Jou Jou Papailler happened to meet Don Ray Smith at the First Baptist Church in Jeffersontown, where he sang in the choir that was directed by Smith’s wife, Virginia. What started there became a fascinating collaboration, resulting in a one-man play called “Wilson Avenue and the Land of No Return.”
Smith wrote and stars in the one-man play, which is produced and directed by Papailler. So far, there have been a pair of previews, at the Mellwood Arts Center and 1619 Flux, and Papailler and Smith are working to schedule more performances, anywhere from churches and schools to theaters.
“The story is about a boy who chose love. That’s what it’s about,” Papailler says. “If you give another culture a chance and get to know as many people as you possibly can, no matter what you’ve been taught you’ll be faced with different examples, and realize we’re all human.”
In the play, Smith, 70, recounts incidents he experienced growing up as a white child on Wilson Avenue in the late 1950s. It includes examples of blatant racism from his childhood friends, his father and others. As the play develops, he discovers the many myths he’d been taught about black people are just that – myths.
At Parkland Middle School, Smith develops a friendship with a black classmate, Diane, and learns that what he’s been taught is wrong.
“It’s intriguing for the mythology of the West End,” says Smith, adding that one of the original stories upon which the play is based was published years ago in the Louisville Defender newspaper. “Few people under 40 know that the West End had a huge white population. Young people think it’s always been all black. There’s still a black cloud in which people don’t want to be stigmatized.”
Papailler grew up in Fern Creek and graduated from the University of Louisville with a degree in biology. But his true passion is the arts – he has starred in several projects and was even a series regular on “Sesame Street.” He also has a significant role in the 2018 motion picture “River Runs Red,” starring Taye Diggs, John Cusack, and George Lopez. Meanwhile, he’s also producing his own film about teen guns and violence, which will begin shooting in Louisville in 2019.
What makes the play unusual, Smith says, is that it comes from his perspective, taking on a different view of race. He grew up on the all-white side of Wilson Avenue, during a time when white people and black people lived separately on either side of the street.
Papailler, who is black, hopes the play leads to a better understanding about race and how people can learn to get along.
“He’s a white man, during the time when it wasn’t kosher to be tolerant, who chose to believe what he knew versus what he was taught. More than anything, he learned you can choose love and it might be hard,” he says.
The collaboration between Papailler and Smith may seem an unlikely one, but it all started with that first meeting at church.
“Somehow Don and I got together. I knew he was a storyteller, so I asked if he’d consider it,” Papailler says. “I realized there’s much deeper stuff we could do. I challenged him to get more personal, about his life, to share in ways he wouldn’t have.”
Smith’s performance is even more amazing when you consider that he’s not a trained actor. He is a writer who has published several humorous books and has written for Business First, Louisville Magazine, and LEO Weekly. He is passionate, though, about the topic of race and how he came to change his attitude.