May 31, 2012

From Buggin' to Fring to Calderon

1989, the number, another summer: I fell hard for Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing; I saw it maybe half a dozen times in the theater. For all its tendentious politics, I think what I most responded to was its exuberant, oversaturated sound and color (I use the term advisedly, but how else do you describe the vibrant production design of Wynn Thomas?), and its extraordinary actors, all of them (apart from John Turturro, Richard Edson, and the venerable Ossie and Ruby) quite unfamiliar to me: Robin Harris, Sam Jackson, Danny Aiello, Richard Edson, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, Roger Guenveur Smith, and above all, fiery Giancarlo Esposito as that tireless pain-in-the-ass Buggin' Out. Esposito somehow managed to be both hilarious, pointed, and faintly pathetic all at once (see the Air Jordan scene above), a substantive fool worthy of Shakespeare.

What I didn't think about much then was Giancarlo's name, and how it sat squarely at odds with Buggin' Out's particular beef in the film—if you recall, he initiates a boycott of Sal's Pizzeria in Bed-Stuy because there are only "American Eye-talians" on the owner's "Wall of Fame," and he'd like to see "some brothers up on the wall." In researching the extraordinary life and career of the Copenhagen-born Esposito for this profile in the paper of record, I was struck not only by that uncommon biracial background (African-American mother, Italian father) but by the ways Esposito has leveraged that dual Otherness in a variety of roles. In Spike's films and several stage roles he played various registers of African-American, some of which he had to diligently study to master, but he's also played Puerto Rican (Fresh), Chilean (Breaking Bad), even occasionally black/Italian (Homicide: Life on the Streets). And in JP Shanley's new play Storefront Church, he plays Donaldo Calderon, a half-PR/half-Italian Bronx pol. (Fun trivia: The play reunites with him Tonya Pinkins, with whom he appeared in 1981's Merrily We Roll Along; it was her Broadway debut, but he'd made his at age 8 opposite Shirley Jones in 1966's Maggie Flynn).

I sat down with him, appropriately enough, in a small diner in the Bronx, the borough in which he was partly raised. For the record, there were no brothers on the wall.

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