Avery Brooks

the man behind the mask

By Betty Gabrielli

he's not a space commander, but he plays one on tv. hence, avery brooks--aka commander benjamin sisko of star trek, has a face that's instantly recognizable to thousands, many of whom might not know the depth of his talent or the breadth of his accomplishments--or the integrity of his vision.

Photographs by John Seyfried.

An exhausted looking Avery Brooks '70, '95 honorary, enters the dressing room under Finney Chapel's stage at 10 am. He has just arrived in Oberlin, having flown all night from the West Coast, but in a few hours he will give a free public performance of his acclaimed one-man show, Paul Robeson. And just a few hours after that he will fly back to Los Angeles, where he will finish taping the season's final episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and an as-yet untitled film.

As he sinks into a high-backed chair for our interview, though, his celebrity status is in abeyance. The bright lights for the beta-cam accent his faded-blue fringed poncho, a contrast to his formal trousers, and there sits an ordinary, personable, weary man.

"I dressed in this very room," he says wonderingly, reminiscing about his days in the Oberlin College Choir. Brooks came to Oberlin a Romance-languages major with no special interest in performance. Eventually, though, he found himself signing up for courses in African-American studies and government, not to mention theater, becoming active in Psuekay, a black-students' theater group begun on campus in the '60s.

Professor Calvin Hernton, chair of Oberlin's African-American studies department and Brooks' long-time friend, recalls Brooks' days with Psuekay. "He was a great actor, quite authentic," says Hernton. "He has an overwhelmingly convincing gift of enlivening the person he is portraying. He becomes the character--in fact, he becomes larger than the character."

Brooks' talent attracted national attention when he landed the role of Hawk, a street-wise crime fighter, on the television series Spencer for Hire. However, the experience wasn't as glorious as star-struck fans might think. "They told me just to say my lines and hit my mark," says Brooks, recalling confrontations with the show's white producers over their stereotyped portrayal of blacks. But Brooks, who has always felt strongly about his responsibility as an artist, did more than say his lines. He infused the character with the reality of black culture, improvising more "real and representative" dialog.

Brooks' view of Hawk as a contemporary black urban hero must have been on the mark; the character spun off its own series, A Man Called Hawk, in which he starred. And he has continued forging an impressive career, despite refusing to back down when he encounters prejudice or ignorance--unfortunately his experiences as Hawk aren't his only such memories. "I refuse to betray the dignity of my people," he says.

Brooks dislikes being labeled an actor. The term is superficial because "its reality is specific to time and space," he says, lasting only as long as a person performs a role. "You are mother, father, husband, lover, brother. You are all those things." Focusing on Brooks' professional life, the terms director and musician must be added. His theater credits include The Offering, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? His formidable singing voice--he is an operatic bass--garnered him the title role in the opera The Life and Times of Malcolm X, and continues to serve him well in his portrayal of the most formidable of bassos--Paul Robeson.

James Earl Jones first presented Paul Robeson on Broadway in 1978. Since reviving it in 1988, Brooks has given more than 300 performances in cities throughout the United States, and he intends to continue indefinitely. "I will keep telling this story as long as I have breath," he says, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass: there are not going to be any new truths until the old truths have been dusted off and put in the light of day.

Robeson was "a man who had a great heart, great courage, enormous intellect, and deep caring for humankind," he says. Explaining why he revived the show, Brooks recalls a piece he did with Hernton in the '60s, The Place, that explored what they called "socio-historical hypnosis," a condition in which people lose connection with the past. "People do not connect with what happened last week, let alone what happened 20 years ago." Performing Robeson is not an attempt to restore Robeson's memory; it is an invocation of that memory aimed at provoking people "to go and find out exactly who he was."

Brooks does not suffer from socio-historical hypnosis. Conversations with him exude the sense of continuity that infuses his outlook. When asked about people who influenced him, he names many who, he says, saw the light in him and nurtured it--among them his parents; his wife, Vicki Bowen Brooks '72; and Oberlin professors Hernton and Robert Fountain. Regardless of how many years he may have been separated from some of those individuals, he speaks of them and their impact as continuing influences. "Their total effect I will never know," he says, "because it is not over. . . . You know what I mean? It's not over."

--Betty Gabrelli is senior staff writer in the Oberlin College Office of Communications.