“Freedom's just another word for ‘nothin' left to lose.'” -Janis Joplin
Randall White was lying on a beach in Kauai when it hit him. His 1997 had been numbingly bad. His life-long partner had died of cancer. And doctors found a tumor in White's colon “half the size of a human fist.”
At age 23, after graduating from Oklahoma University with a degree in theater, White had traded a life in acting to become a “nice, little, safe institutional employee.”
There he was at age 47, however, faced with mortality, both his lover's and his own. If there was ever a time for reevaluation, that was it. On the beach, his friend-who himself had given up art for business-vowed to return to sculpting.
“[Then] he turned to me and told me I should return to acting,” White recalls. “It was an absurd-though secretly exhilarating-idea.”
But White wasn't ready.
“All those voices, all that fear was still there: ‘You got a good gig. You got a good paycheck. It's not particularly personally satisfying, but you're doing good for others,'” he recalls of his job as an executive for the American Diabetes Association.
“I was making a living making everyone else's lives better while mine was a wreck.”
So White returned to his job at the ADA, putting off that Hawaiian pipe dream. It wasn't until he returned home to Dallas in 1999 for his friend's gallery opening that the ultimate motivator-jealousy-inspired him.
“I thought, ‘Damn him, he did it,'” White recalls. “He sold his damn business, he became an artist again.”
At the gallery opening, old friends approached White, saying they'd heard he was returning to theater-writing and acting in a one-man play. As actors are wont to do, he played along, complaining that he just hadn't found the right venue for the play.
“And of course, wouldn't you know, the facility manager-a longtime friend and colleague-grabs me by the jacket and collar and goes, ‘Come here.' He walks me down the hall into a theater space and goes, ‘Would this do?'”
Fresh out of excuses, White quit his job at the ADA, returned to Dallas, and set the premiere for Normal for the following June. It was a bold move, especially considering he was giving up corporate health insurance (“I'm a cancer survivor... know how hard it is to get health care insurance as a self-insured person?” he chuckles.)
“It wasn't until the cancer episodes that you wake up one morning and go, ‘Shit.' It's almost a hackneyed cliché, but it's because it's true. You really do feel like you've dodged a bullet and you've been given another chance, another swing at it. So that's what I've decided to do.
“It's not easy.”
Normal is White's one-man play about reinvention, featuring 11 characters-alternately comical, poignant and solemn-who confront their discontent with “the hand they've been dealt.”
Most of the characters are extensions of White's own personality, quirky alter egos he would evoke when he wanted to “make a roomful of people laugh.”
There is Dean Lee Smith, for example-“my redneck. You learn how to perfect that if you live in Texas for any period of time. If I were at a museum with friends and we'd come up on a particularly abstract piece of art, I'd channel him.”
White continues, affecting a shit-kicking drawl, “I'd suddenly go, ‘W'll sheeit-what the fuck is that?' So he was kind of this sort of ‘I don't understand what's going on in the world, it's too damn liberal for me' guy.”
Then there's the “cross-addicted adult-child lesbian of color.” Or the queen named Christafer who thinks macho males atone for small dicks with large car stereos. Or the suburban socialite who's asked to chair the committee for the National Colon Cancer Association.
“[She's] just perplexed,” White explains, “as to what color scheme she's going to have to wind up working with. She proposes that maybe the theme for the banquet dinner be ‘This Too Shall Pass.'”
Then there's Adam, a paraplegic hampered mostly by the ignorance of those around him. There's the 6-year-old boy (based on a real event from White's life) who watches a truck fatally kill his best friend. That tenuous balance-losing innocence without sloughing off dreams-frames the play.
With a minimal set-10 chairs and one pulpit-White interweaves vignettes, the characters of Normal subtly tied to one another in various ways.
Though White's life story is of the worker bee freed by the revelation of his own mortality, he asserts that Normal is “about gays, minorities, the disabled, classism, ageism, fundamentalism, ismism and a little Texas-bashing thrown in for good measure.”
As for White's battle with cancer, he's now reached the five-year mark, a major milestone.
“To be honest with you, there was some sense when I started this venture that I don't have much time left,” he says. “So there was this sense of urgency that I wasn't going to live to that five-year mark when I first started.
“But dammit,” he laughs, “it looks like I'm going to live! So now I've made that commitment and here I still am.”
Now that he knows he may just have to plan for retirement after all, is there any chance of going back to his secure, well-paying job?
“Hell no!” he exclaims. “You wanna raise money for charity in this economy?”