The show must go on 

Against all odds, Gene-Gabriel Moore pursues his passion for theater

On a hot September afternoon in Cabbagetown, Gene-Gabriel Moore leans heavily on his cane, yet moves at a surprisingly rapid pace. His gait is half-stride, half-limp as he travels tirelessly down the middle of Gaskill Street. A tall, bespectacled man with a slight stoop, he feels impeded by the broken sidewalks, and moves to the side of the road only when he sees a car coming.

"My sense of myself was shaped by the mill village society of Cabbagetown," says Moore, 66. He points out the house where he was raised, the homes of church ladies and mill superintendents and the mill itself, which has since been converted into apartments. These days, Moore's thoughts have been drifting back to his childhood as he sifts through raw material for Linthead Boy, an autobiographical play he's writing that he hopes 7 Stages Theatre will produce some day.

Moore qualifies as someone who could easily rest on his laurels. He's been a New York actor, a foreign news correspondent in Europe and Asia and for nearly a decade, host of PBS' literary talk show "Byline." He covered the Civil Right Movement in the 1960s for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's legendary editor Ralph McGill and was managing editor of Creative Loafing in 1986. And in the last 10 years, he's survived a tumor on his brain stem, a ruptured aorta, multiple strokes and 11 surgeries.

But instead of slowing down, Moore has speeded up. In 1998 he founded Not Merely Players, an Atlanta theater company primarily by and for theater artists with disabilities, for which he serves as artistic director. He's also developing his own plays, researching a history of Atlanta theater, serving on the Fulton County Commission on Disability Affairs and preparing for his first stage roles in two decades.

Perhaps the two most significant strands in Gene-Gabriel Moore's life are his love affair with the English language, especially in the traditions of live theater, and a strong sense of social justice. He's always been opposed to the "caste systems" of Atlanta, the unspoken barriers that separate rich from poor, blacks from whites, abled from disabled. Throughout his life, Moore has tried to use the former to challenge the latter.

When Gene-Gabriel Moore speaks, he twists his lips to one corner of his mouth, and his consonants get rounded off in the familiar way of people who have suffered strokes. He maintains that, ironically, he's far more loquacious now than before his health problems impeded his words. Meeting a server at the Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbagetown, he introduces himself by name, shakes hands, and is soon swapping hometown stories.

Sitting in the cafe window, he can peer directly across the street and see the window of the room where his mother, a teenage mill worker, lived when she had him in 1936. "I was what was euphemistically called a 'bush baby.' My parents were never married. I was born at Grady hospital and never really knew my mother, who ran off when I was very young. I had grandparents in the neighborhood, but they were pious and didn't want anything to do with me."

As a baby, Moore was passed around by neighborhood families and eventually was taken in by John Banks, a carpenter by day and moonshiner by night. He taught Moore to read and looms large in his memory. "This old man, about as old as I am now, who had nine girls and six boys of his own, discovered me when I was 4 and raised me until he died in 1946 when I was 10. Everyone called him 'Papa,' so what else would I call him?"

Banks' house still stands on Tye Street: "It's still blue, but it's a different kind of blue," notes Moore as he stands before it a little later that day. From the street, he gestures up the driveway to the back yard, where the Banks kept chickens and, briefly, a cow, and where Moore staged his first play. "I wrote it when I was 7 -- it was probably about cowboys. Papa had found a picture of an Elizabethan stage in a book and built me a smaller version of it in the yard. Whenever I wrote and put on a play, he made all of his children, grandchildren and neighbors, all come and pay a nickel a piece to see them. That made me a tidy sum."

Moore's attraction to theater made him stand apart from the community's primary concerns of family, religion and race. "These were the days of Jim Crow. At the time we were taught to hate in church and in school, and with me it didn't take. I was a strange Southern boy and had a political view back then, even though I didn't think of it that way. I had a black friend my age from Reynoldstown."

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