Becoming a writer was a decades-long dream for playwright Calvin Ramsey. Although he worked hard to get published in his early 20s, nothing came of his efforts. He pursued satisfying work in advertising, marketing and insurance sales, but the dream lingered. Then in 2001, the unexpected happened. During an airport holdover at Boston’s Logan International Airport, a powerful revelation struck Ramsey: “Our dreams are really our desires!”
Five days after that visceral flash, two of the four terrorists’ flights on 9/11 came out of that same airport. The world-changing events solidified Ramsey’s personal commitment: At age 51, he decided to give his dream to become a writer a push.
Three years later Ramsey’s first play highlighting the difficulties African Americans faced when traveling in the Jim Crow era had its world premiere in Atlanta. The Green Book has since been performed in New York City, Baltimore and is currently running through April 1 at the Pegasus Theatre in Chicago.
Senior Planet caught up with Calvin Ramsey, who has taken many classes at the Center, to learn how he achieved his dream.
You were in workshops, took classes, and worked hard at your writing in your 20s. What made the difference nearly three decades later?
My youthful writing was shallow. Worse, I was writing mostly to get the recognition of getting published. By my 50s had life experience, including plenty of ups and downs. Most important, I was ready to write about things that mattered, not for ego. Maturity really helped, too!
I’ve always been drawn to the theater. I grew up in North Carolina where I didn’t get to see much live theater but I did watch plenty of television. In those years shows like G.E. Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and even Perry Mason, were more like teleplays. That may explain why playwriting seems more natural to me. In writing a play, I decide on the number of characters – who they are, where they’ll be, what they’ll do – and then I create the story line and action.
How did you come to write your first play?
I had always known that it was difficult for African-Americans to travel by automobile during the Jim Crow laws period. By accident I learned about The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide compiled by Victor Hugo Green listing restaurants and lodgings, including private homes, that would serve African Americans and updated yearly from 1936 to 1967.
Fortunately, I was in Atlanta and able to access research material about it. The guide inspired The Green Book as well as my first children’s book, Ruth and the Green Book.
Was your book also successful?
Yes and in unexpected, surprising ways. Ruth was adapted to a puppet show in Atlanta. That led to a conversation with Becky Searle about another dream: to write a documentary. It happened! We co-produced The Green Book Chronicles, a live-action documentary that explores the history of Victor Green’s guide.
What advice to you have for others about following their dreams?
Even though for years there was no evidence that I was a writer, I always saw myself as one. It was like being trapped in an eggshell trying to break through. So my first piece of advice is: Don’t give up on your dreams! They’re really your desires.
I learned that our dreams start out as one thing but surprisingly tend to lead to other things. Since I determined to follow my desire at age 51, I’ve written ten plays, two children’s books, co-produced a documentary and am currently writing the synopses for a 20-episode teleplay based on all my plays. I never imagined all the places where my dreams would lead me.
Do you still take classes and seek help?
Senior Planet has been important to my progress thanks to my weekly visits for tech help.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
It means living your dream and encouraging others to do the same. No matter what that dream is, work toward it! The journey itself is a trip worth taking.
CALVIN RAMSEY PRODUCTIONS SCHEDULED IN APRIL, 2018
On April 5, 2018, The Green Book Chronicles, a documentary inspired by Ramsey’s play and co-produced by him and Becky Searles, will be presented at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. On April 17 Belle, the Last Mule, a musical about one of the two mules that carried Dr. Martin Luther King’s casket, will be performed at New York City’s All Souls Unitarian Church at 7:30; info about that performance is here. Learn more about his projects here.
Photo courtesy of Humans of New York