Now that he’s gone, it feels impossible to talk about my friend Tony White without telling a Tony story, to bring you into my Tony world. I live in New York City and Tony White was my amazing theater friend for many years, until he died suddenly from complications from surgery on January 19th 2020. Ugh. January is not starting out great. I miss my friend so much.
You know how it’s funny that when someone dies, you suddenly see all of them in a minute, or I do. Or at least this is how I see Tony. I see all of his light in a hot minute. Tony was pure light, pure magic. I guess I’m lucky because one day not so long ago, I saw the whole picture of Tony and it gave me pause. Ah Tony.
Tony was this big black man who I’d often meet in bars. It’s sounds funny, but it’s the truth. Not so long ago, I had to run to pay his bill in a bar and then leave to pick up my kids. I never thought of Tony as a drunk, because he wasn’t a drunk. But he did like to drink and he may not have seemed an appropriate best buddy for me, but there we were. He was this crazy, enigma, unicorn…possibly angel on earth. Many are describing Tony White using the word “angel.” And I’m struck by it, actually because it’s hard for me to come up with a better word for him.
Tony had a degree in theater and a JD Law Degree. He worked in sales and made good good money. He could sell ice to eskimos. He could inspire with a few words of praise. He could apologize. Not a lot of people know when and how to apologize. He was a gentleman. Tony was da man in many respects. Tony could also mess things up more than anyone. Oh my gosh.
He was brave and passionate about theater and helping others, almost like a coach. I’ve never seen someone so generous with their time, money and talents to help others’ on their journey of ‘becoming.’ When he’d ask me to work on a project with him, I’d always wonder to what end? What was he getting out of it? Usually nothing. He was more about the connections…connecting people and pushing people forward.
For commercials, Tony often played the big black clown and he was okay with that. How many times did he play Falstaff? Or a black Santa? Or the fat guy? Tony was the funny guy. Tony was witty and funny and he likely made a good bit of cash between his regular sales job at AM NY and commercials. I was often impressed with how much he worked. “I’m on my way to an audition, a commercial shoot, or a sales call.” These were phrases I often heard from Tony. And he always showed up to our theater meetings with AM NY’s stuffed under his arm. He was always out and about. When did he sleep? I guess during many of our meetings. Tony was the guy who would fall asleep during meetings or even our rehearsals. He was a busy guy. Theater was Tony’s passion, his reason d’etre so-to-speak and yeah, maybe it was what killed him — just his non-stop about it. He’s one of those people who really burned the candle at both ends. Enough already.
Tony was always on his phone, busy, in another world. He was sometimes too busy in the universe to be in our orbit. He was far too busy creating this universe, throwing it out there — splat. Details & focus were not his thing. His magic was people and theater.
Our paths crossed often in my early days in New York City when we were both members of a small Off-Off-Off company called Love Creek Productions. I was young and full of energy back then. Not a gray hair on my head, or an ounce of fat on my slim figure. That was before kids, but not before I was married. I may have met Tony the year I got married (2004). And even though I was pursuing playwriting and in grad school for playwriting from 2002-2005, somehow I was in a handful of plays between 2002-2008 and many of them were with Tony.
At some point in 2004 we were in a play together, a comedy set in a bar called Montevideo that was written by our mentor Le Wilhem. My character jumps on his character when I realize my husband’s been cheating on me. It was a very funny scene. In the fall of 2005, we were in another play where we played Heroine addicts living in New Orleans. In the end, when I overdose, he carries me off stage. He was a drag queen and I feel like he might have been wearing angel wings, which is rather profound, especially in retrospect. In the last play I would ever act in Who Put The X in X-Mas, it was 2008, he played my sweet cab driver who saves me. Tony was always saving me on stage, and in life too I suppose.
After 2008, I didn’t see him so much. I’m sure and even from photos on social media I can see that Tony did a million plays between the years until we’d reconnect. The guy was always doing theater. It was like throwing it up — splat, splat splat. There is a Shakespeare play, and another. Splat.
In 2009 I had a baby and in 2011 I had another baby. I was mostly a busy stay-at-home mom in those early years. But even with babies, I was busy with playwriting and TV projects. I don’t know how though. In 2011 my play Reporter Girl was in the Comic Book Theater Festival…holy smokes.
In 2013, I ran into Tony in a hospital waiting room. We were both saying our final goodbyes to our theater mentor from the Love Creek days, Le Wilhelm, who was dying of Cancer. And that was also abrupt, as I only found out he was ill the day before. I can’t remember exactly what was going on, but our paths were meant to cross again and it was Le, in his dying moments who brought us together (again). We were both shaken and passed each other in the hallway. We were the old-schoolers, part of the early group. We were also two of Le’s favorites — I was considered a company playwright at some point and Tony, an artistic director. And there we were, unplanned, saying our goodbyes. I was crying.
Like Tony would do six years later, Le died in the middle of a project. Le was in the middle of directing a play when died. Tony and I made a date to go to the play together. After the we went to dinner in the East Village and had a heartfelt discussion about Le, life and talked about various projects, possibly working together again someday. My kids were only 1 and 3 at that point. Tony mentioned wanting to produce one of my plays, Hoboken, a play of mine he’d always had his eye on. He was producing now, he told me. It all sounded genuinely exciting.
A few weeks later, Tony asked me if I wanted to do the press for his friend’s Native American Theater Company because he “always remembered that I was good at press and marketing.”
I had done marketing for years, but I’d never done theater press and Tony gave me my first foray, first job in the field at a time when I needed something. Tony just offered me a job doing the thing I was secretly wanting to try. It was kind of like he was reading my mind, or instinctively knew something I didn’t. He was right, I was very good at press and specifically for theater. This new skill was good fit for me, and I quickly found a niche that married my marketing skills, love of theater and interest in Native American cultures. PR was also the perfect job for a stay-at-home busy mom. Some of the work I could do while watching my kids on the playground. A lot of press is quick return emails, and phone calls. These jobs kept me busy and somewhat employed from 2013-2016. I also got to know the founder of the company, Ryan Victor Pierce, who was from the Lenape tribe. I can remember asking him over and over for press purposes about the Lenape thing (this comes back) for press materials.
Around 2016, besides my own plays, budding tv projects and PR jobs, I had started teaching theater, a playwriting program I’d later dub Playwriting For Kids at my kids’ school. In 2018, when my daughter was in the third grade, the class was doing a Lenape unit. My eyes lit up when the teachers announced it. Lenape? What? I knew a bit about the Lenape, of course. I even knew a Lenape Tribe Member. I imagined that maybe we could do a Playwriting Unit together, which is what actually happened. Ryan was invited in to speak to the kids — it was fascinating. He has a theater project where he re-creates what Manahatta (Manhattan’s original name) looked and felt like for the Lenape people who lived here first. For the big Lenape theater project with the 3rd graders, I was on my own. So I asked my theater friends to come help. Of all my theater friends, Tony was the only one who responded yes. He was up for anything, but he always had an agenda…one never knew what exactly was up his sleeve.
Working with Tony on the kids plays was great. I didn’t expect much from him. And there he was on his phone most of the time, mostly looking up laughing at me. While I was just going crazy, chasing the kids on the stage. There is a moment in any play where it feels like chaos when you are trying to stage it. But it was starting to gel, and there were these great little mini moments in the script that were impossible to stage. With so many kids (who were not staying put) I really needed a second person. “Tony, direct this. Here is the script. Here are the kids go!” And he was great. The scene was perfect — the moment perfectly directed and choreographed thanks to Tony.
After I’d work with the kids, I was exhausted. Mentally and physically I was spent, kaput. My brain was mush. But if Tony was there, I’d take him to lunch as a thank you.
We’d sit across from each other in different worlds. Hilarious. I was staging the plays in my head, and Tony was drinking — on his second cocktail and talking about his latest production. I didn’t really care and it didn’t matter anyway. I had sworn off working with him, after he botched one of my plays in late 2016, but even that play got a publication from the production, so it wasn’t a total loss…”a silver lining,” I’d say, trying to rub the memory of inviting my friends and neighbors to watch a woman on stage who didn’t know her lines…ever.
But it was 2018 now and I was into these kid plays.
Me: “What did you think of that kid who plays the wolf, he’s good right?”
Tony: “Ah yeah sure. ” So I’m supposed to be producing Closer but I can’t get the rights, it’s too damn expensive.”
Hmmm…Closer. The words floated in my head. The play Closer had always reminded me of my play Hoboken. Both plays were dark and sexy. Did Tony know this? Was this a trick? The fog of children lifted and I was back to my play that I was once very passionate about.
“Closer? Why are you doing Closer?” I snapped. “Do my play, do Hoboken.”
“Okay,” he said.
And that was that. I was back in my kid fog the next day. I forgot that I verbally told Tony he could produce my play. I think he did ask for me to send it to him. Still, I forgot about it. I wasn’t thinking about it at all.
A month went by. I saw Tony at a friend’s show and he casually informs me that they are doing my play. It’s cast and they are starting rehearsals. “The play goes up in a month,” he said.
What? What? Omg. I can’t believe it. That’s not how it works. What? I’m mad, but I’m excited inside. There’s this odd bubbling feeling happening. I want to tell him no, but I’m also happy somehow. You see, I would never produce this play on my own. I was actually afraid of this play. It is about a pedophile and not exactly a feel good story. And since I never sent it out, no one else was going to just produce it. So it would just be sitting there doing nothing. The play is a love story about about a very bad guy and a girl who is darker than we think; it’s totally unexpected. It even has comedy, and if you relax for a minute, you are laughing and having fun and then it hits you. It’s messed up and seriously makes you think. It’s…daring. You’d have to be brave to want to produce this play, truly. And I’m stammering — trying to say no this man — this brave man who wants to produce my play so badly, he’s sneaking it out from under me.
Still, I tried to tell him no and I begged him to do it later, when we had time to really make everything perfect. “Why can’t we do the play in October, when we have time to make it great.” He wouldn’t budge. “It’s great now and the actors love it.”
It fit the bill for the moment, I guess. It was replacing Closer. He had the cast and the actors all set. It was go time. I either just scream no and take it back (assert myself), or I just let the wind take me. And this was Tony. He was going to produce my play whether I liked it or not. And it might be terrible and it might be amazing. Holy Shit.
If I were basing things on history, there was much more of a chance that the play would end up horrible, but something in my gut told me that it would be okay.
This was around the time when I really saw the essence of my friend Tony. It was February, I think. Much like today. It was cold and we were standing outside, down by where I live. Tony wasn’t nearly wearing enough to keep him warm. He had a simple light black trench coat. He had an issue with his leg, too. He limped and he was especially bad on stairs. You see, Tony was already fading before our eyes. I could see this quite clearly, but there was nothing I could do about it. But he wasn’t fading at the same time. It’s like he could see how important every minute was. Like Hamilton, he was running as if he was running out of time. He was putting in life what he wanted out. And he was squeezing it like a lemon. He worked it. He was old school. He was taking my play out the depths of me, taking my fears, my excuses and squashing them. He was throwing my talent out into the universe. Simple. Splat.
What’s more to that? I thought. My mouth open to say no, but I said nothing but “see you later.” On one of these days, it could have been this day, I threw my own scarf around his neck and buttoned his coat. “You need to take better care of yourself.” I couldn’t say no to Tony – my clown, my dreamer, my angel.