In the panorama of his richly creative, prolific and global career, Regge Life has called East Chatham home for almost 30 years. Whether he’s close by directing a play at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox (most recently God of Carnage) or producing a movie in Okinawa, Japan; teaching as Senior Distinguished Director-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston or participating in the Paris-Brest-Paris cycling event, Life has returned to the house he immediately knew he wanted to buy in 1987.
“I know you’re not supposed to show your excitement when you see a house you want, but I couldn’t help it,” said Life of the house meticulously built by Brian Williams. “I could tell that every little nail was loved.
He discovered Columbia County in the early 1980’s when a playwright friend in New York, James DeJongh, told him about an autumn rental on Queechy Lake. He and some biking friends rented the house to explore the area while training for the 50 to 200-mile cycling events in which they participated.
Born in Harlem, Life was the eldest of three children. His father was a mapmaker with Standard Oil and when the corporation moved out of New York City to Westchester County, the family moved to White Plains. His mother was a nurse, first at Harlem Hospital, then at Grasslands, which is now Westchester Medical Center, where she became the Night Director of Nurses.
He attended public schools in then newly desegregated Greenburgh School District, and found the environment supportive except for one problem guidance counselor who, every year from 7th grade on, every year, put Life in the General classes, an academic step below the Regents track where he had been placed after 6th grade. So every year his mother would know to take off from work the second day of school to march him into the guidance office and set things right. And every year his fellow Regents students would save him a seat in class, though they found it a little funnier than he did. He’s resignedly philosophical about it, though, saying, “In some sense, you’ve got to let that stuff pass through, because this kind of ‘redlining’ is what people of color face everywhere.”
He was attending Woodlands High School when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Inexplicably, amid the great grief in this country, hostile acts were perpetrated on African Americans by white Americans, things as callous as someone scrawling the nastiest racist graffiti across Woodlands High School. This incident almost tipped the school into a full riot, but to Life’s surprise and admiration, a mild-mannered friend named Ronnie Watson stepped up like a true leader and bravely kept the peace among all the students.
Life went on to Tufts University, double majoring in Sociology and Drama. In his final year, he went to West Africa to study theater in Nigeria and was part of a traveling theater group, in the style of commedia dell’arte, with members of the troupe collaborating in acting, song, dance and community involvement. This was one year after the Biafran War ended, and the devastation throughout the country was thorough. “It was quite an experience,” said Life, “seeing the Onitsha Market, Nigeria’s largest market, annihilated.”
When the year ended, he took advantage of PanAm’s flights to many West African cities and he went to all of them. For four months, he city-hopped in West Africa and then on to Europe, getting to know the expatriate communities in the cities he visited.
Among his many talents, Life played guitar and bass, and in Madrid he met ‘The Belle of Mississippi,” an African American jazz singer who invited him to perform with her. It was during Franco’s reign in Spain, and jazz was prohibited.
“There’d be a guy standing outside the club and when Franco’s police were walking by, the guy would signal to a guy in the club and the show would immediately stop and everyone would break into Spain’s National Anthem.”
Stopping in London, he worked with the Caribbean and African underground theater communities in Brixton and Shepherd’s Bush.
“The idea of becoming an expat was enticing. Life was just starting for me, and I knew how to live abroad, my life could start anywhere.” He decided, in the end, to start his life in his own country, but “the person who came back was the person who was going again.”
For nine months, he stage managed a national tour of The River Niger, until he realized he wanted to direct. He returned to New York City to enter an MFA program in Theatre and Film at NYU.
Soon after graduating NYU, Life directed Hail, Hail the Gangs, a play by Jim DeJongh, and some years later he directed DeJongh’s Do Lord Remember Me at the American Place Theatre. It was scheduled for a three-week run that ran four months and moved to Town Hall’s 1600-seat theatre. Glynn Turman began as the lead and when he had to leave, an up-and-coming actor by the name of Samuel L. Jackson took over, followed by Giancarlo Esposito. “I was lucky,” said Life. He figures 85% of the success of his shows is his ability to cast well.
When he started to shift into film, Life worked on ethnographies, documentaries of visual anthropologies. He returned to West Africa as well as traveling to the Caribbean and South America to document their cultures.
“It was then that this sense of the other, of cultural awareness, of trying to bring another worldview to American audiences really began, with real tools now, because I had this camera and the ability to tell a story visually,” said Life.
He also worked for years in the more lucrative fields of feature films like Ragtime and Trading Places, and television shows like Sesame Street and The Cosby Show.
In 1990 came an opportunity in Japan. “I was fascinated with Japan, even in high school.” He became enamored with Japanese filmmaking while at NYU and even cut classes to go to Japanese film festivals. “I saw films like The Ballad of Narayama and Banished Orin, which were so beautifully photographed and put this whole idea into my head of non-linear, non-verbal storytelling.” A musician friend who had just returned from a year in Japan urged Life to apply for a Creative Artists’ Fellowship with the Japan/US Friendship Commission, a fellowship he received in 1990.
During his six months in Japan, he realized the privilege he’d been granted to be accepted onto the set of a Tora-san film with director Yamada Yoji. Tora-san is the comedic main character in 49 feature films, a warm-hearted character, continuously unlucky in love, who values family, honor and integrity. “He reminded the Japanese of the proud, enduring people they are,” said Life.
He returned to Japan and made a trilogy of award-winning documentaries* from 1992 through 2000, explorations in sociology inspired by personal observations: (1) the success of African-Americans in Japan despite the perception that it’s a racist country; (2) the struggle of intercultural children of Americans and Japanese to define themselves; and (3) the disorienting experience of returning to your home country after being immersed in another culture for a period of time.
“My feeling is that we are who we are by means of culture, not by race, and we’ve all got to start getting to that page in the book. If we keep playing this other game there’s no way out, and we will only dismantle ourselves. Race is a very poorly-used tool in the world.”
In 2015, the Columbia Film Festival screened Cocktail Party, a feature film written and directed by Life. The film is a woven plot about the relationships, on many levels, of the U.S. military and the Okinawan people. From the moment he traveled to the island in 1991, Life wanted to make a film about Okinawa, where U.S. troops have been stationed for nearly 70 years. He received a Fulbright Journalist Fellowship, researched many stories and chose the award-winning novel by Tatsuhiro Oshiro.
“Unlike most of the literature that took a very strident anti-base, anti-U.S. stance,” said Life, “Cocktail Party examined the grey areas, the conflicting relationships that can occur as the result of long-term occupation.”
This writer was lucky enough to attend a performance in September of God of Carnage, directed by Life, at Shakespeare & Company. It was an edge-of-the-seat, laugh-with-horror production of a comedy of manners that some say surpassed the original Broadway production. Life said, “Yasmina Reza [the playwright] reveals the primal, neanderthal nature in us. We think we’re civilized, but she strips that away and shows us the worst of us so, in the end, we can be cognizant of the need for civility.”
Next up for Life is a production of Cross that River at 59E59 in NYC, a project begun at Theatre Aspen with a staged reading in 2013. It’s an important musical written by Allan & Pat Harris about the buried, unknown role of African Americans in the building of America’s western frontier.
Said Life, “I have been driven to set the record straight about the contributions of African Americans to building the West. I was on the panel of the National Endowment of Humanities when the Oregon Public Television Station wanted funding for a piece about the Oregon Trail. The representative from the PBS station hadn’t done his homework about the involvement of African Americans in building the Trail, and we got into a heated argument. I am not sure how the final project turned out, but I made my opinion known.”
Within Life’s panoramic work, intrinsic to his interpretation and portrayal of the world, is a very practical approach to human understanding and a deep desire to teach a true worldview that has the powerful ability to widen our knowledge and deepen our humanity.
*(1) Struggle and Success: The African-American Experience in Japan, (2) Doubles: Japan and America’s Intercultural Children, (3) After America…After Japan available through Global Film Network