Hawk shows up at the John Houseman Theater on West 42nd Street at the appointed time - 2 p.m. Exactly. It is a humid day in the Big Apple, but Hawk, true to his character, looks cool. Unsmiling, he extends a large hand. His handshake is firm. Then, as if bored by the drill, he submits to the ministrations of a photographer.
Hawk, also known as Avery Brooks, has come for an interview from his home near New Brunswick, N.J., where he is a tenured professor of theater at Rutgers University. The interview is in connection with his appearance at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater as Paul Robeson in Phillip Hayes Dean's play of the same name. The play's producer, Eric Krebs, is artistic director of the Houseman.Brooks will allow one hour for the interview. You've seen him on TV as Hawk, the cool, mysterious enforcer in ABC's 1985-88 series, "Spenser: For Hire," and in its short-lived spinoff this season, "A Man Called Hawk," and admired his acting. You feel that you know him, somewhat. But how do you get to know a man in one hour?
"Well, that's your job, isn't it?" he responds. He will not make it easy.
He's an imposing man, just under 6-feet-2, with a close-cropped pate, his mouth framed by mustache and short beard. He's attired in a loose-fitting, leopard-spotted black sport shirt. He wears his dark sunglasses in the small conference room.
He does not converse. He emotes. He declaims. His voice is deep and resonant and loud. He speaks quickly, forcefully, with sweeping gestures, sprinkling his sentences with "you know" and "you know what I'm saying," sometimes with a question mark at the end, often with a period. He sounds angry, but when you ask him if he is, he sounds angrier.
"I talk like this all the time. I'm a teacher."
You start to say that he seems to be talking to you as if you were a rather slow-witted student.
"I'm a teacher. You want me to stop, I'll stop. It's fine. . . . Why should you think I'm angry because I raise my voice? I just met you. That's - you see, that's the kind of - that's ludicrous. That's a ludicrous assumption. You know what I'm saying? It's a ludicrous assumption."
Brooks was the first black man to obtain a master of fine arts degree in acting and directing from Rutgers, and he has been teaching there since 1972. His wife, Vicki Lenora, is an assistant dean at Rutgers. Is that where they met?
"No, not at all."
"In the world. I hate to talk about my family. It's too personal."
He and his wife have three children. In April 1987, Ebony magazine gave their ages as 8 for Ayana, 7 for Cabral; two years later, in April 1989, Essence magazine gave them as 9 for Ayana, 8 for Cabral, and 1 for Asante. What are their correct ages?
"They're older now. I don't want to talk about it."
OK, the play's the thing. Let's talk about the play, and about the man, Paul Robeson - that extraordinary singer, actor, athlete, intellectual, outspoken foe of race discrimination and far-left political activist. He spent his last years, from 1965 to 1977, living in the home of his sister, Marion Forsythe, in Philadelphia.
The play consists of vignettes. It starts with a 1975 Carnegie Hall tribute to Robeson, then flashes back to the beginning - to Robeson's years at Rutgers, where he was an all-American end, Phi Beta Kappa and 1919 class valedictorian; through his brief experience as a Wall Street lawyer; his subsequent triumphs in such shows as "Show Boat," "The Emperor Jones" and "Othello," and his role as a communist fellow traveler. He never actually carried a party card, but he lavishly praised the Soviet Union and in 1952 accepted the Stalin Peace Prize.
A dozen years ago, when it opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York with James Earl Jones as Robeson, the play evoked controversy. Fifty-six well-known black artists and civil-rights leaders, including James Baldwin, Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and Alvin Ailey, took out an ad in Variety to denounce it as "a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson." Paul Robeson Jr. called it a "grossly distorted portrayal" of his father. The play closed after 77 performances.
Director Harold Scott revived it in 1983 at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, with Brooks as Robeson. And last August, when Brooks played it at New York's South Street Theater and later at the Golden on Broadway, and in April, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, no protests were heard. Only applause, particularly for Brooks.
The play is a not-quite-one-man show - pianist Ernie Scott plays accompaniment and several small parts - with Brooks onstage throughout the two acts.
"It's harder than `Hamlet,"' Harold Scott says in a telephone interview, "because you're out there for three hours by yourself - acting, singing and dancing. Hamlet, at least, has some help."
With the approval of Dean, the playwright, Scott shortened the play by about 10 or 15 minutes from its original version and took out about 10 lines that the Robeson family found "distasteful."
"I wasn't cutting because the family was disturbed," he says. "I was cutting them because the producer wanted it to be shorter. The family and I have never discussed it. My intention was neither to placate nor to offend the family."
As for Brooks, he says he's not interested in taking sides in the old controversy about the play, but he leaves no doubt about where he stands regarding the man Paul Robeson.
"You have to understand, you have to understand, you know, this man, this is a man virtually for all seasons. This is one of the most extraordinary men of the century. . . . I mean, you talk about Paul Robeson, you must also talk about America. You must also talk, I suppose, (about) the history of this country, I mean its founding principles notwithstanding. When you talk about Paul Robeson, you also have to look at great men like Malcolm X. That's an American story, an important, a very important story."
In 1985, also at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater, Brooks played Malcolm X in the American Music Theater Festival's production of Anthony Davis' "X," an opera about the Omaha-born hustler and dope dealer, convert to Islam, evangelist and scourge of white "devils," who was assassinated at a Black Muslim rally in 1965.
He has also played Robeson in Eric Bentley's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," Uncle Tom in Showtime's TV version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and several Shakespearean roles, including Othello. But he does not think of himself as only or mainly an actor.
"I'm a teacher. I'm an intellectual. I'm a musician. I'm a singer. I'm an actor. Indeed, I'm an artist," he says.
He does not, however, accept the role of role model.
"I eschew that phrase all the time," he declares. People don't need role models, he says. "People need jobs."
He scoffs at the notion that "every time a brown person goes on television they become a role model. That's kind of ridiculous, because it means that when you go off television, then you're not a role model. . . . It's a simplistic thought is what I'm saying . . . and is not a solution to anything. Fact of the matter is that until brown people decide that they are going to control media, are going to control their own means of production, to preserve their own images, to teach, to do all those things, then, you know, we're going to be waiting for somebody else to tell us who our role models are and who they are not. That's simple."
Born in Evansville, Ind., 40 years ago, Brooks grew up amid music and learning. His mother, a church organist, pianist and choral conductor, earned a master's degree from Northwestern University at a time when few blacks even attended college. His father sang with the gospel choir Wings Over Jordan on CBS Radio.