It was also in Vilnius (Lithuania) that I saw my first ‘man of color’ in years.
It would be lesson-learning, one of my strangest encounters in the Soviet Union. I would not see anything like it until much later when Porky & Bess was staged by an American troupe during the Khrushchev Era in Moscow.
It happened on a bright August morning. From my third-floor room window in the hotel I could see a flower garden which displayed a calendar created by row upon row of a variety of colored roses. Each morning a team of elderly women – babushkas – would rearrange these flowers to indicate the month and the day. I was fascinated by their labor of love.
One morning as I watched them work, however, a person, a black person, strolled past these women. The black man stopped, exchange words with the workers, and then continued his stroll. Black, as in Negro. American Negro, I thought. An American in Vilnius! I ask for your indulgence for a moment when I say that I had not seen nor heard a person of color speak now for more than three years. I quickly tossed on basketball warm up sweat pants and jersey, opened the door, raced down the corridor, down a flight of stairs into the street. A teammate, who shared the room with me, startled at my quick movements, sat up in his bed. I was down on the street face to face with this stranger before my teammate caught up to me.
Speaking in my beloved English, so rarely used, I asked the stranger if he was a tourist…when he was going back to the States and what he was doing in Vilnius. Unsettled, the stranger looked at me as if I was mad. He responded with a litany of Russian words that expressed his dissatisfaction of my behavior. I was intimidated by his Russian, but I continued to question him in English. Alas, to no avail. I became extremely frustrated.
Sometime during my monologue my teammate joined us. He pointed out to me that the stranger spoke Russian fluently and that the stranger believed that I needed help from the medical profession. My teammate apologized to the stranger and pointed out to him that I was one of the repatriates. He learned that the stranger’s father was an African diplomat who sometime ago had moved to the USSR and had married a Russian. He lived in Moscow and was studying to be an actor. He walked away and disappeared from my view and I thought that would be the end of this story.
Years later, the two of us would meet again. The encounter would take place in Soviet Armenia, on the main street, Abovian. Now an actor, the gentleman was leaving the Hotel Intourist, where he and several other Soviet actors had rooms. They were in town filming a Russian movie about life in America and since there were so many repatriates in Armenia who could be used as “extras” the Soviet crew believed Erevan would be the ideal place for the shoot. The actor was no longer a stranger to me, for I had seen him on Soviet movie scenes usually in cameo roles, playing the exploited, horse-whipped slave, begging for, but never getting mercy from his white Southern plantation owners.
I don’t think he ever won an Oscar.