An officer mixes work and plays

Theater is outlet for otherwise stressful job in law enforcement

July 15, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Theater is replete with double lives where a count becomes a vampire, teen-agers become werewolves, a Cockney flower girl becomes a fair lady, and Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. Actors have two lives as well -- one on stage and another after the show when they return to their own reality.

When Jeffrey Hitaffer sets aside his role as goofy, fun-loving Roger in "Grease" at Chesapeake Music Hall, he brushes out his spiked hair, puts away his tap shoes and assumes his other identity: a police officer on the midnight shift of the Eastern District of the Baltimore City Police Department.

Hitaffer, 26, has always been a performer, with music a part of his heritage. His parents met in the 1960s when his father, James, was stationed in the Army in Japan and began playing guitar with a band there. His mother, Romi, joined the group. They fell in love, and she emigrated to the United States -- to Laurel, his hometown -- to marry him.

Hitaffer is one of their five sons: Kemo, Jeffrey, David, Jamie and Tony.

By seventh grade, Hitaffer was singing his own songs with brother Kemo in the basement of St. Mary's of the Mills School in Laurel. He has written more than 20 songs, and the two brothers are still making music with a hard-rock group called As Is. (Like Jeff, Kemo does it on the side -- he's manager of a restaurant in D.C.) The group has self-produced two four-song albums.

In high school, Hitaffer got interested in theater through a friend already involved in acting. While he was at Anne Arundel Community College a few years ago studying law enforcement, he got a part in "Cabaret" at Chesapeake Music Hall and formed a lasting friendship with owner-choreographer Sherry Kay. Among his many roles, his favorites are Paul San Marco and Ritchie Waters in "A Chorus Line," a show that gave him a chance to "sing, dance, act and do 22 exhausting kicks," he says. He recently directed "Godspell" at Northeast High School in Pasadena, an experience he describes as the "most work I ever did."

He graduated from Anne Arundel Community College, then did "every kind of job," from pizza delivery to working in a laundry, with none giving him much satisfaction. In April 1997, he became a police officer. A devout Christian, Hitaffer says he is convinced he is doing God's work, and, as a believer in miracles, he hopes that blighted neighborhoods can return to what they once were.

In his two years as a policeman in some of Baltimore's rougher neighborhoods, he has, for $13 an hour, been "bitten, shot at, cursed at, and constantly lied to." Yet, he believes in what he is doing, and, with his fellow officers, hopes their efforts are worthwhile. As he returns to the station at sunrise after his night's work, he takes comfort in seeing fellow survivors clearing the trash away from their homes; like them, he has lived to see another day. Inhabiting two worlds has forced him to make major and minor adjustments. It was easy to get department permission to grow his hair longer than regulation length and easy to endure a barrage of "Elvis" jokes from fellow officers. More profound adjustments are required to make the transition from the beautiful world of theater to the harsh reality of the streets.

"Reality is a scary subject," says Hitaffer.

He says he has seen the homicides that police officers are supposed to be inured to, and wonders how long it takes to get used to them. This is why theater is a big part of his life -- the other extreme, a dedication to an inner expression. Hitaffer reflects: "If I didn't do theater, I probably would have stopped being a policeman a long time ago."

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