Actress Regina Taylor lies bleeding in her immaculate pink houndstooth overcoat and bright scarf. The paved parking lots in this rural Georgia village called Conyers are studded with pebbles, scratchy with sand. Taylor is 30 miles from Atlanta. She is three decades in the past. And she is surrounded by shrieking white Soumerners. One has struck her down. A man. He now slams a second blow into her exquisitely boned face. She loses consciousness at the foot of the steps of a Mercury Bus Lines coach. “How many people would be willing to step out of that bus for what they believe in, knowing their heads could be cracked open?” she’ll ask later. To know her is to know her answer.
Regina Taylor would step out of that bus.
“It was tenacious hope that got them off the bus,” the Dallas native says. Through her character Lilly Harper, she has learned that hope. But through her own observations, she has learned more about “the bitterness, the cynicism” she sees today in her fellow African-Americans. It makes her a rare citizen of the ’90s, a modern Freedom Rider with a bus ticket that clearly will take her far past the uncertain future of the Peabody Award-winning “I’ll Fly Away” in which she stars on NBC.
“And this is our Christmas episode,” another cast member whispers, his smile wan, to a journalist as the cameras begin to roll on the chilly set of this determined series of Southern life in the civil rights ’60s. The actor and his colleagues fear finding a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings: Pending NBC’s decision, early January’s Friday-night episode of “I’ll Fly Away” may be its last.
A wonderfully textured, keenly atmospheric drama, “I’ll Fly Away” is set in an unspecified Southeastern location. As a traditional novel might do, its chapter-like installments over the weeks and months gradually document the dilemmas, both moral and practical, facing its characters- whether it’s a matter of a teen-age pregnancy among the poor white population or the self-centered, damaging wanderlust of a talented African-American musician.
Now, ramrod proud in her low heels, intimidatingly quiet as she awaits the next take, Taylor moves as if in a trance. Into the bus. Action. She’s the third to get off. Cut. Back into the bus for another take. Off again. Each time she descends to the asphalt, the costurned extras heckling her are more vicious than before. A brick thuds against the side of the bus near the door. A redneck is in her face. He swings at her. She’s down. Then she’s down again, so that the cameraman in the third-story window above the bus can get an aerial shot of her lying on the ground.
Once she gets to the cozy Sandwich Factory in Conyers, out of costume and into street clothes, released from shooting for the rest of the day, she’s ready to talk, to eat, to loosen up. She wants to. She tries to. But Taylor, it turns out. is badly shaken after this morning’s location shoot. Easily one of the current television season’s most beautiful artists, you’d think that this Emmy-nominated 32-year-old actress would be on top of the world.
“If I start to bleed, don’t worry.” she smiles, dabbing at her nose with a napkin, “it’s just the syrup” used as blood on the set. But Ihc smile is strained and fades fast. The red stuff on the napkin is fake, but not fake enough.
’There’s a lot that’s been forgotten,” she says as she searches for a way to talk about what she’s feeling over a turkey sandwich and homemade cookies. “And that’s frightening. The scene we’ve just done, right now I’m numb from it. 1 feel like I’ve been through a battle. Experiencing that scene was another deeper realization for me about courage and commitment and putting yourself on the line-about how people choose to make a commitment.”
That is not the indulgent palaver of a method actress stuck in-character. Taylor has spent four hours looking into the dark side of screen acting: its devastating realism. She may be playing Lilly, the housekeeper who tends to a white household in the early ’60s, but she is herself a black woman. And. shot after shot, she has been pressed and jostled and shouted at by a furious mob of whites. At least one-a female extra whom wardrobe has dressed in a dowdy overcoat and head scarf-looks old enough to have been in this exact spot in 1961. But not even the myriad film lights, the vast number of camera operators and meddlesome makeup technicians and the piles of cable can erase what might be called the Weimar Effect. To walk down the streets of Weimar in Germany is to wonder which of the elderly citizens you pass were Nazis who condemned Jews to the nearby death camp called Buchenwald. Likewise, to stand at this quaint-Americana bus and train depot in old Conyers is to muse on which person right here, right now, may be meeting the Freedom Bus for the second time, and not with the best intentions.
Freedom Riders, including women, often were attacked and beaten by whites, particularly in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama.
“The idea of a Freedom Bus,” says “I’ll Fly Away” co-producer Henry Bromell. “was to put members of both races on a bus, drive through the segregated South, get off at depots and have a cup of coffee or go to the while-only bathrooms. It was a mobile version of the drugstore-counter protests.”
For Taylor, the bus has stopped here. Playing Lilly is grounding her, episode by episode, in a profound perception of her race’s persecution in America. She knows very well that many NBC viewers see her as a new embodiment of the search for individual authenticity amid hate.
“It’s not a burden,” she states without hesitation.
But it’s obvious as she talks that the exhilaration of wearing this mantle is sorely tempered by disappointment and even dread. In conversation, Taylor comes across as formidably intelligent, carefully posed, intensely serious-and sad in a way that can make you cast about for a way to make her smile, to let her know you appreciate her dedication so that she might relax and laugh.
No use. She’s inconsolable.
“See how we’re being tested again,” she says of the current political climate. “Those steps we gained? We find ourselves blockaded again. So how do we move forward? Do we have that strength? Do we have that direction today?”
TAYLOR GOT HER SENSE OF STRENGTH and direction from her mother, who raised her without a father. Still’ a resident of Dallas, Nell Taylor is obviously proud of her only child, but she is remarkably casual about her success. She hasn’t even visited Regina on the set of “I’ll Fly Away.” “I’m thinking of going to Atlanta to do that.” she says.
Regina says her mother, a retired schoolteacher and social security claims representative, has proved to be an important research source on many issues tackled by the show. Lilly, her character in “I’ll Fly Away,” is raising a daughter as a single parent, just as Neil raised Regina in Dallas and Paris, Texas, and in Muskogee, Oklahoma. ’In one show last season,” Taylor says, “my [Lilly’s] daughter wanted to go trick or treating at Halloween with John Morgan,” the 7-year-old son of Forrest Bedford, the white lawyer whose house and motherless family Lilly cares for. “Of course, it would be impossible for Adlaine [Lilly’s black daughter, also 7] to go trick or treating with John Morgan. And my mother gave me a poem she’d written when I was about Ad-laine’s age, about what you tell a child about racism.”
Because the social security administration moved Taylor’s mother from Dallas to Muskogee, back to Dallas, then to Paris and back to Dallas again, Regina actually spent relatively-few of her childhood years in her birthplace. She entered the first grade at George Washington Carver, but after one year she and her mother were moved to Muskogee. Integration there began while Regina was in the fourth grade- “there was tension but no violence,” her mother recalls. The two moved back to Dallas in 1973 for a year, during which Regina attended junior high at T. J. Rusk Middle School. Then they were off to Paris, returning just in time for Regina to graduate from Pinkston High School and to enter Southern Methodist University. “Regina wanted to come back from Paris,” her mother says, “to be closer to her family. She has six aunts and uncles here in Dallas.”
Nell was the first African-American staffer in each social security office to which she was assigned. Sent in by upper management, she encountered dramatic resentment and the constant assumption that she was stupid or poorly trained, she says, despite the fact that she graduated summa cum laude from Bishop College. “When I was young I was very idealistic,” she says. “I thought people eventually would see that black people could do the job. But I got older. I got tired of proving 1 knew my ABCs.” In 1989, she retired early, rather than buck what she describes as the agency’s efforts to oust older workers in favor of young ones who were said to be more computer literate. “They were just trying to save money,” Nell says, “but they said that a lot of the older black people in social security had come in during the ’60s and therefore had been trained in totally segregated schools, so were never qualified for the job,”
“My mother,” Regina Taylor says, “is a very strong, very independent woman. I took moving with an open mind. It’s made me feel myself to be a nomad today. I can go to new places, new cities-I love that.”
When Taylor entered SMU as a journalism student in 1977, “it was even whiter than it is today. At that time, they were actively seeking blacks, Hispantcs, Asians. I’d never gone to a school with so few blacks,
“For a time, 1 lived in a garage apartment in Highland Park. I was stopped by police there after dark. They’d want to know what I was doing there.” She was required to show her SMU student ID to the police to prove she had a reason to be in Highland Park.
While at SMU, she changed her major from journalism to acting. “I enjoy writing because there’s a catharsis there-it’s mystical, a speaking in tongues, a borderline-insanity thing. You give yourself to voices. You translate them through pen and paper into flesh and blood. In acting, you do the same, only you give your body to the voices, you bring them to life. In the process, you learn a lot about yourself, about the commonality of different peoples.”
Though she says she learned much in the SMU theater department of the late ’70s about “styles and techniques which have helped me a lot.” she was banished to the small, experimental productions when it came to casting. It would be more than a decade before the multicultural/non-tradi-tional casting movement in American theater would very nearly stop Broadway’s $10 million production of Miss Saigon.
“At SMU, I felt very insulated from the rest of the department, from the rest of the world,” she says. “I’ve gone back to the school now,” notably for the September opening of the new Greer Garson Theatre, “and [here’s a smell in those buildings I’ll always connect to those four years. The statue of the Three Muses at the front [of the Algur H. Meadows School of the Arts]-I remember an acting class in which we had to become those muses.”
It was in some scene work, though, that Taylor had a breakthrough in her own understanding of her place in the theatrical universe.
“I was doing Blanche from Streetcar” she says. “It was the scene wilh Mitch. 1 remember rehearsing it in the sculpture garden by the Meadows School. And Mitch was played by Rene Moreno, a dear friend of mine, also from Dallas. It was then that I discovered the connections that all people have. When we were assigned the scene and I was to be Blanche, it was all ’ha-ha-ha,’ But then with Rene, who’s Hispanic playing Mitch, we were connecting one to another through the characters and finding common ground.”
As the ever-cyclical rhythms of the live-stage industry would have it, Taylor and Moreno found themselves on some far more rarefied common ground in 1987 at the Belasco Theatre just off Times Square, when she played Juliet to his Romeo as part of Estelle Parsons’ and the late Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival on Broadway series.
Taylor had graduated from SMU in 1981 and tried living in California. “I went walking on the beach in the middle of the day and broke out in hives-my friends told me you weren’t supposed to be out at that time of day in the heat with the pollution.” Cured quickly of her interest in the state, she went to New York, fell in love with its pounding plurality of energies and has been based there now for about 10 years. Known as a stage actress of considerable credentials, Taylor has followed her 1983 off-Broadway debut in Playwrights Horizon’s Young Playwrights Festival with performances in such significant works as the Public Theater’s staging of David Hare’s A Map of the World Baltimore Center Stage’s All’s Well Tluat Ends Well, Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena at the Whole Theatre in Montclair, N.J., and Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art’s production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s New Anatomies in New York.
Throughout the struggles of her acting career-including the “peripheral jobs” she describes as “me ones where nobody cares if you come in the next morning,” and appearances in television dramas such as “Crisis at Central High” and the theatrical release Lean on Me-Taylor has remained devoted to writing. In addition to writing several children’s books, she says she has finished a stage script. Watermelon Rinds, has had another original play accepted for its premiere at the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival of New American Plays in the spring, and has been commissioned by artistic director Kenny Leon at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater to write the book for a new 1993-94 season musical about: the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with a score by composer Dwiglit Andrews.
And. if “I’ll Fly Away” is carried by NBC past the current 13 episodes of the fall-winter season and is then renewed for the “back nine” episodes to come in the spring, watch for number 17-Taylor will write it.
A mere mention of the “back nine,” however, cools her excitement at the prospect of writing an episode. Her mind flies away from the conversation, back to the morning’s set where, as cordial as this Lorimar Television production company is, nerves about the show’s vulnerability to programming decisions are painfully evident.
“I’ll Fly Away,” publicists and Bromell say, appears to be safe in its thankless time slot on Friday evenings until January. After that, no one knows if the show will be continued or canceled by network honchos who watch its low ratings with a dry eye for the bottom line. The show, now in its second season, is the creation of St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey. It has pulled no fewer than 15 Emmy nominations including Taylor’s and Sam Waterston’s (Forrest Bedford) for Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series. In addition to the Peabody, the show has won two Humanitas Awards, a Directors Guild Award, a Television Critics Association Award, a Banff Film Festival Award and a seal of approval from the Viewers for Quality Television.
But awards givers and critics don’t buy commercials. Ratings attract advertisers. And the whole company knows the ratings aren’t good.
A worried looking Jeremy London (from DeSoto, Texas) and Peter Simmons, who play Nathan Bedford and Paul Slocom. sidle up to a technician during the shooting of one scene to ask when and where the lunch break is. Told they’ve got 45 minutes to wait, they return to separate corners to bite their nails. London explains that the company thinks it may hear any day about the show’s future. In jeans, he and Simmons look like prosperous pals from “Beverly Hills 90210.” Needless to say, they generate a certain youth audience for the show as the white swells of the story, buddies from opposite sides of the track. Bromell considers them educational characters because they illustrate a friendship between a “cracker” (Slocom) of the era-a racist-and Nathan, who is definitely not a cracker.
“I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, with a friend like that,” Bromell says. “The older we got. the more we realized we were different, yet we were so close.” Likewise, Nathan’s attorney-father Forrest (Waterston) is bedeviled by contradictions, one of them his affair with another woman. which draws Nathan’s sullen wrath.
To Taylor, these subplots involving young characters aren’t just the important fleshing out of the whole society that Bromell sees them to be.
“1 feel the youth today need to be directed,” she says. “They need to be directed in terms of where they’re going. I think a way of doing that is looking back where we’ve come from. I don’t think you gel anywhere otherwise.
“’I’ll Fly Away” is about a time when America was trying to find its conscience. We’re saying. ’This is what was done at this point in time.’ A lot of people find ’I’ll Fly Away’ too painful to watch. And some have a disconnection-’What does this have to do with us now?’ But change is transitory. We thought we’d opened the doors and they’d stay open. On all fronts, whether they’re racial or sexual or what, we”re being tested again. Gays, women, blacks, whoever.”
The daughter’s words in Conyers are echoed by the mother in Dallas. “It’s like a chill wind is blowing now,” says Nell Taylor. “We can regress to covert discrimination very fast. America’s going to have to be honest to live up to its potential in the 1990s.”
That concern for the multiplicity of our fin de siècle individual-rights issues may stand her daughter in better stead yet: Surely a good casting director won’t fail to notice that Taylor, with her hair regally pulled back from her face to play her character Lilly, looks strikingly like Anita Hill. Hearing the suggestion, Nell lets out a low laugh: “One day, I picked up TV Guide at the store because Regina was on the cover. I didn’t have my glasses on. I thought. ’I’ve never seen her in that dress before.’ I got home and realized it was Anita Hill.”
FOR NOW. REGINA TAYLOR IS A woman defiantly wrapped up in her work. Personable and patient but plainly preoccupied by the political passions her role is arousing, she graciously but firmly declines to answer any questions about her personal life-“I prefer to keep that private”-and quietly wraps the turkey sandwich she hardly has touched.
Before lunch is over, an autograph is requested by the star-struck Mom and Pop who run Conyers” Sandwich Factory. No, wait, they want a photograph, too. When the film is developed, Taylor will look pleasant among the tables of the tiny corner restaurant-pleasant but dazed, even feverish. She has been overtaken by a stark, staring sense of mission for the gravity of the show’s material.
” TT1 Fly Away’ is something 1 believe in,” she says. “I took on this show because I could believe in the role, It’s very rare you get a role like this. I saw the possibilities of this character. She was someone I’d never seen before in the media, the embodiment of so many women I’ve admired–Rosa Parks, my mother, my grandmother.
“And as a writer, I’m interested in developing roles for people of color that show complexity. There are so many stories in our community that are waiting for visibility.”
Intriguingly. Taylor is both storyteller and listener to the tales she’s championing in “I’ll Fly Away”: She was born on August 22. 1960. making her only a year old when the Freedom Rider beatings in Anniston and Birmingham happened.
Regina Taylor is not missing the bus a second time.
“Your life,” she says, “is the process of making your art.”