Playwright brings story of surprising family revelations to Germantown

Chicago-based playwright and performer Michael Fosberg has presented his one-man show, Incognito, across the country for roughly a decade, but he said he is especially looking forward to his upcoming appearance in Germantown.

“I love coming to Philly, It’s one of my favorite cities,” Fosberg said. “Philly feels like a second home.”

The back story

Having never met his biological father, Fosberg grew up in a Chicago suburb with his Armenian-American mother and his adoptive stepfather.

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Despite the fact that he loved doing skits and songs at family parties as a kid, Fosberg said it was a “weird thing that I got involved in theater, because I was a very scared kid. I had fears of speaking in front of people.”

As a high-school freshman, someone convinced him to try out for the school play. From there, he was hooked.

Later, he entered Northwestern University’s National High School Institute theater training program, where he is now a faculty member.

He received his bachelor of fine arts degree in acting and directing from the University of Minnesota. He later entered Chicago’s theater scene, including appearances at the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters, working with actors like John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.

Fosberg’s performing, writing, directing and teaching career took him to Los Angeles and then back home, but the event that inspired his best-known work didn’t happen until he was in his mid-thirties.

Life becomes art

When Fosberg was 34, he found out his parents were divorcing, and felt a need to connect with his biological father. He tracked down a man named John Sidney Woods, and discovered something surprising.

His father was black.

Fosberg said that even as a teenager growing up in his white working-class family, he had always had a strong interest in combating racial inequality.

“When I made the discovery that I’m half black, it wasn’t this shocking thing to me,” he said during an interview with NewsWorks last week. “It’s like, wow, all my life I’d had this desire to promote equality. No wonder: I’m half black, that may have something to do with it.”

He went on to discover the family he never knew he’d had, steeping himself in America’s trickiest questions of racial identity, discrimination and privilege.

A one-man show is born

Incognito began as a book describing his unusual experience. Friends urged him to share the story with a reading of a few chapters to a group of about 50 people.

“People were laughing and crying, and came up to me afterward and said, ‘You should be performing this,'” Fosberg recalled. “I had been a performer my whole life, and I never thought of doing a one-man show.”

In early 2001, he did his first reading of the one-man play. The completed version includes more than a dozen characters including Fosberg’s parents, sister, grandparents and others. Unbeknownst to him, a friend had invited a critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, who called him the next day.

Fosberg went on to perform at schools across the country, and for audiences as diverse as the Sundance Institute, NASA, the Woodstock Fringe Festival, NPR, military bases, universities, corporations and myriad conferences on diversity education.

An ‘extremely difficult journey’

After many tribulations with the publishing industry, Fosberg self-published the book version of Incognito last year.

“This has been an extremely difficult journey,” he said, explaining that it’s tough for any family to know their personal stories are being broadcast far and wide.

Another challenge lay in realizing how reluctant his mother’s family was to engage with racial issues.

“In general, my white family was much more hesitant about this taking place,” he noted. “I think to some degree it was cultural differences. … In white families, there’s little to no dialogue about race, whereas in families of color, that dialogue happens regularly.”

Something larger than race

“People come up to me and tell me unbelievably personal stories,” he said. “When I first started, I thought, I have a really fascinating story.”

He didn’t know that his story’s impact would go beyond biracial people or people who didn’t know a parent. That’s because, at its heart, Fosberg’s tale is about family secrets.

“Every freaking family has a secret,” he insisted. “People come up and tell me their secrets.”

Incognito will be performed at the First Presbyterian Church on W. Chelten Ave. at 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 16th. The audience will also have a chance to talk with Fosberg at a post-performance reception.

For more information about tickets, call (215) 843-8811 or email Childcare during the performance is available for parents who call to reserve a spot by this Saturday.

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