Angela Birchett is a dynamic vocalist & actor. Since deciding to follow her dreams of musical theatre to New York City in 2005, Angela has captivated audiences in several regional and U.S. touring productions. She made her Broadway debut last year in the Tony Award winning revival of The Color Purple. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Angela sat down and shared with us little more about her journey
and where she is now. Currently taking on the role of Effie Melody White at the Village Theatre in Everett Washington, Birchett rubs a little of her Dreamgirls magic off on us and it definitely will make you as happy as it made us. Caution: inspiration below.
Growing up in Detroit, what influenced you to pursue musical theatre?
Honestly, I didn’t grow up listening to musicals. I was a church girl. I grew up singing in and directing choirs at a very young age. One summer my Mom found a summer arts program with music and theatre and dance. You know moms want you busy, you’re not going to sit around the house. Well, that whole experience changed my whole view of theatre. We ended the program with the musical Purlie and I was cast as “Missy.” The youngest cast member cast as one of the oldest roles. Thanks to Clyde Harper who cast me & Rick Sperling founder/artistic director of the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit who directed me in the role. I have a long history with Mosaic but that is how I got my start.
What has been the biggest thing you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest thing has been honoring, taking ownership, and being proud of who I am as a person, not a singer or a performer. I stop and think, who am I? You can’t be defined by what you do. What you do is not who you are. It’s a daily thing though. It helps me not to worry about not being enough this or that or too much this or that. I fully embrace myself.
What was the magnitude of you booking your first Broadway show with The Color Purple Tony Award winning Revival?
It’s still hard for me to put into words. I think the intensity of it and the audition process was very fast. It didn’t really hit me until maybe about a week later. Two of the company members presented me a production jacket with my name on it. I could just bust out and cry because it’s hard sometimes. I know I’ve walked out of an audition feeling misunderstood but to know that you made the connection and your dream is happening is quite surreal. To this day, I still say “Wow! That really happened.” It was numbing. It truly meant so much.
What did you learn and take away from your time during The Color Purple?
Coming into a show that was already successful is a little intimidating. There were moments where I questioned could I do this but the biggest thing I learned was “You belong here so act like it. Don’t get in here and now get shook.” Being a swing in your first Broadway show is a hard thing to walk into. It taught me going forward that I am here because I belong here and I will act accordingly.
What made you want to take on such a big role like Effie White in Dreamgirls?
Well, Dreamgirls is always one of those shows that kind of eluded me. I always knew I could do it, I sing it, I could play her but things never really worked out. I would get so close with different productions or not considered at all. So, when the opportunity came I jumped at it. This is a challenge and something that I wanted to do. This was my chance to really see what I have and to push myself. I gladly took on the challenge and I’m happy I did.
It’s making me better as a person as a performer. The discipline you need to be able to do this show night after night is life changing.
What’s the favorite part of the show for you?
The hardest part. It’s really where we start to see Effie crack. Once Heavy starts to the end of Act I is the most fun because it gives me a chance to find layers and make the stakes higher so when she finally does crack you crack with her. When you put it all together you get a little bit of annoyance but you feel for her.
What is the best advice you can give to inspire your younger self?
Don’t feel like you have to apologize for everything. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and allow it in other people, too. Be human. Be you and enjoy the person God made you.
Dreamgirls runs thru July 30th at The Village Theatre in Everette, Washington. Find out more information and purchase tickets HERE
Sing Girl Sing: One on One with Sojourners Playwright Mfoniso Udofia
Ask Nigerian-American playwright, actress and educator Mfoniso Udofia what her first love is and she’ll tell you, to the surprise of many, “singing.” Surprising only because in the last decade, the American Conservatory Theater graduate has become renowned for several of her writing and philanthropic efforts, not her ingenue operatic vocal stylings. She is currently busy with her most recent work Sojourners, which opened Jan 21.
Abasiama came to America with high hopes—for her arranged marriage and for her future—intent on earning a degree and returning to Nigeria. But when her husband is seduced by America, she must choose between the Nigerian and the American dream.
Still, Broadway Black got the chance to sit down with Udofia and discuss why she took a break from singing, how she defines her work, and what exactly is “Nigeria-dar.”
Broadway Black (BB): You’re just like…a master of everything!
Mfoniso Udofia (MU): Oh, my mother is like ‘Be careful Mfoniso, don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none!’ Because I did, I liked to dabble!
BB: What’s the last incredible show you saw?
MU: I just saw The Color Purple and Cynthia Erivo… it’s like my Nigeria-dar went off! She was so good, like incandescent. From this little body came this gorgeous, gorgeous voice. The Color Purple itself, by Alice Walker, the book tore me up. The movie destroyed me. Then watching it… I think I forgot how deep the story was and the type of healing that story demands. Alice Walker is a beast. Reading her canon is good for the Black body.
BB: So did seeing Color Purple inspire you at all [to want to return to acting/singing]?
MU: For a hot HOT second! But I don’t sing like that, and that was a big thing when I was auditioning. I think people want me to sound a very particular way, because of what I look like. So it’s gonna demand a breaking of our gaze which sometimes is easy and sometimes is not.
BB: There’s been a lot of talk about the white gaze over the different productions. What would you say to someone who is trying to work under what we might veil as a “white gaze?”
MU: Having the uncomfortable conversations, in the beginning, is important and right at the start dismantling privilege. I do think that is something that Playwrights Realm was wonderful working with me going, ‘Listen, the play I’m writing right now, the gaze from which I’m writing it is not the gaze that most western theatergoers might understand and I am not interested in changing the internal heartbeat that way’ and I was actually listened to. But, you can’t make an assumption that you are understood. I push from the beginning so that in the middle when I’m pushing it can’t be like ‘Oh, I didn’t know this might be coming one day.’ I’m pretty upfront.
BB: What is unique to you and your storytelling?
MU: I make sound. It’s poetry, really. I may break the form of what feels like spoken word. My father was giving me narratives to read when I was young and I think I started thinking in poetry and it’s leaked into my writing. I love it because it confounds itself. The line will play on six different levels. The way poetry and prose fuse…
BB: If you had to give it a name…?
MU: If I had to give it a name… [You can hear her struggling to create the vocabulary for her art] You’re asking me to create on the spot, you’re watching the creative mist [she laughs]…. It is “true north.” My poetry is the container in Sojourners and is true north in Run Boy Run.
BB: What do you want your audience to take away from Sojourners?
MU: I want them to have critical sight into what the African-Nigerian body actually is. How certain immigrants might have come here to build a life. Especially since now, we’re having really interesting conversations on immigrants and there’s a particular sense of phobia in certain pockets, so to really understand what it’s like. I want audiences to understand that the WAY immigrants come into this country, they’re varied, there might not even be a desire to stay, and that building within the Amerian dream is a particular crisis. I hope this play complicates the idea of the American Dream and makes us understand that when immigrants are coming in they’re coming in with their own dreams and will become a fuel for the American Dream.
Also, I do hope people start to grapple with the African body vis-à-vis the African American body and we start to build language and see where connections fail and where connections can be made between those two communities.
On the set of #Sojourners today with playwright @mfudofia! Tonight the first preview for her stellar new play happens at @playwrightsrealm! This off-Broadway play is a dynamic debut for a playwright who is bound to have many more produced! Can’t wait to share all of what we talked about today. Look for it on BroadwayBlack.com! #BroadwayBlack
Exclusive: Kimberly Scott Talks Sweat, Nottage Vs. Wilson, & What Inspires Her
Kimberly Scott has spent 30 years honing her craft in a distinguished and successful career in film, television, and theatre. A Tony Award nominee for her performance as “Molly” in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Scott has maintained longevity in a fickle profession that’s not known for its kindness to African American actresses by carefully moving from project to project in every genre. And her latest role in Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat further cements her ability to seamlessly transition into a role that encounters challenges that many have faced and beckons her take her talents to new heights.
With more than 40 film and television projects under her belt, and having shared the screen with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Robert Duvall, Salma Hayek, and Jenna Elfman, this Texas native and Yale School of Drama grad admits that theatre is her first love – embracing and reveling in the energy that’s shared with a live audience.
“It’s a sacred triangle between you, your fellow colleagues onstage, and the audience. There’s a synergy there that doesn’t exist with a camera,” Scott says.
Nottage’s Sweat is a timely and relevant piece that delves into the impact of corporate buyouts, outsourcing, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs on human capital. Nottage set the play in a small town to “explore America’s industrial decline at the turn of the millennium by examining the inhabitants of one Pennsylvania town who still struggle to reclaim what’s lost, find redemption and redefine themselves in a new century.” Sweat premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August and is now headed to the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, where it opens on January 15 and runs through February 21.
Scott is cast in the role of “Cynthia” one of two friends for life who work at a local factory in Reading, Pa. Tracey (Johanna Day) is white; and Cynthia is black. Their friendship is tested when Cynthia is promoted to management, causing a painful rift with Tracey, who had also applied. Tracey attributes Cynthia’s selection to tokenism.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Broadway Black, Scott discussed her latest role, her thoughts on comparisons of Nottage and Wilson, and other topics.
I know Lynn’s work and she’s a beast, she’s amazing, and opens windows into people’s souls, her character’s souls that are just astonishing and lovely. I had not even read the play when I said “yes.” I knew it was going to be beautiful. I knew it was Lynn, and I went, “I’m in. Can I read it?” They said, “We only have the first act. We only have the first act.” I said, “Let me read it.” I was like, “Okay, if you think…” they’re like, “Yeah, we think.” Then, about a month before we started, I got to read the whole play, and it blew my mind.
Reviewers have sometimes compared Nottage to August Wilson, particularly as it relates to dialogue. Do you see any similarities between the two, having worked with both of them?
I think that the joy in the language is absolutely there. That joy, that familiarity, that humanity, is absolutely comparable and the same, and glorious. It’s glorious, the way she makes these people that are completely familiar. You know who they are. You know these people, you know their situation, and you know their feeling. She does not write things that are easy. They’re beautiful mountains, they are beautiful mountains that you have to climb. You can’t see it, when they call places you can’t see the top. Somehow, you have to take it one scene at a time, one moment at a time. I feel that way about Sweat. You take it one moment at a time, you take it one scene at a time, you keep breathing, and you keep going forward in the experience of these characters in the play.
That was the way it was with August. Very, very keen ear for his own work. That’s the thing they have in common, the keen ear and also the joy. She has a great joy in the room. August would lean back and laugh and enjoy it. She enjoys hearing your experience of what she’s written. She enjoys you turning on the lights in this rooms that she’s furnished. It’s beautiful; it’s really quite beautiful.
“Cynthia” faces some very real issues when she gets the promotion – allegations of tokenism. Some of us have felt that at some point in life. As an actress who’s played very diverse roles, have you ever encountered anything like that and what was your response? Did your response affect how you handled that in the role?
Doing the play, telling this story is so familiar for so many of us. It’s so familiar. I had so many women walk up to me and say, “Girl, girl let me tell you. Girl.” It’s having that experience of suffering and questioning the value of your own ambition.
It’s hard because ambition is hard enough; self-esteem is hard enough. Then, to become a tool, to have it all, to be used in the way that she gets used, is hard. It’s hard to tell the story because it’s familiar. I really think that if you have any ambition at all, if you have any sense of self-esteem or achievement as an African-American woman in America, you can understand what Cynthia goes through. It’s tough to lean into what it is that she goes through with her friends. It’s not simple, it’s class, it’s race; it’s all of that. Friendship on top of that, and camaraderie, and 20 years of experience, 30 years of experience, it’s tough. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s close.
Every audience is different, but to do this play in Washington DC, so close to the area that this is talking about, so close. There will be exponentially more people who not only have had an experience like it, but will know exactly what we’re talking about. On top of that, possibly people in the audience who will have a possible way to affect the situation, policy wise, that’s very gratifying. I look forward to, possibly, the congressmen and senators, and people from the various departments of the U.S. Government who could come and see this play and understand, maybe, on a more fundamental level, what’s happening. I think that Lynn has written a play that is as illuminating to the deindustrialization of America and this moment in history that we’re at, as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was to that moment in American history – for the American working man.
For someone with such an impressive and enviable body of work, how have you been able to maintain longevity in a profession where people often get discouraged and give up, or they just can’t get the roles?
There came a moment when my dad died. It got real, as they say. I realized, life is finite, and daylight is burning. I was living in Los Angeles and when you live in Los Angeles, you do television and film, you tend to turn down a lot of theater to wait around for film work and television work. When my dad died I had just done a play and I realized how much I missed doing theater. I was doing theater over the years, but not as much as I could have been doing. I wasn’t doing everything that I was offered. I had this moment where I realized, “Wow, I need to follow my bliss. I need to do that. I need to trust that everything’s going to come out okay. I need to go ahead and do what’s offered to me because it’s coming to me for a reason.” I just decided, I’m not going to turn down nothing but my hat.
I’m Buddhist. My practice is so much about really attracting things and not chasing after my fortune. I’m not trying to chase after my fortune anymore. I’m really trusting that my fortune is coming to me. Ever since I’ve really tried to stand in that truth, it’s been great
My colleagues inspire me endlessly, their courage, their bravery. We have three new cast members and just the opportunity to rediscover the play with new people, that’s inspiring, as well as the experience of discovering it the first time with the people who originated their roles. I have a profound belief that the first cast leaves DNA in the play, there’s no getting around that.
When you do world premieres, you’re crafting an experience. You’re crafting a play. You’re crafting this thing, telling this story. You have these actors telling this story, this way. You’ve got a director working on it and on the way we tell that story, but no matter who the director is, and the playwright, and the words that the playwright has brought to the table, and we tell that story, there’s no getting around the fact that the first cast puts a stamp on it.
For tickets to see Scott in Sweat at the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, visit here.
Rest Well: Billie Allen Defied Barriers On Stage, Screen
Jan. 13, 2016, would have marked the 91st birthday of one of America’s most significant women in theatre: Billie Alllen. The dancer, actor, director and philanthropist from Richmond, Virginia, who was born in 1925 – when New York City was ranked as the most populous city in the world – is noted as a defiant artist who starred on the activist stage long before her eyes were set on the lights of Broadway.
As a young girl, Wilhelmina Louise picketed her neighborhood supermarket when it refused to hire Black workers and participated in voter registration drives. Her parents – Mamie Wimbush Allen, a teacher, and William Allen, an actuary – surely integral in her fervor. During her 70s, she is quoted: ”The saying goes, if you want to date any of Ms. Allen’s daughters, first you have to picket something.”
The saying also could go: If you want brownie points with Ms. Allen, don’t even think about a retirement plan.
Allen had a non-stop career. One that started in 1943, when the 18-year-old star in the making arrived in New York ready to become immersed in the world of theatre. One that undoubtedly was propelled upon witnessing opera singer Marian Anderson perform in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial. Allen recalled the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. Her protest came in the form of name calling, as the venue would forever be known to her as “Constipation Hall.” Allen had the opportunity to present a rose bouquet to Anderson when she received the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1940, as well as watch her idol – or “secret queen” as she described her – become the first African-American performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.
In an interview, Allen said of that moment: “We were so elated but most of all proud. Proud because I knew her. Proud because she knew me.” As a trailblazer in her own right, those who have been inspired by Allen voice the same sentiment. They, too, are proud to know her.
For his column piece in The New Yorker, theatre critic Hilton Als wrote:
“Billie was talented and beautiful during an era when the world wasn’t really looking out much for Black female performers… And as she persevered, her world opened up; she worked in Black theatres in Harlem when the place had yet to become a thing, all the while earning her bread and butter with artists ranging from Phil Silvers to James Baldwin and everyone in between.”
After graduating high school, Allen attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and was mentored by namesake Billie Davis and inspired by Romare Bearden. Bound for New York, she was part of 1944’s On The Town a year after landing in the big city. She was offered a scholarship to study ballet and acting at Lee Strasberg Actors Studio and was soon dancing professionally and auditioning for roles. Her Broadway premiere came in 1947’s Caribbean Carnival. By 1949 she was featured in the film Souls of Sin with Jimmy Wright and William Greaves. During the early 1950s and 1960s, she performed in the Broadway plays Four Saints in Three Acts and My Darlin’ Aida (1952); Take A Giant Step (1953) with Lou Gossett Jr., Godfrey Cambridge and Lincoln Kilpatrick; and Ira Levin’s Critic’s Choice (1960) opposite Henry Fonda.
As one of the first African Americans on television and in commercials, Allen appeared on “The Phil Silvers Show” (from 1955 to 1959) and the soap opera “The Edge of Night” (during 1956). In 1964, Allen returned to the screen in Black Like Me portraying “Vertel.” That same year, she was cast in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and directed its revival in 1990. She also appeared in Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. Allen’s final Broadway role was in 1969 with A Teaspoon Every Four Hours. Her Off-Broadway performance in 1976’s Every Night When the Sun Goes Down at American Place Theatre garnered her a Lucille Lortel nomination.
Also by the mid-70s, Allen’s directorial gifts have graced: Off-Broadway’s Home, with Samuel L. Jackson; Kathleen Collins’ The Brothers; Anna Deavere Smith’s Aye, Aye, Aye; Miss Ethel Waters; and Langston Hughes’ Little Ham, developed with her second husband the late composer Luther Henderson, and which featured Obba Babatundé.
In 2001, she directed Saint Lucy’s Eyes; the play starred longtime friend Ruby Dee, who she shared the stage with in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Her other credits include: television shows “Route 66,” “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “Law and Order”; the TV movie “The Vernon Johns Story”; and films The Wiz, Winter Kills and Eddie Murphy Raw. Allen’s most recent film appearance was in Lynn Nottage‘s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
In an effort to nurture emerging playwrights, Allen founded Harlem’s Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop in 1973 along with Morgan Freeman, Garland Lee Thompson and Clayton Riley. Allen also was a founding member and co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women as well as a founding member of Women’s Project and Productions. She served on the boards of American Place Theatre, New Federal Theatre and AMAS Repertory. At the time of her death, she served on the advisory board of Cherry Lane Theatre – the oldest continuously running Off-Broadway theatre (it opened in 1924) and one of the first theatres Allen visited.
In September 2014, Cherry Lane’s founding artistic director Angelina Fiordellisi supported LPTW’s Oral History series interview of Allen. Tony-winning Phylicia Rashad (the first Black actress awarded for best leading actress in a play) fielded the questions for Lincoln Center event. The project’s interviews are with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Allen herself interviewed the late Rosetta LeNoire and Dee for the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive.
Allen – active with the Tony Awards on its administrator committee, American Theatre Wing advisory committee and nominating board – received the 2002 Audelco Pioneer Award along with her musician husband (who died in 2003). She established a scholarship in honor of Henderson in 2006 at the Juilliard School of Music.
Als also wrote in his commemoration of Allen: “The map of America was on her beautiful face, and the grain of America in her beautiful hair. She was interested in stillness, in listening, but one didn’t get too far in the conversation without Billie’s hands going up in a little arabesque to illustrate a point, or her hips slightly swivelling to emphasize that something exciting had happened, or was about to happen.”
Allen died Dec. 29, at her home in Manhattan. She is survived by a daughter and son from her first marriage, Carolyn Grant and Duane Grant, Jr.; stepchildren; a brother; and a granddaughter.
Watch Billie Allen talk about her idol Marian Anderson…
Ngozi Anyanwu, Marlow Wyatt Humanitas/CTG Playwriting Prize Finalists
Ngozichukwuka Anyanwu and Marlow Wyatt are among 10 finalists announced for the inaugural HUMANITAS/CTG Playwriting Prize by Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles’ leading nonprofit theatre company. More than 200 play submissions (which took place during June) were received by CTG, which manages programming seasons at three venues: Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center; and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
The partnership between HUMANITAS and CTG, as part of the program PLAY LA, supports the best new, unproduced play by emerging or mid-career playwrights based in Southern California. The winning playwright will receive a $5,000 cash prize and $5,000 will be given to a local theatre to subsidize a world premiere production. Additionally, two runners-up will be awarded a $2,000 cash prize.
The works of Anyanwu and Wyatt celebrate girl power with Good Grief and SHE, respectively.
Good Grief follows Nkechi, a first-generation Nigerian girl whose misadventures consist of love, loss and growing up. Anyanwu is the founder and artistic director of the 1st Generation Nigerian Project. The actress, writer and producer also is co-artistic director of NOW AFRICA’s Playwrights Festival. She holds an MFA in acting from University of California, San Diego. Anyanwu will direct She Gon’ Learn by Lisa Rosetta Strum at the Obie Award-winning The Fire This Time Festival, which will run Jan. 18 through Feb. 6, in New York.
SHE tells the story of a young girl who discovers the small town she desperately wants to flee is filled with the very people who give her wings to fly. Wyatt, a Kansas City native and magna cum laude graduate of Howard University, is a two-time recipient of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Discretionary Grant. Her other works include: Living the Dream; Our Music, Our Spirit, Our Gospel; Blue Diamond Daddies; and Li’l Easy. After volunteering with the Los Angeles School District, Wyatt developed The Girl Blue Project in 2003. The empowerment program for teen girls uses performing arts to combat images of overly sexualized girls, violence, drug use, discrimination, poverty, and sexual and physical abuse.
According to the HUMANTIAS Prize website, the plays will be developed with CTG’s literary staff, led by CTG’s Director of New Play Development Pier Carlo Talenti, and presented in professional readings Feb. 12-14, at Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of a weekend celebration of new plays.
In fulfilling its mission to “change the world one story at a time,” the HUMANITAS Prize was created in 1974 “to honor film and television writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way which, ultimately, inspires compassion, hope and understanding in the human family.” HUMANITAS, founded by Father Ellwood Kieser (1929-2000), believes film and television writers have enormous power to break down the separating walls of ignorance, racism and hatred. The organization, under the leadership of President Ali LeRoi (“Everybody Hates Chris”, “Are We There Yet?”), exists to find common humanity by exploring the hopes and fears of diverse human beings.
The HUMANITAS/CTG Playwriting Prize awardees will be announced at the annual HUMANITAS dinner Monday, Jan. 11, at the Directors Guild.
New Hip Hop Musical iLLA Is Creating A New Beat
iLLA: /ilə/ adjective. Exceedingly ill. Greater than. More superior. “His beat is ill, but mine is illa.” Do you have what it takes to be iLLA?
Hip Hop is once again taking the theater by storm in the form of the newest hit contemporary musical iLLA! After premiering at this year’s annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), iLLA received the 2015 Award for Excellence for the NYMF Developmental Reading Series.
iLLA! follows Robert, a classically trained dancer, who dreams of becoming a famous rap star. After suffering a humiliating defeat at a leading open mic competition, Robert struggles to redeem himself in the eyes of his peers. He falls hard for a girl named Stacy but his family’s prejudices threaten to tear them apart. Can Robert overcome his fears and troubled home life to achieve his Hip Hop dreams? It’s a journey of Swagger, Struggle and Self-love that we all must travel.
The fresh production touts musical influences ranging from hip hop to R&B to gospel with music by Jevares C. Myrick and book and lyrics by Ronvé O’Daniel. Alumni of Wright State University, the writing duo are both theater veterans, having collectively performed in shows including Book of Mormon, Seussical the Musical, Ragtime, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Altar Boyz.
In more exciting news, iLLA! was recently selected as the first NYMF Next Link Project for 2016. An exclusive writer service opportunity, Next Link entitles the production to subsidize production slots at the festival, training sessions that optimize the creative team’s access to funds and professional contacts, and a qualified dramaturg to assist the writer in improving the show.
It’s thrilling that shows like Hamilton are setting the stage and opening up new doors for innovative takes on a traditional art form. Congratulations to the cast and crew of iLLA! Stay tuned for all the latest news on this HOT new musical. You heard it here, it’s gonna be FIRE!
Exclusive: Eric Berryman Talks Steel Hammer, His Bucket List, & More
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presents Steel Hammer in its New York premiere December 2-6 as part of its Next Wave Festival. Steel Hammer, according to the BAM website, “distills the discrepancies of over 200 variants of the classic ballad” and legend of John Henry into “a theatrical post-minimalist mountain-music hybrid.” Broadway Black had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with Eric Berryman, who plays John Henry.
Eric Berryman (EB): I’m from a Baltimore arts family. My great grandparents owned a jazz club in the 1960s in Baltimore. I went to a Magnet school in Baltimore and was raised by three generations of women: my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. I’m from the Penn North area in Baltimore. As a frame of reference, the CVS that was burned down during the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray was in my neighborhood. I went to the Baltimore School for the Arts, alma mater of Tracie Thoms, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tupac, among others. I then went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and took outside work, becoming Equity at 18. I was cast in August Wilson’s plays in repertory, billed as stage readings, at the Kennedy Center in 2008, directed by Lou Bellamy. After graduating in 2011, the last four years have been an uncommon journey. I have always been of the mindset that actors did work. Broadway is great but is not an end goal of mine. I just always want to be telling stories. So I’ve done lots of regional theatre and was off-Broadway last year, in addition to performing internationally.
BB: Steel Hammer tells the story of John Henry. What does the legend say?
EB: John Henry was a Black railroad worker in the post-Civil War era. He drove steel through the mountains. As the Ballad tells, he faced a steam engine, raced it, beat the machine, and then dies. You get that story through dance, music, singing, and acting. There are 4 different playwrights (Kia Corthon, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor) who have composed the story in their own words. It is not a linear story necessarily, but nothing like what you would get through the text. What interested us is that there are so many different versions and how different they all are. So what ties them together? He always had a woman. He was always the best. In our retelling, it serves as the newest ballad of John Henry and maybe the longest. We tell the story in various ways over and over again. Sometimes through movement sequences, text, dances, clogging, but the basic story is that one man has to do something great. When he falls, the community is there to pick him up so he does succeed.
The legend is something you know about from Disney shorts and it’s what fascinated me as a lover of Black history and Black classical history. It was about style, history, the early formation of a way of speaking, folklore and various cultures. It made me happy that we had a folklore that was mainstream in a sense. African American history has a lot of African history; for example, the Flying Monkeys are from Yoruba. I consider John Henry mainstream Black folklore like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. John Henry was ours. I’ve always had an interest and love of that so when I heard about Steel Hammer, I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
BB: Because John Henry is folklore, how do you make it relevant for today?
EB: I am happy that Steel Hammer is happening. Once upon a time, John Henry was a name that was known throughout the land. He meant something to people, especially those below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s a bedtime story, especially to our grandparents. That consciousness has gone away in the world. This is a memory revived and thought of anew. It is more relevant and needed now more than any other time.
We explore the facts and the fictions. John Henry was most likely a forced laborer. One version says he was thrown on the side of the road in an unmarked grave after his death. With what’s happening now, the piece means something different. Our director Anne Bogart said the play is about Black Lives Matter. It is essentially folklore, oral tradition. But remember this man. How many people do we not know about who died? We knew about Rodney King, but how many others do we not know about before him? We happen to know about this one guy, but how many more are out there?
The playwrights have done an amazing job. It is the story of an eternal Black prisoner who’s been in jail for over 200 years. He is larger than life. How right of a time it is now to talk about this. There is new art about Blacks in prisons. My fascination comes from the root of that. And how Blacks are mass incarcerated, from a genius idea after the Emancipation Proclamation, to get free labor. Put Blacks in jail on a mass scale and sell them out to plantations and to chain gangs. Make up laws. “Pig laws” must be reinvented, so misdemeanors became felonies to keep Blacks in prison and keep a captive workforce.
BB: What can you tell us about Steel Hammer?
EB: Bang on a Can All-Stars are a contemporary music group including pianos, cellos, clarinet, upright bass, guitar and percussionist. Composer Julia Wolfe won the Pulitzer for music this year. In fact, Hammer was a Pulitzer finalist. There are six musicians and three female voices (Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger & Molly Quinn). The performance is a deconstructed riff off of John Henry. If you’re used to the song, you’re not going to hear it in the entirety in any version. Her music is a deconstructed minimalist, Phillip Glass-sounding, almost meditation on John Henry.
BB: What is next for you?
EB: After Steel Hammer. I will be back at BAM from Jan 16—Feb 6, 2016 performing in The Glory of the World, a tribute to the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. It’s a wacky play. With 17 men on stage, “Trouble ensues.”
BB: You’ve performed around the world. What is on your bucket list?
EB: I have no bucket list. There is only one August Wilson play that has never made it to Broadway and that’s Jitney. I am now the perfect age to be in Jitney on Broadway. When performing the cycle of August Wilson plays at the Kennedy Ceter, we had shirts made that dubbed us “Wilsonian Soldiers.” I consider myself to be a young foot soldier but to be on the shirt was an honor and I continue in the desire to be a Wilsonian Soldier.
BB: What advice would you give to young artists of color?
EB: As Spike Lee said when accepting his Honorary Oscar. You have to be 10 times better than your counterparts to get in the door. And you must actually be good. You must actually be a sponge and absorb everything there is to absorb. It’s not that the talent has to be 10 times better, but the work ethic and discipline must be. The work that you put into the craft has to be 10 times better to be even considered. Whatever that means to you. Everybody has some kind of talent. What will make someone stand out is their work ethic and discipline. That you notice.
Secondly, you must have an awareness of your own individual history and culture and family history, and the history of those that came before you. You may not have lived the same experience, but you must be aware of it. You don’t have to be from the streets to play it. But be aware of the spectrum of the Black experience. Be aware of how you’re perceived. That will help you know how to play an experience you haven’t had. And know how to change someone’s mind of you. To give somebody what they want. Once when I auditioned, they made me do one of my pieces “Black” or a “yo boy,” a little “more urban,” because obviously I didn’t come into the room like that, but they wanted to see how versatile I could be. There is dignity in that: Being able to give them what you look like but to give them something to change their mind. Denzel plays roles now because he’s accepted as a guy. But his early roles were exclusively Black people. The balance is that it’s a flux. It’s not like you’re going to stop playing Black roles. Rather, you’re looking for acceptance. Be considered “the actor.” Because you possess this skin, you can do what others can’t, but you can transcend that.
It is the same with speech: you want the awareness. You have the training to sound any way you want to. It is cultural awareness. It’s a choice. It is giving the dignity to the character. It’s painful to hear an actor who is unable to tap into August Wilson’s vernacular and poetry. They may not have that understanding. Why not want to have all of that — every tool possible at your disposal so you don’t take a check out of your pocket. The artist as a whole wants to have as many tools as possible so any role that comes up, they can do.
SITI Company is an ensemble theater company based in New York that tours extensively throughout the United States and internationally. SITI is dedicated to the creation of new work, the training of theater artists, and to international collaboration. Since its founding in 1992, SITI Company has redefined contemporary theater in the United States through an innovative approach to collaboration, cultural exchange and actor training. The company’s newest project is a dramatic incarnation of 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe’s profound art ballad Steel Hammer, which has its New York Premiere At BAM’s Next Wave Festival, December 2–6. tickets can be purchased HERE.
About Broadway Black:
BroadwayBlack.com is dedicated to highlighting the achievements and successes of African-American theatre artists on and off the Broadway stage. For so long, our voices have been skimmed over inside and outside of The Great White Way. However, we know we have experiences to share that are essential. BroadwayBlack.com serves as a collective of things we all care for. It is a platform for all things Black theatre. Created for the child in all of us who looked up to the stage searching for the faces that looked like ours. Celebrating the dedication of those who hand over their life to give all they have to the stage, shining light on those that continue our journey, & paying tribute to those who blazed the way for our story to be told, seen, and heard on The Great Way.
Proin volutpat risus et augue viverra vehicula. Curabitur imperdiet, tellus et rutrum congue, leo libero venenatis neque, sed venenatis neque urna vitae ex. Nullam porta, sapien nec pharetra ornare, tellus turpis aliquet sapien.
Breaking News4 months ago
Tony & Emmy Nominated Actor Earle Hyman Passes Away at 91
Just Wow!1 month ago
Stunning First Look of Condola Rashad as Joan of Arc Met with Racist Fury
Just Wow!1 week ago
West Side Story’s Cool Reimagined by Los York Studios And It’s Pretty… Cool!
Broadway Black Kids3 years ago
School’s in Session: Top 5 Theatre Programs Designed For Black Students
Events and Happenings2 years ago
The Best Protest Songs & Civil Rights Anthems On & Off-Broadway