The #24HourJourney With Layon Gray |  A Relentlessly Creative Outré

On a beautiful summer day in the late August, the sun was unrealistically strong for a relatively early morning in New York when I was patiently waiting on the crew and their Director Layon Gray to arrive. In the meantime, an adorable puppy Maxi was keeping me company inside the theater, and I was quite enchanted when the red Porsche pulled over.  

A director with an impressive array of accolades, over 60 nominations and awards since 2000 and over twenty years of experience, Layon has a personality larger than life and even though the team is running late for the trip to the Hamptons his energy is buoyant, and he is welcoming and engaging. It is a big day for the crew set to perform his riveting play Black Angels over Tuskegeein its ninth year off-Broadway, in front of a scrutinizing audience in East Hampton.

Directing actors during a rehearsal of the female baseball play The Girls Of Summer

I didn’t know what to expect from him: having spent a significant among of time among high profile individuals since I was five years old and later in life interviewing many, I came across divas filled with a sense of entitlement and also humble individuals. Layon is different: not entitled yet confident, he remains focused during our trip, replaying scenes in his head, coming up with some changes, asking my feedback on the play I previously saw in NYC. One thing is sure: one should not attempt to contradict him much, he wants to be heard and understood and is very specific about his vision, and how he wants people to perceive it. He seems to be chasing dreams and setting up high goals while remaining calm and collected and little fazed by the current highly commercialized standards of the entertainment industry, following its own path with his company Layon Gray Enterprises, and bringing in strong box office hits and thought-provoking work. 

 The four-hour trip entertained heavily by a potpourri of MJ, Tupac, Prince, David Garrett, Madonna, and JayZ, is immediately followed by the stage set up and rehearsal moments. Thirty minutes before the show it is clear that the narrator of the show will not make it to the Hamptons on time. I see Layon pondering, still calm and collected, but under pressure trying to figure out how to improvise last minute. The decision is made: the actors will wear their suits under their aviator attires so that they can change immediately, and avoid the unnecessary break.  

Designing the lights for a performance of Black Angels Over Tuskegee in Florida

Three, two, one and action! The beginning of the play is exhilarating: the combo of dance, choreography and enticing music leaves us gasping for air, impatiently waiting for what’s to come. The fictional play is based on the true story of the first African-American airmen placed during the era of segregation having as a fundamental principle the idea that all men are created equal. What truly makes Gray’s work powerful is his ability to center his stories around human potential and greatness, expressing humanity’s desire to aspire higher and fight for its ideals independent of heritage, religion, age group or political affiliations, going beyond pre-determined coordinates of time and space. The mise-en-abime technique remains a signature of his work, an infinitely recurring sequence, inserting a story within a story ad infinitum in order to generate suspense.

After two hours the audience is on their feet and some people are crying. It’s that moment when you connect with yourself through the compelling story, feeling deeply engaged, angry, sad but mostly happy and inspired. It’s the quintessential game of life that lives through us via this play creating unforgettable synergies. However, the night is not over for Layon: he has to be in NYC for an early meeting so we ended up driving back to the city. He still hasn’t had a proper lunch or dinner yet: his day started at 5 am and ended the following day around the same time.  

To those who believe in the idea of an overnight success: it’s a 24/7/365 journey and it involves skipping many lunches, dinners and missing on many moments with family and friends. Success is a destination with infinite stops and never-ending pitfalls but the results are beyond worth it for those who value its enticing game…
Photography Courtesy Layon Gray | Header Photo by  Phoenix White