About 10 years ago, El Pair, a stagehand at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, says he was working in the upper reaches of the Opera House, when he spotted writing on the wall that you won’t find in, say, the Hall of Nations: “KKK.” The letters were in yellow paint, so they stood out from the black-marker scrawl of the ordinary backstage graffiti listing past show titles and crew members. Pair, who is black, says he didn’t know who did it, how long it had been there before he saw it, or who may have seen it before he did.
When Pair returned to the stage, he says, he informed Mickey Berra, who was then the Opera House’s head carpenter. “The best I can recall, his response was ‘I don’t know anything about that,’” says Pair. “I said, ‘Go and take a look.’ He took a look and said, ‘I don’t know what that means. There’s a lot of writing on the wall. That don’t mean nothin’.”’ I said, ‘It’s a problem. I need it off the wall.’ He said, ‘There ain’t nothin’ to it.’”
So Pair complained to Lawrence J. Wilker, then the president of the Kennedy Center. Wilker and a small entourage of officials marched to the upper reaches of the Opera House, among the ropes and counterweights, to inspect the find. “Larry Wilker’s reaction was quite different,” says Pair. “He expressed outrage. He apologized to me. He had it painted over.”
“I went up there and said, ‘What is this?’” recalls Berra, who is white. “I didn’t know if it was some [letters from a] show, Kiss Me Kate.” Berra says he had it blotted out. No one, he says, had to instruct him to.
Elbert Pair is sensitive to the racial climate backstage. He and his younger brother, Gary, have worked behind the scenes at D.C.’s theaters and convention venues for decades. Both are card-holders in Local 22 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Until 1981, the late date when Local 22 was forced to desegregate, both were members of what was then Washington’s small black stagehands’ local, 224A. Both cut their teeth at the Warner Theatre, 224A’s main venue. Twenty-two years after the two locals became one, District stage crews are still mainly divided along racial lines.
Gary is now a union steward and event contractor, holding sway over the local venues where black stagehands get work in any numbers. Maybe if El worked in one of them, he wouldn’t get sucked into debates over the interpretation of Klan-speak. But more or less since the merger, El and Gary’s professional lives have gone in separate directions.
Gary is a multimillionaire businessman who has carved out work for scores of black stagehands over the years. The Warner Theatre was his first major conquest, followed by DAR Constitution Hall. The theatrical production company he owns moved on to gigs at local hotels, then staked out new territory at the old and new convention centers.
El, though, operates outside his younger brother’s sphere of influence. Instead of working at the Washington Convention Center or the Warner Theatre, El works at the Kennedy Center, where El is one of just a handful of black stagehands who get regular work. El says his IATSE credentials got him work at the Kennedy Center, and he decided to stay precisely because the backstages there are staggeringly white. “I saw a problem,” says El, “and I wanted to address the problem.”
Gary, who is 52, is considered a leader of men. “Gary Pair to us is God,” says longtime stagehand “Kimbo” Wallace, attesting to Gary’s status among black workers in the trade.
El, who is 54, is called a troublemaker. “He loves to agitate people,” says Howard Sacks, currently head carpenter at the Opera House.
The Pair brothers are said to be like day and night: Gary, say stagehands both black and white, is selfless, a mentor. El, they say, is arrogant and abrasive. No doubt this perception is linked to Gary’s drive and El’s hardheadedness, but it also may owe something to the places their respective career paths have led them.
For years, El has been pushing the Kennedy Center to get more black stagehands hired. He doesn’t sugarcoat his message. The numbers, he says, are too glaring for that: Only three of the building’s 27 staff stagehands are black. The pattern repeats in the supplemental crews the Kennedy Center routinely brings on for larger shows. A dedicated reader of sociology and race history, El, who works in the supplemental crews, maintains that a white network of kinship locks people out of some venuesjust like in the segregated days. El confronts Berra, now the Kennedy Center’s vice president for production, with the skimpy numbers on a regular basis, and in one meeting with top brass, El told then-President Wilker, who is white, “If I were sitting in your seat, the composition of the backstage would not look like this.”
Few are spared: El also challenges the black stagehands who he believes facilitate the status quo. He has earned himself no shortage of enemies, and among Kennedy Center stagehands, he has yet to find an ally.
But what others call arrogance, El says is pride. “I’m driving an issue they don’t want exposed. If they’re black and accommodating, they don’t want that exposed, and if they’re white and in a position of responsibilityto the extent that they are involved, they don’t want that exposed.”
As he stands in one of the vast carpeted spaces of the new Washington Convention Center, Gary Pair surveys the clockwork mechanism he’s put in motion. His 40-man crew is preparing the facility for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual meeting. The sound guys are stacking speakers near the stage. Other stagehands raise a screen into place. Men clamp lights to trusses that riggers will hoist to the ceiling. “At any one [day], you have 200 semis putting in here,” Gary says of the convention center’s daily traffic of equipment deliveries. On a busy day, he says, the Kennedy Center might handle only 30 truckloads.
Gary says he is here 6 a.m. to midnight, nearly every day. He acts as a logistical clearinghouse. One worker asks him how many chain motors are needed for the ballrooms upstairs. The answer: four. Another asks where to rig the speaker stacks. High up against the columns, Gary says. How about the auxiliary screens? Gary picks a roll of tape off the floor, eyeballs the dimensions of the room, and marks off two spots on the carpet about 200 feet apart.
“The word is Gary Pair never sleeps!” says one convention-center worker, shaking Gary’s hand as he passes by. “Exactly right,” Gary says softly.
More than half the workforce here today is blackwhich in some respects is intentional. On work calls, Gary asks the union to be flexible with its priority list and to send him “D.C. residents.” “D.C. residents weren’t getting a piece of the pie in the entertainment industry,” he says. “Somebody’s got to maintain equality in this town.”
Stagehand work requires no formal education; you learn it by doing it. Little remarked by the average theatergoer or conventioneer, the stagehands are the ones who assemble the sets, swing the spotlights, and flip the trapdoors. Depending on the size of the production, they arrive hours, days, or even weeks before curtain. If you notice their work, they’ve screwed up. They can ruin a performance with a missed cue or a dropped prop, but as with any job that involves heavy things in high places, some of the greatest risks are to the stagehands themselves.
Hoisting trusses and hauling scenery pays very well if you can get work. Stagehands with ready access to jobs may run up a lot of overtime hours on one show, so they can follow it up with weeks or even months off. Average hourly wage is $20 to $30. They say it’s the best part-time job in the world.
Competition is fierce. The union says priority for work goes to stagehands on its A-listthose with the required time served and, theoretically, the skills to show for it. Then B-listers get a shot, followed by C- and D-listers, who will be lucky to get a call. Those not already grandfathered in must take an exam to move up. It’s a relatively small, exclusive group. There are about 250 card-carrying members in the union and another 100 or so who regularly get work off the union’s referral list.
Nearly all the local union-controlled venues are located in a city that’s nearly 60 percent blackyet by various estimates only about 20 to 25 percent of stagehands working regularly in union venues are black. In most venues, the proportion is less. The demographics of the workers at the MCI Center, Ford’s Theatre, and the five main venues at the Kennedy Center, the union’s cash cow, are closer to those of a NASCAR grandstand than the population of the District.
And the Kennedy Center’s Opera House crew has all the color of Siegfried staged by Wagner himself. Stagehands can’t recall there ever being a black stagehand on the nine-person regular staff of the venue in its 32-year history. It’s a significant bit of racial omission, too: Many consider the Opera House, perhaps Washington’s premier theatrical venue, the most lucrative in the union’s jurisdiction because of its high pay rate, busy schedule, and frequent overtime opportunities; regulars there can earn over $100,000 a year.
“There hasn’t been any forced segregation,” says Gary. “Why is church that way on Sundays? It’s where people feel most comfortable.” The number of blacks in the local, he says, is actually an achievement: “In other cities, there are no blacks.”
There are a number of black stagehands, however, at the Warner Theatrea triumph of integration for which Gary is often given credit. The Warner has been a refuge for black stagehands for 30 yearsever since Local 22 lost the contract and Local 224A, led by Gary, took it over. Thirty years later, nothing much has changed. The same guys call the same place home, and they’ve moved their friends and loved ones in. And when the Warner is dark, as it was for most of this summer, and work is short, Gary finds them work somewhere else, most likely at the convention center.
Purvis Williams, the theater’s head “flyman,” in charge of the hoisting system, was hired 17 years ago by Gary and head carpenter Jerry King. Because Williams is also the house’s union steward, he picks the crew for each show there. This might be his easiest task. The Warner has only two staff stagehands, including Williams, but the first 12 positions on any show are always spoken for. Only six of those regulars, says Williams, are on the union’s A-list. As at other houses around town, other factors are in play.
James Prince, for instance, may be a mere B-lister, but he’s a cousin of King. King, who is from New York, became acquainted with Gary over 20 years ago, after swinging through the Warner on a touring show. Prince, in turn, ushered in his daughter, Jada Prince. Don Moss’ in was a childhood friend: Gary Pair Jr., who used to be the Warner’s head electrician.
Among this select group, Gary Sr. inspires intense loyalty. Much of his inner circle, known as the Woodbridge Crew, lives in the vicinity of his mansion in Prince William County. Gary’s known as Guru. Gary Jr. is known as S.O.G., or Son of Guru. Gary takes his employees on a trip every other year to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, but that is just a fraction of his beneficence: It is said that without Gary, there probably wouldn’t be much work at all for black stagehands in this town.
Usually, stagehands have to seek jobs by calling the union and asking for a spot on the referral list for the theaters where they want to work. Moss says that, thanks to Gary, he hasn’t had to rely on the list in two years. You pretty much need an “ace” to work anywhere, says Moss. “We got Gary Pair.”
“It’s kind of like an unspoken code,” says Prince of the crew’s regular status. “The Kennedy Center has it also. MCI has it. When we have a call, you’re bound to be here. That’s how they work the family in.”
Gary can’t be everyone’s ace. Veteran stagehand Vernon Wilson, who is black, stands outside the family circle. Wilson left the union in the ’90s to be Whitney Houston’s production manager, and now, having returned, he languishes on the D-list, unable to get steady calls for work. He recently took a job as a stock boy at a Family Dollar; he catches stagehand gigs when he can. Sometimes Gary brings him into the convention center to stack chairs. “I haven’t given up on it, but it seems like it’s given up on me,” Wilson says.
Summers are always tough on the job front, but with the Opera House dark for almost a year due to renovations, this past one was worse than usual. Even in season, some stagehands are living on unemployment. But the Kennedy Center, where jobs are most plentiful, is beyond reach for many of Gary’s men. As at the Warner, but on a much larger scale, there are unspoken membership requirements that most can’t meet. “I can’t go in there,” says Prince, 57, who gets called to the Kennedy Center but doesn’t get through the stage door. “I can expect to be a truck loader.”
“It’s just one of those hidden things,” he adds, “just the nature of the beast. I’m not going to cry foul play. That was my understanding getting into this: You had to have relatives, you had to have good friends. It’s not blatant, all-out…It’s like a country club. They don’t have laws to discriminate against you. On the other hand, you can get into the club and not feel comfortable at the club.”
Moss, who is 28, has also worked at the Kennedy Center on occasion, and he, too, has been relegated to unloading duty. “I’ve seen some of the people bring in their kids, and their kids don’t know shit!” he says, adding, “You see sons of someone, a nephew, or a son’s friendthen I find out they’ve been there a year!”
The money at the Opera House might not be worth it anyway, he says, not with the bad vibe you get. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, you look like you’re racist.’ They carry themselves a certain fucking way.” He reconsiders. “I wouldn’t say it’s racist racist,” he says. “I’d just say it’s historical racism, something that’s just passed on.”
“The Kennedy Center makes no effortthat’s most of the problem,” Gary concedes. “It comes from the top.”
After the 1981 desegregation of the stagehand locals, El expected to see more integration at his workplace, the Opera House. Year after year, though, the complexion of the backstage crew barely changed.
There were nine stagehands on staff, who could expect work whenever there was work available. All were white. There was also a group of regulars that supplemented the staff on nearly every show. El was the only black on this shadow crew.
El decided to take his concerns to Berra, who by the early ’90s had risen to house steward. “‘I find these numbers outrageous,’” El says he told him.
“His response was ‘We got no race problem here.’ I said, ‘This has to change.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to change nothin’ here.’ And I found myself consigned to the trucks.”
Although El eventually returned to the inside crew, the relationship never improved. El says his problem is not so much Berra but the segregated system he says Berra helps preserve. Backstage at the Opera House still looks like the Local 22 of old, he says. “It’s like they put their finger on a page of history,” he says, “and didn’t turn the page.”
The not-for-profit Kennedy Center operates a federally owned building and receives millions annually in federal funds to uphold its mission, which reads, in part: “to commission, produce, and present performances reflecting the highest standards of excellence and diversity indicative of the world in which we live.” But in the decade after it opened in 1971, the Kennedy Center contracted with a segregated union to supply stagehands to its venues. By doing so, it adopted almost a century’s worth of racist history. Irish icemen had chartered Local 22 in 1894, and for most of its history, membership was effectively closed to blacks.
By the time of the merger with 224A in 1981, the local had made what it regarded as huge strides: There were maybe three blacks out of 60 or so, and white stagehands had a chance at membership even if they weren’t related to anyone already in the union. In 1991, the union entered into a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to remedy alleged exclusion of women. In 2003, many stagehands still regard the loosening grip of nepotism as one of the Local 22’s many signs of progress.
Yet, as one stagehand puts it, staff jobs at the Kennedy Center come open as often as they do at the Supreme Court. Once you get in, you’re there until death. In this industry, racial diversity competes against life expectancy.
According to Sandy Bissell-Uzemack, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for human resources, 17 of the center’s 27 staff stagehands have had their jobs for about 20 years. After a concerted effort to hire more minorities into these positions, she says, three black stagehands have been hired to fill the 10 staff jobs that have opened up since 1990. Sometimes no black stagehands apply.
So the Kennedy Center remains a family affair in many respects. El recalls working with four or five stagehands with the surname Ryan on one performance last year at the Eisenhower Theater. On the staff of the Opera House alone are two sets of brothers, the two Kerigs and the two Cohees. The Kerigs’ father worked at times in the Opera House; his two sons are now head and assistant electrician. The Cohees got in the union’s door, says Sonny Cohee, through his father-in-law, who once worked at the Kennedy Center.
Trade unions are notorious for keeping closed houses closed, and at the Kennedy Center, their preferred mechanism seems to be the show call. Black stagehands are allowed to do the grunt labor of the put-in, when a production first arriveswhich is a lot like working for Allied Van Lines. But the next step is the skilled labor of building a set, which requires fewer workers.
Who gets to stay? At the Opera House, the nine white staff guys are shoo-ins. So are the shadow staffers, such as El, who’ve been around for years. Then come the A-listers who aren’t Kennedy Center regulars, very few of them black. Often shows are big enough to accommodate some of those lower on the referral list. But in the competition among less experienced stagehands for the final slots, the friend or family member is going to win, whether on the B, C, or D list. Black stagehands rarely get through the cut-down.
Hence the closed circle. The children and friends of white stagehands learn advanced skills at the Kennedy Centersuch as fabricating setsthat you can’t learn in venues that rarely produce their own theatrical shows, such as the convention center and the Warner. The chosen few, says El, are retained for the duration of the show under the hallowed principle of “continuity”; and they get more work, pass the proper tests, move up the priority list, and position themselves well for when a staff job opens up.
“You get D-listers staying on the joband they cut B-listersbecause they’re related!” says Wallace.
“People are taking care of their friends,” says one black stagehand who gets work at the Kennedy Center. “They’ve known each other for a long time. I would think it’s like Verizon, the ‘friends and family plan.’ I’m not a second-generation stagehand; no one in my family’s been doing this for 20 years and passed me the olive branch.”
The stagehand was bumped last year on a show at the Opera House. He had worked most of the show, and was looking forward to the put-out, when the crew works at night taking down the sets and logs a wealth of overtime hours. And then, he says, the son of a retired A-lister, who was white, was back from college and hanging around the stage. “The rumor started then: ‘Someone’s going to get bumped.’ Everyone knew the ax was going to fall. I thought it was hooey, but the next day, I was told, ‘Thank you very much.’ Instead of me rolling in to the night crew, I got bumped and this young man got in.”
According to its contract, the Kennedy Center can hire whomever it wants to off the union’s referral lists, regardless of priority. Berra says he doesn’t pay attention to minority representation in the crews. “I don’t deal with black and white,” he says. “They’re wonderful people. I don’t separate the twothey’re all equal.”
Berra declines to provide work lists showing who was retained for which show calls. But there is certainly evidence that black stagehands are not acquiring the kind of skills or experience the union tests for.
There are only about 20 to 24 black stagehands on the local’s A-list, according to Chuck Clay, the local’s second vice president. Clay estimates that there are about 70 people total on the list, but Steve Williams, the local’s president until last year, says the figure is closer to 150. Clay, who is black, says no black stagehands even took the A-list exam this year. One took the B-list exam but didn’t pass. Clay says he can’t explain the phenomenon. He points out that the union offers classes. “If you ask for experience, I think it’s even-steven,” he says.
The end result is that sequestered backstage at a “national cultural center” is a culture that makes sense to itself but not, perhaps, to the world beyond the stage doors.
Jane Smith, 50, has watched the Kennedy Center’s behind-the-curtain culture evolve firsthand. She worked the box office nearly from the day that the building opened and for the past 15 years or so has spent a lot of time hanging out at the Opera Houseenough, in fact, to survey the racial dynamics of the stagehand crew.
She says she is friendly with a number of stagehands, including both El Pair and Berra. When there are no black employees around, she says, backstage banter frequently spews out “nigger.” Smith says she was never more mortified than when one of her stagehand friends visited her in the box office and told a racist jokecomplete with the N-bombwith one of Smith’s black co-workers in earshot. She says she was too embarrassed to apologize on the stagehand’s behalf. “Maybe they use it so much that they don’t think about it when they say it,” she says.
Some of the older, coarser characters have retired, but “I think there’s some of the same attitudes there,” says Smith. “I’m not trying to single anybody out, but I do see how it is.”
Howard Sacks has been the Opera House’s head carpenter for the last two years. He says he hears people use “nigger” when telling racist jokes, but that “no one said it in a threatening way.” He suggests that a younger generation interprets the word more benignly, both white and black.
Sacks isn’t the steward, so he doesn’t do the crew vetting. But he says he’s seen more black stagehands worked into the crews in recent years. “There’s young people advancing,” Sacks says. “I see it every day. They have the right attitude. They’re not jive.” He clarifies: “There’s white jive and black jive.”
Berra himself plays up his redneck roots. According to a recent profile in the Washingtonian called “Bad Boys Gone Good,” he’s a folksy former carnival worker from central Virginia, who dropped out of school after the fifth grade and made his way from the midway to backstage at Ford’s Theatre, where his brother worked, to backstage at the Opera, and then into the top echelon of the country’s self-proclaimed busiest performing-arts complex.
In 1996, then-Kennedy Center President Wilker made Berra production chief, putting all the backstages at the institution under Berra’s control. Berra, round and loud, gives the Kennedy Center a colorful ornament to dazzle blueblood patrons and the ideal management figure to keep the unionized stagehands in line. He was one of them for over 20 years, mentoring many into the business, and he cracks the whip.
Since his days as head carpenter and union steward in the Opera House, Berra has set the tone for the venue. By many accounts, working there feels more like working in a factory than in a theater. El calls it “Mickeysippi” because of the exclusionary system he says Berra maintains. Williams, the former local president, says the term isn’t racial, but refers to the demanding schedule: “We’ve called the place ‘Mickeysippi’ on occasion because he runs it like a slave driver.”
Sacks, the Opera House head carpenter, wishes El would stop bitching about race. “He’s the one always bringing it up,” he says. “He’s the racist.” He adds, “Why doesn’t he work with his brother if he wants to work with black people? Is that what he wants?”
The world the Pairs were raised in was nothing like the Kennedy Center backstage, says El. The four Pair siblingsEl and Gary are the youngestgrew up in Westport, Conn., the children of a welder and a nurse. They were a working-class black family in an extraordinarily posh, overwhelmingly white enclave. “These are the people who own the earth!” says El of his childhood neighbors. The racism he experienced was of the genteel variety; not until he was in college in southern Virginia, he says, working at a seafood-packing plant, did he encounter the kind of raw attitudes he says currently pervade the Kennedy Center.
But first he would work at the Warner, where his brother had lured him in the late ’70s from New York. El had been gigging with bands; $400 weekends working the stage sounded better. After several years as a Warner staffer, and an ongoing dispute with management, he was fired. He worked for his brother, picking up jobs around town. His ties to IATSE got him work at the Kennedy Center, and under Robert H. Tillett Sr., one of Berra’s predecessors as steward at the Opera House and someone El describes as a rock-ribbed union man, El eventually got himself on the permanent supplemental crew.
El has shaped a world for himself that he says is alien to many of the people he works with. He doesn’t socialize with most of the other stagehands after work. They go home to the suburbs; he returns to a row house on Capitol Hill. This year, he struck up a correspondence with the chair of the sociology department at William & Mary, who has written a book about institutional discrimination against black workers. “The politics of where I live is different than the politics of where they live,” El says of his colleagues.
The “KKK” incident at the Opera House initiated a series of periodic discussions between El Pair and Wilker, which ultimately yielded nothing, says El, except promises to be “proactive.”
“We always maintained with the stagehands’ union that we would like to have as much minority representation as possible,” says Wilker. “But that was not within our control.” He says he was himself was unaware of what the backstage crews looked like. “We have millions of shows. I didn’t sit down on the dock every time there was a show.”
In a prepared statement, Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser said the institution “is and always has been committed to the principles underlying the concept of equal opportunity for all people and it takes its mandate of diversity very seriously both on and off its stages.”
Walter Cahill, president of Local 22, in turn, says he has control over neither who wants to work at the Kennedy Center nor whom the Kennedy Center will retain. “There’s a lot of people who work for us,” he says, “and as [business agent], you never see these people. You don’t know whether these people are African-American or Latin-American. We call people and send them to work. There’s no profiling, quotas.”
For his last meeting with Wilker, a few months before Wilker left office in January 2001, El put aside his stagehand wear of jeans and a T-shirt and donned a suit and gold tie. He pulled copies of five class-action lawsuits from his briefcase and put them on the president’s desk. Each case was a recent employment-related racial-discrimination claim against a Washington-based organization, such as Amtrak and the FBI. Each case had resulted in a seven- to eight-figure settlement. Each had been filed by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, where El’s girlfriend was chief litigator for employment-discrimination cases. El passed Wilker her card.
“What’s going to happen to an organization whose only business is cultural diversity, and they have nothing to show for it? That was the message,” says El. He says Wilker promised to make changes.
Not long after, perhaps a week later, the building hosted its biggest event of the year: the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. The backstage crew at the Opera House numbered about 30, and about half of them, says El, were black. That may not have happened in the venue since the ’80s, when Stevie Wonder, scheduled to perform for a concert commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., had demanded more ebony within the Kennedy Center’s ivory walls.
But after that, the numbers plummeted to customary levels, with El among four or five black stagehandsat mostwhen crews were 30 or so.
Bissell-Uzemeck, vice president for human resources, says that hiring policies didn’t change after El’s last discussion with Wilker, which she attended. “We have done it the same way before and after this meeting,” she says.
In the summer of 2002, when Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida swung through the Opera House with an all-white traveling crew, El says he was the only black stagehand there for the course of the show. The same summer, the center’s own Sondheim festival was running at the Eisenhower Theater. After one of the performances, El was in the bar across the street and deliberately sat next to Gilford Taylor, a black stagehand on staff at “the Ike.” El asked him how many black stagehands were on the crew. Taylor, he says, turned away and remained silent. “I don’t talk to El Pair,” says Taylor, denying that the conversation occurred.
“The work is thereyou just have to go out and get it,” says Larry Davis, a black stagehand on the staff of the Kennedy Center’s production department. Davis doesn’t know about any racial issue at the complex, because “it hasn’t adversely affected me.”
Lauren Rogers, a black A-lister, has been getting consistent work at the Opera House since 1996, thanks in part to Berra, saying, “It’s a place where I’ve found a lot of support, a lot of opportunities and recognition, because I think they are trying.”
El concedes that no one, black or white, supports his efforts. “My allies aren’t in here,” referring to the Kennedy Center. “They’re out there.”
Wallace, who has worked in a number of venues, including the Kennedy Center, says El is “obnoxious,” with a habit of talking down to people. “We call him an undercover redneck,” he says. Sam McFadden, a B-lister who has done about a half-dozen opera show calls, agrees that El tends to ride black workers hard.
“El is probably one of the most disliked people you would ever come across,” says McFadden. “But if you can take the abuse from El Pair, it’s kind of like El is preparing you for what is to come,” referring to the long hours and hard work.
El says he’s administering “tough love.” During the Kennedy Center Honors a few years ago, Wallace was caught lying down during the setup and was scolded. El says he got in his face and scolded Wallace himself: “These people already don’t want you here! You can’t give them ammu-fucking-nition!” (Wallace says it was a minor incident and that El had no business disciplining him.)
“There’s been a good-old-boy network at the Kennedy Center for years,” says Gary, who cautions that he doesn’t know the Kennedy Center that well. “It’s changing, but slowly. You need the people who work therethe black guys who work thereif they have something to say, to say it. El’s fighting a battle by himself. Because without the support of [the other black stagehands], he’s not going to get far. It will always look like El’s a nut.”
The bar of choice for Kennedy Center employees is the 600 Restaurant at the Watergate, until recently known as the Brasserie. One Thursday happy hour, Mickey Berra sits at a corner stool, flanked on one side by Taylor, on the other by a white stagehand who won’t give his name, whom Berra addresses as George.
Berra is asked why there aren’t more black stagehands at the Kennedy Center.
“There are plenty of black stagehands at the Kennedy Center,” he says.
George breaks in: “Should all the white people who work there be fired so blacks can be hired?”
Taylor swivels in his seat and identifies himself as a former secretary-treasurer of Local 22. He starts naming the other black stagehands at the Kennedy Center. After reaching two beyond himself, he moves on to name three more who have worked there in the past, including Local 22 official Clay.
“It’s gotten better every day,” says Berra.
El Pair’s name comes up and Taylor tears into him: “This is one of those individuals who thinks the world should revolve around his ideology and beliefs,” he says. “It’s been a growth process,” he adds, referring to the union, post-merger. “One of the negative aspects of the growth has been Elbert Pair.” He suggests a criminal background check into El. (In 2000, in an incident involving a female friend, El pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court to misdemeanor charges of simple assault.)
Asked why El still works at the Kennedy Center, given this assessment of his behavior, Berra responds: “The local sends people to work, and we respect that. If he does his job, his personal life has nothing to do with it.”
Taylor passes on a lesson he says he learned when serving on the local’s equity committee. When an organization attempts to remedy discrimination, explains Taylor, “the organization tends to overcompensate, and the organization might not take control of people who cry wolf. He’s the biggest wolf-crier I’ve ever seen. One of the ways to misdirect attention from yourself is to cry wolf.”
“I should add: He and I are not the best of friends,” says Taylor. “He thinks I live in a cabin in the woods and that its owner is named Tom.”
“El Pair,” mutters Berra. “Oh my god.”
The “KKK” incident has fed this negative image of El, at least with the stagehand he may work most closely with. Richard Page, 50, the Opera House’s staff flyman, has been working with El on the fly floor above the stage on and off for about 20 years. It was his misfortune that it was his small workstation where the letters were located.
The graffito had actually been there for years, says Page. The letters were an inch high, he says, and appeared among the initials of stagehands who had worked on a show in the early ’70s. The letters were common knowledge, Page adds, and rumor attributed them to a racist stagehand who had been on a traveling crew from Norfolk. Page says he is “99 percent sure” that El knew about it.
“It was just a minor thing, such a small thing on a big wall,” says Page.
Page initially covered the slur with a clock, even though there was another wall clock a few feet away. During a show, El asked Page why there was an extra clock. El already knew the answer to that question, says Page, but he still insisted that the clock be taken down. Page complied, revealing the “KKK.” The next day, Page says, he painted over the graffito with two coats of black paint, figuring that would end the matter.
A couple of months afterward, Page says, he was summoned to the theater manager’s office, where he was asked about the “KKK.” He told Berra and others what had happened and took them to the spot where the letters had been. He pulled the clock out of the way, and “bigger than ever” there were the letters again. “Obviously, someone’s playing games with us here,” he told them.
“Everyone assumes it was him,” says Page, referring to El. “I just assumed it was him myself,” he adds. “That’s just an assumption.”
“That conversation never took place,” says El, referring to the discussion about the clock. “Any games of three-card monte with clocks to hide or protect ‘KKK’ I know nothing about.”
El recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging a pattern of discrimination against him, including: the “KKK” incident, getting left off a crew by Page that El says he normally would have been on, an incident in the locker room in which Page placed his sandals on El’s prized woodwork, and an incident with another stagehand when El was accused of stealing doughnuts.
At the very least, the “KKK” episode underscored the basic truth of El’s Kennedy Center campaign: Everyone has a different way of looking at essentially the same thing. Maybe it’s because they drive in from the suburbs, pull into underground garages, and work in spaces without windows. But in attempting to explain why it is that there are still so few black stagehands at the busiest, most lucrative theatrical venue in the District, stagehands, both black and white, uncork language bottled in 1965.
•Colorblindness: “We’re human-blind,” says Berra. “I don’t look at white, black, male, female. It’s peoplewe deal with people. We don’t try to cut it up like a dessert. El Pair works there all the time, and he’s black. Your man has a problem with whites, but I’m not going to play his games. He has no credibility with me on any subjects like this.”
•Blacks don’t like to work hard (and they don’t like opera): Why aren’t there more black stagehands at the Opera House? “[A] lot of people don’t want to do that,” says Local 22’s Cahill, who is white. “They’re satisfied doing 30 to 40 hours a week, (a), and they don’t like the music, (b).”
•Blacks aren’t suited to the skilled work: Black stagehands “don’t apply themselves,” says black stagehand Wallace. “Maybe it’s the bloodlines. I’m not sure,” he adds.
•The numbers game: “There are plenty of African-Americans in the union,” says Berra. “I think we have a great representation of the African-Americans.”
•We’re a secret society: “African-American workers are just now starting to discover stagehand work,” says Clay. “The public in general doesn’t understand what stagehands do.”
•Segregation is a preference: “We don’t force anybody to go anywhere,” says Cahill. “I couldn’t answer to why it is the way it is. This is how people elect to go.”
•Segregation is a preference II: On preferring not to work at the Opera House: “Nobody starvesyou go and work somewhere else,” says Clay. “Money isn’t everything. You can’t just look at the base salary.”
•There’s progress: “Even if we’re failing, we’re failing in the right direction,” says Clay.
•Face reality: “It’s not ‘largely white,’” says Berra, of the stagehand community. “It’s how life is.”
“What you’re doing is entering an enclave,” says El, “where all you hear is enclave-speak.”
El Pair isn’t prone to outbursts of exuberance. His reputation among Kennedy Center colleagues, in fact, derives from what some call rudeness and the self-righteousness with which he wages his campaign to add some color to the staff.
Yet El is positive once in a while, at least with regard to his brother. “I’m a Pair!” he says like a rallying cry. “I’m a brand name! I don’t hold my head down!”
That’s as close as El will come to volunteering praise for Gary. Gary provides work for black stagehands when others don’t, says El. For that he should be commended. But El worries that Gary is party to a system that steers black stagehands to certain venues and white stagehands to others. Too many people are relying on one individual, El argues.
Take Gary out of the picture, he says, and the black presence backstage “will be diminished to the point of nonparticipation, diminished to the point of token participation, diminished to the point of marginalization.” History bears him out: It’s what happened at most black locals around the country when they merged with their larger white counterparts.
Gary assesses his brother in equally warm terms: “He’s my brother. I love him. That’s all I can say. He’s an eccentric….Just leave it at that. He is who he is.” Those who know them both suggest there’s friction between the two, which the brothers deny. Gary says El can work with him whenever he wants to.
Instead, El chooses to work at the Kennedy Center, where, he avers, Gary “has no juice.” Working outside the family circle leaves him vulnerable. He acknowledges that, at this point, the prospect of a lawsuit may be the main factor in his holding on to his job. But El has another way of avoiding termination: Even Page says he’s a reliable stagehand.
“I requested him,” says Page. “I still think he’s a good worker. He’s good to have up there.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.