Playwright Mark Medoff Reflects on Life as Play Opens in Phoenix

Of the 12 guys on Mark Medoff ’s championship high school basketball team, one became a grocery store manager, Mark himself became a writer/producer/director/actor/professor and the rest became doctors or lawyers. Perhaps that’s because he grew up in the largely Jewish community of Miami Beach, FL.
“Most people think there are only hotels in Miami Beach, but there was my high school and a couple of private ones as well. Everything closed down for the High Holidays,” says Mark.

Mark played basketball for the Miami Beach Hi-Tides. “Our team wasn’t short, though,” he insists. “In fact, one of the stars from my high school was 6’ 10” Neal Walk, who went on to be a member of the Phoenix Suns.” Both Mark and Neal were inducted into the Miami Beach High School Hall of Fame several years ago. Set on the trajectory to become a doctor like so many of his friends, Mark was sidetracked by a comment from a high school teacher that he had writing talent. That praise was just the impetus he needed to turn in a new direction. “Fortunately, to their credit, my parents were wonderful about my wanting to pursue writing. They supported me both financially and emotionally.”’

After attaining his bachelor’s degree from University of Miami and his master’s from Stanford, Mark began teaching at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to subsidize his writing. He soon fell in love with the profession and is still an active professor at NMSU. “The students really keep me engaged. I love going into the classroom, and the university has given me the freedom to teach whatever I want.”

Mark’s life changed dramatically in 1979 when he wrote the play “Children of a Lesser God.” After opening at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the play, about the relationship between a woman who is deaf and her teacher, ran for 887 performances on Broadway and earned Mark a Tony Award for best play. In 1986 he adapted the play for the movie, starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt, and received an Academy Award nomination. Mark was recently honored by NMSU as a professor of
English literature, theater and film. The star-studded gala was called “Far From Finished” and featured actor Jeffrey Tambor as emcee, as well as a video greeting from Neil Patrick Harris, whom Mark discovered as a young teenager.

The event raised funds for a new endowment at the college to establish the Mark Medoff Visiting Lecture Endowment. First up on the lecture circuit next spring will be Aaron Sorkin, the famed Academy and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, producer and playwright.

Mark and his wife, Stephanie, are generous donors to NMSU through the Mark and Stephanie Medoff Endowment and several other endowments they have established. Mark also supports the work of his students, often acting as producer or director for them. Whenever he can, he makes sure the students are an integral part of whatever project he undertakes. Mark and Stephanie have three daughters; the two older live in Las Cruces. They have seven grandchildren there. His youngest daughter, Jessica, is an opera singer who lives in New York, though she is currently acting in a film project with her father in New Mexico. Jessica is expecting the Medoff ’s eighth grandchild this winter. “We’re a very close family,” Mark says. “We think of ourselves as an extremely functional family in a rather dysfunctional world.”
Mark hopes to be able to come to Phoenix in December to see the production of “Tommy J and Sally,” now at the Black Theatre Troupe. In 2000 he wrote the play, which was commissioned by the Kennedy Center.

“The original stirrings of the play came to me when there had been a shooting at my daughter’s junior high school,” says Mark. “All the parents got together, but no one knew what to do. A few of us started an integrated writing after-school program called Another Planet. We included both at-risk kids as well as those who were more traditionally middle class. They acted as conduits for the information and took it back to their schools. Then we started collecting the writings they created; we took them all the way to our state legislature.

“Several years later, one of the African-American young men who had been in the program came walking up our driveway. I was out of town at the time, but had been thinking about him. He told Stephanie his family had moved to Riverside, CA, and that life was very difficult for him there. Stephanie and I talked it over and offered to take him into our home to live with us and finish high school in New Mexico. We helped him through college and he is now in graduate school. In fact, he came by just the other day and dazzled my students with his intelligence and articulateness. He’s like our adopted son.”

The play takes various turns through artistic license that did not occur in reality, but the idea was incubated in the Medoff home. “Tommy J and Sally” involves two characters, a young African-American man and a famous white pop singer, who is presumably Jewish. Over the course of one evening, their confrontations and conversations take them to many places, including the impact of the Jewish culture on race relations.

The play continues through Dec. 14.

“Tommy J and Sally”
WHAT: Play by Mark Medoff, directed by Arizona Jewish Life’s associate editor Janet Arnold
WHEN: Continues through Dec. 14; Performance times vary Post-show discussions after the matinees on Dec. 6 and 14
WHERE: Black Theatre Troupe’s new theater, 1333 E Washington, Phoenix
TICKESs (prices vary): 602-258-8129,

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