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Accepting The Torch: A New Generation of Leads & Legends

Drew Shade

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Photos by Felix Kunze @Felixkunze
Creative Direction & Produced by Dual Phocus Productions @dual.phocus
Hair & Clothing Stylist: Chloe Chada’ @quintessentially_chloe
MUA: William Bob Scott @bobscott200

For many, the love of theatre begins with a visual. A performance of some sort, the sparkling twinkle that reflects off a bedazzled costume, a set piece that you just know in your heart you should be walking on, or maybe even a tune with such a striking melody that you can’t get it out of your head.  Once it’s planted there, there’s usually no turning back. No forgetting that moment of pure joy and satisfaction in knowing that one day it’ll be you on that stage or you helping to make that kind of magic happen.

Yes, for some, the dream may change at some point but they’ll never forget their initiation. It’s a part of them. However, there are those that push forward through it all. They train and condition themselves to stay on the path and ultimately run the course, hoping to break record time in the relay race of Broadway, catching up to the one in front of them stretching and reaching for the baton. A baton that is on fire. A baton so hot that only a few can hold it, it’s that hot. There’s an insane amount of work to do to even get the chance to grab it but even more work and efforts to hold on to it but also an extreme honor at the same time.

I had the chance to talk with four of the 2016 Tony Award nominees and a previous Tony Award winner about their journey and what it takes to pass and receive the Broadway Black torch. Out of the 18 African-American nominees we chose to talk with Brandon Victor Dixon, (Best Feature Actor in a Musical for Shuffle Along) Saycon Sengbloh (Best Featured Actress in a Play for Eclipsed) , Pascale Armand, (Best Featured Actress in a Play for Eclipsed, Adrienne Warren (Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Shuffle Along) and the torch bearer and trailblazer LaChanze (2006 Tony Award-winner. Best Leading Actress in a Musical for the original mounting of The Color Purple), as they also took part in an exclusive photo shoot with acclaimed photographer Felix Kunze.  Each one had some very inspiring and encouraging words to say that I think truly capture what it means to be a part of the Broadway Black community

2016 Tony Nominees for Broadway Black by Felix Kunze

(l-r) LaChanze, Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh, Brandon Victor Dixon, Adrienne Warren,

“We all [Tony Award Winners], we always assume that the next year we’ll get a chance to pass the baton to the next person. I’ve always thought of it as a rite of passage. An acknowledgment that you’re including someone else into the realm of winners or people who are fortunate enough to receive this wonderful accolade. I’ve always imagined it would be sort of a tradition to do that. Something I’ve always thought that only people who’ve won Tonys can really do, pass the torch. There have been so few people of color who’ve won in my category and in the history since the Tonys began. It just feels right to be able to do that this year. I’d tell the nominees, first, sleep. As much as you can, sleep. Also, enjoy yourself, enjoy the moment. Don’t let anything slip by. Do it all. You’ll be able to look back and be glad that you did it.”LaChanze

“This season is classic and historic. I’m feeling very excited. Excited for myself, As well as to see how Broadway Black is growing. I was born and raised in Atlanta. My mom is American and my Dad is from Libera. Hearing my Dad’s accent or my sister’s accent always penetrated me even though I always spoke with my American accent. So when it was time to call on the Liberian side for this show [Eclipsed], I said “What? when has anyone ever asked me to do that?” So, I welcomed the challenge. That’s what you always have to do. “ –  Saycon Sengbloh 

“Everyone who knows me knows the struggle has been long and hard. I’ve been at it for a second. I never thought for the longest time that it was a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if,’ like some people. I’ve just been hustling and hoofing it for so long. I never even thought about the Tonys. I wanted to work. For all the times young Pascale sat in a puddle crying thinking “I’m going to find a corporate America job, get my benefits,” and all that. I’d tell her, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, dry all the tears, and keep it at. It’s going to happen you just have to be patient. Wait for it. It’s coming.” There had been so many times where I didn’t know that and was so close to throwing it all away. Then I would look at a student loan bill and think I didn’t pay all this money to quit now.”Pascale Armand

“It’s a big year. It’s exciting to be nominated. It’s a wonderful year. Extraordinary talent. And I’m glad it’s a diverse body of storytelling and talent that’s on display because these really are my people. My boys, my people, my friends. We’re here! I would go crazy if Adrienne Warren won but I’ll go ham if Renee wins. Leslie’s my boy. Lin’s my boy. It’s just a celebratory time. [Being here] is icing on the cake. We have wonderful shows that are sold out. Broadway is doing really well.” – Brandon Victor Dixon

“I’m so grateful for the show [Shuffle Along] and the story we’re telling. How blessed  we are to be able to  tell this story, in this way, with these people. We come to work every day and we realize that we have a story to tell to represent these people who have deserved recognition for so many years and now they’re finally getting it. That’s the best gift I could possibly ever get. I’m so proud of everyone that’s a part of this amazing season.”Adrienne Warren

2016 Tony Nominees Character shots for Broadway Black by Felix Kunze - Tony Awardees - low res

Founder/Editor-In-Chief of BroadwayBlack.com | Actor | Artist | 1/3 of @OffBookPodcast | Theatre connoisseur | All Audra Everything | Caroline over Change | I'm Not Charl Brown | Norm Lewis is my play cousin | Producing an all-black production of Mame starring Jenifer Lewis in my head

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1 Comment

  1. Karen Owes

    June 6, 2016 at 10:44 PM

    Andrew Shade this was another great article! Can not wait to see you agin at “Harlem Nights!”. You are an inspiration and your enthusiaism is contagious. Karen R. Owes

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Features

Q&A: Kyle Beltran & Kristolyn Lloyd Talk Blue Ridge, Actor Growth, What Makes Them Smile & More!

Drew Shade

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Kyle Beltran & Krystloyn Lloyd Photo by Drew Shade

Kristolyn Lloyd (Dear Evan Hanson, Paradise Blue) and Kyle Beltran (In The Heights, Head of Passes, The Cherry Orchard)  are currently starring in Blue Ridge through Sunday, January 27th, 2019 Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company in the Linda Gross Theater .

Kristolyn Lloyd & Kyle Beltran Photo by Drew Shade

A progressive high-school teacher with a rage problem retaliates against her unscrupulous boss and is sentenced to six months at a church-sponsored halfway house, where she attends to everyone’s recovery but her own. Set in Southern Appalachia, Blue Ridge is a pitch-dark comedy about heartbreak, hell-raising and healing.

Get into the gems dropped by the pair in this Q&A below!

When did you first know you wanted to become an actor?
Kristolyn Lloyd: I was 17 playing Hamlet in a high school production that would compete all around the state and I was sitting with my director mapping out Hamlets arc in the show. It was like a bolt of lighting, “I wanna do this for the rest of my life.”I had always been obsessed with performing for family, at my church, and in school shows. The kind of bubbly nervous I got before going on stage was so different from the gut-wrenching nerves I felt before a track or swim meet. I knew what I was doing when I went out on stage. I felt powerful and I felt like I finally belonged somewhere.
Kyle Beltran (KB): I knew from an early age. I was an only child with a very vivid imagination and I loved playing pretend to occupy myself and to entertain others. I performed constantly for my family–skits, magic shows, song and dance. I was obsessed with movies, music and musicals. Someone suggested to my parents that they should seek out representation for me and I signed with my first agent at age four. I grew up auditioning for and, sometimes, shooting commercials.
 
I was in my first school play in fifth grade, which really ignited my love for the theater and I performed in countless shows over the years, in school and at summer camp.
A big turning point for me, though, was when I transferred from the University of Pennsylvania to the drama school at Carnegie Mellon, after my freshman year. I’d always been very serious about academics, but once I got to college, the pull in my gut towards the arts was almost painful. I knew that if I wanted to pursue a career in the business, I needed to be the best craftsman I could possibly be. Making that the decision felt like the first real, adult step towards following my dreams.
 
What about Blue Ridge made you say “Yes! I want to do that.” …?
KL: The overall attempt at articulating the current conversation regarding race and privilege and the complexity of love. I felt like “Cherie” was someone I could identify with and I wanted to tell HER story. She felt so familiar. I wanted her to win. I wanted to spend time on her story and in her skin and her emotions.
 
KB: I was so excited when I read Blue Ridge because the writing is so layered, so hilarious and heartbreaking, so nuanced and subtle in its exploration of these huge socio-political and socio-psychological ideas. The play is richly and specifically drawn with no “good” or “bad guys.” The character I play, Wade, is recovering from a life-derailing addiction and quietly working very hard through past traumas and anger issues to become the best version of himself. I feel very lucky to get to bring him to life.

 

How have you grown as an actor in the last year? How have you grown since starting Blue Ridge?
KL: I think I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for directors. Every director I’ve worked with in the last year has trusted me and allowed me to have a voice and take risks. I made a decision this year to trust my director more and honor their third eye. I think as actors we make decisions about characters and get nervous or insecure when those choices are challenged. I want to direct one day so I want to be the kind of collaborative actor I would want to work with when I’m on the other side of the table. Taibi was so easy to trust. She is open and vulnerable and humble and it only made me want to hear her vision and thoughts more.
 
KB: I’ve been fortunate enough to be in four completely different plays in the last year–all new works, by talented writers. I’ve been stretched to work in different styles, playing characters with wildly varied personalities, ages, and arcs. It’s been exhausting and exhilarating. I’ve also lived through substantial show business heartbreak, which sometimes provides even more personal growth than the work does. I’ve learned so much this year about patience, grace, and resilience.
(more questions after the photo gallery)
What have you learned from doing this particular show? What have the themes of the play taught you?
KL: I have grown a deeper empathy for people. We are all just people walking around doing our best with all our baggage and trauma from childhood. No one is safe from their triggers and insecurities. So like, be kind and mind your business lol!
 
KB: Working on Blue Ridge has been such a gift. The creative team, cast, and crew are full of smart, kind, passionate people. In rehearsal, we had so many amazing conversations about race, gender, addiction, politics, religion, education, etc. It’s been an experience that has reminded me again of the power of empathy. We’re all doing the best with can with our unique set of life circumstances and traumas. Everyone is in a different place on the path toward healing, but everyone deserves compassion. Although, it can be hard to locate sometimes for people who are lashing out, or behaving in ways that harm others.
 
What is something that you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out as an actor?
KL: Trust your instincts and the skills you possess and be constantly working to improve them.
KB: I wish I would’ve started practicing more self-compassion earlier. Letting go of perfectionism, self-flagellation, comparison to others. My advice to my younger self and to young actors is to keep returning your attention to the work over and over, like a meditation. There are a lot of distractions in the business. Be kind to yourself and others. Be patient. Hold on to your passion and joy. If you’re in the business long enough, you are guaranteed to see great successes and failures. It’s all opportunity for growth. Truly.
 
Do you think you really understood what you were in for when you decided you wanted to become an actor?
KL: Nope. Not. At. All.
KB: I don’t think anything can prepare you for life as an actor. It’s more painful AND magical that I could ever articulate. It’s good to listen to and borrow from the wisdom of people who are ahead of you in the journey. At the same time, everyone’s path is so different. Only experience can teach you.
 
What role would you love to play that you haven’t yet?
KL: Anything opposite Kyle Beltran
KB: I would love to do more Shakespeare. Hamlet, Prince Hal, Romeo, Mercutio, Ariel, Puck, to name a few.
 
What makes you smile?
KL: Kyle Beltran
KB: So many things… Good books, movies, music, plays, television. Meditation. Friends and family. My Blue Ridge castmates. Kristolyn Lloyd! People fighting for democracy.

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Features

There’s No One Like Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauties

Jamara Wakefield

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In this multi-part series, Broadway Black interviews Poet Ntozake Shange.

The Legendary Blue Note Jazz Club located in NYC’s Greenwich Village was buzzing in anticipation of Ntozake Shange’s performance of Wild Beauties. Before the start of the show, I interview Shange’s friends, family, and long time fans, asking them “what they were most looking forward to?”

Although hard to believe, it has been over 40 years since the creation of Shange’s seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Blue Note audience member’s stories span decades; set in New York City, The Bay Area and every town or city in between.

They recall the moments they felt visible in her poetry. They blush as they confess they performed in local productions of For colored girls as lady in red, lady in green or other women in the play. They smile reciting lines from sechita, pyramid and “no more love poems #1. #2, #3 & #4.” They are nostalgic as they tell me about seeing Shange’s work on and off Broadway. They compare the play to the 1982 PBS American Playhouse production, to the Tyler Perry Film with strong opinions about each iteration. Each felt ownership and protective of Shange’s work. Each came to see the artist whose work changed their lives. 

At the end of their testimony, there is a pause. Their unending love for Shange is coupled with their concerns for her. I disclose I am writing about the performance and as a result, many ask me with caution in their eyes, about her health.

Is she healthy (enough to do this)?  Is she too old to do this?  Will this be her last performance?

These questions are caring and well meaning yet, problematic; heavily anchored in western cosmologies about health and our fears of a changing body. I graciously shift the conversation, encouraging them to relax and enjoy the show. As a journalist, I understand it is important to address these curiosities as it relates to Shange’s most recent performance and the legacy of her work.

I had the pleasure to sit with Shange the morning of her Blue Note performance. She candidly discusses her health, her body and her excitement to be performing again since recovering from stroke related medical complications over the last decade. It’s no secret that stroke rehabilitation has been an important part of recovery, as she shared the successes and setbacks on her journey towards wellness.  “I went through a period where I didn’t write. I didn’t perform. I concentrated on my physical rehabilitation. I had to learn how to hold things, how to sit up how to stand.” 

She is thrilled with the progress she continues to make in rehab. Shange who is a gorgeous 68-year-old woman glows when she talks about dancing. She approaches her physical therapy as if it were a movement workshop often asking her cab drivers to play Latin music and dances in the back seat as she rides.

In our conversation, she strikes me as a fiercely independent woman.  She is a Black artist who takes pride in the craft of her poetry. Shange reluctantly depends on speech recognition software to write poetry as the software seeks to not only auto correct but colonize the beauty of black phraseology that is the essence of her work.

Her writing uses a Black talk that dances like jazz telling stories of the diaspora. Her work is the embodiment of Blackness moving in the air to manifest emotion, uniquely her own and there is no one on earth who can replicate. Software certainly can’t do what Shange can do and this is a source of her frustration.

Shange tells me Maya Angelou sent her children’s books to read as she regained her speech. She tells me about times when walking, moving and certainly dancing was impossible. How getting a typewriter helped her feel more connected to her work. She still has poems to write and desires this connection to her words. 

She shares that rehearsals are going well and how she loves working with musicians  William “Spaceman” Patterson,  Michael Raye and Patmore Lewis. She is ecstatic to be back on stage in front of audiences. This is the conversation I am recalling in my mind as audience members whisper to me about her health. This is the reason I decline to speculate, I figure Shange would do what Shange came to do. Perform poems. Dance. Take Names.

The return to the stage at Blue Note feels like a homecoming for Shange. She explains ” I began working in night clubs with musicians reading my poetry. That is how for colored girls started. I feel like it’s the beginning again.”

At the start of the night, the announcer welcomes the audience to Blue Note, painfully mispronouncing her name. The audience rumbled, rolling their eyes in her defense while yelling “Its N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-gay. Her name is N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-ga!”  said many voices from neighboring tables.

When the musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson & Michael Raye take the stage the audience tosses their annoyance aside and settles in for the show. Shange soon followed. The audience gives a standing ovation before she utters a word.

She came out swinging. Normally Shange likes to ease audiences into her work offering safety at the start of her sets but she had something to say about PRIDE. Her opening poem, ODE TO ORLANDO is about the Orlando Night Club Tragedy.  In June 2016, 49 people were killed and 58 wounded due to hate a crime inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shange lyrically takes audiences to the inside of Pulse nightclub where the black and brown queer bodies gather to celebrate Pride month. Her poem collages stories of her daughter who could’ve been there but wasn’t there. This poem is timely and tender, embracing the spirit of Pride season while not forgetting the need for LGBTQ liberation all year around.

 She shares a poem titled LOOSENING STRINGS, OR GIVE ME AN “A”. Shange, a self-described Black girl who grew up listening to “white boys who sang weird harmonies that all sound the same” on the radio states “Yes, Eric Clapton made me want to have a child named Layla.” She has a sense of humor. The audience laughs in tune with her confessions.

Shange like a bandleader of a jazz orchestra moves us through experiences that are terrifying and soft. In THERE ARE NO MARKERS, she reminds us of the brutal reality of Blackness in America. She draws the audience into her world with I had five nose rings.

I had five nose rings

a gold circle

a silver circle

a star

nefertiti

& a half moon

without these I am unarmed

not ready for arbitrary violence

There is no question that Shange captivates audiences. Her poetry, her presence her aura is magnetic.  We have heard her words in cafes in local theaters, on Broadway and in Hollywood performed by some of the greatest Black actresses of all time, yet there is nothing like hearing Shange perform her own work. She is beautiful and particular. It is this closeness with her, her words, her journey that audiences are still yearning for 40  years after for colored girls took Broadway by storm at the Booth Theatre in NYC. 

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