The day before the play Race opened at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Denis Calandra, the show's producer, was in a sweat. Only one ticket had been sold.
One of the seven planned performances was canceled. Many tickets to Thursday's opening night performance of the play, about how blacks and whites feel about each other, were distributed for free, just to fill the house.
But Friday night, Calandra was giving nothing away. "I was a little nervous," he later said, "right at the top, because you can't predict _ but then the place filled up in the last 15 minutes." The curtain rose at 7:30 to a full and racially mixed house.
Meanwhile, about a mile away, across the Hillsborough River from the theater, another show on more or less the same subject was midway through its weekly live broadcast from Tampa's cable TV public access center.
The name of the show, Race and Reason, was even close to that of the Arts Center play. An unremarkable-looking white man _ balding, wearing glasses _ named Herbert Poinsett was seated in front of two flags, one Confederate, one Nazi, and was rambling against blacks, Jews, immigrants, the country in general. "Democracy never was any damn good," he declared. "You can see the chaos coming."
In between his rantings, Poinsett took calls. "I appreciate the show," one man said. "'I know where you're coming from. I'm 100 percent USDA American."
Back at the Performing Arts Center, actors stood on a mostly darkened stage, and one by one repeated the stories told by ordinary people to Chicago writer Studs Terkel, who asked scores of blacks and whites what they thought of each other and put their often painful replies in a book he called Race.
Denis Calandra, the man who sweated out opening night, and the head of the theatre department at the University of South Florida, had persuaded Jose Yglesias, a Latin novelist born in Ybor City, to condense Terkel's book for the stage. Calandra, who is white, then hired a black director, L. Kenneth Richardson, to direct two dozen actors who worked for free repeating the stories Terkel heard.
One came from a white woman who didn't object to racist jokes, even though she thought she should. Another came from a black man who had given up hope for racial understanding. "'Being black in America," he said, "is like being forced to wear ill-fitting shoes."
I cannot tell you how the audience responded. I attended on opening night, so I could catch Herbert Poinsett's act Friday evening. My comparison now is not accidental.
The people who put on a play to help blacks and whites get over their mutual anger and ambivalence had to struggle to raise money for their show and then to find an audience. But hate is, as ever, a growth industry. By his own count, Poinsett's show is seen in 14 or 15 cities across the nation, where like-minded people air tapes of his program.
Friday, this 65-year-old retired chiropractor from Brandon was not particularly happy because protests led a New York City cable station late last month to yank his show. But there was one side benefit _ publicity, in the form of a recent story on the NBC Nightly News.
Friday night, he bragged that talk show hosts were now clamoring to have him as a guest. But he only would appear for money. "Five figures," he said was what he would need to suffer appearing before audiences full of "brain-dead whites and hybridized Negroes."
I never did meet Herbert Poinsett. He refused an interview in person. He wouldn't let me in the studio. But we did talk on the phone. "I'm telling the truth, and I challenge anyone to dispute me," he said.
On the show that Friday night, a couple of black callers did. One, who might have had Poinsett in mind, questioned him about defects in the white gene pool. Poinsett shot back that whites have superior brains.
And so it went, straight downhill, until a white man who apparently lacked even a shred of a sense of his own absurdity shouted at Poinsett: "I don't like n-----s any more than you do, but you're a racist a------!"
In perfect counterpoint, an audience discussion follows the performance of Race. It is uncomfortable to sit through the talk and reflect on your own prejudices, even share them. But if you can stand it, three more performances are scheduled _ next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, June 16-18, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The tickets sell for all of six bucks.