Watching the new Mahershala Ali/Viggo Mortensen film that takes it as its title, I was wracking my brain, trying to remember the first time I heard of the publication known as “The Green Book.”
I know my hearing about it pre-dates this PBS documentary.
There was a play that took “The Green Book” as its title, but I’ve never seen that. But having interviewed a few elderly black comics and actors who worked the last years of “The Chitlin’ Circuit,” I think it was Sherman Hemsley who brought it to my attention, this fascinating and depressing cultural artifact that named “Negro friendly” establishments all over America for “The Negro Motorist” or touring performer who could not get served in much of the country.
In the film, “inspired by a true story,” the book is what an Italian American dese-dem-dose tough (Viggo M.) has to refer to as he drives and books accommodations for his employer, the jazz pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Oscar winner Ali, of “Moonlight”). So white America gets to experience what black America deals with just taking a simple road trip.
Outhouses for restrooms, most restaurants refusing to serve black patrons, hotels refusing the esteemed Shirley a room, clothing shops not letting him try on a suit.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book” didn’t spare the traveling African American third rate service. It did protect you from the rudeness and racism that we thought had been tamped down until a racist got elected president two years ago.
Donald Shirley I remember from my days working in public radio stations, hosting jazz programs. The trailer to “Green Book” doesn’t give away his chosen field, but Shirley was classically trained and a Phd. and kind of pushed into jazz by a record company who was sure audiences wouldn’t stand for a black classical pianist (Tell Emmanuel Ax that).
Actually, that’s not true. He played Tchaikovsky with the Boston Pops as a teenager, had pieces played by the London Philharmonic.
The man had a degree and was a practicing psychologist for a while. In the film, he is fluent in several languages, which his Wikipedia bio omits but is almost certainly true (he studed in Leningrad, among other cities).
Here’s a “Cool Jazz” hit of his, performing with his cello/bass/piano trio.
“Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly, opens Nov. 21.