October 16, 2000
A chat with J. Samuel Decker
by Lynn Trenning
Fred 45 is three-act play written by Sam Decker, who lives on the upper west side of Manhattan with his wife and three children. Sam went to high school in Shelby, NC, received a Bachelor of Creative Arts at UNC Charlotte, and earned a Master of Arts degree at City College of New York.
Fred 45 takes place before, during and after Fred's forty-fifth birthday. Fred is a white man married to a black woman, Toni, and they have two teenage children. The reappearance of a college friend provides the catalyst for Fred to reevaluate his whole life, from his marriage, to his career, to his children. The cast is small, and loaded with the potential for conflict. The eight roles provide intense contrasts: black and white; parents and children; Jewish and southern; middle class kids in elite private school; the ease of having money versus hand to mouth existence; and the differences between men and women.
Thursday, October 26
& Saturday, October 28
8 p.m. - tickets $5
performances at C.A.S.T.
3143 Cullman Avenue
Meet J. Samuel Decker, author of the play...
Immediately following the performance on Thursday the 26th, participate in a moderated discussion of Fred 45, led by Playwrights Project board member and Pfeiffer professor Muhammad Abdullah.
For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.
For more information about Fred 45, please visit www.artsavant.com/fred45.
Fred is a white man married to a black woman, and you are a white man married to a black woman. Was it easy or difficult to write about biracial marriage?
JSD It was easy.
LMT Has your wife read the play?
JSD Yes, and she likes it. It's not really autobiographical. I didn't want it to be autobiographical, but any time you write, you write about yourself.
LMT Is this your first work bigger than a poem?
JSD I was putzing around with some novels that I couldn't ever finish. One day I woke up and thought, 'I really want to write a play.' So I did this and it was really really easy to write. I started thinking about it, and I wrote it in about three weeks.
LMT A mid-life birthday provides a perfect setting for Fred to reexamine his life. Race plays a central role. How does the subject of race affect your daily life?
JSD In that unlike other white people, I can't forget about it. And if you are black in America it is always in your face. I have black kids. I'm conscious of it.
LMT Why do you call your kids black and not white?
JSD I used to call them biracial, and my wife's point is that you can call them anything you want, but when people see them with me, they're black.
LMT Some characters in the play are initially described by color, i.e. Louis, Toni, Ella and Mofuma. Why not everybody?
JSD You know, that is something that I struggled with. If you don't describe people by color, the assumption is that they are white. If they are black, it is always right there in the initial description. That was part of it. I wanted to mirror that color is very important to both black and whites.
LMT Ella is fifteen and plays the role of reason. Why did you choose a teenager for this role?
JSD Well, I wanted her to be that person who is very sure. I wanted to write a play about middle aged people, because I think we are very interesting, despite the fact that everyone else thinks we are all used up. I was thinking about the issues that affect middle aged people, and I was thinking about the teenagers I know. They seem so self assured. Part of it is growing up in different times than we did. Ella doesn't have any guilt. Everyone else is examining their issues, and she doesn't need to. I wanted someone to sit back, watch all that, and proclaim very quietly. These kids grew up in much more materialistic times, and while people my age are still working on issues like race and gender, they take so many things for granted. It used to bother me that the young women I was teaching didn't identify themselves as feminists. I finally realized they don't have to identify themselves as feminists. And having grown up in a very materialistic time, they don't have as many issues with money.
LMT Because they take it for granted?
JSD I think so.
LMT The character Toni dropped out of Smith in the 70s. What do you want this to say about her?
JSD I wanted to say that she is so comfortable being upper middle class, at least in a black sense, that she could drop out of college without feeling like she had let the race down.
LMT Mofuma, the black wanna be revolutionary, is both arrogant and ridiculous, serious and foolhardy. What do you like about him?
JSD I like all those things you just said. The power of a good education. I think it is really cool that he is just motoring through life.
LMT Fred's encounter with middle age runs from deep reflections about how he has chosen to live, to his inability to eat hot sauce. Which is more troublesome to you?
JSD Definitely the hot sauce. I hate the body wearing out. I really hate that.
LMT Whether or not to sell out is a central theme in Fred 45. What does selling out mean to you?
JSD It means being able to compromise your own set of values. To put aside your values not for other people, but for yourself. And to make justifications, like it's okay if I do this.
LMT Have you sold out?
JSD I've never been offered any money. When I was younger, it would have been easier to compromise myself, but as I get older I get more unflexible about right and wrong. What is right or wrong is more questionable, but when I make up my mind I don't change it as easily.
LMT The children in Fred 45 are very cognizant of where their parents' money comes from. Do you think this is usual?
JSD No. Part of the reason they do is that they are the poor kids at an elite private school.
LMT Do you think it was harmful for them to be out of their element?
JSD Not at all, but I know kids are aware. Whit Stillman (director of Metropolitan) was from that upper east side social set but his parents lost all their money. So he grew up going to cotillions but didn't have any money. He was always being invited to fancy places, but he realized he was expected to contribute. He felt that benefited him. I agree with that. I was at a dinner for the parents of all the kids in my kids class, and I'm thinking, I really fucked up, why didn't I become a lawyer so I can have this stuff? Then all these people came up to me and said you get time to read and write and spend time with your kids, I never get to do that, and I remembered, oh yeah, that's why I did all this.
LMT Toni is a fascinating puzzle of a person. She is outraged that Fred will take a job with a corporation that she believes is racist, while she has spent years 'eating shit from suits who treated her like a pickannannie from Harlem'. Yet she dropped out of Smith, which suggests serious lost opportunity. What about this?
JSD What I meant was that she took temp jobs to survive. She did what she had to do, but she didn't make a career out of it.
LMT Where will Mofuma be in ten years?
JSD I think he will be either in publishing or in politics.
LMT Will he be a real revolutionary?
JSD No, but I believe he will become addicted to power.
LMT Fred described the Clayton he knew in college as being like the air, or the sun, he had to be near him. If you had someone like that in your life, would you ever let him or her go?
JSD Yeah, because people change.
LMT Do you think Toni and Fred married each other to display their color values, as Louis accuses?
LMT Why does Louis accuse them of that?
JSD He is young, and I think a lot of people think that about interracial marriages. He is at that really obnoxious teenage point.
LMT What does Mofuma want with Louis?
JSD He really admires that Louis is basically good. It probably gives him some balance in his life.
LMT Why is Clayton so upfront about his bisexuality when questioned by people who dislike him?
JSD Because that way, he gets to take the offensive. Once it is an acknowledged fact, his reaction is, you can't hurt me, you can't make me feel bad.
LMT In your experience, do you think blacks feel grouped together by whites? Do they care? Do they want to know whites other than in ways that they can't avoid?
JSD A lot of blacks I know have no interest in getting to know whites on a social level at all because they feel they can't be trusted. White people group blacks together all the time. In New York the press requires every black politician to repudiate Farrakhan, yet white politicians are never asked to repudiate David Duke.
LMT Do you think the nuances of class have greater or lesser influence today in our multicultural society?
JSD I don't know because I live in a very rarified world in New York. My whole view of the class issue is very skewed. I don't know how it is in the rest of the world. I know everyone wants to call themselves middle class. This is probably something that is very autobiographical... Wilma says to Fred that he wants to ignore all things about class. That is how I feel. I want to be fluid to go in any direction I want to go.
LMT Do you think biracial kids have to choose a color? How do they deal with a color being chosen for them?
JSD If you look at it, most black people are, in some shape or form, biracial.
LMT Toni challenges Clayton to spend a day in Harlem. Why would he want to, and what would he gain from it?
JSD He would then know what it is like to be a minority. I lived in Harlem for four years. It was an education.
LMT Mofuma tells Clayton that he will compromise, but not sell out. What is the difference?
JSD He means that he will get what he wants, but he really and truly won't betray his own personal values.
LMT We all decide a price to pay for the lives we lead. What price have you paid for the life you are living now?
JSD I'm poor. I'm not wealthy.
LMT Is that your only price?
JSD There was a place in the play that was cut, where Fred was talking about jobs he couldn't accept. He couldn't move to Wyoming where everyone is white. There are places in the country where I wouldn't go because of my family. But then again, I don't want to live there. All in all, I'm pretty pleased with my life.
Lynn Trenning, October 16, 2000