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Lovable Agitator

Tap dancer-choreographer-producer-teacher Maurice Hines has been advocating for Black lives and gay rights long before there were hashtags. A new documentary looks back at this iconic entertainer.

Maurice Hines teaches ballet at the University of Hartford
Maurice Hines teaches ballet class at the University of Hartford. Photo courtesy of John Carluccio and Tracy Hopkins

Tap dancing fans will surely remember the late great Gregory Hines, who starred opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights, won a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam, took a turn on Will & Grace and later died of cancer in 2003. But fans of a certain age or hardcore devotion to tap dancing may also remember that Gregory Hines had an older brother, Maurice, with whom he tapped from the time the boys were 3 and 5. The duo danced together on TV in Hines, Hines and Dad, on Broadway, on Sesame Street, and in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club before a much-publicized split. Gregory was the “go along to get along” guy; Maurice, the outspoken agitator, talking about “subjects that make people uncomfortable,” like homosexuality and racism in the theater. His career paid a price. A Tony-nominated tap dancer who embraced ballet and hip hop, who became a choreographer, producer and teacher, Maurice would still never achieve the stardom his brother did.

Now a new documentary, Bring Them Back, nominated for Best Documentary at the 2020 Miami Film Festival and released just in time for Black History Month (on STARZ and Vimeo on demand), tells Maurice’s story, the impact he had on theatre dance and how he furthered the conversation on racism, homophobia and the high cost of Broadway show tickets. VoxPopuli talked with married filmmakers, writer Tracy Hopkins and director John Carluccio, about making their documentary. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VoxPopuli: What drew you to make a documentary about Maurice Hines?

John Carluccio: A mutual friend introduced us. I knew a little about Maurice, very little. I knew a lot about Gregory. I had also recently seen Maurice on TV because he was promoting his show Tapping Thru Life, and I was fascinated by the relationship that he had with his brother and the on-and-off portion of that, sort of creative partnerships that don't always work out, that start out at a young age. But then meeting him and the way his personality just jumped at you. I was fascinated that I had this strong character. I felt like he was an important story to tell, an important voice to hear. It's unique narrative that we don't always see.

VoxPopuli: Maurice struck me as a real trailblazer. One of the people you interview, the director-writer-producer Charles Randolph-Wright, said that seeing Maurice onscreen or on the stage gives a person of color “permission” that they can do something. How did Maurice give permission?

Tracy Hopkins: Being a young Black person and seeing another Black person on TV is the spark. If they’re there, that means that I can do that. That’s kind of the permission that Charles is talking about. When Charles was a dancer in Dreamgirls, Maurice took him under his wing. Just seeing Maurice at that point in his life where he was no longer a part of the act with Gregory but he was a choreographer, doing his own shows on Broadway, that also gave Charles permission to say I can create my own shows. I can be my own boss. I can be a leader in the performing arts.

Also Maurice was openly gay at a time in the ‘60s and ‘70s when not many Black men are expressing that. And he raised a daughter with his longtime partner and that’s also something that is groundbreaking and unique in terms of a Black family in the 80s and 90s.

John Carluccio: Maurice was unapologetic about being himself and crafting his own path. He didn't really fall into too many stereotypes. He’s just Maurice, he would say. He found his way to express his own voice, even if it even if that voice was conflicting with other people's preconceived notion of what they thought he should be.

Tracy Hopkins: Or if his voice was unpopular like speaking out against racism in theater or Broadway or speaking up for other people too. He would say Gregory knew how to play the game, he would appease people, and Maurice was like No, I'm going to tell you how I feel, and that probably also hurt his career.

VoxPopuli: That segues nicely into my next question because the gist of what I got from your documentary is that Maurice just would not play the game. He said I'm going to have the career I'm going to have. I'm going to be honest with my career and with myself. And do you think he paid the price for for that honesty in that he didn't have the career that he might have had if he had played the game a bit more?

John Carluccio: Yeah, I do. He did rub people the wrong way. But now though, I think people are a bit more willing to accept what I call lovable agitators, people that have every right to be vocal and speak their mind. I think there's more acceptance of those kind of differences and strong opinions.

Tracy Hopkins: It may have hurt his career, but I think it also pushed him to create his own shows, to take the reins of his own career with Hot Feet, Uptown… It’s Hot!, and later in his career with Tapping Thru Life, which he produced.

We need people like this, especially now when Black people are feeling more urgent about speaking up and more confident about speaking up. Maybe he was a little bit ahead of his time, but I think younger generations can appreciate that, and I admire his honesty.

John Carluccio: There's a sort of a sacrificial lamb part of that. Someone had to say it first. Someone has to say, Hey, wait. Broadway ticket prices are outrageous. The New York Times critics don't understand X, Y and Z. It's that kind of a vocal opinionated person. People can love it or hate it, and sometimes that happens with Maurice.

John Carluccio with Maurice Hines and Tracy Hopkins
Bring Them Back director John Carluccio (left) and writer Tracy Hopkins with Maurice Hines

VoxPopuli: The title "Bring Them Back." What what does that refer to? Who are we bringing back? Obviously Maurice. Because you want to bring him back into the public conversation and remind people who wouldn't be familiar with him that he is an amazing artist who is still performing. But who else?

Tracy Hopkins: As we were doing the film, we saw Maurice really musing about the past and then his own short-term memory loss and things like that. It just became more like we’re bringing back his family, we’re bringing back the good times, we’re bringing back the nostalgia of him and Gregory at the Apollo and as the Hines Brothers. Those are his happy memories. So we're bringing that back and we're bringing back the Hines family.



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