Ted Lange sits on the bottom steps of the concrete spiral staircase, back on his elbows, tucked into the shade. He’s got his director’s copy of Twelfth Night on his lap, a hardbound edition with a page of script taped to each leaf, with big margins for notes.
Lange has spent a hell of a lot more time working in the Shakespearean tradition than he did in the role of Isaac the bartender on “The Love Boat,” which dominated Saturday-night television from the moment it debuted in 1977 until its sudden demise in 1986. But that’s what everyone remembers him for.
Twelfth Night or, What You Will, Mon runs Thursday-Saturday night at 6 p.m. in the Winston Square Park amphitheater, part of the National Black Theatre Festival. The event is free and open to the public.
But the stage, particularly in the context of William Shakespeare, has always been his thing, going back to the 1960s in Oakland, at San Francisco City College and the New Shakespearean Co. in the 1970s. He went to the Royal Shakespeare Academy in the 1980s, wrote a prequel to Othello that ran at the NBTF in 2017 and has been working steadily in the canon as writer, director and actor for decades.
“I’ll do Shakespeare straight up,” he says, “but if I come up with a novel concept, I’ll pitch that.
“I’m trying to interest black folks in Shakespeare,” he continues. “That’s my main goal. So you tell ’em it’s on the island of Jamaica, that the soundtrack is Bob Marley, they automatically get it.”
He talks about Ira Aldridge, the first black Shakespearean actor who died just a couple years after the Civil War ended; remembers the slave plays he’s put on at an Oakland inner-city cultural center; tells showbiz stories about Robert Townsend and Robin Givens; remembers fondly his piece of network television’s final Golden Age.
“There was always one black guy,” he says. “’Barney Miller’ — one black guy. Lucille Ball had one black guy. ‘Maude’ had a black woman and they spun it off.
“’Welcome Back Kotter’ had one black guy,” he finishes. “In a show about a ghetto school? How is that possible?”
Right now he’s got a young, talented cast on his hands, mostly local, and they trickle into the sun-drenched amphitheater in ones, twos and threes. While the band sets up, Lange gathers the cast for the final abridgement of the script.
“Cut the line with Sir Toby,” he says, crossing it out on his page. “’I will deliver his challenge by word of mouth.’ Cut that.”
He brings them out to the oval slab of a stage and shows them how to extend the play into the audience, demonstrates a couple stage-fight moves and a piece of blocking that looks like a do-si-do. Surveying the scene from underneath his straw chapeau, he gives a satisfied nod and stands, claps.
“Top of the play!” he announces, and the music, also known as the food of love, plays on.