Belief in love inspires writer

Women's tales, young and old, inform his plays

February 21, 2003|By Michelle Jabes | Michelle Jabes,SUN STAFF

"I'm a warm and fuzzy guy, and I just believe in love." This is, in short, how playwright David E. Talbert characterizes himself.

His fans, however, might add a few more adjectives:

Prolific.

Ambitious.

Romantic.

Since his debut in 1991 with Tellin' It Like It 'Tiz, Talbert's urban musicals - 11 in all - have attracted sell-out crowds in theaters across America. Now his latest work, Love on Lay-A-Way, is beginning a nationwide tour at Morgan State University's new Murphy Fine Arts Center.

For Talbert, a Morgan alumnus, returning to the university is a coming home of sorts. It's "a special thing to come back and perform on the campus, to kind of break in their theater, christen it," he says. The play, which premiered this month, is scheduled for its last two performances Sunday.

On campus last week to deliver a lecture, the 34-year-old Talbert looks as though he could still be a student. Dressed in a tightly fitting black shirt, blue jeans, and sporting a head of cornrows, the only thing that betrays Talbert's boyish image is the maturity of his deep voice that seems to pierce through the hum of the crowd.

So, where does David Talbert get the inspiration to produce almost a dozen plays and win a handful of prestigious awards (among them, three NAACP theater awards, including best playwright, for one production) before he reaches his 35th birthday?

"I have a basement full of pygmies that write all my scripts," he says, poker-faced.

Then, eyes twinkling, Talbert adds a more likely reply: "I vibe off of people ... I don't hang around a lot of dudes. I hang around women. And women are my audience. So, I listen to them, and by listening to them I can create my stories."

His women friends aren't the only female muses in Talbert's life. He names his late great-grandmother, Annie Mae Woods, a founder and pastor of a church, as his best friend.

Once, Talbert asked her, "Why would you pastor for 50 years? Why would you do that to yourself? And she said, `I had to do it, I couldn't help myself.'"

That reply had great resonance, he says. "I think `prolific' is a word people use where really people are just doing what they have to do. I don't have a choice not to write. I have to. So I do it."

That drive may be what has garnered Talbert so much success. His first novel, Baggage Claim (Simon & Schuster), is scheduled to hit the shelves in October. And he has plans to broaden his artistic horizons even further to include films. Because he is soon to be leaving the nest of a theater-only career, he calls Love on Lay-A-Way his "swan song."

The play features three men who are trying to make their relationships work. The men, he says, are "all looking for love, but in different ways."

One buys his girlfriend a different kind of ring for her birthday - earrings, toe rings, even a navel ring - but never the wedding ring she desires. To sum up, Talbert says, "She comes to the conclusion that their relationship is on layaway, and he's making the absolute lowest monthly payments." From this notion, a title was born.

Love on Lay-A-Way is the fifth in a string of romantic musicals by Talbert. The six plays that came before included romance, but focused on other topics such as church or business.

But in 1998, just before beginning the first of the romantic series, Mr. Right Now!, Talbert got married. From his new wife, Talbert drew new inspiration. The plays followed suit. "That's just where I am," Talbert says, "I'm just in love."

Talbert and his wife, Lyn - both of whom then lived in Las Vegas - were indirectly introduced by Lyn's aunt, who lived in Chicago.

The aunt, who attended all of Talbert's productions, offered the playwright a number of invitations to sample her sister's cooking on holidays. "I never went on Thanksgiving, then on Christmas she said, `Get yourself something to eat!' and finally on Easter she said, `Get your bleep-bleep-bleep over to my sister's house, she's got two daughters!' And I said, `Why didn't you say so?'"

In conversation that night, the two discovered that they shared the same favorite song, "Nature Boy," and spent the evening listening to it. "We've been together ever since," says Talbert.

Looking toward the stage, where the crew was busily preparing the set for the next show, Talbert sings over and over the last lyric of the song, a line which seems to encompass his definition of the meaning of life: "The greatest thing/you'll ever learn/is just to love/and be loved in return."

Love on Lay-A-Way continues at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday at Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets are also available at the theater box office.

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