Courier: August 19, 1961
Sgt. Bilko's ex pal, Private Sugarman, tell Courier readers how It feels to have his first starring role on Broadway.
NEW YORK CITY - Every actor's dream is a starring role on Broadway. This dream is coming true for me in Kwamina, which, to me, is one of the most important productions of the upcoming Broadway season. We started rehearsals in New York this week for this new musical which is set in the exciting locale of modern West Africa. My role is quite different and extremely challenging and I would like to tell you about it. I will play a London-educated African doctor, who returns to his native village and tries to combine the modern thinking he's learned away at Oxford with his traditional position as the son of a powerful chief. This is really a far cry from my last legitimate stage part. I was "Princess Grace", the rather strange boxer in the national company of Brendan Behan's The Hostage.
There is, first of all, the excitement of a really fine role, in a top rated production. Put to this the fact that I'll be co-starred with Sally Ann Howes, who was "Eliza Doolittle" of My Fair Lady and you understand why about now I'm very glad I decided on acting as a career. Sally Ann and I are in a cast of some 56 performers, among them Brock Peters, and Rex Ingram in very important roles. Alfred deLiagre Jr., one of Broadway's most respected producers is producing Kwamina, and our director is Robert Lewis. Many of you will remember that he did the staging of the original Brigadoon on Broadway. The music and lyrics for our show were written by Richard Adler, who did this job with such great success for Damn Yankees and Pajama Game. Our dance director is Agnes deMille, who blazed the trail for dances that comprise an integral part of the story, when she first fused choreography and plot in Oklahoma. I'm certain most of you know the work of the author of the book for Kwamina. He's Robert Alan Arthur and he's written many outstanding TV scripts.
I'd like to say that Robert Alan Arthur's script depicts the inter-personal and community problems surrounding the achievement of independence in terms of one West African village so beautifully that I wish that much of what he writes could actually happen in real life. The chief of this village in Kwamina is Rex Ingram. Talking to him the first few days of rehearsal, I've just begun to realize what a fabulous career he has had over the past 45 years in show business. Most people remember him as "de Lawd" in Green Pastures but the truth is, he's played so many other roles his credits sound like a history of the modern theatre. Remember him in Cabin in The Sky, Sing out the News, Emperor Jones, Anna Lucasta, St. Louis Woman, and movies like Sahara and The Thief or Baghdad just to name a few of those I can remember at the moment. I didn't know before we got to know each other recently, that Rex received his MD degree way back in 1919 and was really a doctor before he played his first stage role. That was as "Crown" in the original Porgy.
We were having some fun with the coincidence that Rex was a real doctor end I was playing one in Kwamina when we yet realized yet another one of those "it's a small world" things. Rex had been the original "Crown" and Brock Peters is the modern day "Crown" of the movie version of Porgy and Hess. Brock was also "Husky" in the movie version of Carmen Jones and he's just left an important role in an off-Broadway show called King of the Dark Chamber to join our cast. In this story, Brock plays the role of a young African who is in love with the girl I had been engaged to since childhood in traditional tribal fashion. As you can see, there are plenty of conflicts for me in this role. First of all, there are the problems I have as the son of a chief returning from college in England to take up life in my native village. Then there is the problem that grows out of the traditional arranged marriages and realistic romantic love.
I had my first job on Broadway as the juvenile lead opposite Eartha Kitt in Mrs. Patterson. After that, I had a wonderful time playing the part of "Howard" in the City Center production of Finian's Rainbow, I've done some summer tours in things like Edward Albee's The Zoo Story and this year I played in Raisin in the Sun in summer stock. Kwamina is the biggest break I've had so far, so maybe those of you from the New York theatre scene will know about me from the three years I spent as "Sugie," or "Private Sugarman", on Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko Show. I've been lucky enough to get roles in some other major TV shows, like Naked City, The Defenders and Playhouse 90. I recently completed a CBS special in Philadelphia. It's a part of their Public Affairs series on juvenile delinquency called Demons in the Streets. You'll be seeing this soon on your TV screens. Incidentally, I was the only professional actor in this cast. The kids involved were taken right from their haunts in the streets and while I was there playing the part of a social worker. I saw one of the youngsters removed from the camera's eye forcibly and placed under the more restraining eye of the local police authorities. We'll be playing pre-Broadway engagements of Kwamina in Toronto and Boston before our New York opening on Oct. 23. It's by far the most wonderful experience in my professional life and I hope many of you will get a chance to share it with me.