The Weirdest Theater Mind in Dallas

It's the Monday after closing night, and the director is cleaning up the last set pieces from his performance space. There are video-game consoles stacked in the bathroom, disconnected security cameras hanging from the ceiling, and a pair of blank-loaded pistols that, thankfully, he just a moment earlier removed from the coffee table and boxed up.

There's a pounding at the door now and the director answers it, thinking it's his production manager coming back to retrieve something he forgot.

It's not.

It's seven Dallas police officers. Three of them have guns drawn. And they appear very confused that standing there in the doorway of a notorious West Dallas crack house is not the just-as-notorious drug dealer they were hoping to find but a confused-looking theater director, wondering what's happening.

"Hi," the director says calmly. "What can I do for you?"

"Y'all can go on in and wander around. The show will start soon," Lori McCarty, the producing director of T.N.B., says to the crowd as she opens the twin glass doors. The audience shuffles from the patio into the dining room. From there they move either into the den, where a white man in a ski mask stands in the corner working a small DJ table, or the kitchen, where a black woman is tidying up and tending to a Crock-Pot of greens. Every room has a projector streaming footage from the security cameras in the other three rooms.

An audience member is sitting on a stool when a black man in a ski mask slams the door next to her open and shut, and then falls against it sobbing. She freezes mid-squat with her eyes wide and lips pulled down, in a what-the-hell-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing frown. The man runs past her to the window, slipping on the carpet, and crushes open the venetian blinds.

That's Spooky. He's our hero.

Spooky starts yelling at Roosevelt, the white man in the other room. We quickly learn that they are twin brothers.

The brothers yell back and forth, and where Spooky is angry, Roosevelt is cartoony. He flops around the rooms like Cosmo Brown in Singin' in the Rain and calls Spooky "Paula Deen" whenever he says "nigga." The crowd doesn't know yet why Spooky is so angry or what he fled before he ran into this house, but they're all clutching beer bottles or plastic cups of wine and staring either at him or his image on the screen, and occasionally each other.

While everyone tries to figure out what the hell is going on, a tall, graying 58-year-old man twists through the scene, taking pictures of the crowd and actors, smiling. This is Thomas Riccio, the director of T.N.B., this play-within-a-crack-house by Dallas' most experimental theater group, Dead White Zombies. He's careful to stay out of the actors' way as they race to the backyard, where Roosevelt has costume-changed into a redneck interrogator and is electrocuting Spooky, who's now talking like either Amos or Andy. Apparently a liquor store has been robbed. Then Spooky asks, "Which way to Mexico?" and the whole crew runs into the house, shaking maracas.

The week after the last show of T.N.B., I arrive at Riccio's Richardson home, a ranch-style house a few blocks from the University of Texas at Dallas, where he's taught since 2003. Before long he offers me full, tight bunches of tiny grapes. The fruit came from his well-kept backyard, where grapevines cover a trellis made from a metal panel he salvaged at a scrap yard where he hunts for set pieces. The house, which he shares with his girlfriend and collaborator McCarty, is filled with natural light and furnished with wood salvaged from a burned church and more industrial metal in the kitchen. Mementos from across Asia, Africa and Alaska fill his study.

Riccio grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Cleveland. His family grew their own grapes, and as a child he helped work a press to crush them into wine. His second cousins lived across the street, and down the block were other people from the same Italian village as his extended family. Neighborhood women would hang out of windows, reminding kids walking down the street that they were watching them. Those women were Riccio's first audience.

After getting his MFA at Boston University, Riccio worked as the assistant literary director at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, the artistic director at the Organic Theater in Chicago, and a theater professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He's headed performance projects in Boston, St. Petersburg, Addis Ababa, the Korean National Institute of the Arts, the University of Pondicherry, the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tribuvan University in Nepal and the Sakha National Theater in Siberia. And he's worked with indigenous groups in China, South Africa, Ethiopia, Nambia and Zambia.

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Luke Darby
Contact: Luke Darby