Playing a teacher reminds Moses Gunn of the one who changed his life

November 24, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Moses Gunn knows the impact a dedicated teacher can have on a teenager.

His high school English teacher, Jewel Richie, once told him: "If you ever need me, come and see me."

And, "on a given occasion, I came to see her," recalls Mr. Gunn, whose mother had died of pneumonia when he was 12. Not long after that, Jewel Richie became his foster mother.

To this day, the 62-year-old actor refers to Mrs. Richie as his mother and cherishes the love of literature that was nurtured in her classroom and in her St. Louis home, where "she would read poems with me in the living room. The sound of the words was always important to the point where it became for me at that time the love of my life."

In a broad sense, Mrs. Richie's influence can be seen throughout the actor's 30-year career, which runs the gamut from "Shaft" to Shakespeare, with an emphasis on the latter. Along the way, there have been several TV series -- including "The Cowboys" and "Father Murphy" -- as well as an NAACP Image Award for his portrayal of Booker T. Washington in the movie "Ragtime."

At the moment, however, Mr. Gunn has a more specific reason for appreciating the influence of his high school teacher. He is portraying a teacher at a South African high school in Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!", which has its official opening at Center Stage on Wednesday.

The latest play by the acclaimed South African playwright, "My Children! My Africa!" was inspired by an item in a Port Elizabeth newspaper in 1984, a time of accelerating protests and school boycotts. The script focuses on a black teacher who believes in the power of words and non-violence to bring about change. For Mr. M, as the character is affectionately known, a vision of the future of South Africa can be found in such educational events as the one that opens the play -- an interscholastic debate between his prized student and a visitor from an all-white girls' school. But the reality around Mr. M turns out to be far more volatile than a mere debate.

"My Children! My Africa!" is Mr. Gunn's fourth Fugard play since he co-starred in "Boesman and Lena" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986. "Fugard is an interesting favorite of mine," he says during a break in rehearsals. The imposing-looking actor has asked for a few minutes to make post-rehearsal notes in the lined pad he carries with his script. Once he begins talking, he doodles on the inside pages of the pad.

Comparing Mr. Fugard to his American contemporary, August Wilson, Mr. Gunn praises both playwrights' ability to combine poetry and reality. "Their styles are not exactly the same but their concern in terms of humanity, I think they share that -- the displacement that goes on in society as far as people are concerned," he says.

But while he admires Mr. Fugard's treatment of his recurring subject of apartheid, Mr. Gunn says that in this play, the theme of generational conflict is what motivates him as an actor. "What you have here really is a father-son situation," he explains, referring to Mr. M and his favorite student, Thami. "You can take apartheid out of it."

In the script, he continues, "the surrogate father has so much vested interest in this young man achieving that he does not realize how dogmatic he is." It is a situation Mr. Gunn relates to on several levels. In terms of his formative years with Mrs. Richie -- who is now retired and living in California -- he says, "She was dictatorial also in some ways, but I love her."

In addition, there have been strong issues that he and his 21-year-old son Justin -- currently studying anthropology in Mexico -- "have debated and fought over: Not to the extent that we hate each other, but you can see where that thin line is."

And finally, he can relate to Mr. M in terms of his own brief teaching experience. Though he doesn't really consider himself a teacher, he admits: "I'm sure unconsciously I call on it."

In the early '60s, Mr. Gunn taught speech and drama at Louisiana's Grambling College for a semester. And as recently as 1989, he taught at the University of Kansas, where he returned to complete the master's degree he had left unfinished almost three decades before.

In 1961, when Mr. Gunn left the university, he had already spent three years in the Army and was eager to begin his career in New York. And after only three months there he was hired as an understudy in Genet's "The Blacks"; before long he was part of the permanent cast. A series of roles with the New York Shakespeare Festival followed, and he also became one of the charter members of the Negro Ensemble Company.

If the majority of his film credits -- which range from "The Great White Hope" and "The Iceman Cometh" to two "Shaft" movies, "Rollerball" and "Amityville II: The Possession" -- seem somewhat less distinguished, he explains this by saying, "I never got to the point, as far as film is concerned, to be able to pick and choose . . . although I'm not ashamed of anything that I've done."

On the contrary, he says, "There are some things that are satisfying in a way that surprises me." He insists his most satisfying film or TV role was Joe Kagan, a fictional prizefighter he portrayed in four episodes of "Little House on the Prairie," and which led, in turn, to his co-starring role in another Michael Landon production, "Father Murphy."

His latest TV effort will be broadcast on TNT Jan. 27 -- a made-for-TV movie called "Memphis," co-starring Cybill Shepherd.

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