In the summer of 1994 Laurence Fishburne heard voices while writing in his journal in a Florida hotel suite. Instead of checking into the nearest asylum, he started scratching out the dialogue for what would be the first scene of "Riff Raff," which marks his debut as playwright and diråctor.
Taking on one of the three roles as well -- rap artist Heavy D and Titus Welliver round out the cast -- Fishburne becomes a triple threat when the one-act play bows November 1 at the Circle Repertory Theater. But such a distinction did not figure in what the actor calls his "obsession."
"I just wanted to add these urban voices," said the actor who won a Tony Award in 1992 for August Wilson's Two Trains Running. "There's great theatre in New York City, but no New York City in theatre."
The voices that emerge in the jazzy riffs of the play are marginal, to be sure. Mike, a low-rent criminal (Fishburne), and Torch, his junkie-partner (Titus Welliver), are hiding out in an abandoned apartment on the lower East Side of Manhattan after stealing kilos of heroin from a local drug lord. When Tony (Heavy D), a former partner-in-crime, joins them, the rhythms of the "boyz n' the hood" take over to reveal lives of curdled dreams and botched relationships.
"I wrote for eight days straight," says the actor, adding that the play reflects the lives of some of the guys with whom he grew up in Brooklyn. Once finished, he put up his own money to produce the play at Los Angeles's tiny Geo Theatre in late 1994. Most of his film world colleagues thought the popular movie star, nominated for an Oscar two years ago for "What's Love Got To Do With It," was nuts to waste his time on theatre. He recalls, "I told them, `Hey, you don't understand. Writing this allows me to realize my vision without it going through some committee.' Besides, I had these three characters after me, telling me, `Let's go! Let's go!' " Fishburne says that after he became an actor at 10, he often looked to do plays that were of relevance to him but found them few and far between. "I wanted to do plays like "American Buffalo," "The Killing Ground" or "The Dutchman," but I was either too young, too old or the wrong color. So I wrote this play for actors like me. I don't mean black actors. I mean actors who are passionate about what they do--who can identify with people like these characters."
The veteran of numerous films and plays, the 32-year-old Fishburne himself has been called on to interpret a whole galaxy of characters--from the edgy soldier in "Apocalypse Now" and the embattled young father in "Boyz N'''' the Hood" to an inmate in Miguel Pinero's "Short Eyes" and his acclaimed ex-con dreamer in "Two Trains Running." Mindful that the lowlifes in "Riff Raff" are hardly the stuff of role models for the black community, Fishburne says that he wrote the play for an "audience of one." Besides, he feels that the current film of "Othello" and such television specials as "The Tuskegee Airmen" give balance to his choices of roles.
For Fishburne it is partly a case of "There but for the grace of God go I." The only child of a schoolteacher and a Bronx corrections officer, the actor says that he was able to emerge from the ghetto because he was nurtured with "a faith in myself, a faith in God and a faith in what I was doing."
"This play," he adds, "is for the guys who didn't make it." -- By Patrick Pacheco