“You have what it takes to make it,” he said softly, with a look of utmost certainty in his gaze. He meant it, better still he was convinced of it and dared me to be just as convinced as he. I was floored, humbled even, if that is possible for a teenager. We were in the throes of an intense rehearsal schedule for our impending run on Broadway, “The Boys Choir of Harlem & Friends” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (1993), under the direction & staging of Geoffrey Holder. It was a tremendous time in my life. I’d already been afforded the privilege of gracing some of the world’s most prestigious stages and sharing them with some of entertainment’s most notable figures, as well as, appearing on critically acclaimed recordings and soundtracks, such as the Academy Award winning Glory, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and Quincy Jones’ Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.
Mounting a Broadway production is an arduous task. As a member of The Boys Choir of Harlem one had to be intimate with hard work and functioning at a high standard. Preparations for our run on The Great White Way would require each of us to be more focused than ever before. The term Labor of Love comes to mind when I think of how masterfully the great Mr. Holder led us. He was a giant of a man, at 6’6” tall, with an authentic regal air. He strode with liberty in every step, as if nothing and no one could bind him. There was nothing contrived about it, he just was. Brilliance emanated from his very being and one could clearly feel he knew and wore his legacy well. He didn’t speak, he sang in that perfectly balanced Caribbean-bass of a voice. He was keenly aware of its prowess and finely adept at wielding it. I recall how my peers and I in our failed attempts to impersonate that voice, as adolescent boys tend to do, particularly in the presence of such radiant manhood, would exhaust ourselves uttering what was clearly Holder’s favorite word, Carmen. Just the way he’d say her name was a song, Caaaaarmen. A dazzling, lyrical force of nature in her own right, I knew, even within the confines of my adolescence that she was a wife in the highest sense, she was his muse; and thus, the very manner in which he spoke her name was like an adoration of praise.
Painter, dancer, choreographer, director, designer, actor, certainly I’ve neglected to mention a few. Not bad for a boy who once struggled with a stammer and dyslexia. Much like the immortal Sammy Davis, Jr. he was not a mere jack of all trades, but, an authentic master of all. So imagine how the world stood still for me as a teenager when a man of such stature and acclaim, with the deepest sincerity and conviction gazed upon me and uttered those words, you have what it takes to make it? It’s the stuff children crave from their fathers. That blessed validation that says all that you dream and all that you are matter.
Several years later as a man I am still grasping the impact of what those words meant for me. Like my father, Mr. Holder was an immigrant from Trinidad-Tobago. Like my father he was effortlessly charismatic. Like my father he possessed simplistic, yet profound wisdom. However, when it came to this life I chose as a performing artist, the comparisons ended. My father was a practical man who, like many parents who mean well saw no practicality in a life in the arts and wasn’t shy about expressing it, despite my successful ventures with an establishment like The Boys Choir of Harlem. Yet, Mr. Holder, an unapologetically accomplished artist whose very presence made it clear my endeavors were not only possible, but necessary, was the father whose approval outweighed the well meaning practical descent of my dad. For such is the life of the budding artist, of any discipline. It seems, save for that special and supportive corner of the universe some are blessed to fined, that the world, including the ones who honestly mean well, simply don’t get it. You do not choose to be a singer, an actor, a painter, a writer, a dancer, a clown, or a trapeze artist, like you would a doctor or a flight attendant, it chooses you. It’s a compulsion. Geoffrey Holder knew this and taught each and every one of us under his charge to be proud of that “compulsion.” He saw artistry as sacred as the work of the clergy and as viable as the work of science. “I have been in the company of royalty; wealth and power beyond anything you can imagine, and believe me they’d all do anything to be you, an artist. Those people have to pay to have their names emblazoned on buildings and such. Not the artist. We are immortalized in the hearts and imaginations of people for generations to come…and if we’re lucky we get our names scribbled on a school building,” he’d say as he burst into that famous laugh.
Some months ago I was privileged to meet with Mr. Holder at the Upper Westside nursing facility he resided, thanks to the kind invitation of a friend, the brilliant Chapman Roberts. It had been over 20 years since I saw him, yet to my pleasant surprise his first words to me were, “I know your face.” We indulged him a bit as he attempted to remember how he knew me. Finally, when we told him how he knew my face, he sighed, “Ah, now you’re a man.” His room was littered with original paintings. The artist was still at work. Despite the toll age and illness had taken on his body his mind was still sharp, still boyishly mischievous, still wise. He still had lessons to share, finely mined nuggets of wisdom. I’d been apprehensive about my visit with him that day, only to find myself inspired once more in a fellowship of master and student. I am convinced that the likes of the great Mr. Holder was certainly in the mind of the beloved scribe Maya Angelou when she mused, “We are living art, created to hang on, stand up, forebear, continue, and encourage others.” For this I thank you Geoffrey Holder. In me, you shall live always.