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Of Motown, Long Affairs and Atlanta

Posted by Chris Coleman | 29 July 2014 | Comments (0)

 

In June I headed to New York for ten days to begin rehearsals for Same Time Next Year,  Bernard Slade's 1975 comedy that Kenny Leon had asked me to direct at his theater in Atlanta. Rehearsals began in New York because Kenny (who was set to star in the show opposite Phylicia Rashad) was still in previews for Holler if You Hear Me, the new musical inspired by the music of Tupac Shakur that Kenny was directing.

 

The cast of Holler if You Hear Me

And our first day happened only a week after Kenny had received the Tony Award for directing the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Pretty funny hearing him say that after he came offstage with the award in his hand, he asked the stage crew if he had made any sense. He had so geared himself up for one of the other nominees to be the actual winner that he couldn't remember what he said.

 

 

He shared that in his head prior to the announcement he kept saying, "Just relax your face, just relax your face," knowing that the TV cameras always pan to the faces of the nominees just after the announcement, and he didn't want to be on national television with a grimace of disappointment on his face. So when they actually announced his name, he said he thought he was dreaming, and Jennifer, his wife, had to squeeze his arm to send him up onstage. 

 


The cast of The Raisin in the Sun

Later that week, I got to see Raisin (my first time, actually) and was knocked out by the production. Beautiful, grounded performances and a wonderful design. So fun to be in a Broadway audience that was 80% African American, who were responding vocally and passionately throughout. The story was especially resonant for me after having worked on Clybourne Park last season. The night I was there, Beyoncé and Jay Z snuck in at the last moment, so there was stifled pandemonium in the orchestra.

 

 

After 10 days we flew to Atlanta to complete the rehearsal process. During the past fourteen years that I've lived in Portland, my trips back South have been spent in North Carolina (where my parents now live) or at my brother's place about an hour east of the city. So I hadn't spent any length of time downtown in ages.  No surprise that I got lost multiple times.  The city has transformed demonstrably. Case in point:  the photo above is of Atlantic Station, a retail, residential, office development near Georgia Tech. When I left town the area was an old abandoned industrial tract. Not anymore. Same for the area where I was housed, near North Avenue and Glen Iris Boulevard, in what was long called the "Old Fourth Ward". It had once been home to some of Atlanta's most distinguished African American leaders, but had fallen into disrepair. Now? Booming with condos, renovated homes, Whole Foods - you name it. And a new park.

 

 

Craziness.

The Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon: one of the most completely racially integrated places I have ever experienced.  And hey - the first day I was there, Mario van Peebles was having lunch with his wife and kid. Not bad.

 

 

Another thing that wasn't there when I left Atlanta: the Southwest Arts Center, where True Colors Theater (the company that Kenny founded when he left the Alliance) performs. Ensconced in a beautiful neighborhood of upscale homes on Atlanta's southwest side, the complex features a lovely 300 seat theatre, galleries, classrooms, dressing rooms. All funded by the taxpayers of Fulton County. Amazing.

 


Phylicia Rashad

 

I confess that I was just a little nervous starting rehearsals with Mrs. Huxtable. From all reports, I expected that Phylicia would be gracious (true as reported), but I wasn't prepared for how beautiful she is in person. Amazing skin. In rehearsal, she was also wickedly smart and had done her homework in a thoughtful, deep manner and could make most anything I suggested to her work. I remember at one point asking, "Phylicia, could you find a way to pull that moment with the photos downstage of the chair?" To which she quickly replied, "Watch." And then effortlessly fixed the staging without it ever looking like I had said anything.

I was also astounded by how quick she was in performance. During our first preview, a few sections of dialogue had gotten scrambled up, and Phylicia just seamlessly moved the scene forward without ever batting an eye.  The next day I asked, "How did you do that without gettting flummoxed?" She looked at me like I was asking a silly question and said, "It's what I did for 10 years. Mr. Cosby never shot exactly what was on the page.  Not because he lacked discipline, but because he would get inspired and just let it happen. So you always had to be ready to go with the flow. He used to say about me, "Phylicia can catch." Loved it.

 


Kenny Leon

I have known Kenny since 1989,  the first year he served as Associate Artistic Director at the Alliance, the company he eventually led for a decade. But I said to him after two days of rehearsal, "You know I've never seen you do comedy." I'd seen him direct it, but never acting in it himself. So it was delicious fun watching he and Phylicia play long term lovers. The two have known each other for 18 years (since he talked her into starring in his production of Pearl Cleage's play, Blues for an Alabama Sky) and they act like they've known each other for lifetimes. Phylicia has an inherent dignity that Kenny does his best to dismantle at every turn. Hilarious.

I have to say, also, what a privilege it was to direct a show for an audience that was 97% African American.  I felt like I'd been included in a party I hadn't realized I was missing. In particular, I loved sitting next to Valerie Richard Jackson, the widow of Maynard Jackson, Jr., Atlanta's first black mayor, on opening night. 

 

 

Maynard was a legend in the city, and certainly in our household. I asked Valerie how they had met, and she shared that when she was working on her MBA at Wharton, she had read an article about this brilliant young Mayor in Atlanta, the first black mayor of any major American city. And she thought to herself, "I need me a Maynard Jackson."  She read in the article that he was married. But about five years later, she was working on Madison Avenue and Roberta Flack invited her to a party at her home. She didn't feel like going, but Roberta insisted, "Maynard Jackson is going to be here," to which Valerie replied, "What good is that going to do me?  He's married." To which Roberta replied, "He's newly available." Valerie still hesitated, so Roberta threw in, "Quincy Jones will be here to," so Valerie agreed to go. Needless to say, she and Maynard hit it off.

 

 

Five weeks is the longest I've been out of town in fifteen years, so I was missing Rodney and the pooches big time. His assignment was to send me dog videos every day, which he did faithfully.

After opening, I flew back up to New York for a week to cast Dreamgirls.

 

 

We work with Harriet Bass, our casting director, to find actors who are right for each role. We might see 20 different options for a role like Effie. Every show is a challenge to cast, and Dreamgirls is uniquely tough. The vocal demands, particularly for the three leading women are ridiculously rigorous.  Rick Lewis, our musical director asked that each of the women we were considering for Lorelle sing the final phrase of the show which requires her to belt/mix a high A. It just seemed like no human being should be able to make that sound, but damned if several of the women could. Crazy what some people get to do at work every day.

 

 

The first few days of auditions were held at the newly renovated Actor's Equity offices, and I happened upon this beautiful bronze statue on my walk. I was staying in the garment district, and this fella was a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fueled New York's ascendancy in the garment industry during the early part of the 20th century. I remember learning during my tour of the Tenement Museum, that some 70% of America's clothes were manufactured in sweatshops (re:  apartments with no AC) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during this period. Most of whom had emigrated from the Shtetl: think Motel the Tailor!

 

 

Because you're in the garment district, you also walk by random windows with cool clothes in them, like this pantsuit, which I snapped a photo of and sent on to Julie Vigeland (my former Board Chair) with the message:"You need to own this!"

 


Benjamin Scheuer in his solo show, The Lion

I also got to see The Lion, Benjamin Scheuer's beautiful musical memoir at Manhattan Theater Club.  The show is coming to PCS next Spring, so I was curious to see it live.  Sean Daniels, who ran Dad's Garage Theater back in Atlanta, and developed the piece with Benjamin, had introduced me to it.  The show I saw in NY was considerably expanded from the original demo he had shared, with five new songs, and new text added.

 

"Cookie-tin Banjo" by Benjamin Scheuer & Escapist Papers from Radish Pictures on Vimeo.

Ben is a transparent and affecting performer, with astounding skills on the guitar (he plays six during the evening), and a captivating story to tell. NY critics and audiences fell in love with him. They head to London next then PDX  — previews begin May 2, 2015.

 


Mona Golabek's The Pianist of Willesden Lane

I also saw Mona Golabek's The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which I had heard about during it's successful run at Berkeley Rep. Mona is an accomplished concert pianist, and in the piece she tells the story of her mother (also a reknowned pianist), who escaped the Nazi onslaught in Vienna on the Kindertransport (trains that helped Jewish children escape to the U.K.). Lisa (Mona's mother) spent the war years in a children's hostel in London, separated from her family, using her piano as a means of emotional survival. Told simply and sparingly, the piece is woven together with exquisite piano playing that I found hypnotic.  

 

 

So now, after directing a show, casting a show, reconnecting with old friends, and seeing many shows — whew! — what a relief to be back home in the gorgeous Summer of the NW with my peeps.

 

Dreamgirls runs September 20 — November 2, 2104


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