What do you call a man who writes, directs, and produces a string of award-winning plays, has one of the highest grossing records in touring musicals and comedies, and who strategically partners with the most celebrated African-American talent to bring his stories to stage and film? You could call him dedicated, gifted and talented, or even just really, really smart. But mostly you would call him David E. Talbert.
Since exploding onto the gospel theater circuit 20 years ago, with his self-described “soul” plays, Talbert has delighted, challenged, and encouraged his audiences to examine their world from his unique and at times irreverent perspective. With his latest project, “Love in the Nick of Tyme,” recently released to DVD, this pioneer in African-American media took a few moments to share with me his take on true success, how he made the leap to radio to writing, and his advice for aspiring scribes.
Sheeri Mitchell: How integral is your faith to what you write?
David E. Talbert: Very. I can only write what I believe. The themes and subject-matter of all of my stories…all have some kind of inspirational, moral, or uplifting spin to them because that’s just what I believe. What I [have been doing for 20 years] is to entertain, uplift, and inspire [audiences].
Sheeri: At this point in your career, do you believe that you are doing what you were put here to do?
Sheeri: How integral is your marriage to your career?
David: My career actually hit another level when I got married. There is something about having a union – a yen and a yang. I used to [write] based on what I thought was hot [to] me. But now I show [my work] to my wife and she may think that something needs to be tweeked…and I go back [and make changes] because ultimately she is my audience. [Being married] has given me a greater perspective – a greater understanding on relationships. I write now not from what I think about relationships. I write from what I know about them.
Sheeri: I understand that you started out in radio. What motivated you to make the leap from a career in radio to writing?
David: Being fired. That’s always a great motivation. Being hungry is also a great motivation. Something about the pains and your stomach grumbling motivates you to do something to make some money [so you can] put something [to eat] in it. I was at KSOL San Francisco and they were going through a whole regime change and I got caught up in that. Some friends of mine gave me tickets to see [Thomas Meloncon’s]“Diary Of Black Men” and [Shelley Garret’s] Beauty Shop. When I sat in the theater and saw the faces [of the audience] and saw how much people were really enjoying the production, I said [to myself], “Wow! Okay, I can do this.” And so I went home that night and started writing my first play.
Sheeri: How much longer after that did you gain recognition?
David: We put [“Tellin’ It Like It Tiz’] up at [The Black Rep Theater] in Berkeley and we sold out for 18 shows. The promoter of “Beauty Shop” came in to see it [and] three months later he took it out on the road. So from the time I started writing until it went out onto the road was about 14 months. And we opened up in my hometown of Washington D.C. in Constitutional Hall on New Year’s Eve [of 1992].
Sheeri: What are some of the most important obstacles that you have had to overcome in your career, and what did you learn from them?
David: Probably the most important obstacle is learning to listen to your own voice. There’s a lot of noise in the world – in the creative space. People are saying “this won’t work,” or “do this,” or “you shouldn’t do this.” Early in my career I was really swayed by public opinion. But I know that when you’re given a specific message or theme to carry, then it’s your job to boldly do that. The scriptures say that your gifts will make room for themselves. My ideas are all gifts to me. I didn’t sit and conjure them up. I know they are all gifts. So when I’m given a gift [in the form of] an idea, a thought, a theme, a story – it’s my job to do what I have to do to deliver it and not be swayed by public opinion. When I started [listening to my own voice] it changed everything.
Sheeri: Would you say that African-Americans are your target audience?
David: People that love good stories are [my target audience]. It just so happens that the way the [touring] circuit was created it [became] an exclusive club – like a country club for theatre. Black audiences across the country took ownership of it and said, “It’s ours.” My stories are accessible [for] everybody. I have fans all across the world [who] check out my plays on DVD or who see them on BET. Primarily my audience has been traditionally African American [but] when I did my first feature film [“A Woman Like That”], fifty percent of the people who came out to see that were non-African-American. [My work] is just good, universal stories. It just so happens that we [African-Americans] have taken ownership of it.
Sheeri: Do you consider yourself a success?
David: Yes. Success is when you’re doing something that you would do for free, but someone happens to be paying you for it. So in that way, I am incredibly successful.
Sheeri: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
David: My biggest advice for aspiring writers is to do less talking about writing and do more [actual] writing. A lot of people come up to me and say [things, such as] “Well I have this idea,” “I’ve been having this idea for about [X number of years],” “I’ve been wanting to write this story for about ten years,” [or] “I had [this idea] when I was five years old,” “What should I do?” [To which I respond,] “Well, it’s not rocket science, you should write.” Stop talking about what it is you want to do and start being about it. ABC – always be creating – that’s my philosophy.
“Love in the Nick of Tyme” is available on DVD in stores now and at davidetalbert.com. David is currently casting his two most recent projects: the upcoming film, “The Fabric of a Man,” based on Talbert’s award-winning play of the same name, and his newest play, “What My Husband Doesn’t Know,” which is currently scheduled to open on tour February of 2011. To keep up with David’s current projects and new releases, visit his website, davidetalbert.com, contact him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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