I’ve spent the last day trying to conjure up memories of David Foster, the Memphis actor who died Wednesday after a truly brave, fiercely private battle with cancer. But, in spite of all the loving, vividly-described tributes popping up all over social media platforms, I’m having a hard time looking back. It’s like everything I know about the man is eclipsed by an image of him in the role of Bernadette from last season’s celebrated production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. His impish features are framed by an elegant shock of silver hair and he’s belting out, “I Will Survive.” Only I don’t hear his voice. Or even Gloria Gaynor’s because, in the show he was lip-syncing while Claire Kohlheim took vocal duties. This is Bernadette’s Jedi drag-master moment, where she effortlessly — and generously — shows the younger generation how it's done. Coming from a powerhouse singer in his own right, this was so much more than instructions in drag. It was a lesson in humility — a master class in how to surrender absolutely to the music, the material, and the moment.
Jerre Dye, David Foster and an Angel. Angels in America.
I remember being uncomfortable around David for some time after seeing the unhinged sparkle in his eyes when he sang “Unworthy of Your Love,” as John Hinckley Jr, the attempted murderer of President Ronald Reagan in Barry Fuller’s sharply-imagined regional premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, at Circuit Playhouse. That early performance has always been a personal favorite for many reasons and the beginning of a pattern that never stopped repeating. It was the first time I’d underestimate David Foster. And to really grasp my meaning here it’s important to understand that, as an audience member, I don’t rattle easily. After Assassins expectations were always sky high.
I suppose I didn’t realize that David was also a serious actor when he was cast in Assassins. I’d been introduced to both him and Carla McDonald (who’d become a frequent Foster co-star) when the pair were recruited to be a living soundtrack for Theatre Memphis’ production of Sam Shepard’s family drama, A Lie of the Mind. I played a violent alcoholic who spends much of the show wearing dirty underwear and an American flag. From a catwalk high above the stage David and Carla harmonized to “Balm in Gilead,” so sweetly I suppose it never occurred to me that either one of these two future scene stealers ever did anything but sing together. That’s why I underestimated David the first time and it was my fault. All the rest was on him because he never stopped getting better.
I especially want to remember something nice about David’s role in Terrence McNally’s drama Love! Valour! Compassion! But my strongest recollection of that show is that it’s one of the best ensemble performances I’ve ever seen. The kind of show where every actor supports every other actor so completely — just the way it’s always supposed to be.
That’s something nice, I suppose.
I’ll bet many of David’s biggest fans didn’t know that one of his most challenging roles was that of Goldy the reindeer in the big Christmas display for Goldsmith's department store. With his grinch-like smirk and easy snark David described the job as a “horrible experience,” offset by the opportunity to spend time with fellow up-and-coming Memphis performers like Kara Winsett (who played Smitty, a Christmas duck) andFun Home’s Stephen Huff (who played a “nameless lady pig.”) I always wanted to believe this personal experience had a lot to do with why, other than David Sedaris who wrote The Santaland Diaries and created Crumpet the grumpy elf, our David was the only Crumpet I ever really cared about. But by the time he took over the role, Sedaris' personal memoirhad become as much of a holiday staple as A Christmas Carol and so much of what David did to reinvent and invigorate Playhouse on the Square's revival was rooted in love for authentic cabaret, and a deep understanding of how that form turns on intimacy and a unique personal connection with the audience.
Across the decades I’ve seen David Foster be brilliant in Next to Normal, Ragtime, Jacques Brel, Angels in America, Caroline or Change and 1776. He was a scenery chewing force of nature as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher, a charming prince in Into the Woods, and Hairspray’s corniest Corny Collins ever. I could keep on listing roles, Ostrander Awards and various other honors. But the only things I can really write about at the moment are feelings which aren’t quite the same as memories. Because whenever I look back— or in any direction, really — I just keep seeing Bernadette’s beatific face. And hearing Claire Kohlheim's angelic voice.
And maybe there's a message in that.
David's not around anymore. We don't have him to sing to us. Or to stand next to us at parties making sly, hilarious observations. But he'll survive — forever present in the voices of anybody who ever worked with him or watched him perform and was changed as a result. And how could you not be? Like Bernadette, he was a natural teacher with a new lesson to share every time he stepped into the spotlight.
I'll finish with an offstage example though, and a few words David borrowed from Dr. Seuss and typed on Facebook as the curtain came down on Priscilla's wonderful, crowd-pleasing run.
Liz Sharpe, David Foster, Irene Crist at the 2011 Ostrander Awards
Keep the Flyer Free!
Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.