Richard Antoine White looks back on his life — poverty and an unsettled family life growing up in Sandtown; tuba studies at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Peabody Institute and Indiana University; his current jobs with the New Mexico Philharmonic and University of New Mexico — and sums it up simply:
“The American Dream is still alive and well,” White says, “regardless of your circumstances.”
White’s successful pursuit of that dream has been chronicled in the documentary “R.A.W.” (White’s initials) by Baltimore filmmakers Darren Durlach and David Larson, co-founders of Early Light Media.
They hope to put the finishing touches on the project and get it in circulation at film festivals with the help of a $40,000 crowdfunding campaign through Indigogo.com. As of Nov. 1, about half the money has been raised.
“I feel honored and humbled that they wanted to do a film about me,” says White, 45. “There was an awe factor when they showed up in Albuquerque. I thought, you guys are really going to follow me around with a camera? But I trusted them to tell this story appropriately.”
Storytelling is a specialty for Durlach and Larson. They formed their production company not only to make a living (clients for their video work include companies and foundations, local and beyond), but also to give themselves an outlet for spotlighting worthy individuals and causes.
“Dave and I both have a background in journalism,” says Durlach, 36, a former Boston Globe photojournalist who also worked for several years with Larson at Baltimore’s WBFF-Ch. 45. “We were community journalists. Our favorite stories to tell were about people who overcame major obstacles; that was something we were inspired by and drawn to.”
The duo decided to direct that interest into Invisible Thread, a venture they envisioned as a series of “people-driven stories.”
They created the first Invisible Thread item in 2016 — “Throw,” a 10-minute documentary about Coffin Nachtmahr, a young man from East Baltimore who “grew up surrounded by violence,” Durlach says, to emerge as a yo-yo virtuoso.
“Throw” had a screening at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where Durlach and Larson met the school’s director, Chris Ford.
“We were talking with him about an idea we had for a feature film about the arts, specifically arts education, in our culture,” Durlach says, “how the arts are misunderstood, underfunded, and underutilized. And Chris said, ‘You know, who you need to talk to is Richard White.’ ”
That suggestion led the filmmakers to New Mexico, where the Baltimore School for the Arts alumnus settled nearly 15 years ago after earning his bachelor’s degree at Peabody, his master's and doctorate at Indiana University.
“The second we met Richard, we fell in love with him and were inspired by him,” Durlach says. “And the more we looked into him, we knew this would be the next episode of Invisible Thread.”
For several days, the filmmakers shadowed White to chronicle his life in Albuquerque, where he is principal tuba in the New Mexico Philharmonic and associate professor of tuba/euphonium and associate director of the Spirit Marching Band at the University of New Mexico.
The action then shifted to Baltimore, where more filming took place at the Baltimore School for the Arts and Peabody. The filmmakers also accompanied White to places in Sandtown, where he spent difficult years as a child and had largely avoided revisiting.
“Family members would sometimes let my mom and I sleep on a couch,” White says. “Sometimes I slept under a tree or in an abandoned house. My mom had problems with alcoholism and finally gave me up. Her foster parents took me in. I still don’t know all the story of my family. I’m searching for answers.”
White’s return to the neighborhood provided rich material for the filmmakers.
“What we witnessed was just a really beautiful, raw moment as the memories of his childhood came flooding back,” Larson, 35, says, “visiting the old water fountain where he would bathe, or [returning to] the streets where he grew up and running into a neighbor who remembered him as ‘baby Ricky.’ ”
That experience proved critical in the process of making the documentary.
“Richard remembers his stories with such clarity,” Durlach says.“But, as journalists, we were a little skeptical. When that neighbor came up, asking questions and telling stories just as Richard told them, that was extra-gratifying for us as filmmakers.”
After White’s life smoothed out with the help of his foster parents, he found himself drawn to music — first the trumpet, then the tuba, which he learned partly with the help of a self-teaching tape. That gave him the confidence to go to the Baltimore School for the Arts, ready to audition for admission. There was just one problem.
“I walked in and saw this guy,” White says. “I said, ‘Yo, I came to audition.’ He said, ‘Auditions were yesterday.’ ‘But I’m here today.’ ”
That man was Chris Ford, who gave in and listened. White gained admission.
“That proved to be a good decision on our part,” Ford says. “He was an incredible worker. Through sheer grit, he was pushing past everyone. And he was a delightful individual throughout. It was obvious he was on a path to a higher level, and we were there to help him along.”
Upon graduating, White entered Peabody on a scholarship and studied tuba studies with David Fedderly, who was then principal tuba with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
“I left almost every lesson crying,” White says. “But I thought, this isn’t going to kill me. I could make money if I’m good at it.”
And White was good at it. He performed with the Canadian Brass and several orchestras across the country before settling in New Mexico. He’s particularly passionate about baroque music (he has transcribed works of Bach for the tuba), along with the works of Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler.
“I don’t think I’m exceptionally talented,” White says. “I just work my butt off. I still practice music I already know as if I’ve never seen it before in my life.”
White (his website is rawtuba.com) also finds time to give motivational talks, especially to young people struggling with studies or the pressures of the music world.
“Richard moved from someone who needed a handout to someone who now puts his hand out to help others,” Ford says. “He’s been really powerful mentoring some of our kids.”
Durlach and Larson hope to condense the life and rewards of White’s life into a film of about 15 to 20 minutes. They are counting on the crowdfunding campaign — their first — to get “R.A.W.” completed this month.
“It’s kind of awkward to ask the public for help,” Larson says. “But to do this right takes so much money. We have been putting almost endless amounts of time into this because we believe in the story so much. We think this [film] could maybe have some small impact on the most vulnerable population of Baltimore.”
White sees that possibility, too.
“I believe there are hundreds of Richard Whites in Baltimore, but people just don’t care,” he says. “If more people did, you’d see an amazing metamorphosis of this city.”