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“Twentieth. Century. Fox,” intones Shack NdPack with all the gravitas a guy named Shack can muster. Sixteen tall, gawky black kids are in his thrall. “I’m not talkin’ about your uncle walking the street with his raggedy-ass camcorder,” growls NdPack.
The WPGC-FM promotions chief has insinuated himself into an open casting call for the long-delayed 20th Century Fox movie based on Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert cartoons. By the end of this sunny Saturday at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, 500 young men will have shown up to try out for the roles of Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold. Fewer than 100 will make it past the initial screening, and only a handful will still be in the running after two grueling days of mostly sitting around.
After NdPack finishes his pep talk, the center’s doyenne, Cora Masters Barry, suggests a way to break the tension. “Get up, move around!” she shouts. “Get yourself loosened up!” On cue, the 16 would-be Old Weird Harolds rise and wiggle.
An hour earlier, the room held 20 potential Fat Alberts—“17-18 years old, ‘stout hearted as well as stout…exuberant, funny and sweet,’” read the role description in 20th Century’s press release for the audition—which also named My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Joel Zwick as the project’s director. All of the potential stars—most plenty stout—were asked to perform a short monologue, sing, and dance. The audition attracted plenty of accomplished gospel singers and drama-club regulars, but only Anthony Easter, a 17-year-old Congress Heights resident, had the foresight to dress in Albert’s trademark red sweater.
Easter even incorporated the garment into his monologue: “Our car a hoopdee, y’know,” he said, “and we had to go all the way out to Alexandria—and all that for this shirt.” For the singing portion of the audition, Easter runs through a hushed verse of Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” (“I’m gonna sing MJ,” he announced, “’cause he doin’ bad right now.”) Fat Albert’s East Coast casting director, Tricia Erickson, thought Easter might be shorter than the 6-foot minimum, but she gave him an initial pass for sartorial authenticity.
Outside after the audition, Easter admits he made up the sweater story. “One of my teachers bought [the shirt] for me,” he says. Then he steps over to a Fox 5 TV camera. “Hey, hey, hey—it’s Fat Albert!” he belts with a smile, hitting the cadence perfectly.
Later, at the Old Weird Harold cattle call, 24-year-old Capitol Hill resident Joseph Jordon sits in the back while the other Harolds-in-waiting attempt to strut their stuff. Erickson keeps some and lets the others down easy, often suggesting acting lessons or offering to keep an actor’s name and head shot “in my files.” Barry sits right in front and cheers each one. “Give ’em a hand!” she calls out after each audition, no matter what the quality of the performance.
Ten Harolds in, Jordon steps up in his yellow T-shirt and sweat pants. Erickson is concerned that he’s too old for the part, but she lets him go on anyway, and he improvises a monologue, stumbling around and pretending to flirt sheepishly with a girl. Then NdPack tosses him a basketball, which Jordon dribbles a few times between his legs before Erickson has seen enough. “We’re gonna keep you for a while,” she says charitably.
As Jordon shuffles off to the waiting area, the room falls quiet, the remaining half-dozen Harolds nervously staring at their feet. Barry looks at them imperiously, then speaks up: “Give him a hand, everybody!” —Mike DeBonis