A couple of days ago I decided I was fed-up with the Facebook/Twitter rage machine and was going to start writing about the people I knew who were actively changing the world for the better. This morning I woke up to discover that my friend and collaborator Rodney Gilbert had passed away. Rodney probably changed the world more than anyone I’ve ever met, in ways that were largely invisible to much of the world, but profoundly significant to the those of us that knew him.
I woke up one morning back in 2007 to a voicemail from Rodney Gilbert. He said “David White, it’s 2:00 in the morning. I’m in Newark. I’m in my house and there’s police tape across the street. This kid just got shot. We need to get to work.”
Rodney was an actor, director, producer, activist and advocate. When you worked with him, you got all those things. He never left any part of his personality outside and you didn’t really want him to. His activism brought power to his acting. His advocacy brought passion to his producing. His work as an actor brought sensitivity and compassion to his direction.
I met Rodney in 2004 when he worked as an actor in Passage Theatre’s adaptation of “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich” directed by Nick Anselmo. After that, I hired Rodney to come to Trenton to act and work with kids every chance I got and he was always willing to do so. Our collaboration solidified when he played the role of King Navarre in my play “If I Could, In My Hood, I Would…” Rodney was more than just an actor in the show. He was a mentor to the eight middle-school kids in the cast. The show revolved around the problems of gang violence in Trenton – issues that Rodney was familiar with because of his history in Newark.
Shortly after that phone call, Rodney and I started talking about doing a production of “If I Could…” in Newark. Before we could start work, however, he wanted to show me what Newark was like – he told me that if I wanted to improve a community, I had to understand it from the inside-out. Early one morning, I parked my car near his house on Spruce and Rodney took me on a walking tour of his city.
Separating Rodney from Newark is impossible. I’ve rarely met an artist so symbiotically linked to his hometown. Rodney grieved the problems his city went through, but never lost faith in the people that lived there. On our walk that day, I saw Newark from Rodney’s eyes. We couldn’t walk more than a few blocks without hearing someone shout his name.
Rodney directed “If I Could…” so many times that I lost count. During the first performance at a Newark community center, Rodney moderated a discussion between at least sixty gang members. ( a discussion which ultimately saw a poor representative from a local foundation scurrying for the exit.) I saw another production at a local church and yet another at a Newark art gallery. More often than not, though, I got messages after the fact – “Hey, David White. We did ‘If I Could’ last week. I forgot to tell you it was happening. My bad.”
Rodney did multiple shows and classes for Trenton kids – so many, it’s hard to remember. He also appeared on Passage’s mainstage in “Trenton Lights,” – an oral history based show about the city of Trenton (written by myself and June Ballinger, directed by Adam Immerwahr). He also directed a workshop of “Profiles,” a follow-up to “Trenton Lights” on the subject of race. Last summer, he and the Yendor (read it backwards) acting company produced a workshop of my play “Fixed.” Even after I stopped working at Passage, Rodney continued to come to Trenton and work with students at Trenton Central High. Somehow, he continued to find the time to champion African-American, Jersey-based playwrights, promote the artistic talent in Newark, and beautify his city by producing murals by Newark visual artists. Rodney didn’t rest. Rodney knew the arts made a difference. Rodney never gave up.
I have been blessed with many amazing collaborators over the years, but Rodney was one of people that helped me grow as an artist, an advocate and as a human being. When I doubted that theatre could change lives, Rodney was there to prove me wrong. The world is a bit darker than it was yesterday, but Rodney’s work made everything so much better and brighter that it will ultimately make up for all the grief and mourning. My heart goes out to the folks at Yendor Productions, the Company, Rodney’s friends and family and the hundreds (thousands?) of young people that Rodney mentored over the years. Rodney was eloquent, intelligent, passionate and hopeful. He believed in the power of youth and fought for them to receive complete, well-rounded educations and equal access to opportunities.
Rodney – I suppose I should say “So long” here, but I’m not going to. You see, there are an awful lot of people that are still carrying pieces of you around with them. So I know you’re not gone. Your spirit has simply been divided and distributed among the people that knew and love you. I will grieve and mourn, but not for too long. Not because I won’t miss you, but because at some point it will be 2:00 AM and it will be time to get to work.