As the rememberances and tributes to Gordon Davidson appropriately roll in, recounting Gordon’s love of playwrights, civic engagement, and passion for theater that strengthened not only the fabric of our community but it’s deeper political conscience – I wanted to share a memory a little off that honored path. I had the privilege of working closely with Gordon to realize his dream of a “second stage” for the Mark Taper Forum (never mind that the Mark Taper Forum was already a “second stage” for the Ahmanson – this is how Gordon thought). It took over five years of continuous, exhausting, joyous work and I remember vividly the final act of that journey.
It’s 2004 and we’re frantically trying to finish the Kirk Douglas Theater and transform it from a construction site into a working theater. Like the plays that will fill the inaugural season, the crew is a product of the Taper’s New Play Development process. These young men (mostly, though there are several women) have cut their teeth on new work. Like the plays themselves, they’re a little rough around the edges in the best way. As the Tony winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind once said of them, “I love your crew because they look like Los Angeles.”
So amidst the sound of hammering in last-minute-donor-plaques-on-arm-rests and figuring out exactly how we are going to get Spartacus (read: Kirk Douglas) into a scissor lift, Gordon is pacing about like the proud and slightly nervous father of a new born. He’s a mixture of focused, stern attention on critical details and the contagious, charismatic smile and joy that so many photos of Gordon manage to capture.
While the crew knows Gordon, they don’t really know him. After all, he’s been busy twelve miles away downtown with the two “big” theaters while these folks have been working in Culver City. Gordon’s been a figure who seems a little distant to them: an icon (frankly), their ultimate boss and the one responsible for their lives in the theater. They’ve never built a show with him (as they will several months later) nor had him as a constant presence. The relationship is, in personal ways, brand new.
So you have this old white guy and this young, diverse and scrappy crew.
During a break, the master electrician, Efrain Morales, decides to have a little fun with Gordon. He walks over and starts “Hey Gordon?” (because everyone called him that even if you’d just started working at Center Theater Group).
Gordon looks up quizzically from shuffling the dozen phone messages on small pieces of paper that seemed to sprout perpetually from his pockets.
“Gordon can I get a minute? Look, we do things a little differently over here. We know you’re really busy and we’re real busy so I want to teach you a little short hand.
“We might not have time to stop and chat or call you Mr. Davidson. Me and the crew,” as Efrain motions over to the other guys who are looking on – not sure whether they’re about to hear a punchline or a problem – “we were wondering if it would be cool if we just called you G-Dawg?”
Now this moment isn’t about putting Los Angeles theater on the map, or forging a conscience and connection both for the regional theater and several generations of theater artists, or employing an 18 person artistic staff, or welcoming artists and plays that honored and complicated our notions of diversity, or even bounding boyishly onstage to welcome an audience into his home – this was a 71-year-old white man listening to a sweaty 20-something brown guy with dreads possibly pulling his leg.
What did Gordon do?
He put his hand on Efrain’s shoulder and with deep respect said, “Absolutely Efro. G-Dawg sounds good.”
To this day, I’m not really sure if this exchange started as a joke or an earnest welcome but it still makes me smile to remember the impromptu pivot that came next.
“Cool.” Efro said, a little surprised, “So you don’t have to stop what you’re doing or even look over your shoulder when you hear it. But if you hear one of us call out G-Dawg, here’s what I want you to do.”
Gordon followed along earnestly and studiously.
“I want you to make a fist with your right hand. Like this. I want you to pound your chest twice – right over your heart – then I want you to put your fist up in the air and give us the peace sign. Got it?”
Gordon proudly ran through it like an actor memorizing a critical piece of blocking. He had it.
Over the course of the next nine months, while directing one of his final plays for Center Theater Group, while birthing yet another six world-premiere plays into the American theater, while walking donors through a new theater – Gordon would hear from the sound board, or the top of a genie lift, or the rafters “S’up G-Dawg?”
Without missing a beat or slowing his step, Gordon would thump his chest and flash a peace sign.
Peace out, G-Dawg.