The most dramatic moments in a career are not always the representative ones. But having a knife held to your throat, even if it only happens once, tends to focus the mind. That's what happened to Vera Katz in her early days of teaching theater at Howard University, and now that she is retiring, 32 years later, she is prodded to remember it.
Her colleagues don't like to hear her talk about it. That was then, and this is now. Things like that wouldn't happen to a professor today. Then was a time of roiling unrest on the urban, historically black campus, when "Howard was undergoing a transformation of protest and rebellion, rediscovering African roots," as former Howard professor Glenda Dickerson puts it. Katz was a white Jewish woman teaching on a campus where issues of power and class caused even a teacher's routine comments to be taken as incendiary.
The guy was not a student but someone's friend, and he didn't like the professor's comments about his friend's performance. He stopped Katz in an alcove near the ladies' room, pulled out the knife and called her a honky, an ofay and mother[bleeper]. "My bladder went," she says now with a laugh. "I said, 'I hear you,' and he went away. I went into the bathroom and cried."
She didn't tell anyone for years, and then only a few. She didn't tell her then-husband or her mother because they would have tried to make her quit a job they hadn't wanted her to take in the first place. She didn't tell the department chair or other teachers or students because she didn't want them to think of her as a victim.
"It really goes to why I've stayed all these years," she says. "I felt I had to get through this. I thought I had a lot to offer, and I had a lot to learn, as a white person, and from the brilliant colleagues I had.
"I was not going to be victimized because of my color." She was keenly aware of how her relatives and ancestors had been targeted by anti-Semitism. "In some convoluted way I understood why the African American community was so angry. I was identifying with them."
Anyone who knows Katz, 65, would be surprised at the idea of her keeping quiet about something -- anything. "Outspoken" is a word often used in conjunction with her name. She did tell people when her tires got slashed, because that was kind of obvious and her car was in the shop too often. She remembers the words of Owen Dodson, the noted poet and playwright who ran the department when she arrived. "Oh, give 'em everything you've got," he said. "Pay them no mind."
And things changed. The culture changed. And so did she.
Katz's last directing class, a presentation of scenes by seniors, was held in the Ira Aldridge Theater, attached to the utilitarian building on Howard's campus that houses the theater arts department. Katz is a cloud of Passion perfume and a whirl of color; she chooses a different color theme for each month, and for May it is browns, peach and beige. Her fingers are decorated with ornate rings, and her hair is a distinctive shade of red not found in nature.
There are several characteristics that distinguish a Katz class, whether with college students or at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she has been teaching two classes in acting. No. 1, you have to speak up! No mumbling, no word swallowing. Incorrect grammar is corrected. No. 2, she asks a million questions after the student actors have performed, eliciting critiques from the other students. Woe to the student who does not participate in the discussion.
"This is the second time I have taken this class," senior Meagan Spencer says afterward. "I had to drop it the first time. I wasn't used to the fact if you come late to Katz's class she has some words for you and the whole class. Or that you have to speak up in class. I was failing. The tests weren't really hard, but if you miss the class you miss the test. I haven't missed a class this time. She's concerned about you. I wasn't used to that. Most professors at Howard, if you're late, they aren't going to say nothing to you."
Katz was trained in the Stanislavsky method, which for both actors and directors includes a thorough analysis of the play, research about the period in which it is set and the economic and social conditions that inform it, as well as techniques aimed at producing a realistic and natural performance that can nonetheless be heard in the last row. Her students must understand the "objective" of a scene, get to it through a series of "beats," and "punctuate" significant moments. And the first step is to know what the words mean.
"Did you look up tenement in the dictionary?" she queries an Ellington student working on a scene from Amiri Baraka's "The Dutchman."
"Yes," the teen answers. "It's a shabby or overcrowded apartment house."
"Good. You can't be sitting there night after night without knowing what a word means. You won't get a connection between your mind and your soul."
As she prods and pokes these acting students, certain refrains return.
"You're dropping your words."
"If you don't understand what you're doing, ask! This is not the Army. This is an art!"
"Does anyone know the feeling of shamming up there? That you don't know what you're doing? Why do you sham? Often it's because you're afraid the director will be angry, or the other actors will be upset because you're holding them up, so you say, 'I'll figure it out later.' But you haven't taken the time to research the character."
"Rehearsal is not drill. It's exploration."
"I need to see you watching him for triggers to motivate your lines."
And also: "Let's give them a round of applause, everyone."
A student in the hall asks a friend: "Why doesn't Professor Katz like me?" The friend answers, "She does like you. She's just trying to make you do better."
Jabari Exum is a freshman from Anacostia who met Katz at Ellington last year and chose Howard partly to keep working with her. "She is kind of hard, but that's because she doesn't want us to be soft. She raises her voice and puts people on the spot," he says.
Exum took her directing class this last semester and has enjoyed stretching his mind. "If you look at theater in the metaphysical sense, the director is the one who possesses God-consciousness. . . . Everything comes out of that thought first, the primordial thought. All the elements, the grass, the scenery, the water -- it's like Genesis. Theater is like life."
Like other current students interviewed, Exum had no issue with Katz's being white. "When she came, people weren't too fond of her, I gather. She had to prove her merit and dedication. So my point is that she is acclimated to being sensitive to the struggles of African people. She has been nothing but a great help."
She keeps in touch with some of her former students who have become known in the field, such as Phylicia Rashad and her younger sister, Debbie Allen. They contribute a $5,000 scholarship every year (dedicated to their dentist father, also a Howard grad) to a "triple threat" student at Howard, someone who can dance, sing and act.
Actor Isaiah Washington spoke at Duke Ellington this year at Katz's request, and she's trying to hit him up for money for textbooks there.
Next year Katz may direct a production called "Iola's Letters," based on columns by Ida B. Wells. The play was written by Michon Boston, the sister of a former student. Another former student, Lynn Whitfield, may star in it.
The list could go on. She is not shy about dropping their names.
Katz worked through the early years at Howard with determination and an enthusiastic study of black literature and history. As she began to refer to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks instead of Anton Chekhov or Moliere, she began to win the trust and respect of both students and colleagues. At first she had not been permitted to direct on the main stage because she came from the "wrong culture," as she put it. But in 1971 she directed a production of Jean Genet's "The Blacks," changing the setting (with the playwright's permission and a three-page letter of suggestions in French) to America from colonial Africa.
Things were going along well until she hit another bump in the road. Her evaluations were good, but at the seven-year point she was denied tenure. "My file said that my 'persona' didn't fit in with the group," she recalls. She left Howard, brought a suit against the university for violation of her civil rights, and after a year of legal wrangling, she spurned a proffered settlement and insisted on reinstatement and reimbursement of legal expenses.
"The chairman of the time [the late Ted Cooper] was not very happy with her," says Howard colleague Kelsey Collie, who was new on the faculty at the time. "I assumed that it was because of who she was -- a white female. My own observation was that he was not happy having females around, and white females in particular."
Students rallied on her behalf and signed a petition to keep her on. After she returned to campus, an initial period of awkwardness was gradually superseded by invitations to lunch. Collie, who had signed her negative recommendation without knowing what it was, became a good friend, a guest at Katz's Passover seders and her children's weddings. He is hosting a retirement party for her next week.
But the episode took its toll, especially on her marriage. Eventually she left her first husband, a government lawyer, and moved into an apartment near their home in Chevy Chase. Her daughter was nearly 18 and her son 15, and they resented her leaving and the time the theater took away from them. The pain of those years still causes Katz to cry when she talks about it. Neither child has gone into the theater.
Ten years ago Katz married Thomas Korth, now acting chairman of the Howard music department. They live in a modest rambler on a spacious, shady lot in Wheaton, a house filled with original artworks, his music studio, lots of books and three closets full of her thrift-store clothing finds.
"I am surprised she stayed so long," says onetime office mate Dickerson, now a drama professor at the University of Michigan. "I've been encouraging her to leave for many years. She did a great job, she has a lot to show for it. She is not as valued as she once was. But she cares so much about the students."
She's leaving because she's just turned 65, and because it's time. She's fed up with going to meetings, and with academia in general. "I don't believe in it anymore," she says. "It's become a business, a corporation, and I'm a creative artist."
She's disappointed that years of proposals to add a master's program and a repertory company -- like those at Harvard and Yale -- have produced no results. A recent reorganization on campus, designed to save money by eliminating duplication, put the theater department under the college of arts and sciences instead of in a separate division of fine arts. Katz sees this as a message that fine arts are expendable, which devalues "the huge impact the black artist has had on the nation."
Theater Department Chairwoman Henrietta Edmunds is alarmed at these sentiments and says the reorganization has strengthened the arts rather than downgraded them.
Soon Katz will be free of these bureaucratic problems. Tonight a special salute to Katz will be made during the end-of-year prize-giving at the Ira Aldridge Theater. The tributes may be less forthright than this from her old friend Glenda Dickerson:
"We all owe her a debt of gratitude for sticking it out, and being so conscientious, and really trying to understand African American culture, and entering it with a kind of humility. She is a noodge, and she can be irritating. Sometimes she confuses her entry into the culture with actually being an honorary black person. She can get on your nerves! But those of us who care about Howard really owe her a debt of gratitude."