Eventually, he says, “I felt that New York was closing in on me… I was getting kind of claustrophobic, and there were so many theaters that were going out of business because of lack of funding… I needed a change.” A friend with a home here invited Bobb-Semple and his wife to take a look at the area, and the actor was hooked. Still, the move required some strategizing. “I realized that I would not have as many opportunities — things are much slower down here,” he says. “And I realized that I’ve got to make my own niche.” His vehicle was a one-man play about black nationalist Marcus Garvey, which he performed in the Caribbean, Africa and, just last year, in Stockholm, Berlin, and London. (He’s also staged it locally at The Studio@620.)
“He was so far ahead of his time,” says Bobb-Semple about Garvey. “It seems as if nothing has moved when you listen to what he was saying 60, 70, 80 years ago… I owed it to myself as an artist to at least keep his name and his spirit and his ideologies alive.”
Bobb-Semple’s also been working on Bay area stages. He’s acted in three August Wilson plays at American Stage — Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Seven Guitars — and in Stageworks’ A Lesson Before Dying. In Sarasota, he performed in Banyan Theatre’s A Lesson From Aloes and the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe’s Jitney. He also co-directed Stageworks’ The Colored Museum last season. He’s eager to do more acting, though, and conscious of the obstacles facing black performers here.
“I’m a union actor, and there are limited opportunities for Equity black actors. … You look at television today, 90 percent of the principal actors in commercials are white. And many of the black women on the commercials — you’ve got to be light-skinned and you’ve got long hair. That’s the image. So, realizing that, I cannot afford to sit and wait for the telephone to ring.” He credits Anna Brennen of Stageworks for telling him at a general audition that she’d like to work with him “because I can see that there’s something in you.” It was Brennen who asked him to co-direct with her on The Colored Museum and to direct Raisin in the Sun, an opportunity, says Bobb-Semple, “that any actor or actress should jump at.”
So what’s Bobb-Semple’s particular take on Raisin? “It’s a battle of competitive dreams,” he says. “It’s about the need to face racial discrimination. Raisin in the Sun is about family … it speaks to so many issues; I think this is why it remains a classic. I don’t care if you’re black, white, blue, green or polka dot — you can relate to Raisin in the Sun.”
Bobb-Semple adds that the play was ahead of its time (which was 1959): that the character of Beneatha, for example, is prototypically feminist in her insistence on a career as a doctor rather than on marriage. And he warns that American society can destroy anyone who, like Walter Lee, falls for its “get-rich-quick” ethic. He thinks that Walter Lee’s final change of heart, on the other hand, can provide an example to young black men who may feel tempted by the American Scam.
What’s he telling his cast? “Just be a member of this family,” he says. “Forget about the acting. I don’t want to see any acting up in here.” He’s also saying that the play is about “the need to stamp out racial discrimination” which, even in the age of Obama, lingers. Bobb-Semple has faced it himself, he says, sometimes on acting assignments. Still, a caring individual can make all the difference. “The difference between ‘unite’ and ‘untie’ is where you put the ‘I’,” he says.
And he takes the adage seriously — in his work with various causes, including the Big Brothers Big Sisters Association.
Gender essentialism. Thumbs down.
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