When local theater producer/director donnie l. betts decided over a year ago to resurrect Richard Durham's 1940s radio drama, Destination Freedom, a trailblazing weekly program that told true stories of African-American heroes, he knew he was taking a chance: It was radio, a moldy medium at best, and therefore a hard sell. But not only has the project endured, it's going gangbusters, and betts is celebrating its first anniversary Sunday with a live broadcast on KUVO-FM/89.3 from the Casino nightclub in Five Points. The broadcast is a glowing Duke Ellington biography featuring original Destination Freedom cast member Oscar Brown Jr.
As much a tribute to its creator as it is to African-American success stories, Destination Freedom was the product of Durham's work ethic--and a little magic. Nobody knows that better than Brown, the lawyer's son from Chicago's South Side who early on knew he wasn't destined to become the businessman his father had hoped for.
While still in high school, Brown auditioned for a radio series and got the part. "I like to say it ruined a perfectly good nigger," he says. "I learned you could earn a lot of money doing something you really liked a lot, and I was determined to make that my modus operandi."
Though he acknowledges that's easier said than done, Brown had the best kind of help. He became a regular on Durham's show, often playing three or four characters at a time in any given script. "That's how I got to work so frequently," he says. "I could do character voices. I could sound like an old man or a young kid or a tough guy or a wimp."
Durham's influence on the youngster was inestimable. "He was really a big brother, mentor-type person to me," Brown says. "He was one of the smartest people I ever met. Can you imagine getting raw data about some individual and writing a half-hour radio drama about it and doing that once a week for a couple of years? It can't be done--it seems like an impossible task, but he did it.
"But I didn't truly appreciate the impossibility of his task until later, when I became writer myself," Brown notes. "He taught me respect for good writing." And now, of all the things he's done in his career--writing, acting, singing and producing, writing remains Brown's first love. "Everything begins with writing, and so unless you love that, you don't have anything," he says. "In the late '50s, early '60s, I was struggling to become a writer. I thought I was being practical; I took the advice of George Bernard Shaw, who said you should write plays as a young person. Well, I'm still waiting for the payoff," he admits. "I've reached old age, and it hasn't kicked in yet. Of course, what you have to do to be rich and famous is not necessarily what you want to do." Brown is still doing what he wants to do: writing, making records and performing.
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As for betts, he says he'll gear up to produce twelve new shows beginning in June, and negotiations are under way to distribute the series to public radio stations across the country. Brown wishes him all the best, commending the younger man's efforts to revive Durham's old radio classics. "They're not dated," he says of the Destination Freedom scripts. "They have a longevity that outlives Dick himself."
Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days presents a live broadcast of Echoes of Harlem, with narration by Oscar Brown Jr. and music by Joe Keel and his orchestra, 7:30 p.m. April 18, The Casino, 2637 Welton Street. For reservations and information, call 303-399-1908, or log on to www.nocredits.com.