At age 53, actor Joe Orrach seems about as combustible as he was in his early twenties. He's solidly built, with thick arm muscles and a well-defined jawline. He talks fast and intonates words with a sharp zing. Born in the Bronx and raised in a blue-collar Puerto Rican family, he says fighting is part of his genetic pedigree. His father and uncle both boxed. His brother grew up to be the heavyweight champion of New York. Orrach boxed, too, and became a welterweight titleholder in the Air Force before he was discharged in 1977. Then he opted to be a ballet dancer instead.
In fact, Orrach's entire life story is a series of banishments and meteoric successes. He's been a boxing champ, an Air Force burnout, a ballet dancer, a contender on Star Search, and a star of San Francisco's cabaret show, Teatro ZinZanni. Now he's compiled it all into the new one-man show In My Corner, which plays at Oakland School of the Arts' Black Box Theater on Friday and Saturday. Orrach characterizes it as a fascinating spin on the old coming-of-age story: A guy from a boxing background finds his true calling in the arts, and tries to reconcile the macho and refined sides of his personality without turning into a sissy. Only someone with the grit and guts of Orrach could properly pull it off.
The story begins, Orrach said, in proper coming-of-age fashion, with a boy and his father. Orrach's father was a Boricua with a thick accent that the son has no trouble imitating. "Yankee Stadium" was "Jahnky Stadjum." "Hello" had a silent "h" and a querying lilt ("Alo?"). That always caused a lot of confusion when his father answered the telephone, and people mistook him for the gardener. Orrach said the family didn't have any problems until they moved from the Bronx to Long Island, where racism was a lot more prevalent. "We were fine because we're white, until my father opened his mouth in the neighborhood."
In contrast to the rest of Long Island, Orrach's home was staunchly traditional and Latino. In his solo show, Orrach portrays this domestic world in a painterly way. He uses a Latin-jazz score composed by Oakland keyboardist Matthew Clark, who serves as the show's musical director. He uses a jump rope to represent the swish of his father's belt right before it hits a child's rear end. He tap-dances frenetically to show all the love and rage that came with these punishments, which gives it a kind of musical depth. ("I try to use it poetically and metaphorically but you know the kids are getting their asses kicked," Orrach explained). He even hits a speed bag in a rhythmic shaka-ta taka-ta taka-ta, as though to simultaneously create music and release pent-up aggression. "I try to tell the story in many different ways," Orrach said. "It's definitely a narrative but there are liberties, and parallels that can be abstracted out."
Having inherited the intemperate personality of all the men in his family, Orrach was kicked off several high school sports teams for being a wise-guy. Undeterred, he took up saxophone, fell in love with it, and made plans to study jazz at SUNY Fredonia. That proved difficult since no one in his family knew anything about college: Orrach's mother was a homemaker, his father worked in a print factory. Neither of them put much stock in a fancy liberal-arts education. "I said 'to hell with it,'" said Orrach. "I joined the military on the spot. All of a sudden I'm on a plane going to Texas." Three years later, he was kicked out. "It took 36 months for them to decide I wasn't conforming to military life," Orrach said. "I could have told them that in a week, that's all I say."
At that point, Orrach's future seemed up in the air. "I don't know what to do with my life," he said. "I decide, you know what? I'm gonna take ballet classes. I'd taken some ballet classes to train for my footwork as a boxer. ... I liked taking ballet classes because I liked hangin' with the girls."
So Orrach took a job with his brother's delivery service, and wore ballet shoes on the side. He recalls parking his truck by the New York Conservatory of Dance on 56th and Broadway, running up three flights of stairs to the ballet studio, and returning an hour and a half later to finish deliveries for his brother. The setup worked for a couple of years, and Orrach adapted to his increasingly precarious circumstances. He left the trucking job and managed to couch-surf with a gay dance instructor who became his surrogate parent. Then he decided on a lark to take up tap dancing.
Or, as he put it: "I fall in love with ballet, quit the truck, see Gregory Hines on a PBS special on TV, stupidly think, 'I can do that.'" Indeed, he could. Orrach taught himself a few moves and started woodshedding at Fazil's, a famous dance studio in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Pretty soon, he and a friend, Rod Ferrone, were tap-dancing on street corners in the city, earning up to $100 each for two hours of work. By then Orrach was married with children. He used the money to feed his family. He and Ferrone ultimately took their show on the road and garnered a large following, paving the way for Orrach's successful solo career. He moved to the Bay Area in 2000, took a role as Tino the parking attendant in Teatro ZinZanni, and just finished his undergrad at Saint Mary's College's LEAP program. He debuted In My Corner last fall at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts.
In My Corner started as a bunch of diary entries that Orrach later resculpted and set to music, with the help of his longtime girlfriend Lizbeth Hasse. Now it's a filter through which the ex-boxer understands his strange and enigmatic life. Strange would in fact be an understatement. Orrach is a beguiling character. He has that weird quality of being both a sponge and an individual: He'll absorb everything he can from any habitat he's in, even if he seems totally out of place. He's the kind of guy who can quit professional boxing, enroll in ballet classes, and make the dance form seem bearish and masculine without sacrificing any of its grace.
Orrach grew up with men who were conservators of old-school machismo. He emulated them, then took everything he learned from the street at parlayed it into the rarefied art world. "I was the champion of the Air Force but when I turned to dance — oh boy, you don't do that," said the playwright. "They thought I was a little light in the loafers — maybe gay or something. They're very open-minded." It took a while for Orrach to prove his heterosexuality and get his father and brothers to grudgingly accept his dance career. They still don't quite get it.