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The Man Who Pretended to Be Ben Carson for 21 Years

<p>Prince Havely thought he knew Ben Carson: how he stands, how he talks, how he holds his hands and how those hands hold a scalpel. </p><p>For 21 years, Havely has played Carson in “Ben Carson, M.D.,” a children’s theater production seen by a generation of Baltimore area school kids who read Carson’s memoir <i>Gifted Hands </i>as part of their curriculum<i>. </i>Long before Cuba Gooding Jr. played the neurosurgeon on film, before the “political outsider” wave swept the soft-spoken doctor from the far wing of the GOP debates to a center podium, it was Havely’s characterization that indoctrinated thousands of students in the tale of Carson’s rise from poverty to international medical celebrity.</p><p>But this year, Havely, 56, is seeing a new side of the man he helped turn into a local folk hero.</p><p>He has watched Carson, the presidential candidate, seize the attention of the electorate on the strength of his controversial statements—equating Obamacare with slavery, asserting that Jews in World War II could have avoided death camps if more of them had been armed, suggesting that gay marriage leads to bestiality. Havely, a registered Republican, now finds himself trying to reconcile the motivational message of the script with the candidate’s more politically charged discourse. </p><p>“All of a sudden you find out all this stuff you don’t know,” he says with a bemused look. “I didn’t expect it. I think he’s growing and evolving like everybody. I don’t think he would even have thought about getting into politics back when I was doing him in the 90s. </p><p>“He’s pretty … whew,” he says, trailing off. </p><p>But allegations that Carson fabricated significant features of his autobiography—the stabbing of a childhood friend in a “pathological” rage and the candidate’s claim that he was admitted to West Point on a full scholarship—have not swayed Havely’s faith in Carson. “I don’t doubt anything he says,” he says.</p><p>What is shocking to Havely is that the play is not being staged this year—the first time, he says, since its debut in 1994.</p><p>Havely suspects that the directors and crew at Toby’s Youth Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, where the play was born, wanted to avoid any association with Carson’s politics. The theater’s spokesperson rejects that notion, saying that the book on which the play is based is falling out of favor with teachers. “No political agenda on our part,” Janine Sunday of Toby’s told <span class=”cms-magazineStyles-smallCaps”>Politico</span> in an email. “Just trying to make connections between theatre and the core lessons the students are learning.” </p><p>“It’s the perfect time to do the show,” Havely says. “My jaw is on the ground.”</p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>Havely had never heard</b> of Carson before he won the role.</p><p>In 1993, Havely, a tenor for the National Opera, was performing in a play at Toby’s about Jackie Robinson, but the show closed after local school officials complained there was too much racially insensitive language. The theater went looking for substitute play that would meet the Howard County school system’s list of characteristics it wanted to nurture in its students. The group initially thought of Ben Franklin before discovering another Ben’s story.</p><p>For Carole Graham Lehan, the playwright who’s now an arts instructor at Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City, Maryland, Carson was the ideal subject for children’s theater, a vessel for kids to “imagine the inner life” at an early age.</p><br><p>And Havely, she thought, fresh from his aborted performance as the color barrier-defying baseball player, was the perfect actor to take on the role.</p><p>Havely went to school on Carson: He softened his imposing 6-foot-2 framed and toned down his muscular voice to match the slighter Carson’s gentle movements and whispery voice. “I went and interviewed him, I followed him, I watched his patterns. I watched him do lectures in Baltimore. I’ve got all these videos of him. I studied him,” Havely says. </p><p>The play’s plot hewed closely to the 1990 memoir <i>Gifted Hands</i>—Carson’s poor childhood in Detroit, his bigamist father, his mother, Sonya’s, insistence that he and his brother write book reports even though her third-grade education prevented her from being able to read them. And it made dramatic use of the moment Carson says defined his life—when he claims he stabbed a friend and then prayed in a bathroom for three hours for God to take away his “pathological” anger. </p><p>“This young boy with the knife would have ended up in jail or reform school!” the narrator says as Havely, in a surgeon’s smock, turns around to face the audience. “That man with the knife led a team of 70 on a groundbreaking operation!”</p><p>That story gained new scrutiny Thursday when CNN <a href=”http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/05/politics/ben-carson-2016-childhood-violence/” target=”_blank”>interviewed childhood friends</a> of Carson’s from Detroit who said they didn’t remember ever hearing of such an attack. Carson later admitted that he made up the name of the boy he says he stabbed, but Havely stands by the overall veracity of Carson’s account.</p><blockquote><p>I’m super nervous,” he recalls. “Ben comes up and he just starts crying. He said that it was so accurate, it was like he was reliving it.”</p></blockquote><p>“That’s what the whole show is about! He never hid any of that,” Havely said Friday. “The whole point of us doing the show was us showing this.”</p><p>Carson and his family did more than simply green-light the production. Carson donated family photographs for a video that was projected behind the stage. “Anything we needed, he would give us,” Havely says. Sometimes that included gentle directions on how to play certain scenes.</p><p>Havely remembers the first time he played Ben Carson in front of Ben Carson, a kind of thrill he had never approached.</p><p>“I’m super nervous,” he recalls. “Ben comes up and he just starts crying. He said that it was so accurate, it was like he was reliving it.”</p><p>Havely’s performance schedule was tireless. During the school year <a href=”http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2008-02-06/news/0802060247_1_ben-carson-benjamin-carson-pediatric-neurosurgery” target=”_blank”>it was common</a> for him to perform the show for several thousand students from 50 or more schools in a matter of a few days. Often the schools would make a trip to Toby’s Theatre in Columbia, but Havely and the cast would also take the minimalist production on the road. The show went from a local novelty to a sprawling exposition of Ben Carson literature, including his self-help book <i>Think Big</i>.</p><p>As Carson told <span class=”cms-magazineStyles-smallCaps”>Politico</span> in an email, “The play was supposed to go for one season and went on for more than 20.”</p><br><p>Over the years, the Carson family remained devoted to the production. Sonya Carson, Ben’s mother, came to a performance of the play every other week, according to Havely. She was a constant critic of her son’s character and her own, letting Havely and the play’s directors know when the fictional &quot;Mama&quot; got a little too sharp-tongued. In a 1997 feature about Sonya Carson in <i>Parade Magazine</i>, she asked the author to accompany her to the play, where she basked in the “moist eyes” of the students around her. </p><p>Havely says that area teachers would arrange for children who had been operated on by Carson to attend the play. Havely would feature them in the post-show Q&amp;A session. He believes the idea of kids seeing Carson’s patients in their classrooms and social circles served to accentuate the force of the Ben Carson lore.</p><p>The real Carson saw the play at least once every year starting in 1994. The surgeon, Havely says, didn’t just come to watch. Once, while bringing a group from the Carson Scholars Fund to a performance, Carson stood up in the front row to play himself in the play about himself. “It was cute, because I got ready to end the play, and I go, ‘I have an answer for that: it’s think big!’ He’s in the front row and he goes, ‘Let me take that from here.’ And he comes up, and everybody applauded. It was the coolest thing,” Havely says. On several occasions, Carson brought Havely to dinners and Scholars Fund events to appear in character for a selection of the most memorable scenes.</p><p>Although he was invited several times to the Carson home, Havely declined: Two Ben Carsons at one dinner table would be complicated.</p><p>“I was just in awe of him. I didn’t go because I felt like I would have overstepped my bounds. He has an aura. You meet him, and it’s different than what you think.” Havely grabs my hand to imitate Carson’s handshake—so light it’s almost impossible to feel.</p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>One of the early audience</b> members was David Fraser, now in law school at the University of Baltimore. Fraser grew up in predominantly African-American Randallsville, went to Baltimore County public schools and studied political science at Johns Hopkins. He was in third grade at Hebbville Elementary in 1995 when he first read <i>Gifted Hands</i> and went to the play. He then went to see it again in 1997 after reading <i>Think Big</i> for the first time.</p><br><p><br />“Ben Carson was like a rock star. That’s the image that was crafted of him,” Fraser says. “We were just constantly told his story over and over again by teachers and administrators. If you didn’t want to hear about his story, if you didn’t want to read his book or talk about him, you had everyone in the class looking at you sideways. You were supposed to see him this way. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it.”</p><p>Once, in elementary school, Fraser traveled to Johns Hopkins to see Carson talk to a group of young kids. The emphasis his schooling put on the reading and the play still sticks with him.</p><p>“I think all of us left with something—seeing all of the things we read about played out in front of us,” he adds. “But the story was reiterated so much and talked about so much that it may have gotten to a point where kids took it for granted and didn’t even process it.”</p><blockquote><p>“The play was supposed to go for one season and went on for more than 20,” Carson says. </p></blockquote><p>For Christy Watts, who grew up in Annapolis and saw Havely’s Carson as a student at Magothy River Middle School in 2002, the political candidate makes it hard to discern what is and isn’t real about the Ben Carson she knew growing up.</p><p>“It’s contradictory, the stuff he talks about,” she says. “If you went through all that, I’m not sure how you can have his [current] perspective.”</p><p>Fraser agrees: “I never would have thought that he had any interest in president. You’re a world renowned doctor; why do you want the headache of being president?</p><p>“I did not see a lot of things he’s said and put out there coming. I was stunned.”</p><p>The teachers who took their students to see the play year after year say Carson’s story—and its adaptation on stage—had a value that can’t be undone by any controversy emerging from the campaign trail. Danielle Finley, a fifth grade teacher at William Tyler Page Elementary just north of Silver Spring, Maryland, where Havely lives, brought 60 kids to see the play as recently as 2011. According to Finley, her classes are diverse racially and socioeconomically and have delighted in Havely’s Carson. </p><br><p>“When you’re talking about someone who’s now famous, but is from the area, I think the kids can relate to it more. A lot of our kids have never left the state of Maryland,” she says. “[The play] gave some of them hope, especially the kids who had a not-so-great reputation. It gave them hope that they could turn things around and make something out of themselves.”</p><p>“For many of the young audience members, it was their first exposure to theater. That’s quite a shame but also an honor,” Lehan says. </p><p>“We were showing these kids that it didn’t matter where you came from: You can turn your life around. I definitely know that I’ve changed a lot of kids’ lives,” Havely says. “Seeing how they didn’t have any kind of formula or any way of thinking it was possible … I have people who are now teachers who were kids who came and saw me in the first four or five years who tell me they became teachers because of me, and I tell them, ‘Not because of me, because of Ben!’”</p><p>The play fortified Carson’s instruction-minded community work, and the Fund provided a copy of <i>Gifted Hands</i> to children who attended the production. </p><p>Carson himself insists the play was not a tool for self-mythologizing.</p><p>“It had a tremendous impact on thousands of children,” Carson says. “The only benefit I derived from [it] was seeing how it inspired the lives of so many young people.”</p><p>Lehan believes any inspiration stemming from Carson’s story is still independent of his politics: “The story of how a young man went from wielding a knife in the street to using a scalpel in the operating room is not changed by a political career.”</p><p class=”cms-textAlign-center”>***</p><p><b>Twenty-one years in character</b> has changed Havely even as it helped cement the public’s view of Carson.</p><p>“It’s the role that’s changed me the most. It’s one thing to do a role and create what you think the person is like. So to actually get to meet the person and then have that person see you!”</p><br><p>Havely grew up in Glenarden and Fort Washington, Maryland and studied music and theater at the conservatory at Shenandoah University. He later spent time at the Air Force Academy, performing in its band in places as far away as Hawaii and Greenland. Now he leads his own group: a big band orchestra that plays presidential inaugural balls and other lavish events in the Washington area. Havely played Al Gore’s daughter’s wedding, where he remembers seeing a long line of young women waiting to dance with Bill Clinton. He recounts the time he got to sing Harry Belafonte in front of Harry Belafonte. In a few weeks, he’ll sing as a tenor in the National Opera in “Appomattox,” <a href=”http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/OQOSA” target=”_blank”>a Philip Glass production</a> that ties together American Civil Rights movements.</p><p>“[Theater] was like my little thing I wanted to do. I wanted to break the color barrier. I wanted to do things that were opposite of the things stereotypical black people wanted to do. I didn’t want to just play sports; I wanted to do theater, I wanted to do opera, I wanted to do classical,” Havely says. “For black kids to be able to come and see a black person in a show, and it was about them, so that they’d have a little more pride. Here’s this black guy that came out of poverty who lives right down the street from you, and it’s like, ‘Wow, he did do that?’”</p><p>Sunday says there’s a possibility the play will return next year. For now, though, Havely won’t be driving to area schools and theaters to continue his life’s work as the renowned local surgeon. “I’m left out hanging,” he laments. He says he told the real Carson he would be willing to appear in character on the campaign trail at fundraisers, but he hasn’t heard back. </p><p>After more than two decades of use, the smock is now in the closet.<br /></p><br>

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