To understand actor Kristoff St. John’s cultural legacy is to grasp what the “stories” have meant to generations of African Americans.
In a 2015 Atlantic magazine piece titled “The Unsung Legacy of Black Characters on Soap Operas,” writer Aaron Foley reminisced about how his “great-grandmother kept two TVs and two VCRs in her apartment – one to tape the ABC soaps, and the other for the CBS soaps, of which her all-time favorite was ‘The Young and the Restless.’”
“‘Y&R,’ its nickname in the soap world, was also my grandmother’s favorite and my mother’s, so naturally it became mine,” Foley wrote. “By far, Y&R was the easiest to keep up with: You could tune out for a week without missing anything crucial to the overarching story, and it was accessible because, unlike some other programs, the same actors stayed in the same roles for years.”
I can relate.
“Y&R” was as much my babysitter as my grandmother, Evelyn Respers.
I was so well-versed in the life of Katherine Chancellor (played by the late Jeanne Cooper) that I once horrified my grandma by blurting out in front of one of the patients she cared for as a nurse’s aide, “Is this the lady who had plastic surgery like Mrs. Chancellor?”
Soaps – and the black characters on them – were my introduction to the power of storytelling, and St. John, who died this week at age 52, was a trailblazing storyteller.
Before he found fame on “Y&R,” the actor was cast as the young, well-to-do playboy Adam Marshall on the NBC soap, “Generations.”
Despite it being short-lived in terms of daytime dramas, “Generations” shifted the cultural landscape by featuring a wealthy, black family among its central characters.
Like the Huxtables on “The Cosby Show,” the Marshalls offered an alternative to the usual storyline for African Americans on television.
Adam Marshall was a sexy, college-educated heir to a thriving ice cream empire, and St. John the crush-worthy man who played him.
He was beautiful to watch in the role: handsome, charming, free-spirited and just spoiled enough to remind you that Adam didn’t come from a working class family like my own.
Long before there were black showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris creating series that showcase the complexity of the black experience, there were black soap stars acting out storylines that often ignored they were considered “the other” in the mainstream.
They were heroes and villains, just like the rest of the cast, and often unsung in their accomplishments.
Actors like Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams, who as Angie Baxter and Jesse Hubbard on “All My Children,” rivaled “General Hospital’s” Luke and Laura as the soap super-couple of the ‘80s.
But unlike Jesse, who was a tough college dropout, Adam on “Generations” was more in keeping with the wealthy and upwardly mobile white characters typically featured on daytime dramas.
When St. John joined “Y&R” in 1991, it was to play Neil Winters, a man looking to climb the corporate ladder as an executive trainee at Jabot Cosmetics.
The show will pay tribute to St. John during Friday’s episode.
Victoria Rowell, who played St. John’s love interest on the show, Drucilla Barber, told CNN that St. John “cared about preserving the African American legacy on the show and not being pigeon-holed into a Black storyline.”
“Obviously, we coveted the Black family on ‘Y&R,’ but we also coveted that we were crossovers. Proud we pulled in a huge audience, and a huge Black, female audience,” Rowell said. “We understood the gravity of what we were responsible for and he took that very seriously.”
Viewers like me did, too.