REID ADAM DAVIS
Reid Adam Davis of Oakland, California passed away suddenly in late June 2019. He leaves behind countless loved ones and thousands of former students, who will carry forward his commitment to social justice, his dedication to youth empowerment, his boundless enthusiasm for theatre and performance, and his profound capacity for joy and love.
Reid was born and reborn many times during his life. His first birth occurred on March 6, 1964 in Fort Worth, Texas, where his father was serving in the US Air Force. His parents were Melvin T. Davis (USAF LtCol, retired) and Merle “Rosie” Davis; and he was graced with two beloved older siblings, Jill Davis Warren and Robert Davis.
The Davis family would move several times before settling in Columbia, South Carolina in 1972. When Reid was 5 years old, the family was stationed in Guam when news of Judy Garland’s death shocked and saddened the world. Reid remembered being very upset by this news: he worried that The Wizard of Ozwould no longer be broadcast on television every year. At that tender age, he did not comprehend the difference between live performance and film; and he worried that since Judy had died, she could no longer perform the role of Dorothy. This was the story he would sometimes tell to explain what he called “the Daisy moment: an epiphany when everyone realizes that a particular child is, well, differentfrom other people.” This was also a moment that would resound throughout Reid’s life: he was the ultimate Wizard of Ozdevotee, as big a fan of the Cowardly Lion as he was of Dorothy herself. Later in life, he would attend the annual Sing-Along screenings of the film at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.
Reid spoke often of his deep love for his extended family: his sister Jill and her husband (Doug Warren) and children (Benjamin and Jacob); his brother Robert and his wife (Pesie Davis) and son (Alex); and his grandparents, Ethel and Leonard Lieber, and Rose and Morris Davis. He mourned the passing of his father Melvin in 2011, and spoke with his beloved mother almost every day afterwards. “Reid and Rosie,” the mother-and-son duo, became a force of love and light whenever they traveled to spend time with one another.
In Columbia, Reid attended Forest Lake Elementary School, E.L. Wright Middle School, and Richland Northeast High School, where he nurtured many lifelong friendships. At Forest Lake Elementary, Rob Odum remembers him devising skits and sketches, early hints to a life that would be spent in the theatre. In high school, Reid and Rob joined two other friends, Scott and Charley, who felt that they didn’t quite fit into any of the high school cliques; so they formed their own, called it SCRR, and designed a logo to emblematize their new group. On one memorable overnight trip to New York, Reid took SCRR to their first Broadway show: Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. Reid knew what he was doing, and the boys were shocked to learn that Broadway could be as terrifying a place as any horror film or haunted house.
Rob and Reid, along with Shelly Long Dunphy, were part of the inaugural class of the Governor’s School for the Arts, which began as a summer program in Greenville during their high school years. Reid starred in The Birds, staged at Furman University that summer. Back at Richland Northeast High, Reid was part of the ALERT gifted curriculum; president of the National Honor Society; officer in the Thespian Society; and member of the “Cavalier Journal” (a student-run televised news show). In his senior year, he was voted Most Likely to Succeed. He would live up to and exceed this honor in more ways than his classmates could have predicted – even as, during senior year, he mischievously enticed Shelley and Charley Adams to skip out on lunch period and sneak home to watch “Super Pay Cards” on TV.
He enrolled in the BFA Theatre program at the University of South Carolina in 1982, and was simultaneously admitted to the university’s Honors College. He excelled in both of these programs. His warmth, brilliance, and generosity of spirit made him central to every classroom, and every rehearsal room, that he entered. At USC he nurtured his intense love for theatre while strengthening his skills as an actor and director. He spent the summer of 1985 performing in a new outdoor drama in North Carolina, Blackbeard’s Revenge. Reid was cast in a small role as a pirate; during the first read-through, he met Vic Chaney, also cast as a pirate. They quickly bonded, and Vic remained one of Reid’s dearest friends from that point forward. Blackbeard’s Revengewas not so lucky: it closed shortly thereafter. But before it did, Reid decided to expand the small role that was given to him into something much larger. He named his pirate “Philip,” gave him a complicated backstory, and proceeded to steal the show every time he appeared on stage.
After graduating from USC, Reid was admitted to the prestigious Apprentice program at the Tony-award winning Actor’s Theatre of Louisville (ATL). Before leaving for Kentucky, he spent the summer of 1986 performing at a Renaissance Faire in Oswego, New York. It was here that he first met Ross Martineau, who had also been admitted to the ATL Apprentice program, and who would become a lifelong friend. Reid was beloved during his Apprentice year in Louisville. He quickly emerged as a standout talent both onstage and off. For that year’s Showcase, Reid wrote and staged a short play called The Last Supper; friend Nancy Gage saved William Mootz’s review of this production, which called it “sad, sweet, hopeful, rueful and devoid of the self-pity that often traps young playwrights.” The show was about three close friends who are having a moonlit picnic, reminiscing about their lives together. Slowly, as the play progresses, it is revealed that an atomic disaster has occurred; these friends are preparing for the end of their lives by spending time together remembering what they’ve shared. Reid’s Louisville friends still recall this play as a moving representation of the intense value Reid found in his friendships – his chosen family – and how, for him, these connections represented the very heart of life’s purpose.
After completing his Apprentice year, Reid followed his calling to New York. He began his professional life working as a grant-writer for Karen Brooks Hopkins at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). True to form, he wanted to share the joy of his work at BAM, and arranged for his old friend from South Carolina, Maura Hogan, to work there, too. He was active in Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre, serving as a company manager for Burn This(Plymouth Theatre, 1987-88) and Largely New York(St. James Theatre, 1989), and as Athol Fugard’s assistant for My Children! My Africa!(World Premier, New York Theatre Workshop, 1989-90). Between 1990 and 1993, he returned to Louisville to serve as associate director of the Apprentice company of the Actor’s Theatre, where he also directed productions (including more of his own original scripts) in the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays. During this era, Reid also directed two shows at the Actors’ Guild of Lexington, where his friend Vic was Artistic Director: an award-winning, sold out run of Breaking the Code, and a re-staging of My Children! My Africa!
Reid moved to San Francisco in 1993, initially sharing a flat with Ross from Louisville; he also directed an award-winning version of Burn Thisfor Kudzu Theatre (produced by friend Patrick Donohew, and starring Ross). Eventually he moved into his infamous longtime apartment on 15thStreet in the Castro. For the many years he lived there, this apartment became a hub for many of Reid’s friends – to crash on the couch when visiting town, to indulge in brief “disco naps” before long nights of dancing, or to stop by for hydration and a snack during Pink Saturday, Pride, and Halloween in the Castro. He was active in HIV/AIDS activism and advocacy, especially with Stop AIDS in San Francisco and, years later, AIDS Lifecycle. Around this time, Reid was mourning the loss of his dear friend Kevin to HIV; in his grief, he met and adopted a puppy who would become his constant companion for nearly 20 years. In homage to the Beatles song “Come Together” – and in recognition of the puppy’s devilishly exuberant sense of mischief – Reid named him Dante Toejam. Friends of Reid from the 1990s to the early 2010s remember Dante crashing through any scene he entered, and the constant threat of him bounding clumsily around as he chased any ball-shaped object or chicken sandwich that may have been at hand. Shortly after Dante passed away in December 2013, Reid and his then-partner Robert Broadfoot adopted two cats, Desmond and Louie, who were his faithful companions for the rest of his life.
It was during the 1990s, too, that Reid began collaborating with Patrick Dooley and the group of artists who would become the renowned Shotgun Players. With Shotgun, Reid regularly performed in, directed, and produced critically acclaimed plays for 15 years; highlights include Bent(1998), Christmas on Mars(SFBG Goldie Winner, 1999), Three Sisters(BATC Production and Ensemble nominee, 2000), Loot(2001), The Play About the Baby(West Coast Premier, 2002), Quills(2004), The Forest War (2006), and A Seagull in the Hamptons(2010).
In 1998, Reid was admitted into the inaugural class of the newly redesigned PhD program in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. There Reid encountered many new friends, entrancing them with his boundless energy, his sharp wit, and his immense enthusiasm for the interests and passions of others. Under the mentorship of professors Linda Williams and Shannon Jackson, Reid wrote a dissertation about filmic representations of queer and trans experience, and published a widely influential essay on the Hollywood archetype of the “sissy” in the prominent journal Film Quarterly. It was at Berkeley that Reid adopted Patrick Anderson into his chosen family. From that point onwards, the two could regularly be found pretending to “shark” while playing pool at the Pilsner or the White Horse, staging impromptu dance-offs in numerous clubs, or wandering aimlessly through San Francisco or Oakland, immersed in conversations about “life, the universe, and everything.” Along with Berkeley friend Monica Stufft, Reid was instrumental in saving Patrick’s life during an extended near-death experience in 2003-4.
After completing his doctorate in 2006, Reid accepted a faculty appointment at St. Mary’s College (California), where he spent the next ten years. At St. Mary’s, Reid was a profoundly influential teacher and colleague; he was instrumental in the creation of an Ethnic Studies curriculum, and directed the nationally respected Interactive Theatre Program until 2015. He received Kennedy Center National Commendations for his productions of Spring Awakeningand Angels in Americaat St. Mary’s. In 2014, he was honored with the prestigious Kennedy Center/ACTF Region VII Award for Innovative Teaching. He was faculty advisor to the Gay-Straight Alliance, and with student Yael McCue, founded a reading group called “The New Normal: Dialogues Across Difference.” Also at St. Mary’s, Reid met fellow professors Cynthia Ganote and Dana Lawton, who became beloved friends and co-conspirators during and after their tenure at the college. He and Cynthia were know as “Reid and Ganote, Ganote and Reid” by the students who worked with them, in recognition of their many collaborations to expand the college’s focus on social justice and student-centered curricula. He was honored with the faculty award at the LGBTQ+ Lavender Graduation; because this was an award selected by students, Reid considered it to be one of the most prestigious tributes he had ever received.
During this period, Reid rode the 545-mile AIDS LifeCycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles, raising thousands of dollars in donations as part of the New Bear Republic group. In his fundraising introduction video, Reid spoke about experiencing a heart attack, and his recovery through training for the ride. He also spoke about the earlier loss of his friend Kevin, and his continuing commitment to fighting on behalf of communities decimated by the epidemic. The friends he met through the New Bear Republic cyclists became extended members of his chosen family, and he was planning to join the ride again within the next few years.
Reid departed St. Mary’s to accept an offer from his friend Michael Berry to be founding Head of Theatre at the Contra Costa School of the Performing Arts (CoCoSPA), where he designed curricula in acting, musical theatre, playwrighting, and directing. During his time at CoCoSPA, Reid introduced many students to the expansive promise of theatre, and the power performance holds to create opportunities for self-expression, inclusion, a commitment to community, and self-love. He was particularly close to one parent, Anna Holler, who would become his close confidante and future collaborator. Anna’s two children had been transformed in Reid’s classes, as were the many other students who were fortunate enough to learn from him. Anna notes that CoCoSPA attracted two kinds of students: those who were wild about the arts, and those who were just looking for an alternative to traditional education. Reid loved working with both groups. He was widely considered to be one of the most influential people at the school – its center of gravity – in part because he was so insistent, and successful, in helping students find and articulate their voices. He directed two ambitious large-scale shows at the school: Metamorphosesand Big River. Reid also taught courses over many years at Los Medanos College, Diablo Valley College, UC Berkeley, and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco (among others). His legacy includes the thousands of students who found affirmation, inspiration, and self-expression in his classroom.
In 2015, in collaboration with Michael Berry, Robert Broadfoot, and Yael McCue, Reid founded The Artory, an Oakland-based non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to fuse Reid’s passion for theatre, his love of children, and his commitment to empowerment and social justice. He designed and ran the Artory’s first summer camp the following year, and was planning to continue the program into future years. Anna Holler eagerly signed on to serve as parent liaison (not an easy role for any arts camp, but an indication of her profound confidence in Reid’s plan). He worked closely with more chosen family – Dakota Kyber and Ezekiel Vasquez especially – to formalize the Artory’s organizational structure and expand its reach to children historically excluded from high-cost arts programs. Reid won a grant from the Arts for Oakland Kids foundation, and recruited friends including Jon Tracy, Nina Ball, Maiya Corral, Lilia Houshmand, Tommy Shepherd, Dan Wolf, Nakia Gibbs, and Josh Matthews to teach a wide range of courses for Bay Area youth. He had recently used Janell Canon’s book Stellalunato develop a wildly popular interactive children’s performance, The Story of Me. Through his friend and colleague Jia Wu, he had been invited to bring the program to Souzou, China. At the time he passed, Reid was enthusiastically working on the details of that trip, and was eagerly looking forward to bringing the project into a new cultural context. He had also recently accepted a new professional role: Director of Education for the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley.
One of Reid’s favorite recent films was Call Me By Your Name, a story about the beauty of fumbling first love between two young men, Elio and Oliver, and the pain of reckoning with that first love’s end. He was particularly moved by (and often recited) a scene near the end of the film, after Oliver has left. Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman, speaks openly with him about the love he shared with Oliver. He says to Elio:
“If there is pain, nurse it. And if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out. Don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster, that we go bankrupt and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything at all – what a waste! … Remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out. … Right now there’s sorrow. Pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.”
If he could, Reid would say these very words to everyone mourning him now. He was a man of remarkable intelligence, endless joy, and a profound capacity to love. In many ways, for many who loved him, he embodied both the exuberance of a child and the wisdom of a parent: he was both Elio and Mr. Perlman. He loved deeply and broadly, and brought joy to all he encountered. His memory will live on in the echo of his favorite mantra, which encapsulates his lifelong commitment to obliterating the damaging effects of shame and isolation by nurturing the connections between us as human beings: “You are not alone. You matter. You are enough.”
Written by Patrick Anderson, with contributions and editing assistance from many friends and family of Reid Davis.
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