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'Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death'

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Melvin Van Peebles made his imprint on American cinema in 1971 with his controversial film, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. It was a trailblazing plot with a hero and a setting that were all black.

Now, the multitalented Van Peebles is taking a new crack at an old favorite. His 1971 Broadway hit, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, is back on the New York stage. Van Peebles recently talked with me about the inspiration for all of his work about black street life.

Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES (Writer and Director, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death): When I didn't see what I thought I was seeing in reality, I said, that's whack, I can do it myself; and that's what I did. That's - in the mean time - the trick is while you're making money, you have to insert the message. Don't forget Shaft was originally a white movie - it was in pre-production as a white movie when Sweetback made all that money, they stopped production and recast it as a black movie.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Not for any great sudden stroke of a miracle, must be a miracle. Let's open our arms to everyone, it was a - hey, there's some money in those hills.

GORDON: When you were putting together, Sweetback, and I believe you knew -even though that first day looked a little shaky - I know you knew that eventually people were going to come. Fast forward to today. You can use that same roadmap for what Tyler Perry has done. Yet, it seems that Hollywood hasn't figured it out in its totality, in terms of how to service black America and minorities.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Well, they haven't even figured out how to service white America. I mean that's why you have flops. If everybody figured it out, then -but many of the people who are talking have lost contact with the (unintelligible) proletariats. It's a little island out there that people are very satisfied with themselves in many ways.

GORDON: Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, now this was a play, initially, that was out in 1971. Talk to us about what this is.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I went to a number of schools when I was a kid on the south side of Chicago. And the first thing I learned - I was rather small - whenever I went to go to a new place, I would find out who the toughest guy in school was and pick a fight. Now, he would kick my ass, of course. But everybody else left me alone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: So you always find the biggest person, and whoever is the biggest boy. The biggest boy in theatrical world was Broadway. All right, all right, let's go talk to Broadway, let's find the biggest cat around. The biggest cat around was Broadway. So I wrote a show for Broadway.

Also, I wanted to give a workshop for actors. Now, if you just do a workshop, that costs money and you have to go out and get grants or spend your own money. I said, well, how can you make it work? So I was trying to devise a system whereby I could get the workshop paying for itself and that became, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death.

GORDON: How does this - now that it's been revived - play 30-plus years later?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Sadly enough, it plays like it was yesterday, and nothing's changed. And that's sad, but the audience understands it, knows it. They know the pimp. They know the junkies, they know the cops. They know each and every one of those people.

We're doing it really, what they call - it's experimental where everybody is actually in contact, like you would if you were sitting on a soapbox...

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: ...or you were sitting on a crate in the 'hood, just like in a street corner. And it's - you interact the characters interact with the audience and everything. It's a - it's really wonderful. It's really wonderful.

GORDON: And that's part of what you did to some degree, to a lesser degree obviously, when this came out in '71. It's very participatory for the audience, because the actors, the players, don't stay on stage. They are actually incorporated within the audience and there is that feel of it's really going on around you.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: And then afterwards, you know, we'd play some other music and I had this terrific group of young people, called DRX, Dirty Rats. And we do a mural at the end of the show, which is something new. It's going along. In fact, we're doing a new CD with the mix of all my music. And so it's going very well. I'm very pleased with it.

GORDON: No, but, again, modesty aside, you've been on the forefront...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Modesty...

GORDON: ...of so many things...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: ...me and modesty don't mix...

GORDON: ...I know it's hard to say with you, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)


GORDON: But, you've been in the forefront...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I remember Mario asked me, he said, Dad, why aren't you modest? Because, if you had - I was the only - I was the whole band. I had to blow my own horn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Or it didn't get blown.

GORDON: Yeah, that's my point. You know, you've been in the fore for so many years now. I've talked to some people who've been in the fore of the civil rights movement, or some other genres and their suggestion now, as time marches on, they say, hey I'm getting a little tired, I'm still here in the good fight, but I'm looking for others to take over.

Are you looking to do this, or is this kind of your life's blood that you're going to do that until they put you down?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Well, here's the situation. Today, I come out, I couldn't get a cab. You understand what I'm saying? When I can get a cab and he pulls up in front - he went over - went around the block and picked this white lady and didn't pick me up. Now, why - well, how can I get tired of that? I mean, you just got to keep on going.

GORDON: Melvin Van Peebles, as always, good to have you with us. Appreciate it.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Hey, thank you Mr. Gordon.

GORDON: Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death is now at the T New York in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.