Fall 1974. Late again. Waiting for the bus on East Campus. Why aren’t there enough buses when it’s time for class—all right, a little past time for class—but there should be more buses! Finally arriving on West and then running through the woods to get to Gross Chem. Could any building be more appropriately named? Rushing through the woods to get there always reminded me of the Wizard of Oz, and when I reached Oz, the gust of wind that overwhelmed me as I opened the door reminded me I was no longer in Kansas. In the first ten minutes on my very first day, freshman chemistry covered everything I learned in high-school chemistry. My premed journey had begun.
Second semester freshman year, for my required English class, I discovered a course titled “The Absurdist View in Literature.” The professor, Diane Mowrey A.M. ’73, Ph.D. ’80, presented us with absurdist writers from all over the world and changed my view of literature. Diane’s teaching was challenging and unconventional, and I assume I was somewhat theatrical in class, because she assigned me to write and perform an absurdist musical as my final. This was the beginning of my theatrical journey.
My sophomore year, I was in an organic-chemistr y lab when my roommate, Paul Weech ’78 dropped by and said that his girlfriend was sick and they had tickets for a touring musical. It did not take much coercing to get me to exit that lab. The show was Pippin. I always think of this show as an existential musical, so it was most appropriate for me then since I was at the height of my existentialist period. The show’s leading character is attempting to find meaning in his life, and a black man (the role was originated by Ben Vereen) is guiding him through his journey. I had never seen that before—not that kind of character in a person of color, not that kind of power. It sounds trite to state that my life changed in that instant, but it did. I knew I had to be part of that magic. That night, I sat on the East Campus library steps talking to my friend Mary Lynn Yakel ’79. I realized I had to give up my premed quest and pursue the madness of show business. Whenever I return to Duke and see those library steps, I relive that moment.
That same year, I joined the Duke Chorale (because they had a trip scheduled to Disney World. And yes, I quit right after we returned from the trip). I soon discovered the trip was not the reason I was in the choir. One day, after a concert in Duke Chapel, a woman with huge hair approached me and asked who I was. She then asked what I was studying at Duke, and I told her I was going to be a doctor. “No, you’re not,” she responded, and invited me to visit her office the next day in the Biddle Music Building. I had no idea who she was, and it didn’t immediately register that I was meeting her in a building with her name on it. Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans ’39, Hon. ’83 was one of the first people in my career who “saw” me. She called friends of hers in London, and the next thing I knew, I was studying there my junior year—having the coming-of-age experience of a lifetime. Mary Semans opened the door for me and for so many people, and I am forever grateful for her giving us the gift of possibility. Whenever I saw her or received her famous Christmas cards, I would think of home. Because of her, that home extended to places far beyond the Carolinas. Because of her, I dared to pursue my dreams. I attained a worldview just as I was leaving my teens, and that view has never left me.
Present day. I recently was in New York doing press for Motown the Musical, and I was interviewed by a reporter from WTVD in Durham. My first job on television was on that station. Pippin was my first professional job as an actor. I now have worked with Ben Vereen on many projects and just directed Patina Miller (who won last year’s Tony for the revival of Pippin) on Live From Lincoln Center. On my first day working with Berry Gordy on Motown, he told me Pippin was one of his favorite musicals, and the stereo turntable I owned when I lived in Pegram dorm flashed before me—the Pippin soundtrack was on the Motown label. Then, all of my worlds collided when Coach K brought the Duke men’s basketball team to see Motown on Broadway. I was speechless. One realizes that life truly is a circle.
Now when I return to Duke, I attempt to do what so many did for me. A life can change when you simply open the door and say, “Welcome home.”
Charles Randolph-Wright ’78 is a film, television, and theater director as well as a television producer, a screenwriter, and a playwright. Among numerous credits, he’s the director of the Broadway hit Motown the Musical, which is now touring, and has two new plays premiering this year. He was an A.B. Duke Scholar.