If all the world is Reggie's stage, the Giving Kitchen was his stagehand.
Story by Wyatt Williams
Photography by Andrew Thomas Lee
Reggie Ealy’s parents would have preferred that he be a doctor or a lawyer.
He might have been one – he was certainly smart and ambitious enough in his classes in Atlanta – had it not been for a European vacation he took one summer after high school. On the train between Portugal and Paris, Reggie saw a person standing off in the distance of the dining car. Reggie found this person so intriguing, so fascinating, that he knew at that very moment the course of his life was changing, that he would have to follow this person and know all about them. This is how Reggie came to attend Commedia School in Copenhagen, one of the best clown schools in the world.
Studying under Ole Brekkie, Reggie learned the art of masks and melodrama, the physical comedy of the buffoon. He studied cabaret and melodrama and make-up and storytelling. He learned a little about how stories work, how emotions lie somewhere in the territory between farce and tragedy. He painted his face. He wore a red nose. He performed on the street. He learned, quite proudly, the art of being a clown.
In 1992, Reggie returned home to Atlanta. He was in his twenties and he knew he was a performer, an artist, but he wasn’t quite sure how to make ends meet. Like a lot of other artists, he decided to get a job waiting tables.
He’d only been working in a restaurant for a little while when he learned something that he hadn’t expected. A restaurant, as it turned out, was also a kind of stage.
It was a place for performance. Behind the kitchen doors, that was backstage, the hidden place behind the curtains. Every table, each one was a kind of spotlight, an opportunity for a performance, a vignette. Each was different; he always had to improvise.
This was the nineties in Atlanta, when the city was just a little smaller, the neighborhoods just a little more tightknit. After years in Europe, Reggie felt like he almost didn’t speak the language anymore. He spoke three languages, but he didn’t know the local slang. Reggie found himself at Café Diem, a casual place with Continental food that had become the de facto headquarters of an ex-pat scene in the city. There were people like Reggie who had spent some time in Europe before moving back. There were other folks who had emigrated to the States. There were conversations in a half dozen languages that went on long into the night.
It was there, amongst this crowd, that Reggie formed a restaurant group that would open a handful of restaurants in Atlanta in the mid-nineties. This was a heady time, just before the Olympics, when Atlanta was newly crowned a global city. With a business partner, he opened Yin Yang Café, which sold tapas-style plates and made espresso, both of which were entirely new experiences for many customers. The next year they opened Kaya Club, where the dining rooms gave way to dance floors and electronic music at night. It was all a beautiful, joyful performance.
Eventually, this was how Reggie learned another truth about the industry: Restaurants don’t last forever. What was hot and new last year might be forgotten by the next. They’re performances, he remembered, and no performance, no matter how great, can go on forever. And so Reggie had restaurants, he was a co-owner until he wasn’t anymore and the restaurants were closed.
That doesn’t mean, though, that his job really changed. He kept waiting tables and kept thinking of new ways to perform. He took some time off to care for his mother when she got sick. He moved to North Carolina to raise money for an arts non-profit. He traveled. But he eventually always found himself back in Atlanta, working at a restaurant, doing his vignettes, giving a performance one table at a time. On the side, he started performing as a voice-over artist, both for cartoons and commercials.
He was working the breakfast shift at Home Grown, one Atlanta’s best neighborhood diners owned by Kevin Clark and Lisa Spooner, when he met Maria Moore Riggs. Maria had recently opened Revolution Donuts, a donut shop that sourced local ingredients and sold at farmers markets. She was charmed by Reggie. They became friends. She wanted him to come work for her. He wanted to spend more time doing voice over work. It all lined up. Everything seemed to be working out perfectly.
One morning in July of 2016, the tone of Reggie’s story changed.
He was at Revolution Donuts in the early morning hours. Suddenly, quite nearly it seemed out of nowhere, he could not summon the strength to stand. He was sick. Or was it tired? He was lightheaded. He wasn’t sure. He needed to lay down.
Reggie went home that day to get some rest, but he didn’t feel any better. He knew was something was wrong. He was sick in bed for days. When you have been healthy, like Reggie was, for most of your adult entire life, getting sick is a kind of mystery. You have to learn how to solve it. That takes time. It took months of testing to understand what was wrong.
In October of that year, Reggie was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. It is a kind of cancer that accumulates in the bone marrow and infects the blood. The symptoms are mysterious. It is a rare disease, and the diagnosis is often fatal. Reggie knew he couldn’t go back to work. He didn’t have much time if he was going to beat it. But after months of testing, medical bills were already stacking up and he didn’t know what to do. By the next month, he wouldn’t have money for rent. The hospital assigned him a social worker, but she expected his applications to take some time. Reggie didn’t know what he would do. He said it looked like dire straits.
Two years later, Reggie told me the story of his life while sitting at a table in Home Grown. He told me about clowns and acting and performances and bringing people joy and beauty one plate at a time. He told me about the day his life changed on the train from Portugal to Paris.
And he told me about how it was here in Home Grown, a little neighborhood diner, that he first heard about the Giving Kitchen, that there was this nonprofit set up just for people in situations like his own.
It was a community of restaurant workers, the community he’d worked in his whole life, helping out other restaurant workers in times of need. Just at the moment he thought his whole performance, the one he had been giving all his life, might fall apart, he found out more people were watching than he had realized. His friends held a fundraiser. The Giving Kitchen gave him money for his bills, to bridge that gap, to get to the point where he could just focus on getting better.
Reggie was given a stem cell transplant that he believes has saved his life. His recovery hasn’t been easy. His immune system is weak. It isn’t just the cancer; it’s the side effects of the medicine that trouble him, too. His bones ache. He has to limit his time outside. The pollen can make him sick for days. It’s a different life for someone who spent his life performing and taking care of other people. He’s had a lot of quiet time inside to read and reflect, to think about the events of his life, the moments like that train from Portugal to Paris when his whole life changed.
When Reggie talks about all of this, he laughs. He smiles. He says he’s just on one more adventure. His optimism is a thing to behold. He says he’s thought about everything now and that he wouldn’t change one thing, not one decision, not a single choice. After all, if he changed anything, would he still be sitting here telling you about it over coffee?