My father gave me an example of how to be a husband and a father, not by showing me how to behave, but by showing me how not to behave.
One day that boy is going to make us cry,” my father used to say to my mother whenever she tried to protect me from his pointless fits of rage. “He ain’t nothing and he ain’t gonna be nothing!” These words found a place in my heart and have never been removed. My father was a prisoner of his day, just a few generations removed from slavery himself. He said the things that were spoken to him. His parents died when he was 2 years old, and my father was raised by a woman whose answer to every problem was to beat him. Today he knows there is a better way to be a parent and feels guilty for having followed her example. As a man, I understand, but as a child, I found it difficult to move through.
Dad was a rugged man; he worked in rural Louisiana fields when he was a child, and in construction as an adult. And what a great provider he was! He taught me the value of hard work. But as a husband and father, I had no role model or examples of a loving, emotionally supportive man.
Growing up I never heard “I love you” from him. I never got a hug, was never taken to a park to throw a ball around. Instead of “How was school today?” I would be greeted with a backhand because I was in my room writing or drawing. That was too soft for a son of his—he would have preferred me to work on cars or do what he deemed to be manly things. My greatest escape was my imagination and a faith in God that has been with me for as long as I remember.
Every terrible moment my mother and I experienced at the hand of my father has been indelibly etched into my brain. But this all served a purpose: When I withdrew into myself to create a world of escape, I did not know that I was carving my destiny. Out of all this tragedy and negativity, I found my way. During an argument with my parents when I was in my late twenties, I said things I didn’t even know were there—I told my father every wrong thing I thought he had done to me. His response was hurt and tears, not the rage I had expected.
I realized that it would be necessary to forgive my father. There was no way I could live a full life holding so much hostility toward him. I let it go, and once I did, so much was revealed to me. I stopped focusing on the dark side of my childhood and found there was light. I learned that he did give me an example of how to be a husband and a father, not by showing me how to behave, but by showing me how not to behave. I also learned that he did only what he knew how to do. And that’s okay. When I realized that my father was just a man, and that he was not perfect, I began to appreciate him so much more. How could I fault him for what he didn’t know?
I thank him because everything that might have destroyed me has helped to create and nurture the gifts I possess today. As a playwright of seven shows that have grossed more than $65 million, I have had life experiences that have helped me speak to millions around the world, using laughter as an anesthetic while getting deep into the roots of pain. People who have seen my plays have told me the shows hold up mirrors so theatergoers can find their own paths to healing and forgiveness, to opening dialogues with loved ones, to bridging generational gaps so families can be made stronger. How can I be angry at my father when he has given me the tools to help change lives?
These days I am making my mother and father cry—but not out of pain or despair. Rather they weep out of sheer joy and thanksgiving for the love and understanding that God has brought to us.