LA JOLLA — Call it burnout. Call it stagnation or a loss of discipline. Four years ago, playwright Charlie Russell moved to San Diego after 17 years in New York. He had not written a play in seven years.
Russell had four plays, a couple of television scripts and some short stories to his credit. He is best known for his play "Five on the Black Hand Side." Written in 1974, the play has become a staple of black theater groups in several countries. A comedy about the highs and lows of a Harlem family, it was made into a movie by United Artists, for which Russell won the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's Image Award for best film script.
But in recent years the writer had avoided his craft. It was easier to direct plays or edit magazines. Russell was fiction editor of Liberator magazine and editor of Onyx magazine. Before coming to San Diego, he returned to his hometown of Oakland, where he was executive and artistic director of the East Bay Players in Richmond, Calif.
Tonight, Russell's long dry spell ends. His new play, "Relaxin' at Camarillo" about jazz great Charlie Parker, opens in the Warren Theatre at UC San Diego. The show, starring John Wesley as Parker, runs at 8 nightly through Saturday, with a 7 p.m. performance Sunday.
In 1981, Russell was not producing. "The bottom line was I was stagnating," he said recently. "I was directing, teaching, but I wasn't writing."
"You're really a writer. Why don't you do something about it?" the woman he came to San Diego to be with told him.
At the urging of playwright Farrell Foreman, a graduate of UCSD's masters playwriting program, Russell decided that the playwriting course there might "get the juices flowing." He also liked the idea of being thrown into a program with younger students. At 53, Russell, who sports a mostly white beard, is one of the few master's candidates who wears bifocals.
"Relaxin' at Camarillo" is Russell's major project for his master of fine arts degree. Thirty years after Parker's death, Russell still gets excited talking about the jazz artist. "I'm a jazz buff," Russell said. "I started unconsciously, intuitively, to research the play; it was just something in my mind."
As a child, Russell and his friends would stop after basketball practice at a pool hall where there was a jukebox or at a friend's house to listen to the new sound known as be-bop.
Parker, that improvisatory genius of jazz, who with Dizzy Gillespie co-founded be-bop, had severe emotional problems, ulcers, cirrhosis of the liver and a monkey on his back called heroin that would eventually do him in. But to Russell and his buddies growing up in Oakland, Charles Christopher Parker Jr.--a.k.a. Yardbird, or The Bird--was like a member of the family.
"His music was so daring, so free, so creative, so fluid," Russell recalled. "It was so different from all the other music going around at that time. Nobody ever played the sax that fast." Russell's group congregated at a friend's house, where an older brother had a great collection of jazz records. There they could listen to the cutting edge be-bop sounds of Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Gillespie and The Bird.
"Bird, Monk, Miles and Dizzy--we talked about them like members of the family. You know: Bird did this or Miles did so and so," Russell said.
Parker's music caught Russell's imagination, in the same way it had turned off most of the jazz critics of the day. Lulled by the smooth and sugary sound of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers, the critics were not ready for the musical innovations, the spicy, racing riffs that the jazz composer and alto sax master could spin off.
The title of Russell's play is taken from a song Parker wrote after a seven-month sojourn at Camarillo State Hospital for mental patients. Parker was committed to Camarillo after he went berserk and set his hotel room on fire after a Los Angeles recording session. He and Dizzy Gillespie had come to California in 1945 to spread the gospel of be-bop to the West Coast. "They were lionized, almost deified in New York" by their fans, Russell said. The California critics gave them a thumbs down.
Russell thought the Camarillo period would make an interesting setting for a play on Parker, whom he never met, though he saw him perform. "It's sort of a wry comment because he's in an institution. In a funny kind of way his life was like a madhouse," Russell said. "At Camarillo we've got him at a good time in his life--although his life was a tragedy. But here you can see him in a certain kind of health."
In some ways, the play--about a time in Parker's life when the hard-living musician was forced to relax and get himself together--and Russell's own three years as a student at UCSD have a common bond.
"I can see that similarity. But I don't want people to think I'm crazy," he joked. "At Camarillo, The Bird reaffirmed his dedication to music. My thing is voluntary. But yeah, I'm reaffirming my dedication to writing here."