If theater is about dramatic transformations, one of the best reinvention stories in the Salt Lake City arts world is the story of former University of Utah football star Calbert Beck's stage debut in "Sunset Baby."
This spring, in night rehearsals with People Productions, Utah's longest-running African-American-focused theater company, Beck has embodied the role of Damon, a tired street hustler who is stacking up bills to pay for a new life with his girlfriend, Nina. His character's gritty dialogue is a marked contrast to Beck's energetic persona in his day job as a first-grade teacher at Murray's Parkside Elementary School.
In rehearsal, Beck convincingly fills his role as a cocky, wordy character in Dominique Morisseau's beautifully wordy play, despite acting experience limited to classroom appearances as Martin Luther King, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis and "The Cat in the Hat." "Besides acting as a fool as a teenager," says the Cottonwood High graduate, and a stint playing Julius Caesar in his sixth-grade play at Rosecrest Elementary School.
Only problem with this reinvention story is that Beck is still waiting for his first stage entrance.
The regional premiere of "Sunset Baby," a story of a former black revolutionary's attempt to reconcile with his daughter, has been pushed back indefinitely due to scheduling issues of another cast member. Director Richard Scharine has spent two weeks seeking a new 20-something black female actor to step into the role of Nina, joining Beck and local actor William Ferrer. Plus, his venue is booked through the spring with other projects.
But Beck? The speedy homegrown athlete-turned-newbie-actor? He's ready to go.
From game film to stage rehearsal • Despite his new-to-the-stage status, Beck has been raring to go since the first rehearsal in February, when he already had his lines memorized, Scharine says. Civilians might think that's common, but actors offer plenty of stories about cast members who never got their lines down. One of the constant challenges of producing race-themed plays in Utah is drawing an audience, Scharine acknowledges, while another is filling black casts. Utah's most experienced black actors are in demand. It can be difficult to find trainable talent who fit a character's physical requirements, yet who can also afford to donate their time over the course of the play's run for the nonprofit theater company.
That's where Beck comes in. A substitute teacher in his classroom recommended Beck for the role, despite his lack of stage experience. His acting colleagues call him a natural. "He takes direction very well," Scharine says. "He knows how to be coached, after all. He's constantly aware of what everyone else is doing. In other words, he has great field vision."
Adds Ferrer: "He really has a feel for this character. I love the scene we do together, we're hustling each other. It's great playing with him."
As for Beck, he concedes the role has been a challenge, but he expresses gratitude to be allowed to try something new in the company of committed theater artists.
He sought advice from friends who are professional actors. In early rehearsals, he watched castmates to see how they carried themselves and where they stood on stage.
What he learned as an athlete from studying game film transfers over to making improvements in rehearsal, Beck says. In addition, everything he knows about keeping the attention of fidgety students carries over to the stage.
He's had those days in the classroom where he's flunked, Beck says, so he's not afraid of those days in rehearsal where everything goes wrong. Just like football, just like teaching, acting requires rebounding, he says. Regrouping.
No longer 'The Rocket' • Regrouping is something Cal Beck knows a lot about.
In 1994, at 18, Beck was known as "The Rocket," a rising star on the University of Utah football team. His speed as a world-class Cottonwood High sprint champion was realized in memorable kickoff returns in come-from-behind victories against Brigham Young University and, in the Freedom Bowl, the University of Arizona.
Two years later, injuries and debilitating migraine headaches, possibly the result of years of concussions, brought his NFL dreams to a screeching halt. He tried to return to the team, but each time his headaches stopped him. Eventually, he dropped out of school before his senior year.
Once, Beck recalls, he was driving home and had to pull over. His brain wasn't functioning, and he couldn't remember anything, including where he lived. "I sat on the side of the road in my car," he says, "and I didn't remember my phone number."
His speed, and sports in general, had given him a voice throughout his life as a biracial kid growing up in Utah, the son of a white mother and a mostly absent black father. It took years of struggle, countless visits to doctors and endless treatments to learn the triggers for his headaches, to overcome them, and then to find a new direction for his life. Along the way, a lot of his friends, even some of his family, thought he was crazy.
In 2004, at 28, he returned to the U., without the free tutors and other benefits of an athletic scholarship. This time around, struggling to support himself with a full-time job, he went by his given name, Calbert, a sign to himself that he didn't want to ride on past glories.
He finished his undergraduate degree in sociology and criminology. Along the way, he rediscovered his passion for working with youths, as he had often volunteered to do as a football player. He went on to earn a master's degree in elementary education and, since 2008, has taught at Parkside Elementary, while coaching in local sports programs, as well as playing ball with his two sons.
Now after months of rehearsal, he's just waiting for the chance to further develop his voice as a performer.
The language of 'Sunset Baby' • To get to the heart of Morisseau's play, the Utah theater company took field trips to the Sundance Film Festival to view screenings of "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" and " 'What Happened, Miss Simone?,' " documentaries that underscore how the play's themes are part of the cultural zeitgeist, Scharine says.
The play explores how a generation of black revolutionaries sacrificed for the next generation, "and the next generation isn't always appreciative," says Ferrer, who connects with his character as a divorced father of two adult daughters.
How that generational story unfolds is one of the play's universal themes, calling to mind contemporary headlines reporting police violence against young black men.
"If you really listen to the language of the play," Beck says, "you will see it's the ongoing battle of upper versus lower class."
Also universal is the power of the playwright's fierce language, which portrays the self-educated intelligence of her urban characters.
That language means Beck wasn't quick to invite his teaching colleagues to the show. Nina and Damon speak with street grit mixed with literary flair, a style that reminds Ferrer of the pop-culture shortcuts relied upon by his daughters and the rest of their text-savvy generation.
'Let's do this thing' • In Beck's classroom, which he refers to as "Smartside," the teacher is energetic while leading visualization and relaxation exercises preparing first-graders to take a math practice test. Sports terms are sparingly woven through the teacher's patter, such as when he refers to lunch as halftime.
"I'd say good luck, but you guys don't need it," Beck says before the test. "You guys have worked hard. It's time to show what you know."
"I am smart," the students call out in response to their teacher's lead. "I am awesome. I am not hardheaded. I will do my best and forget the rest, because first-graders never quit."
"Let's do this thing," they shout with enthusiasm, as Beck sets the timer.