But the staff knew otherwise. Warren had gone into cardiac arrest on stage in front of a full house!

Staff jumped into action. I sent Jamil to the stage to check on Warren. I ran to the box office to use a landline to call 911. Production Manager Cailtin Schaeffer raced to the stage and asked the audience to stay in their seats until paramedics arrived. Playwright Aditi Kapil raced to Warren’s wife, who was in the house. I knew of a doctor and EMT amongst the patrons and beckoned them to the stage. Warren was breathing lightly, eyes rolled back in his head. By the time the EMT’s and paramedics arrived (seven minutes that felt like a century), Warren had flatlined – was dead. The professionals pulled out the paddles and attached a LUCAS (mechanical chest compression cylinder) to reveal a violent on-stage event as the piston drove Warren’s sternum into the stage floor and the defibrillator lifted his body from the stage with each of its 20 jolts. After 20 minutes of flatline unresponsive behavior, Warren miraculously coughed up sputum and opened his eyes. Off to the County Hospital, the best Level 1 trauma center in the region and only a few minutes away.

Warren Bowles had, at that time, been my friend for 34 years and is Godfather to my daughter. Marketing Director Beth Richardson sought guidance on external communication, as this was a private event happening very publicly. I asked that all internal and external communication go through me and sped off after an ambulance. Warren’s body was cooled and he was put into an induced coma. At the theater was food and booze for over 220 people that the cast and crew (18) devoured in comfort-eating. Twitter was new and word swept through the Twitter world so quickly that I got a call from South Africa by the time I got to the hospital. The media wanted info.

In true the-show-must-go-on manner, a replacement was hired the next day and rehearsal started the day after. We missed two performances. When Warren was awakened three days later, everyone asked me if he had suffered brain damage. “It’s worse,” I explained, “He is fully Warren Bowles again!”
Mixed Blood quickly acquired its own AED. Nataki is now the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation’s largest non-profit theater. Branden has been named a MacArthur genius and been a finalist for the Pulitzer twice. Jamil is now the artistic director of True Colors in Atlanta. Amanda is artistic director of Daleko Arts. Brittany Bradford in on Broadway. I am still at Mixed Blood. And Warren Bowles is still directing, acting, and being a wise ass to everyone’s appreciation.