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HartBeat's Greg Tate Lived To Expose Prejudice And Poverty


June 22, 2012

Greg Tate, "Tate" to his many friends, was a playwright, actor and director who brought political theater to Hartford. Together with the other co-founders of the theater group HartBeat Ensemble, Tate put on productions that exposed racism, classism and the effects of poverty.

Tate, 60, a Hartford resident, died on June 3.

Tate grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and was the fifth of six children born to Oscar and Bertha Tate. His father began delivering Pepsi beverages, and became the first black regional Pepsi manager in the area. His mother was a dietitian at the University of Chicago Hospital.

His aunt, Velma, lived with the family, and on Sundays, while everyone was in their church best, she used to take Greg and his younger sister, Desiree, to lunch at the Woolworth lunch counter. She never discussed the trips or explained them until years later, when she told her then-adult nephew that the trips were both vindication and celebration: When she was growing up in New Orleans, lunch counters were closed to her and other African Americans.

In 1969, Tate was accepted into Lindblom Technical High School, considered one of the best in the city; he graduated with honors. He attended Valparaiso University in Indiana for two years, but left because he considered the school too conservative and too rule-bound.

His family considered him a hippie. "He transformed himself from a nerdy kid, shy and introverted, into a gregarious free spirit," said Desiree.

His father had died the year he finished high school, and Tate went to live with an older brother in northern California, where he eventually found his niche. The two men were watching a show on television one day when Bob said to his brother: "You could do that." That modest encouragement pushed Tate to take acting classes at a local college and he got involved with community theater.

"He fell in love with it," said Julia Rosenblatt, who is also a HartBeat founder.

Tate applied to the theater department at the University of Southern California and was admitted to their fine arts department, launching what became his life's calling.

In addition to acting, Tate studied playwriting, scenery design, lighting and sound.

Tate knocked around California's Napa Valley for a few years, working with others on alternative theater productions. They would binge on work for 24 hours a day, then crash. "They lived hard, they partied hard, and they worked hard," his sister said.

Tate found work as a master electrician with the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, known for its early production of playwright Tony Kushner's works, like "Angels in America," but Tate, a large, imposing man about 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, was too opinionated, and he was fired.

By 1988, Tate had made his way to the Mime Troupe, the oldest collectively run theater company in the country. Located in San Francisco, it specialized in political satire.

The theater was a place "where his opinions would get more appreciated," Rosenblatt said. That didn't mean he had fewer of them, or that he voiced them more diplomatically. As time went on, his interests became more political, and he wanted the pieces he worked on to be more edgy, more thought provoking.

"Create theater that made people be uncomfortable, angry, laugh," Rosenblatt said.

In 1997, Rosenblatt, then 24, and Steve Ginsburg, 21, had also joined the Mime Troupe as interns, and met Tate, who was about 20 years older. "He had the reputation of being a total hard-ass," said Rosenblatt. He was gruff. He was critical. He used to taunt them, saying, "When I was your age, I never complained."

As it turned out, Tate was mostly bark, with little bite. He challenged people to see if they would stand up to him. He wanted people to take social and political issues, including classism, seriously. "He believed that gender bias and racial strife are motivated by class," Ginsburg said.

Eventually, the three friends broke away from the Mime Troupe and formed their own ensemble theater company that was oriented to the community, and harder hitting. They arrived in Hartford, where Rosenblatt grew up, in early September 2001 with the idea of spending a year training and developing plays.

But9/11altered their schedule and their plans. Within a month¸ the trio produced a piece called WWIII, a wrestling match between Uncle Freedom and the Phantom Sheik of Terror, a satirical history of people who had died because of conflicts with the Middle East. The seven-minute piece was first performed on the steps of the state Capitol, then the group performed it throughout the Northeast for the next year.

The fledgling theater company grew, researched, wrote and produced six full-length pieces, including "Ebeneeza: A Hartford Holiday Carol," and "Graves," a modern Hartford take on"The Grapes of Wrath."They worked with schools to bring together city and suburban teenagers to create original one act plays, and put on performances in the park.

For a while, Tate worked as an audio-visual technician at the downtown Marriott hotel until his company became self-sustaining and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut. He also taught at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and served as vice-president of the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters. On a visit to South Africa, he worked with the Soweto Youth Drama Society on a play about AIDS.

In Hartford, Tate became part of the extended Rosenblatt family. He also was a father figure to his niece, Ashley Tate-Gilmore, who said her uncle counseled her on matters small and large — including whether to drop out of her senior year in college to work for the election of Barack Obama as a U.S. senator.

"He convinced my mother," said Tate-Gilmore, who later graduated and now works in the White House.

Tate, Rosenblatt and her husband and children, and two other women moved into a house in the West End of Hartford three and a half years ago, where they lived collectively.

Tate never lost his passion for the Chicago Bears, and would wear team jerseys to watch every game. He lived simply, with few possessions, and drove a beat-up car.

He was addicted to fast food, though he was making attempts to improve his diet despite his continued love for fried chicken. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of old film dialogue.

He especially enjoyed his role as mentor to young people, and HartBeat is planning to establish an apprentice plan in his name to honor him.

Shortly before Tate's death, HartBeat learned that its newest play, "FlipSide," a dialogue between a narcotics officer and a drug dealer with a hip-hop score, had been accepted by the New York International Fringe Festival, which takes place in August.

"We are on the brink," said Rosenblatt. "We're at this new level of continuing this dream, and now he's gone."

Tate died of lung cancer. In addition to his partner, Karen Kessler, he is survived by his sister and several nieces and nephews.

"A persona he liked to project was this crotchety old guy, but that wasn't who he was," said Lucy Rosenblatt, Julia's mother. "He had very strong opinions but he was very undogmatic. One opinion was about tolerance. He believed thing were screwed up and had to change, but we have to unite people to effect change, and be respectful of people's opinions, no matter what."

A memorial service for Tate is scheduled for June 30, at 2 p.m., at the Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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