Color me a little shocked!
The character Nick Rizzolli (VDO’s part) actually calls the lead character Calvin Jefferson (played by Calvin Levels, whom you may have noticed also plays the car thief Joe Gipp in ‘Adventures in Babysitting’) ‘Black Jack’ and no, it’s not meant as a complement or a cute nickname!
If I recall correctly, in some interview with some media person somewhere (maybe around the time ‘The Cell’ was released), when asked if there was any kind of character he would not play, VDO once said he would turn down any and all racist roles offered him. Maybe ‘Open Admissions’ is part of the reason for this position.
This play is excellent reading and reminds me of the folly of the current American educational fascination with the nationwide ‘no child left behind’ program which probably should be called ‘teaching only to the [competency] tests’ all American children are now supposed to pass. Despite the fact that the play is pretty clearly set in the economically depressed NYC of the late 1970s, a lot of what gets hashed out in it is still true of American public school education.
Essentially Calvin Jefferson is a sophmore at an NYC community college. He’s lived most of his life in trouble with the law and out on the mean urban streets but he and his sister and her child figure that if Calvin can get a college degree they can get a better life out in more suburban-like Staten Island.
Calvin is desperate throughout this play to get some one-on-one attention from his speech & communications course professor, Ginny Carlsen, to figure out how to get an elusive A on an assignment that requires him (and the other students) to make oral presentations on a scene from a Shakespearean play. Calvin who really can’t read past the fifth grade level, is having trouble figuring out his assigned scene from ‘Othello’)
Ginny and her husband Peter and daughter are struggling financially (it doesn’t help that Peter is out of work and has a gambling addiction) and because she has so many students in her stepping stone teaching position (where she seems to be stuck), there’s really not a lot she can do for most of them plus she has no free time to do much to improve anything. Worse, it looks like her dreams of moving her family out of their tiny apartment and into their own home are slipping away.
Nick’s part (he’s a freshman taking the same class but he’s not in Calvin’s section) is pretty interesting. Because it’s small, I’ve posted his Shakespearean scene presentation from ‘Hamlet’ at the end of this entry.
“(NICK RIZZOLI enters from wings. He moves around a lot. He watches GINNY [CARLSEN, the speech professor] off and on.)
NICK: Nick Rizzoli. (A pause. NICK doesn’t know what to do next, shifts around.)
GINNY (prompting): And you are reading?
NICK: Hamlet. The speech is the, uh…first act or somethin like that there. Where, uh…he comes back from college and finds his father’s just died and his mother’s already married his uncle the King, and like that there…and he can’t take it, you know what I mean? And has these very heavy feelings, you know? (A pause. NICK is embarassed by the feelings in the passage and his impending reading of them.)
GINNY (prompting): Well, what would his basic feeling be, Nick?
NICK: ‘Revenge,’ you know what I mean? And uh, the dictionary has defined the feeling a needin ‘revenge’ like this here: (He reads:) ‘A desire to seek justification and gratification for wrong done to oneself or others.’ An that’s it. (another pause, another prompt:)
GINNY: And you personally identify with that? (He looks at GINNY, something clicks, he starts telling her the story.)
NICK: Oh, yeah! Right! On accounta my Aunt Gina pulled a similar number a while back…by which I mean…havin been married twenty-five years to Uncle Babe…Mom’s only brother among these five aunts an a father to me…Aunt Gina goes out to Vegas on this Three Day Package to Caesar’s Palace an meets this guy and gets married! An Uncle Babe’s not in the grave, you understand, oh–no more’n say, three, four years tops! An uh, so then…she comes back, see, and has the nerve to come right down to the house for Sunday dinner to introduce this guy to Grandma! And it’s no respect to the family, you know what I mean? (NICK is getting very impassioned and involved, remembering and telling the story, embarrassment leaves him. He sways, clenches fists, clutches book as he remembers, can even start walking around. As he explains all this to GINNY.)
GINNY: But that’s not the word you identify with is it, Nick?
NICK (oblivious) See, Uncle Babe’s photograph from the Navy is right out there on the mantle with the two candles an all like that there! So Grandma gets into it with her and tells her: ‘Don’t bother coming downstairs to our apartment from your apartment no more!’ And that was it: finished! An we don’t see her no more! Except at the mailbox! An that is revenge! (By this time, he’s infuriated, remembering, he opens the book and begins:) Hamlet’s talkin about his mother marrying his uncle so fast an it goes like this here: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt! That it should come to this! But two months dead! My father! Nay, not so much as two and she married with mine uncle, that’s my father’s brother! O let me not think on’t–frailty thy name is woman! But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!’ (NICK shuts book, really enraged now, thinking about Aunt Gina and the guy from Vegas..)
GINNY (Rises, clears her throat, tries to smile. She has no idea in the world as to what to do or say to NICK’s outburst of feeling.): Well, uh–good!–Good, Nick! Uh– (She is groping for words, threatened by his feelings and her need to teach something.) Your identification with character was particularly good! (She smiles; she has thought of something to teach.) Now then–what I would like you to work on next time are your non-verbal communication waves!
GINNY: (Gaining confidence, she’s hit on something.) That’s your problem area at the present time! Please read Chapter 4–‘Kinesics’–that deals with body motions and facial expressions that comprise the non-verbal communication code. Don’t you see? When the non-verbal code contradicts the verbal code, the listener becomes confused and Negative Communicator waves are sent out. That was what was happening to you–stop moving around and stop chopping the air with your hands–listeners follow your movements then instead of hearing your message! Is that clear? (She smiles brightly at him.)
NICK:(for whom this isn’t clear at all) But these heavy feelings of Hamlet’s! Jeez–it is so heavy what’s goin on with this guy when he comes home an sees his ma an all that — and I mean — I had so much heavy stuff inside me–I had to move or something. I mean, you know what I mean? I need some help to figure out.(He is shaken, troubled, looks to her. Bell rings.)
GINNY: Look–you’ll find ‘Channeling Emotion Through The Body’ in Section Three of that chapter. It’ll answer all your questions, I’m just sure…(She puts grade on desk.) Your grade is here…
(NICK picks up grade, is disappointed, leaves angry and frustrated as GINNY exits other way)…”
I swear it’s as if Shirley Lauro had a very young VDO exactly in mind when she conceived Nick Rizolli, right down to the restless physicality. Whomever cast VDO as Rizolli, really has a knack for casting!