George Corbin didn’t retire when he retired.
He left State Farm in 2004 after working for 37 years in leadership positions, including Director of Human Resources. But the Thousand Oaks resident isn’t the type to spend retirement parked in a Barcalounger glued to the TV set. He has always been active—traveling with his college sweetheart and wife of 50 years, Lien, and, until recently, staying in shape with tennis.
Corbin, 74, has also been involved in community affairs for years, particularly in education. Credits include PTA president when his now-adult daughter attended Thousand Oaks High School, co-designer of the curriculum for Ventura County Leadership Academy and member of the California Lutheran University School of Business, Board of Counselors.
So it was no surprise he went on to teach HR classes at Cal State Northridge and later CLU, where for 10 years he was an adjunct professor in the Business Department. Corbin only resigned because of health issues.
What was unexpected was the left turn he took onto a path he’d never considered.
“I had an idea for a story and thought it would work best as a play,” says Corbin, who had no previous background in drama or writing. “It was about a group of black fraternity brothers who, 30 years after graduating, are at a remote African resort where they’re threatened by dangerous ‘boy soldiers.’ It was never staged, but it started me on my journey as a playwright.”
Corbin, who is African-American and a native of Bermuda, graduated Penn State University in 1965 as a Psychology major. With no training as a writer, he realized he was out of his depth. “I enjoyed the process but didn’t know what I was doing,” he laughs. In 2010, Corbin enrolled in a playwriting workshop at the Robey Theatre Company in Los Angeles. The theatre is named for the great black actor, Paul Robeson.
“The class was energizing,” says Corbin, who took three sessions, every Saturday, for over five years. “Students were creative and came from all backgrounds—from a PhD to a former gang member.”
The workshop provided a place to explore concepts and to critique each others’ plays in a supportive way. “We also met with a dramaturge on a one-to-one basis, and at the end of a session, actors gave readings of our work.”
The first play he tackled at the Robey was “Thunderclouds,” about the Cherokee Freedmen controversy.
“After the Civil War, black slaves owned by the Cherokee and other Native Americans in the Southeast were emancipated and given tribal citizenship by the United States government,” says Corbin. “In the 1980s, the Cherokee Nation changed the rule, recognizing only those descendants of the Freedmen who proved to be Cherokee by blood. The case went to court.”
The play wasn’t produced but did have a reading at Moments Playhouse in Los Angeles.
A prolific author, he has written 15 short plays, nine performed at festivals, and seven full-length plays, two of which have been professionally produced. And while not all of his works are based on historical events, such as his first produced play, “Sabado Mornings,” about finding love in middle age, Corbin likes to shine a light on obscure episodes in history. “These stories played a significant role in our country’s evolution, but few are aware of them,” he says.
His most recent work, “The Daughters of the Kush,” was performed at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood this past October. Inspired by a true event, it is set in 1963 during the Civil Rights movement at a black sorority, Kappa Lambda Nu, also known as The Daughters of the Kush.
A white, Jewish pledge ends up dead. The campus police must figure out if it was an accident or suicide.
The idea for the story came to him from a newspaper article about the 2002 drowning deaths of two Cal State LA students in what was speculated to have been a hazing ritual while pledging a black sorority. The sisters closed ranks and didn’t willingly cooperate with the investigation.
“Hazing isn’t new, the thing that triggered my interest was the detective’s comments,” says Corbin. “The detective looking into the incident for one of the student’s family, said, ‘I’ve had an easier time infiltrating street gangs than penetrating this organization.’”
Like in the real-life incident, the sisters in the play decide to protect their sorority from scandal and lawsuits.
The play isn’t just a whodunnit, says Corbin. There are deeper issues.
“There’s the moral question about loyalty to your group, in this case, the tribal connection to the sorority, versus doing the right thing,” he says.
Another point to consider is how one powerful, influential individual can hijack the best of us and the best of an organization. “You need to keep a watchful eye and act if there’s a deviation from ethical behavior. But most people just go along to get along,” he says. “The choice sounds easy in the abstract but not in reality.”
The play also brings up racial bias. “Here it is, over 50 years since I graduated from Penn State. If you had told me this was still going on, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says, describing recent racist incidents on college campuses.
In his play, it’s Clara, one of the black sorority sisters who is prejudiced against the white pledge for personal reasons. “It would’ve been too easy to set it up the other way around,” he explains.
“The Daughters of the Kush” was developed at the Robey Theatre and then had a reading at the Towne Street Theatre in L.A. Its director, Veronica Thompson, is affiliated with Towne Street and had directed Corbin’s short play “Galveston,” about the immigration port known as the “Ellis Island of the West” during the turn of the last century. Mel Johnson of Moments Playhouse served as consultant, and Corbin took on the additional role of producer. “I learned a lot about mounting a play,” Corbin says. “I oversaw everything from the publicity to helping choose the cast.”
At the advice of several people in the film industry, Corbin is turning “The Daughters of the Kush” into a screenplay. “I also have another play ready to go about the housing covenants in Los Angeles if someone can come up with the money,” he says.
Corbin enjoys using his imagination, writing dialogue and connecting what seem like disparate elements into an interesting story. “I’m not a golfer,” he says. “Some people have a mid-life crisis and get a sports car. I’d rather be in a coffee shop with my laptop.”
What he finds most gratifying is seeing his creation brought to life on stage and observing how directors and actors interpret his words and characters in ways he never thought of before.
His family is proud of him and noted he holds the three P’s of careers: Personnel Director, Professor and Playwright.
Corbin isn’t the only one to flex a creative muscle in retirement. Lien, a former elementary school teacher, has become an artist.
“Just find your passion and go for it,” Corbin says. “What do you have to lose? The key is to learn something new and enjoy yourself.”