Part 1: Two African-American performers travel to Australasia a century apart. Each comes face to face with the true cost, and questionable value, of their lust for fame.
This whole show, and all the characters, are performed entirely by one man, Jonathan Council in one of the most imaginative and charming solo performances you’ll ever see.
Here and Now
NARRATOR Hi. My name is Jonathan Council, and I will be your theatrical tour guide this evening as we search the southern sky to discover the whereabouts of two dark stars:
Irving Sayles and me.
Dark stars are, as the name suggests, very difficult to see. The light they give off is entrapped by the force of their own gravitational field.
What connects Irving and me is the realisation that in order to be everything we truly want to be, we have to leave America and travel to the other side of the world.
Irving Sayles and I are also very far apart, both in terms of time and magnitude.
Irving Sayles is an African American performer from the late nineteenth-century who becomes the premiere star of the Australasian Vaudeville stage.
I am an actor. I appear on stage, on television and recently in a feature film starring Harrison Ford and Dianne Keaton. I have one line. Two words. And those two words were cut out of the movie. I am still in the movie, but my character is meant to say
to Harrison Ford’s character, that’s now been reduced to
He silently mouths “Hey Pommelroy”
At this point in my life, I feel that I have not done justice to my ambition to be a star of stage and screen.
By comparing and contrasting our strangely similar yet different stories, I hope to bring Irving back to life. In doing so I hope to achieve my own life’s ambition to become a star just like him.
This is the kind of comedy that made Irving Sayles famous. Irving does the punch lines, he gets set up by his best mate, Hicks
American Music Hall, 1880s
HICKS Say Irving, where is your brother Moses? I haven’t seen him for a long while.
IRVING Well Hicks, he’s on picket duty with the soldiers down in Georgia.
HICKS Picket duty? How’s that?
IRVING Well every time a trooper steals a chicken, Moses has to picket.
NARRATOR This is the audition that will make a sixteen-year-old Jonathan Council a star.
New York, 1980s
JONATHAN Hello my name is Jonathan Council, I’m 16 years old. I’ve been travelling to auditions by myself since I was 9 because my mother doesn’t care for the industry. I’m auditioning for a role in the movie Fame to be shot right here in New York city
He breaks into the audition script
Mister, I enrolled in this school because I wanna live forever.
Mister, I enrolled in this school because I wanna learn how to fly. High.
Mister, I’m gonna be an actor, a good actor, and you know who says so? Me.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to audition. I won’t call you; you call me.
NARRATOR I’m humble, enthusiastic, bursting with talent.
I return home from summer vacation to find that my mother has received a very special phone call.
MOTHER Jonathan, some people called about that Movie. Fame. You got the part.
JONATHAN I got the part? I got the part??
NARRATOR I got the part. I got the part in Fame, a movie that grosses 21 million dollars at the American box office and is nominated for six Oscars. I am humble, I am enthusiastic I am exploding into the stars
JONATHAN When do I start?
MOTHER Start? Why, it’s finished. I told them you were spending the summer with your father. As far as I’m concerned, showbusiness is for sluts and for queers. Fame? What kind of nonsense is that?
NARRATOR Those are her exact words. ‘Fame, what kind of nonsense is that?’
I am humiliated, I am heartbroken I am exploding with rage.
MOTHER Jonathan, go upstairs and say your prayers.
NARRATOR I pray. I pray God, before you smite my mom, can you make her into a stage mom like every other mom in the whole god damn world?
AMERICAN MUSIC HALL, 1880s
NARRATOR Meanwhile Irving Sayles has his own problems. It’s 1881, he’s touring America. He’s on stage seven days a week, up to eight shows a day singing songs with names like ‘Take me back to de old plantation’, ‘de chicken coop door’, ‘De happy whistling coon’.
He gives the people what they want, songs from less complicated times, when black people were slaves, and happy about it.
Irving Sayles was never a slave, but he does sing these type of coon songs to audiences of white folks in theatres that would not sell him a ticket to his own show.
But Irving Sayles was never a slave. One day Hicks makes him an offer.
HICKS Irving Sayles, I wanna manage my own minstrel troupe.
IRVING Why Hicks, you know there ain’t no theatre in this whole great country of ours gonna book a minstrel troupe with a black manager. You best wake up.
HICKS I been woke since the day I was born, Irving. I sleep with both eyes wide open, staring at the truth. I know there ain’t no theatre in this whole great country of ours gonna book a minstrel troupe with a black manager. That’s why I want you to come with me to Australia.
NARRATOR Australia. The world thinks Americans are bad with geography now. This is a conversation from 128 years ago between two people who had been intentionally denied education.
IRVING To Australia? Is that somewhere near old Alabamy?
HICKS Irving Sayles the world ain’t made up in alphabetical order. Australia ain’t next to Alabamy. It’s on the underside of the world.
IRVING The underworld? You want to take me to hell? I ain’t going to hell with you, no way no how.
HICKS America is your hell, Irving. And hell for me. America is hell for any talented man of colour. You can never be all that you can be as long as you stays in ‘this great ol country of ours.’ For you and me, Irving, Australia just might be heaven.
IRVING No doubt about it Mr Hicks. I want to go to heaven.
NARRATOR One hundred years later, in Chicago Illinois, 300 miles from where Irving Sayles was born I find my own slice of heaven
I moved here to get away from my mom and pursue acting and I’ve already landed my first part, opposite Dennis Farina in the popular detective drama Crime Story. I play the role of Clementine, a transsexual prostitute.
DENNIS FARINA Clementine, a woman got beaten up around the corner the other day. This animal is responsible. Who is he?
CLEMENTINE Never seen the boy
DENNIS FARINA Don’t lie to me Clementine who is he and where is he staying?
CLEMENTINE On a crib on Indiana Ave. He's been supplying the district. Don’t hurt me officer Braco, I'll take you to him.
NARRATOR I rang my mom on the day it went to air.
JONATHAN Mom turn on the TV, you watching Crime Story mom? There I am, I’m the transsexual prostitute. I made it. You were wrong, momma
MOTHER Jonathan Council how am I wrong? I told you showbusiness is full of sluts and queers. You got a job as a queer slut.
NARRATOR She was wrong when she told me I would never make it. The next day I move to LA. I didn’t need my mom’s approval. It’s 1988 and I feel like I am on top of the world
AUSTRALIAN MUSIC HALL, 1890s
JONATHAN 100 years earlier, Irving Sayles is underneath the world trying to do what he does best.
IRVING Hello Australia, my name is Irving Sayles and I’d like to sing you a funny little song. It’s called Modern Black Adonis
The public’s in a quandrous vein
And consternation seems to reign ‘He’s a modern black Adonis’ is the universal phrase.
Always attired nattily
A fashion plate emphatically
This ebony-hued descendant is the height of fashion’s craze.
My tiffany setting diamonds are the rarest of the rare.
The ladies even brave reproach and at them vainly stare.
And when I go down Broadway gossipers are wont to say
He a modern black Adonis and a dead, dead swell.
Irving is shocked by their lack of laughter
IRVING Hicks, why ain’t they laughing?
HICKS Let’s ask ‘em.
IRVING Hey, Australians, yes you, missy in the box, what’s your name?
EDITH My name is Edith Carter
IRVING Miss Carter, why ain’t you laughing at my funny song?
EDITH I don’t see what’s funny about you harping on about how great you are.
IRVING But it’s a joke, see. What coon has fine clothes and Tiffany diamonds and strolls down Broadway?
EDITH I’ll do my best to hazard a guess if you’d be so good as to tell me one thing. What’s a coon? Do you mean racoon? One of those stripey squirrels? I suppose a racoon wearing clothes is a rather funny conceit.
NARRATOR What is a coon? Australians had no idea. They didn’t know that black people are supposed to divide their time between eating watermelons and stealing chickens. Suddenly Irving Sayles and the Hicks Sawyers Minstrels have very little comic material. They have to evolve a whole new act. The first thing Irving tries is some general humour.
HICKS Irving Sayles, your teeth look very bad. Do you brush them often?
IRVING Hicks, I brush my teeth religiously.
HICKS Religiously? How’s that?
IRVING Every Sunday Morning.
HICKS Not bad, not bad. Tell me Irving, did you ever study astronomy?
IRVING Why yes sir, I study that girl Edith up there for she is a regular Venus
HICKS Then please tell me Irving, why is the moon called ‘she?’
IRVING Because she has a son comes rollicking’ home in de morning. Not that you can blame him, when his mother gets full and stays out all night. Hey, tell me Hicks, why’s a girl’s thoughts like the moon?
HICKS Why’s that?
IRVING Cos there’s a man in it. Isn’t that right Miss Carter?
People are chuckling.
HICKS Now we’re getting places.
IRVING Miss Carter, thank you so much for helping us.
EDITH Why Mr Sayles, it’s you that have been a revelation to me.
IRVING Miss Carter, I hear the Melbourne Cup is a great to-do. Would you care to accompany me to the races on Tuesday?
HICKS Irving Sayles that is out of line.
EDITH Why, Mr Hicks what could be more natural than a gentleman offering to escort a lady to the races. Mr Sayles, may I take your arm?
NARRATOR May she take his arm? May a white woman take a black man by the arm and walk with him down the street? In The United States of America, no. In Australia. Yes. In Australia, everything that Irving Sayles touches turns to fame and freedom.
Sydney. “The Hicks-Sawyer company kept the crowded house in laughter for over two hours.”
Brisbane. “Five thousand people jostled to get into the theatre.”
Perth. “Mr Sayles was recalled twice.”
Wellington “Funny is not the word to describe Irving Sayles. When he so much as looks at the audience they roar.”
Everywhere: Standing room is at a premium.
THE RITZ, 1990
NARRATOR One hundred years later I am living in Los Angeles playing the role of concierge in the Hotel Ritz. That is not a TV show. It’s a real hotel.
My job is to look after the many celebrities that come here on a daily basis. I am good at my job. All the celebrities love me. By being around them, I hope to absorb their power and use their influence so that I can make it just like them.
Here’s Elizabeth Taylor. This man here is Sidney Poitier, Mt Olympus, the first black man to win an Oscar. My heart is pounding, he breathes a different air to you and I. He also eats different food.
JONATHAN Mr Poitier, I understand you are on a macrobiotic diet. I’ve prepared a special menu.
SIDNEY POITIER I want the green beans, the salad, the brown rice and the fish.
NARRATOR My hero.
JONATHAN My Poitier, I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I’ve always admired you and your work.
SIDNEY POITIER That’s very kind of you my man. I want the green beans, the salad, the brown rice, and the fish.
NARRATOR I’m running to the kitchen to get Mr Poitier’s meal. Elizabeth Taylor stops me.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR Jonathan, I don’t want to trouble you. All I need is Evian sparkling mineral water. In a crystal bowl. For my dog.
DOG Yap yap.
NARRATOR This Matisse little white dog is snapping at my heels.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR Jonathan, don’t worry about her, she won’t bite.
NARRATOR A crystal bowl. For her dog? What kind of nonsense is that? I have to get Sidney Poitier his meal, and Elizabeth Taylor’s dog its crystal bowl. The kitchen is miles away. Ghana to Amityville. I gotta get Sidney his beans and salad and fish, I gotta get Elizabeth Taylor’s dog her crystal bowl.
JONATHAN Ms Taylor. Here’s your dog’s crystal bowl; and Evian sparkling mineral water; and just for the record, Ms Taylor, the dog bites.
Mr Poitier, here is your meal sir, prepared by a Michelin star chef, I think you’ll find I’ve done you proud Mr Poitier.
SIDNEY POITIER Beans, salad, fish... Where’s the fucking rice?
NARRATOR Where’s the fucking rice? Where’s my fucking dream? I want to be in show business. I want to be a star. Right now, I’m a dark ball of rock hurtling through the shadows of the universe. I want to be the light. I can’t even see it.
The next day I am asked not to look directly into the face of Cher. I am so tired of this. Tired of pretending to be invisible. I look directly into the face of Cher.
CHER What are you looking at?
JONATHAN horrified Cher, what happened to your face?
CHER I just got off the plane after taking a ‘vacation’ in Australia.
JONATHAN Oh. OK. A vacation. Australia. Australia. Cher. Is that where they shot the sound of music?
CHER No Jonathan, that’s Austria.
JONATHAN Oh. Do they speak English in Australia?
CHER Kind of.
JONATHAN Cher, what can you do in Australia?
CHER Jonathan, you can do whatever you want to do in Australia.
NARRATOR Wow. Whatever I want to do, huh? I want to overhaul myself. Not like Cher, but I am just so tired of doing this. I feel like there is nothing special about me here. But can I be special in Australia? To answer the most important question of my life, I looked on the internet. I googled ‘black American performers in Australia.’ Not much. Good. The first link refers to ‘American tribal-style belly dance in Western Australia’. Very few of those words make sense to me. The second link is to an article. ‘Irving Sayles: The Black American who Became an Australasian Vaudeville Star.’ A popular black entertainer. Took Australia by storm. Died in 1914. They love black performers and haven’t had a dark star for eighty-some years? I book a one-way ticket to Australia.
Next time on Dark Stars:
Jonathan Council’s star will rise when he arrives in Australia and successfully auditions for Matrix Reloaded. Irving Sayles’ star will wane as he agrees to perform toxic material based on the colour of his skin.
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Dark Stars has played extensively throughout New Zealand and Australia and performed two sold-out showcases in New York. It was presented at La Mama in Melbourne and was nominated for the Artrage Award for Best Play at the Perth Fringe. It won Best Non-Fiction Script at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York, 2013.