Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Y&R Generation

It was the first news article on my timeline the other day, and sadly because the source was TMZ, I feared it was not a hoax. And just as soon as I confirmed the news from another site, I posted an article along with my quick commentary about it being such a shock, then friends began to weigh in with their memories of having watched the actor Kristoff St. John on The Young and the Restless.

And I think I would have just left it alone with that Facebook post, but then I saw all of the mentions later on Twitter that lamented his loss only with respect to Y&R. Which, on the one hand, makes sense as he had been a fixture on that show since 1991. But on the other hand, St. John had been someone whose work I had known since my childhood. In fact, since our childhood because he literally grew up with my generation on camera.

Thus, the shock of his death feels personal, like we've lost a cousin that we used to play with when we were kids, hung out with as teenagers and maybe even as young adults, but once we got to that stage when paths diverge to make way for careers, children, and other pursuits, we only saw each other on special occasions. Like on those days when we're home from work and the channel just happens to be tuned around noon to Y&R.

Before I address the magnitude of his nearly 30 year role on that iconic show, I need to emphasize the point that St. John had a career before he joined that cast. He was a child actor whose first credited role was on That's My Mama in 1975. My first recollection of him was on Roots: The Next Generation as a young Alex Haley. He had other roles in TV movies and shows, including guest appearances on The Cosby Show and A Different World. By the time he starred on Generations, a short-lived but ground-breaking interracial soap opera, he was a show biz veteran.

Come to think of it, with the exception of Janet Jackson and Kim Fields (and maybe a few others), I don't recall that there have been too many well-known Black actors who successfully made the transition from childhood to adulthood on screen without serious issues. As far as I know, until the tragedy of his son's death a few years ago, St. John avoided the pitfalls of drug use and fast living. He was as straight an arrow as the character he portrayed on Y&R, Neil Winters.

As I read through the various tributes on social media, everyone recalled getting hooked on the soaps with their grandmothers, aunts, or older babysitters (for me it was my grandmother). Back then there were only three networks that aired soaps during the day, typically after the midday news and before the afternoon talk shows. Dedicated soap fans typically watched all of the shows that aired on one network, and my grandmother was a CBS fan, so that meant Y&R, As The World Turns, and Guiding Light. There were also at least two half-hour shows that I remember before The Bold and the Beautiful occupied that slot: Search for Tomorrow and Capitol. Over the years, I maintained my dedication to Grandma's shows, with some deviations, until I gave them up for good about fifteen years ago.

In one significant deviation, I began watching the ABC soaps (All My Children in particular) the summer that my older cousin babysat for us. That also happened to be the in the midst of the Angie and Jessie storyline, who were the first Black super couple on daytime TV. I eventually made my way back to Y&R, just in time for college and the introduction of a Black storyline that centered on a young man named Neil Winters. However, before Neil, there was Adam Marshall on Generations.

For anyone who watched these shows prior to the premier of Generations (with the aforementioned exception of Angie and Jessie), there were very few Black characters of significance on any show. Our grandmothers watched them faithfully, even when the only Black characters who appeared on screen were in the background or were the maids...which is typically how those younger Black characters were introduced. Generations was the first show to have a Black family prominently featured, even though my recollection and ultimate frustration with that show was its limited run and the Marshall family's very marginalized story.

Enter Neil Winters, who arrived in lily white Genoa City for a corporate job. And in 1991, with the paradox of companies being called upon to diversify their workplaces, while affirmative action in education and hiring was being litigated, his appearance was a big deal. He wasn't the mail clerk or the local street guy turned cop (like Nathan Hastings) being given a chance at redemption. He was a college educated Black man with an executive J-O-B...and he was fine!

Nowadays, Black characters are a dime a dozen on whatever soaps are left. Times have changed, with a range of daytime television options and a generation of kids whose grandmothers probably aren't available during the day anymore. Kristoff St. John was a pioneer, not just for that particular character, but for the era his character ushered in with respect to representation on television. Thus, his death is personal, because it isn't just Neil Winters who died (and I am sure the show will find a respectable way to deal with this, which means I may have to tune in for the next few days).

As I stated earlier, St. John was my contemporary, so the realities he dealt with in his personal life parallel where my peers and I are in life--marriages, children, career inertia, and tragedy, we can relate to it all. He managed to keep most of those personal struggles off camera until the loss of his grown son to suicide a few years ago. And that is perhaps the point where this catches me without the ability to adequately communicate just how unnerving the news of his death has been. For some of us, there might be that moment when the world becomes too much to bear...

Not too long ago, a friend and I were talking about the Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial, and she thought the moonwalking kid was Kristoff St. John (when it was really another former child actor contemporary of ours, Alfonso Ribeiro). She sent me this clip of St. John on a sketch segment from the Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour called Lou Effy and Moreen and it became a great walk down memory lane. And that is how I need to remember him and us--in a simpler world and time when we still watched corny sketch shows and soap operas with Grandma.

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