Linking mom to Saddam, and other party tricks

“I read somewhere that everyone on this planet is separated by only six other people,” muses rich New Yorker Ouisa Kittredge in John Guare’s famous play-turned-Will-Smith-movie Six Degrees of Separation.

Ouisa goes on: “I find that: A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close.”

It’s an idea both obsessing and maddening, one that has stumped sociologists for the better part of a century. The “six degrees” concept has spawned board games and computer-generated databases proving not only that the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon can be connected to any random actor in six steps or less, but that any screen actor, or indeed any famous person at all, can be linked to another.

But when Guare first penned his script a decade-and-a-half ago, he wasn’t seeking to cash in on a prevalent theory — though, in fact, he became credited with popularizing the phrase “six degrees of separation.” Actually, the writer was simply jotting down an experience that had impacted his own life, via upper-crust Manhattanites who’d told him a curious, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction-type tale.

Enter Sidney’s son

“This play is about being isolated” — or, rather, “trying to be isolated, in a world that’s becoming smaller,” explains Highland Repertory Theatre’s Andrew Gall, who’s directing a local version of Guare’s play.

“It’s not,” he points out, “straightforward … you get the rug pulled out from under you in the end.”

A New York couple (the aforementioned Ouisa and her husband, Flan) get ready to go out — but the wealthy art dealers find themselves hosting an unexpected dinner guest instead. Just as they’re preparing to leave for the evening, the doorman bursts in, announcing a young man who says he’s been mugged. This unseemly stranger, who happens to be black, claims he knows the couple’s children. Apparently recognizing his friends’ parents’ apartment building, he has turned to them for help. Once the intruder has been cleaned up, he prepares Flan and Ouisa a meal and regales them with tales of his famous father — Sidney Poitier — as well as excerpts from his school thesis, which the phantom muggers have stolen.

” … The aura around this book of Salinger’s … is this: It mirrors like a fun-house mirror and amplifies like a distorted speaker one of the greatest tragedies of our times — the death of imagination,” Paul, the young man, reads. His take on Catcher in the Rye is, of course, a setup. As the play unravels, it’s Paul who is the fun-house mirror and the distorted speaker, reflecting the lives of those he encounters. But that’s later.

All that happens, initially, is that the characters traipse happily off to bed. Each has what he wants — be it food and money or the promise of a role in an upcoming Poitier film — and everyone’s safe and satisfied. Which, of course, spells trouble.

Casting against the current

“Every actor has a list of plays they want to do. This is actually one of mine,” says Theroun Patterson, who stars as Paul.

Appropriately, the Atlanta-based actor came into the role in a six-degrees sort of way. It was Shannon Eubanks, who played Blanche DuBois in Highland Rep’s April production of A Streetcar Named Desire, who suggested Patterson for the role of Paul, if Gall ever decided to bring Six Degrees to the Asheville stage.

He did.

Eubanks, also based in Atlanta, acted in numerous films and TV shows, including Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) and the soap opera Loving (the original cast), before taking on smaller theatrical roles. One of these was as Raina in the Actor’s Express production of Echoes of Another Man, where she portrayed a love interest of actor Daniel May — who, it just so happens, recently squeezed out Patterson for top honors on the Atlanta Creative Loafing “Lust List.”

Patterson, much to his chagrin, walked away as top-runner-up in the Best Looking Actor category.

But on to more serious endeavors.

“In terms of theater, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for African-Americans to play leading roles,” the actor says. “This kind of character goes against what you’d stereotypically think of as a role for an African-American.”

The role is, indeed, multifaceted — Paul is uppity, cultured and slick; he’s also an uneducated hustler and opportunist who can’t even pronounce “bottle.”

“Paul has a line about his father [Poitier] having no real identity as an actor,” Patterson recalls. “I think that’s one of the best descriptions of who Paul is. His life has taught him to be who he needs to be to survive.”

Living the lie

It was Guare who brought the concept of six degrees of connection — because it’s more about how we’re linked than how we’re separated — into public consciousness. But it was David Hampton who inspired Guare’s play.

Hampton, a 19-year-old from Buffalo, NY, arrived in New York City in the early ’80s, hoping to make it as an actor. According to the Daily Telegraph, Hampton and a friend, bent on getting into then-trendy Studio 54, borrowed a limo from a nearby hotel and posed as the sons of Sidney Poitier and Gregory Peck. When this worked, Hampton decided to see how much further his alter ego — David Poitier — could take him.

Poitier never actually had a son, but that didn’t stop Hampton. With the help of an address book he’d acquired from an Upper East Side acquaintance, he finagled entry to the homes of such luminaries as Calvin Klein and Melanie Griffith.

It was Osborn Elliot, dean of Columbia School of Journalism, who told Guare the story of how he and his wife had taken the Poitier impostor in, only to find their guest in bed with another man the next morning. Guare discovered that, by 1983, Hampton had been arrested seven times for these escapades.

When the play first opened Off Broadway in 1990, Hampton attempted, without success, to sue Guare. The master pretender died of AIDS in 2003 — an end the playwright predicted in his script more than a decade earlier.

“This character is complex, so I wanted to get my hands on that,” Patterson says of the role that, in its 1993 movie version, transformed Will Smith from the Fresh Prince into a viable dramatic artist.

“[Paul] tells lie after lie. As an actor, I have to play everything as if it’s true, as if I absolutely believe it.”

Who needs name tags, anyway?

With a 16-person play, the actors in Highland Rep’s Six Degrees could probably find some links of their own. To begin with, Jesse Benz (the naughty elf from The Santaland Diaries, who plays a hooker in this production) previously appeared with David Hopes (author and UNCA professor; Geoffrey in this show) in the local production of Waiting for Godot. Hopes shared a stage with actors Kane Clawson (Kitty) and Michael Ackerman (Rick) in American Dream, and so on.

Why so many actors? “This is the story of two people,” Gall reiterates. “But you can’t see how [the play] works until you see how Paul connects them to this myriad of other people.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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