Mos Def, the hip-hop star from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is coming to Broadway, and from the way some people reacted to the news, you would have thought the next Zero Mostel had been plucked from the checkout line at a Key Food. “Mos What?” asked the Post.
Yet Mos Def, born Dante Smith and 28 years old, has been acting since his teens, appearing in everything from episodes of The Cosby Mysteries to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled to a Visa commercial with Deion Sanders. He has a small part as Billy Bob Thornton’s mechanic in Monster’s Ball , and he plays a bad guy in Showtime, the new Eddie Murphy-Robert De Niro comedy. He also did a horror film with Malcolm McDowell called Island of the Dead, though he hadn’t seen it.
“S.T.V.,” Mos Def explained the other day, seated on a couch at the Time Hotel on 49th Street. Island of the Dead , he said, had gone straight to video.
Across the street, however, Mos Def was preparing to debut at the Ambassador Theatre, playing Booth to Jeffrey Wright’s Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog , Suzan-Lori Parks’ simmering play about two street-hustler brothers living in New York. Set to premiere on April 7 and directed by George C. Wolfe, Topdog enjoyed a strong run at the Public Theater last summer, where Don Cheadle played Booth. Mr. Cheadle was supposed to follow the play to Broadway last fall, but when it was delayed after Sept. 11 and the actor found himself committed to other obligations, Mr. Wolfe hired Mos Def to step in.
Landing the job had been the easy part. Mos Def was at first staggered by Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Wright, heavyweights both. “As we were getting into rehearsals, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m really playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra,'”hesaid. “There’s a reason why everybody doesn’t play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It’s beautiful music; it’s just not easy to play.”
He was getting more comfortable, though. Mr. Wright, a Tony Award winner for Angels in America , said that Mos Def, who is younger than Mr. Cheadle, brought a “vulnerability and volatility” to his interpretation of Booth. “Mos comes from a world that is driven by words,” Mr. Wright said. “This play is driven by lyrical, musical words. I think in a lot of ways it’s a perfect transition.”
Mos Def, however, wasn’t getting carried away, refusing to get too excited about a big red marquee across the street with his and Mr. Wright’s names. “There’s so much work to do,” he said, digging into his pocket and fishing out a Camel. He was wearing a navy coat, a white T-shirt and striped sweat pants, and a pair of white Adidas sneakers with black stripes. On his head was a black stocking hat, pulled down to just above his eyes. Mos Def is not a large man, and yet his features are pronounced, elegant–arched cheekbones, pointed chin, elongated fingers. Women, it’s no secret, adore him.
The story was that Mr. Wolfe had hired Mos Def because he’d seen Topdog 20 times at the Public Theater. That wasn’t exactly true. ” Five times,” he said, taking a drag off his cigarette. “I love those broad brushstrokes the media paints.” Still, it was clear he considered Ms. Parks’ two-person play–which stretches from stark drama to comedy and confronts issues of family, identity and race–not just another gig. He compared his experience seeing Topdog to “the first time you heard A Love Supreme , or heard Charles Mingus–it’s definitely in the album of moments for me as an audience member.”
Meanwhile, he continued to work on a new album. Mos Def has not yet released a follow-up to his acclaimed 1999 record, Black on Both Sides , but he’s been busy. Besides the film work, he’s continued to perform, even assembling a rock outfit called the Black Jack Johnson Project, named for the boxer. He also hosted Def Poetry Jam, an HBO series organized by Russell Simmons. The series has been well-received, but the world of competitive poetry hasn’t been easy to navigate. “Some of these poets,” Mos Def said, “have egos bigger than rock stars.”
But with success in different arenas, Mos Def believed he might bring a new audience to Broadway. Both he and Mr. Wright are hopeful that more African-Americans, forever underrepresented on Broadway, might see the show. The night before at a Topdog preview, Mos Def said, there was a “very diverse crowd, which was great. You’re not performing for all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. That’s good.”
And sitting there, a couple hours before curtain, one of hip-hop’s pre-eminent lyricists acknowledged that the Topdog experience thus far had made him think about writing a play himself. “There is something very noble about being a playwright,” Mos Def said. “It’s way cooler than saying, ‘I’m a screenwriter.'”
He smiled. “No disparagement to screenwriters. But Shakespeare was a playwright.”
My Mother Addie
“I’m not a pushy person,” Addie Tomei whispered, “but if I tell them ‘ Addie’s here ,’ I usually can get a table right away.”
It was a cloudy March morning at Past is, the bustling meatpacking-district bistro, and Ms. Tomei, the mother of the actress Marisa Tomei, was giving a guest a walking tour of her favorite neighborhood culinary haunts. For the past four years, Ms. Tomei, a retired junior high-school teacher from Brooklyn, has given hundreds of people versions of the same tour. She runs a company called Savory Sojourns, and she gives dozens of these excursions, to neighborhoods like Little Italy, the West Village and the meatpacking district, at about $100 a head.
Sipping from a café latte, Ms. Tomei scanned the back of Pastis’ dining room. She wore wool slacks, a black leather jacket and a scarf around her neck. Her brown hair was styled in a spiky bob, and the facial resemblance to her daughter was clear. Marisa, it can be said, has her mother’s eyes.
“Usually I’d introduce you to the chef, Sasha,” Ms. Tomei said. “But I guess he isn’t here.”
She stepped out of Pastis and gingerly up Gansevoort Street, avoiding the hanging metal hooks and white-coated butchers. “It used to be completely industrial, ” she said of the cobblestoned way. “Now a new bar opens every other week.”
Reaching the corner, Ms. Tomei observed the shuttered window of Hogs ‘n’ Heifers, the famous biker/celebrity dive. She walked inside and stood amid the thousands of bras flopping off the wall. “This is a lot more fun than teaching,” she said, laughing. “Not quite as important, but I paid my dues.”
Ms. Tomei moved to Greenwich Village eight years ago from Flatbush with her husband of 38 years, Gary, an attorney. She began hosting tours mostly for fun, but now it’s a business. Each traveler gets two meals and a goodie bag filled with cookbooks and kitchen paraphernalia.
“I’m not a professional chef,” Ms. Tomei said. “I’m just a home cook who loves showing people an insider’s view of my city.”
It was starting to drizzle outside. Ms. Tomei unfurled a yellow umbrella and headed down to Chelsea Market for the tour’s last leg. Entering the market’s door, Ms. Tomei rattled off its history, pausing in front of a vegetable bin outside of Manhattan Fruit Exchange to inspect a miniature amaranth.
At Bowery Kitchen Supply, Ms. Tomei was approached by a merchant eager to discuss Marisa’s recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien . Mother patiently played with a spatula as she answered the questions about her offspring.
Ms. Tomei preferred not to speculate on the chances of her daughter’s bringing home another Oscar statue on March 24; Marisa, of course, has already won an Oscar before, for My Cousin Vinny .
“It would be great to win,” Ms. Tomei said diplomatically, “but I don’t expect it. I hope –but I don’t expect.”
Ms. Tomei rejected the infamous rumor that her daughter had received an accidental Oscar–that presenter Jack Palance had verbally stumbled and read the wrong name on the podium. “That was so hurtful,” she said, brown eyes flashing. “There was no truth to that whatsoever.”
Of course, Mom wasn’t entirely opposed to familial gossip. Asked if Marisa shared her culinary passion, Ms. Tomei remarked that her daughter had only recently learned how to cook. “Last year, if she toasted a bagel,” Addie Tomei said, “that was a hot meal.”
–Paul S. Katz