On a deep, dark night in 1986, actor John Amos took a walk near his house in New Jersey. He wanted to see Halley's comet, the great spectacle that was scheduled to rip through the sky with such brillance that thousands of others were pressing their noses against windows and staring up into the heavens to witness its return.
As Amos walked, he came across a man who had seen the comet 76 years earlier. And as Amos listened, the man began to tell stories about all that had happened since the comet last appeared in the night sky of his youth.
Amos listened and began thinking what it must have been like and felt like to see the comet in 1910. That night, he went home and began to write "Halley's Comet," a one-man play, which was performed Saturday at Prince George's Publick Playhouse in Cheverly.
Amos, a formidable actor, is best known for playing the role of Kunta Kinte in the television series "Roots," for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award. He was also unforgettable as James Evans, the hard-nosed father in the 1970s sitcom, "Good Times."
In "Halley's Comet," Amos plays an 87-year-old man who is trying to come to terms with a comet he first saw as a 12-year-old.
The comet, both blinding and invisible, becomes his captive audience as he begins to talk about way back when and tells the stories of his losses, the world wars, the deaths, the humor that has passed his way.
"I got the idea for the play in '86 when the comet last came through our solar system," Amos said last week in an interview. "The thing that inspired it was seeing an elderly gentleman sharing with family what it was like when the first airplane flew over, the radio broadcast. . . . On the strength of that, I went home and wrote about a character who had seen Halley's comet come twice.
"What the play hopefully conveys to the audience is this elderly gentleman's observations of life and the human condition," Amos said. "He has lived close to nine decades. This is the dialogue he has with the comet. That is the old man's perception."
The man tells the story of seeing three sons die: one in World War II, one in the Korean War and one in Vietnam. He lost a daughter in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. The burdens of war have become part of his survival. He is aware of the damage we do to each other as human beings, predicated on skin color. He sees it all as meaningless."
The man can also see what man can do when he gets past skin color. The play has serious dramatic moments, but it also has humor.
The stage is bare, with the exception of a tree stump and some leaves. The man sits in the center of the universe, wrestling and talking with nature. The bareness of the set allows the audience to fill in the gaps with its imagination. Those are the best kinds of stories, the ones where the characters and the scenes look the way you want them to look, with the colors only you can create in your head.
That way, there is no disappointment.
"It is basically storytelling," Amos says. "That is something we have in common. We like to hear a good story told."
Saturday's showing marked the 10th anniversary of Amos's tour. After this year, Amos--who has performed on the road between his work on television and in movies--plans to stop touring with "Halley's Comet."
"I think I'm going to allow some other actors to interpret the piece," he said.
"Halley's Comet" will come this way again Feb. 13 in Reston. Call 888-792-6638 for more information.