The life and times of Joseph Ribeiro is full of drama. And he likes it that way.
Midway through our interview, Joseph Ribeiro pauses to take a deep breath. “Are you bored yet?” he asks, chuckling.
Pity the poor jaded soul who manages to find himself bored in Joseph Ribeiro’s company. “I’m snowed under with teaching and rehearsing and choir work and saving the universe,” the longtime local actor offers, obviously tongue-in-cheek. It’s his explanation for having no time to meet in person. Regardless, his accent, a velvety blend of his native South Africa and the British cadences forced on him during his boyhood schooling, only seem to lure you in further.
“The teachers told me, ‘If you speak like that any longer, you’ll always be lower class.’ Just like Eliza Doolittle,” Ribeiro laughs. “I know what she went through, poor gal. I learned to speak posh.”
There’s also a tiny hint of an American inflection in his voice, just the barest suggestion of the last 20 years, which he’s spent mostly as a teacher, performer, and choirmaster in the Bay Area. Dec. 18 will find him playing the title character in the Cabrillo Stage production of “Scrooge,” where he’s been a Theater Arts instructor since 1996.
Based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” “Scrooge” will be Cabrillo Stage’s first holiday show. That’s Scrooge, as in Ebenezer Scrooge, of course, one of literature’s classic anti-heroes—that self-centered, arrogant, sourpuss who only changes his ways after being visited by three ghosts.
“Scrooge is so immersed in his own selfishness, he doesn’t give a damn about the ones around him,” Ribeiro says of the character, noting that Scrooge’s backstory explains his colossal egotism.
“Dickens speaks about the fact that Scrooge’s mother died and that his father treated him badly,” he explains. “He uses money as a protection device, a Linus blanket. His philosophy is to make sure you can pay your own way, hoard, don’t owe anybody anything. And he continues to search for security through money until his eyes are opened to the real degradation and suffering of the poor and the destitute. He’s redeemed and blessed by that experience.”
“I think there’s something about the nature of being a teacher, one is always teaching, officially or unofficially.”—Joseph Ribeiro
But Scrooge’s motivations are, ultimately, selfish ones. “He doesn’t want to go to Hell, does he?” Ribeiro laughs. “But he does also learn that life can be better than living selfishly, in a cocoon.”
Dickensian poverty is something Ribeiro knows a little bit about. “I’m from a really poor family,” he says matter-of-factly. “We couldn’t afford anything extra. My parents never owned a car in their lives. I’m one of 10 children.”
Growing up as a child and as a young teenager in Durban, South Africa, he says he never once could remember going to a restaurant with his family. “They couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I thought restaurants were for the Queen of England.” He was also the first child in his family to finish high school, noting that most of the family left after eighth grade.
“My father was illiterate,” he goes on. “He thought education was a total waste of time. He had no concept of it. A decent marksman and not a fool, but no education. I wasn’t brought up with television—thank God—because we all learned to read and use the library.”
But growing up in South Africa also posed other serious difficulties.
“I said to the bishop, ‘Look, I enjoy teaching and performing and everything and wouldn’t like to lose those gifts.’ He replied, ‘Church comes first.’ So I said, ‘Good afternoon’ and left.” —Joseph Ribeiro
“My whole life was in apartheid,” Ribeiro says. “I wasn’t terribly abused. But my mother was Lebanese and my father was Portuguese. We got pretty dark in the sun during the holidays. I know from bitter experience what it was like to be thrown out of a place because we were too dark. We had ‘white’ cards, but if you looked wrong, they threw you out. Restaurants, bars, if you got on the wrong bus …” He trails off, recalling those times.
“If that was just my experience, I can imagine what the black people must have gone through,” he says. “That was something I couldn’t bear about South Africa.”
When Ribeiro began acting professionally, apartheid reared its ugly head—repeatedly. Early in his career, he was doing radio plays because television was banned in South Africa until 1976. “They were afraid you might see a black person kissing a white person in a foreign film, so it was banned by the racist government,” he says.
Ribeiro made a dent in a recent Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of “The Princess and the Pea.” Photo: steve dibartolomeo
Even in such an unlikely environment, his desire to perform became evident early. In elementary school, he did “maybe two little tiny plays at school, but I always was a good entertainer,” he says. “I could tell stories and keep people entertained, even in grade one. Teachers would say, ‘Little Joe, I remember you, keeping the class enthralled.’ I suppose I had this natural ability. Not that I knew what I was doing.”
These skills stood him in good stead as a teenager. In high school, because the family was poor, he and his siblings had to go to the nearest government school. “It was a school for thugs, if you want to really know,” he explains. “Giants, thugs and bullies. The collective I.Q. of the whole school was probably about one. To keep them off my back, I would entertain them. I also learned to run fast so I wouldn’t get thumped. There were excellent teachers that would come to the aids of the nerds, but generally speaking, you had to live off your wits. You learnt to survive.”
He also quickly learned that his interest in acting and music was considered highly suspect. Drama, he says, was considered “sissy rubbish.”
“You either were a rugby player, which I wasn’t, because it was such a barbaric game,” he adds. “People got their shins kicked open, heads cracked open—it’s nothing like American football, with the padding and the helmets. It’s just shorts, boots, a shirt and get on with it. Supposedly boys like that sort of stuff, but I didn’t.” When not avoiding beatings from the local rugby hooligans or performing in plays, he was learning to play the piano. He says he couldn’t even reach the pedals or read music.
“I taught myself to read music out of a book in the library.”
Soon, Ribeiro began singing in a local church choir, with great success. “I had a magnificent voice as a boy soprano,” he says, chuckling. “The women hated me in the adult choir because I got all the solos. I had a powerful boy soprano voice, not a sweet little one. My voice only broke when I was about 14 going on 15.”
Ultimately, poverty prevented him from going further with his musical studies.
“I love music. It’s one of my passions,” he explains. “But not having had money or a piano to train on from the time I was young—I’ve longed to be a concert pianist or a professor of music, but I never could do that. But I’ve always been a musician and run choirs wherever I taught.”
But first, at the age of 17 and newly finished with high school, he had to figure out how to get to college, something no one in his family had ever considered.
”I said I’d like to go to university and they said, ‘What?’” he says of his parents’ reaction to his decision. “I thought, how the hell am I going to do this?” He ended up earning his bachelor’s degree part-time, taking night classes and working full-time in various government clerk jobs during the day. “It took me five years. Thank God they had a part-time degree at night, otherwise I couldn’t do it.” His majors were in English and theater, speech and drama.
“I called it Screech & Trauma,” he muses.
Then, in 1972, “back in the Dark Ages,” as he puts it, Ribeiro won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York. Afterward, he returned to South Africa and taught at schools and colleges there for several years. But he ended up leaving permanently for the United States in 1989, when South Africa was experiencing some of the worst violence at the end of the apartheid era. It wasn’t an easy decision; his acting career was flourishing and he was in high demand, with numerous roles in film, theater, and television. He was also loathe to leave his family.“But I gave all that up to come here because I’m a ninny and I can’t bear violence of any sort,” he says seriously. “I’m a gentle soul. I’m not a big butch in-your-face fighting man. I can’t carry a gun.”
Even today, he worries about the safety of his loved ones back home. “I’m always very apprehensive and nervous. A lot of my friends and family carry guns because they’re petrified of violence on their children and wives,” he says. “White people and people of color, all living in fear. My brother was nearly killed on the highway for his car not long ago.
“It’s a wonderful country,” he adds of his homeland, “and the majority of the people, whatever color, race or creed, are wonderful, ordinary human beings.”
But Ribeiro also came to the Bay Area for another, more surprising reason. He actually studied for the priesthood for four years in Menlo Park.
“I was ready to be ordained and everything,” he says, enjoying the brief, surprised silence this tidbit draws from me. But in the church, as in his high school, drama was still considered suspect.
“I said to the bishop,” he confesses, “‘Look, I enjoy teaching and performing and everything and wouldn’t like to lose those gifts.’ He replied, ‘Church comes first.’ So I said, ‘Good afternoon,’ and left.”
Returning to South Africa was completely out of the question—he was petrified by this stage of the violence. “When I left the seminary, I literally had a bag of clothing and a green card. I was about 44. I feared when the revolution happened, it would be a bloodbath.”
When asked if he’s still a religious man, Ribeiro laughs again. “I consider myself a ‘Roaming Catholic,’” he tells me, “if not a Roman one any longer. But luckily, after leaving the seminary, people were terribly kind to me and allowed me to stay in their backyard until I got a job. And so, here I am. I’m an African American. I’ve been here since the first of January 1989.”
As for his time at Cabrillo College, he started teaching there in 1996 and bought himself a plot of land in Watsonville. Though he’s nearing what’s typically considered retirement age, he has no plans to leave the college
“I still love teaching,” he says. “Otherwise I’d be growing cherries somewhere or picking parsley. I’ve always had a teaching job, an acting job, and a choir master job. I think there’s something about the nature of being a teacher, one is always teaching, officially or unofficially.”
Ribeiro has high praise for theater in Santa Cruz actually—he’s acted in many Cabrillo shows and performed in quite a few productions of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, as well.
“But I gave all that up to come here because I’m a ninny and I can’t bear violence of any sort,” he says seriously. “I’m a gentle soul. I’m not a big butch in-your-face fighting man. I can’t carry a gun.” —Joseph Ribeiro
“It’s not the big city,” he says of the area. “But that doesn’t mean that standards aren’t good or competent or excellent. I always say to students who say ‘Unless you’re on Broadway or the London stage, it doesn’t mean anything’ … that wherever you act is Broadway. Wherever you perform is the London stage. It’s all about standards and professional ethics and giving the audience their money’s worth. It’s not the geographical place that you’re performing, it’s the fact that you’re performing.”
And besides, he laughs, his preparation for a role is basically the same for any stage, large or small: “Just learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”
As we wrap up, Ribeiro turns serious about the role acting has had in his life. “It’s a wonderful blessing to be able to entertain people,” he notes. “Especially now, when times are tough and people are out of work. The human condition is many times sad. To get away from it all for a little while … it’s terrific to be able to do that.”
“Scrooge, The Musical,” which opens Dec. 18 and runs through Jan. 3, marks Cabrillo Stage’s first holiday production. Starting with the launch of their 29th season next summer, Stage will become a year-round company, presenting three summer repertory productions and a holiday show every December. “With Scrooge, Cabrillo Stage begins a bright and glorious new reality, not only with fantastic new facilities, but also with the opportunity to expand into a year round repertory company,” says producer Jon Nordgen. Also on the lineup for 2010 is a three-week return engagement of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” starring the cast from the original sold-out production, along with musical classics “Swing!” and “Cabaret.”
Nordgen is effusive in his praise of Cabrillo’s new theater facilities. “Even though there may be little money and staff, in this magnificent building we are like children, dreaming up fantastic games of music and theater,” he says. “This is our new playground. For our young actors and interns, they are learning their craft in exquisite facilities at one of the best colleges, coupled with arguably the best, most dynamic and diverse group of directors, designers and managers anywhere.” Jana Marcus, Cabrillo Stage’s director of marketing, is also delighted that the company is continuing to grow and thrive. “Even during these difficult economic times, Cabrillo Stage remains a bright and shining star in the theater world, offering the community first-rate family entertainment,” she says. For Cabrillo Stage, it’s clear that the show will go on.
For more information, visit cabrillostage.com.