Jerry Thompson is a citadel of literature, culture, and intellectual and creative life in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is a crazed Donna Summer fan. Jerry is the Events Coordinator at Books Inc., where he has organized some of the most significant literary events over the past 20 years. He also makes a particular kind of chicken dish, known in our household as Jerry’s Chicken, a multi-step process that turns an ordinary drumstick into a culinary phenomenon. Jerry is a tall African American man who’s added a gray beard to his dashing, dignified countenance. He also happens to have a warm laugh and the ability to engage you in a conversation in which the world fades away and it’s just the two of you discoursing on a topic of profound importance—like his chicken dish.
Jerry was my mentor when I fulfilled every English major’s dream and became a bookseller at Books Inc. He taught me the art and craft of book selling (or hand selling as we call it in the biz), how to display and promote books, and engage with customers of all ages and reading interests. He also taught me how to make those little adorable ribbons we stick to wrapped packages. Jerry’s recent return to Books Inc. is akin to that of Halley’s Comet—dazzling, spectacular, awesome—but even better in that he hasn’t come and gone like that fair weather sky trekker, but can be seen at 1344 Park St. many days and evenings. Here are his answers to 5Q4: Jerry Thompson.
At what moment did you discover that you wanted to be an artist?
The moment I realized the power of wigs, Diana Ross, Supremes! How powerful the collaborative energies were between dreams and reality. I didn’t have to have the wig to know I was creating fire in the way I moved, spoke, and how much of myself I put into the silences. The moment I listened to Donna Summer’s Live and More album in my little room in my parents home… lifted by the gradual and sexy realization of fantasy… when fantasy and desire became my best friends.
Who was the most influential person who helped you achieve your goal?
When I met Ntozake Shange and when I met Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, and Anna Deveare Smith… when I met and became friends with August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, and the Pointer Sisters… all during parts of my life that were in extreme contrasting frequencies. They all recognized my light, my fire as I did theirs… removing the need for approval. Removing the trauma of losing my father and the potential lifelong hunt for someone, anyone, to say it was OK for me to be as wild and fabulous as I needed to be.
Tell about the best—or a best—experience you had as a performer.
I live my life as a theater presentation. Every day I start at zero and manifest a rush of good vibes, memories, mantras, ideas, prayers into my narrative. Being on stage in a college production of Chekov’s one-act play, The Good Doctor, I played a man falling apart at the seams.
Conversely, tell us about a pretty bad experience?
Well, just before my first equity production of my play Stella Adams closed in Hoboken, and as we accepted the invitation from the Negro Ensemble Theater to produce it in New York, I got a call/message that a claim was being made that ownership of the play was theirs… stealing it from me. I freaked out. I was 19, frozen… didn’t understand what that meant. What I walked away with was a lifelong fear of showing my work to anyone for fear it might be stolen.
Any advice to folks out there hoping to pursue a life in the arts?
Trust your inner voice. Marry it, make love to it, believe in it, grease it up, fry chicken in it. Your inner voice, first instinct is everything. Trust in the bump and grind of contrast. When you’re feeling lost, realize that distance is your superpower licking the edges of your true desires and energy. Look at each day as if it’s your First Day, and your Last… go for it. Smile. Talk to yourself. Write everything down that makes you think, “I should write this down.” Be fearless, be loving, be grateful. Smile into each day.
Gene Kahane is the founder of the Foodbank Players, a lifelong teacher, and former Poet Laureate for the City of Alameda. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gene-Kahane.