Simmering racial tensions between blacks and whites in the suburbs sometimes boiled over during the 1970s. But Michael Fosberg says he always considered himself a white kid who was comfortable in his own skin as well as with the African-American culture at Waukegan High School.
"I was one of two white guys on my basketball team," says Fosberg, a 1975 graduate. "Or so I thought."
In 1991, when Fosberg was a 32-year-old actor living in California, his mother and his stepdad divorced, awakening Fosberg's desire to track down the long-gone biological father he never knew. That first emotional long-distance phone call with his father a year later changed Fosberg's life.
"I've always loved you and thought of you a lot," his father told him. "There's one other thing I'm sure your mother has never told you. I'm African-American."
"I went from growing up in a white, middle-class family to being a black man in the blink of an eye," says Fosberg, immediately taking a new look at his hands as he recreates his amazement during his performance of his one-man play "Incognito," part of Elgin Community College's celebration of Black History Month.
"If only I had known this before I filled out applications for college," Fosberg quips during an hourlong production filled with humor, conflict and insight.
Taking a fresh look at yourself, others and your perceptions of race and stereotypes is at the heart of Fosberg's play and his more in-depth memoir, "Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race & Self-Discovery." (See incognitotheplay.com for more.) He performed last week in Elgin and at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. He is on the road for 70 shows a year, performing for the FBI, NASA, colleges, businesses, not-for-profits and any groups grappling with race and diversity.
"This is why I do this," Fosberg, 54, says in explaining why he's made his private life so public. "Because we don't know how to talk about race."
Fosberg says he grew up in a progressive white family untainted by racism. His parents taught him and his two younger siblings, products of his mom's second marriage, to "accept all people." He embraced elements of the black culture of his youth by sporting an "Afro" hairdo, buying every James Brown album, memorizing Richard Pryor comedy routines, and strutting around in platform shoes and colorful rayon shirts.
"I'm black. I knew it all along," Fosberg says, drawing laughs as he shows the audience a 1975 photograph of his light-skinned face beaming under a giant round mound of hair.
His anger at being kept in ignorance of his background turned into a greater empathy for his mother's situation as Fosberg delved into his past. His mother, the daughter of strict Armenian immigrants, fell in love with his biological father when they were students at Boston University. She got pregnant, they married and their son was born in 1958 in a town and time when interracial couples often faced many obstacles. They were poor and living in a tenement in the black Boston neighborhood of Roxbury when his mother's parents helped secure a divorce with no fraternal visitation rights and brought the mother and baby home with them to Waukegan.
Fosberg's mom married a white businessman, went back to college, became a teacher, started a new family and eventually became a successful businesswoman. Fosberg's birth dad, who had a white-collar job in purchasing for the auto industry, also remarried, but had no other children.
In discovering his black roots, Fosberg was instantly accepted by his black grandparents and a host of black relatives.
"My black family was like, 'C'mon in, baby. You're one of us,'" says Fosberg, who notes he has always "passed" as white. Initially, his pilgrimage to his past didn't go over quite as well among his white relatives, but Fosberg says he now enjoys a good relationship with his siblings, his mom in Grayslake and his stepdad in Libertyville. His birth father is very ill and lives in Virginia.
The show forces viewers to confront stereotypes.
"It is fabulous," says Joyce Fountain, an ECC sociology professor who uses Fosberg's experience in teaching her "racial and ethnic relations" class with students who hail from a diverse listing of races, ethnicities, religions and backgrounds. "We live in a society with so many preconceived notions about who we are."
Fosberg's story forces people to challenge perceptions, question stereotypes and ponder "the universal question of how we fit in," Fountain says. "My challenge to you is to think about what you are thinking about."
Fosberg, who teaches a summer acting program at Northwestern University, still thinks about his situation. He grew up not having to face any discrimination or have any racial slurs directed his way.
"I did not live through the 'black experience.' I've experienced all the great things about being black and none of the bad," Fosberg says, exclaiming the joys of everything from a large, accepting family to delicious soul food. "Does that make me any less of a black man?"
He notes that he's the descendant of slaves from his black side and his Armenian side. His Armenian grandparents' parents were killed for being Armenian.
"I'm Triple-A: African-American-Armenian," Fosberg says.
Fosberg's lesson isn't just a black-and-white issue, agrees Fountain, who challenges students to re-examine and challenge the expectations that pop into their heads when they hear someone is male, female, old, speaks Spanish, is gay, Italian, blonde or whatever.
"Are you going to go back to your default or are you going to think, 'Maybe I should get to know this person?'" Johnson asks.
"You need to get people thinking and talking about it," says Fosberg, who recently purchased a house with his girlfriend.
What color skin does she have?
"That's an interesting question," Fosberg says, as he smiles, provides some details and concludes: "It doesn't really matter."