Riverhead Town Police Officer John Doscinski shows off his K-9 partner to Hampton Bays High School students during Friday's Career Day. KYLE CAMPBELL
You could say that Ed German is the voice of the East End, literally. Since the mid-1990s as a radio host and producer at public radio station WPPB 88.3 FM, Mr. German has developed quite a following with legions of loyal listeners tuning in regularly to his programs “The Urban Jazz Experience” and “Friday Night Soul.”Musically speaking, Mr. German is also the voice of his generation—and the songs he plays on-air speak of those influences. Raised in Brooklyn amid the post-World War II optimism of the 1950s, he came of age during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. His era, as well as his taste in music, was defined by shifting values, racial tensions and a questionable war in Southeast Asia.
Mr. German shared the stories of his early years in “Deep Down in Brooklyn,” a 2011 memoir tracing the arc of his life from Bed-Stuy to his tour of duty as a Marine in Vietnam and, after being wounded, his arrival back home, where he found his neighborhood and his country in the midst of radical changes and cultural turmoil.
Now, Mr. German is bringing those stories to life in the form of a one-man show. Bonnie Grice, a fellow WPPB radio personality, is producing “Deep Down in Brooklyn: An American Story” starring Mr. German and based on his memoir. The show will be offered on the John Drew Theater stage at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Tuesday, November 1, as part of Guild Hall’s JDT Lab and it represents the inaugural stage production of Ms. Grice’s new acting company, Boots on the Ground Theater.
Ms. Grice explained that for years she has heard Mr. German tell his stories around the WPPB studio. Inspired by the popularity of storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour, Ms. Grice felt that Mr. German’s easy and engaging manner and his detailed memory for people, places and events would translate well to the stage.
Last week, as Ms. Grice and Mr. German were beginning rehearsals at Guild Hall for “Deep Down in Brooklyn,” they sat down to talk about the project. Ms. Grice said she was motivated to bring Mr. German and his stories to a live theater setting after seeing a similar presentation by another performer on the East End.
“I was inspired by Colin Quinn’s last one-man show, which was done as a workshop at Bay Street Theater,” Ms. Grice recalled. “He came out in jeans and had stands with notes pinned to them on stage. If Colin got lost in a story, to bring himself back he’d pull out a note and read it, then continue with another story.”
Ms. Grice liked the “work-in-progress” nature of Colin Quinn’s piece and feels a similar model will work well as she collaborates with Mr. German to turn his memoir into theater. Because music has played such a major role in Mr. German’s life, the soundtrack of his youth—from a patriotic anthem that he still remembers from grade school to the protest songs that defined the anti-war sentiment of the late ’60s—will figure prominently on stage, just as it did in his book.
For example, in his memoir, here’s how Mr. German begins the chapter about his return home from Vietnam: “Hugh Masekela is playing ‘Grazing in the Grass,’ Edwin Starr is singing ‘25 Miles From Home,’ Smokey Robinson with ‘Baby Don’t Cry,’ Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour,’ Horace Silver and ‘Psychedelic Sally,’ and Quincy Jones is ‘Walking in Space.’ The Astronauts are heading for the moon, it’s the summer of ’69, they’re getting ready for Woodstock, and I’m home, happy, 19 and alive.”
In his book, Mr. German goes on to explain that Vietnam is not a place veterans are encouraged to talk about back home. That sentiment is confirmed when Mr. German’s high school sweetheart, Yolanda, asks him not to wear his uniform to her high school graduation. In fact, she’s been seeing someone else while he’s been in Vietnam and their relationship is over.
These are the sorts of vignettes that the performance will incorporate and it now becomes Ms. Grice’s job to sift through the written material with Mr. German to determine what, and how, it will be presented on stage.
“My intention was not to do this book on stage,” Mr. German said. “This presentation has to be more than a reading.”
“Music weaves through the book and his life,” Ms. Grice said. “Ed has chosen 14 different songs, one of which he’ll sing live. The rest will be recorded music. Ed and I are going through now and choosing what stories he’ll tell. One of the ones I would love him to tell is about his name.”
At that, Mr. German takes his cue and launches into the story.
“At P.S. 25 in the ’50s, the student population was mixed—Jewish, black, Spanish, Catholic,” he said. “My teacher would say ‘Edwin German,’ and the kids would go, ‘Heil Hitler.’ I had no idea who Hitler was, but in fourth grade I changed my name to Germain.”
“One day my mom looked at my homework, she said ‘That is not your name.’ So I had to change it back,” he added. “But for a long time, my name in fourth grade was Germain.”
It’s a simple enough story, but one that speaks volumes of the time and place in which Mr. German grew up. The family moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey in 1953 when he was 3 years old and Mr. German’s father was the superintendent of a 20-unit apartment building. All of the tenants were white.
“We were the first black family on Willoughby Avenue, which was a Jewish neighborhood,” he said. “Not the first black individuals, but the first family with kids. So growing up our friends were mostly Jewish and Catholic.”
His family lived in the cellar apartment, he said. “My father tended to the coal-burning furnace. The coal men would let down a chute and dump coal into bins through the windows.”
As a young child, Mr. German and his brothers helped their father by moving the coal in a wheelbarrow from the bins to the furnace—one particular song from the late ’50s came to define that experience for him.
“I started rolling coal at the time ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford came out,” Mr. German said. “When I heard that song, ‘…owe my soul to the company store,’ I was going to the coal bins filling this wheelbarrow and turning it around and dumping it by the furnace.”
“That song is out, the black family living in the cellar is among the coal bins and the white kids used to come play in the coal bins too,” he said. “You could also roller skate in the basement, which was huge. When it was cold outside, there’d be 15 of us roller skating down there.”
“The beauty of Ed’s story involves so many influences,” Ms. Grice noted. “The music will help tell the story. When you see the story of black Americans growing up, inevitably their influences are all black musicians. But Ed’s is such a mix.”
That mix can likely be explained by his varied experiences. Mr. German dropped out of high school to join the Marines and on May 10, 1969, was shot in the back while out on patrol in Vietnam. He had just turned 19 and had 99 days left until his tour was over. But the injury sent him home early.
“The song for that time period was ‘Baby Baby Don’t Cry’ by the Miracles,” Mr. German recalled. “It’s such a pretty song.”
Mr. German notes other popular songs from that era were making very different statements, including “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by the Animals, an anti-war song if ever there was one, and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown.
“I was in Da Nang in August ’68, at a place called Freedom Hill. They had a snack bar there and a juke box,” he said. “This record comes on and I couldn’t believe it. James Brown saying ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’
“I went back a couple weeks later and that record was gone,” he added. “The black power movement was happening then.”
The notion of race is an important one for Mr. German, but like his taste in music, which encompasses many genres and styles, it doesn’t completely define him. That aspect of Mr. German’s identity is something Ms. Grice wants to incorporate into the stage piece as well.
“I was born in 1950. I remember distinctly hearing my father, mother, aunt and uncle use the word ‘colored.’ It was acceptable,” Mr. German said. “When the civil rights movement started in ’55 or ’56, then it was ‘Negro.’ When the ’60s came and things were more radical, then it was ‘black,’ then in the ’70s, afros were popular and it became Afro-American.
“Then in 1988, Jesse Jackson held a news conference urging all black Americans to stop using ‘afro,’ which is a hair style, and use African-American,” he added. “You know what? I’m not an African-American. My great grandfather was born here in 1840. My DNA is African, European and Native American.
“I’m talking about my nationality—I’m American.”
That, ultimately, may be the defining theme of Mr. German’s show. A man of his era sharing his story and the music that got him through it all.
“Ed has been doing this storytelling and presentation of music for 20 years,” Ms. Grice said. “He has a large audience and a lot of fans. They’ll want to see Ed telling these stories and reacting to the music in person.”
She added, “Ed has a gift and his is such a relevant story. It’s a snapshot of an era and Ed’s life in an hour and 10 minutes.”
“Deep Down in Brooklyn: An American Story” will be presented by Ed German in conjunction with Boots on the Ground Theater on Tuesday, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Admission is free. Prior to the performance, the 1770 House, 143 Main Street, East Hampton, will offer a special $27 two-course, prix fixe dinner (provide the code JDTLab). Visit guildhall.org or call 631-324-0806 for details.
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