• Celeste M. Cooper Talks About Breaking Out Of Her Shell

    Brian Robin
     | Mar 07, 2022
    Celeste M. Cooper

    Perhaps the best way to define Celeste M. Cooper’s role as campaign operative Lena Jefferson in What I Learned in Paris is to see her portrayal of Lena as the proverbial fly on the wall: absorbing not only the history her character played a role creating, but the eyes—and more importantly—ears of the secret escapades unfolding around her in Pearl Cleage’s romantic comedy.

    “This role was deceptive for me because I wasn’t seeing how much I did until I started doing it,” Cooper said. “I didn’t talk that much, but I didn’t leave the scene very much. I’m here to witness, I’m here to take in all the secrets. As someone said to me, ‘I’m almost the audience’s eyes.’ The audience may be seeing a lot of things through me. I’m the one who has all the information.”

    While Erika LaVonn’s captivating performance as Eve “Evie” Madison commands the stage, it is Cooper’s deft, subtle presence as Lena Jefferson that often keeps everything together. Everyone shares their secrets with Cooper’s Lena and her comic twists are done in such an unobtrusive way as to bring attention to the plot, rather than herself. One reviewer called Cooper’s performance “unfailingly engaging” and you truly do see much of the happenings of What I Learned in Paris through Lena’s eyes.

    Cooper credits much of this to Lou Bellamy’s direction, specifically his artful eye on the comedic front and the atmosphere of “warmth, patience and jokes” he creates. From the first day of rehearsal, Cooper found Bellamy already three moves ahead on the chessboard when it came to comedic touches.

    “We’d do a scene in rehearsal, like my coughing scene after Evie says “Cocktails,” and I didn’t think it would be funny. Nobody laughed in rehearsal,” Cooper said. “Or the scene where John and Evie reveal the play’s secret and I make the long walk over to get more coffee. I didn’t know if that was going to be funny. But the first time we had an audience, they laughed. That first night, Lou told Erika and I ‘I told you it was going to get a laugh.’ I said, ‘You’re right, Lou.’”

    This is Cooper’s first time at SCR and her first production with Bellamy. But it’s not Cooper’s first Cleage role. She played Delia in the Court Theatre’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky and relishes both roles because she said Cleage’s works “prove once again this is the perfect show at the perfect time for me. …” That’s one of many roles the Chicago resident and Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member played on stages across the country. Her work earned her the Phylicia Rashad–Most Promising Actress Award from the Black Theater Alliance and a listing in the NewCity Stage Players as one of the 50 people who really perform for Chicago.

    It’s a testament to Cooper’s skill that she makes this all look easier than it was for her. Growing up in the shadow of one older sister who was a cross-country star and another one who was a talented pianist, Cooper receded into the shadows. She was “cute little Celeste,” as she called herself. That is, until one day at track practice when she took a detour into her high school’s drama program to audition for You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. After getting cast as Lucy Van Pelt, Cooper was hooked and the introvert was coming out of the shadows.

    A BA in Speech Communications and Theatre at Tennessee State University and an MFA in Acting from DePaul—where Cooper now teaches part-time—followed. Less than a year out of school, Cooper was cast as Juliet in Measure for Measure at the Goodman Theatre. And another layer of her shell came off.

    “I secretly admired people who did this, but I couldn’t see myself as one of those people,” she said. “Interacting with one of my friends, they would see something. They would see a character. At home, I would impersonate my mom or my dad with my sister and I don’t even know when I started doing that. I didn’t think anything of it until I did You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and one of my sisters saw me. She was blown away because she hadn’t seen that person before.

    “For me, the thing I started to realize is when I actually played a character, something came out of me. I had some teachers tell me, ‘Don’t be an introvert. Talk. Do more.’ A part of me felt I couldn’t be that way. Eventually, I found a nice balance between the two worlds. … The fact people believed in me and saw something in me I didn’t see in myself pushed me to do more acting. … I never had a thing I really shined in. Once acting came about, as soon as that became a thing for me, I needed to keep leaping into this even though it terrifies me. So I did.”

    See Cooper, LaVonn, A. Russell Andrews, James T. Alfred and Kaye Winks in What I Learned in Paris, running on the Segerstrom Stage through March 19. 

    Learn more about What I Learned in Paris and buy tickets.

  • A. Russell Andrews Tackles the Challenge of Comedy

    Brian Robin
     | Feb 28, 2022
    A Russell Andrews

    As he sees it, A. Russell Andrews won the role of J.P. Madison in SCR’s production of What I Learned in Paris by Pearl Cleage 26 years ago—before Cleage wrote the play.

    Directed by Lou Bellamy, What I Learned in Paris runs through March 19 on the Segerstrom Stage.

    It was 1996 and Andrews was living in New York with his fiancé. After months spent couch-surfing, waiting on tables—Andrews said he was “the world’s worst waiter”—and scrapping for acting gigs, he and his fiancé were days away from their wedding when the phone rang in their Brooklyn apartment.

    On the other line was Andrews’ mother, calling from Texas, saying Claude Purdy from Penumbra Theatre was trying to reach him. After hanging up, the phone rang again.

    “It was a three-way call,” Andrews remembered. “There was Claude, August (Wilson) and (Penumbra founder and artistic director) Lou (Bellamy). They said a guy quit opening weekend for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Penumbra’s 20th anniversary season. They wanted me to come there and take his place. I told them I was getting married that Saturday in Houston. Now, I’d have walked to Minneapolis, but I’m going to need to get to Houston for the wedding and back. They said, ‘Done.’

    “This was midnight on a Sunday. I was in Minneapolis by 3 the next afternoon and on stage Wednesday. I did Wednesday, Thursday shows and flew to Houston Friday, got married Saturday and got back on a plane for Minnesota for the Sunday shows. Because of that, Lou and I connected and we’ve been friends ever since. Now make no mistake, I didn’t save the production, but this cemented the relationship I had with August and Lou. I became ‘the hired gun.’”

    “The hired gun” actually was a hired gun. Before he started acting in small theatres all over the South, Andrews worked as a correctional officer at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison, the home of that state’s death row and a familiar presence in Andrews’ life. He spent many of his formative years as a boy in Huntsville, growing up around the prison before moving to Houston and setting the stage for an all-state football career that took him to Blinn College.

    Injuries derailed that career—and sent Andrews on his path to the theatre. The first fortuitous step came in 1991 when Andrews auditioned at the Alley Theatre in Houston for Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. A friend told him the person he would read for played the guitar. That gave Andrews an idea.

    “I called a friend who was a bass player and asked him if he had an old box guitar. I didn’t even know they were called acoustic guitars,” Andrews said. “He showed me one basic blues cord. I got in the car with my fingers on the fret so I wouldn’t lose it. When I got there, there was Claude, August and an assistant. I was so nervous, I couldn’t say my name. I just hit the blues cord and started my monologue. They asked me a few questions that I answered the best I could. By the time I got home, they called my mom and offered me the role for $100 a week."

    Over the next 30 years, the business took him all over the country and to London, where his role as Youngblood in Wilson’s Jitney and the cast’s performances helped earn the 2002 Sir Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play performed at The Royal National Theatre in London.

    Now, his life in the business brings him to SCR for the first time. He says playing J.P. Madison challenges him in ways few of his other roles ever have.

    “The challenge is comedy. Comedy is not easy,” Andrews said. “I came into this game in the dramatic world and it only got more dramatic. Comedy is different. I’ve done a couple of comedic things, but I’ve always been the straight guy. There’s still a story here with Pearl’s work, and you can risk taking this thing off the rails and make it almost cartoonish. In the wrong hands, it could be kind of cringy and not representative of Black culture. But Lou won’t let that happen. Lou’s not afraid of the truth and neither am I. Lou will push the envelope of that reality right up on the sofa where it's sitting next to you. …

    “J.P. is an interesting character. These characters aren’t real, but they live in the real world of history, where this happened. … I’m 60. I remember that moment when Maynard Jackson was elected the first Black mayor of a major Southern City. I understand the magnitude of what happened in Atlanta at that time. I don’t want to make J.P. a caricature or a fool. He is a pompous ass, but there is a story and substance to that in the writing and Lou squeezes the life out of every word. I respect him so much for that. You can laugh with these people, but you can’t laugh at them. They’re not fools, they’re not jesters. This play is entertaining and it’s there to tell a story. Pearl told a wonderful story from inside out and what I want to do is try to be as clear and concise as to what is going on with him in a romantic comedy. I’m hoping J.P. can show the duality of his character and show that truth.”

    Learn more about What I Learned in Paris and buy tickets.

  • Erika LaVonn Discusses Bringing Pearl Cleage’s Words to Life

    Brian Robin
     | Feb 22, 2022
    Erika LaVonn in What I Learned in Paris
    Erika LaVonn in What I Learned in Paris

    LaVonn as Eve in What I Learned in Paris.

    At first, she was annoyed. Then, she was puzzled. Finally, she was moved.

    Erika LaVonn was on stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre, holding court in the role of Eve Madison in that theatre’s 2015 production of What I Learned in Paris by Pearl Cleage. Not long after the play’s opening, LaVonn saw a woman scribbling on a notepad.

    A few nights later, the woman was back, notepad in hand. The next night? There she was, scribbling like a stenographer.

    “I thought ‘if they were reviewing this, why didn’t they sit farther back,” LaVonn remembered. “First, she was house left, then she was house right another day. Then, she was almost front-row center and I was concerned for the other patrons around her that she was being distracting.

    “Later, I came up to the stage door and there was the woman. She said ‘I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve seen the play seven times and I’m writing down all of these gems you’re saying there. I want to be like this character. I want to be an Evie. I’m writing these things down so I can incorporate them into my life.’ That moved me so much and that’s when I knew this was such an important piece. If we can touch one person who’s new to a show, whether they hate it or whether they talk about it and examine their selves, or if they love it and talk about it. If we do that, we’ve done our job and I knew at that moment I did my job with Pearl’s work.”

    LaVonn returns to the role of Eve “Evie” Madison in SCR’s production of What I Learned in Paris, which runs Feb. 19-March 19 on the Segerstrom Stage. Cleage’s romantic comedy brings us back to 1973 Atlanta in the wake of Maynard Jackson’s election as Atlanta’s first African American mayor and takes us behind the scenes and into the people who helped make that possible.

    It not only returns LaVonn to a role she adores playing, but brings her back to SCR for the first time since her 2019 performance as Amina, a conflicted Cleveland police officer, in Sheepdog by Kevin Artigue. Lou Bellamy who directs SCR’s production of What I Learned in Paris, directed LaVonn in that 2015 Indiana Repertory Theatre production.

    “Erika and I have done I-don’t-know-how-many plays together—too many to count. She is one of those people who you can build an entire production around,” Bellamy said. “She can carry it. She’s got all the craft, all the skills (and) she’s knockout beautiful—all the stuff you need to make someone want to watch her.”

    Audiences have watched LaVonn on Broadway, where she spent three years in The Lion King. They’ve seen her at The Kennedy Center, Seattle Repertory, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Denver Center Theatre Co., Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Hartford Stage and Kansas City Repertory, among others. Audiences have seen her on the small screen in “Law & Order: SVU” and on the big screen in War of the Worlds

    As varied and diverse as LaVonn’s credits and travels are, her role as Eve and an early role in Cleage’s Flyin’ West at Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey are two of her favorites. 

    “I was always drawn to her writing and Flyin’ West was the story of my family’s exodus to Kansas,” LaVonn said. “That was one of the very first pieces I did professionally and it had such a strong impact on me. I was a young woman when I did that. I’m now doing this piece about an older woman who had her journey and have come full circle. It’s really rewarding.

    “I couldn’t have found two characters better suited for me.” 

    Learn more about What I Learned in Paris and buy tickets.

  • An Interview with Playwright Pearl Cleage

    Production Dramaturg Macelle Mahala
     | Feb 10, 2022
    Pearl Cleage
    Playwright Pearl Cleage

    Macelle Mahala: Maynard Jackson isn’t a character in this play, but the play revolves around his election, and he is very important to each of your characters, each in different ways. Why did you want to create a story about the people around Jackson, rather than Jackson himself?

    Pearl Cleage: This is not my first play that features characters who are in the orbit of a historical figure. In Blues for an Alabama Sky, the characters are friends of Langston Hughes and several of them attend Abyssinian Baptist Church where their pastor is Adam Clayton Powell. In Flyin' West, the women who go west were inspired by Pap Singleton, a real Exoduster who inspired hundreds of people formerly held in bondage in the American south to strike out for the west. In writing both of those scripts I found it really interesting to try to fully imagine the people who might have surrounded the historical figure. Who was at those rent parties Langston Hughes describes in The Big Sea? Who were the Black women who went west after the Civil War searching for a place to start their lives as free women?

    In What I Learned in Paris, I wanted to shine a light on the vibrant community of people who planned and executed Maynard's first campaign. His public life could not have existed without these people, but he was not the only thing happening to them. They were also growing up and falling in love and getting married and having affairs and maybe getting divorced at the very same moment that they were playing a significant role in Atlanta/American history. In What I Learned in Paris, I wanted to show that all these things happen at the same time. Passionate love affairs and passionate political engagement are not at odds with one another. In fact, they sometimes enhance each other, as they do in Paris. I wanted to show the complexity of the characters' lives and the decisions they had to make professionally and personally. I wanted to show how quickly things change once the campaign is over and the reality of leadership sets in. I wanted to show that the struggles of Black women to be free women were as important to them as the political battles often waged without acknowledgement of female participation.

    I worked for Maynard Jackson's first two campaigns and was his press secretary for the first two-and-a-half years of his administration, so I know the terrain very well, but I also knew I wasn't ready to write about him yet. There are so many people who claim the right to tell that story—his family, his friends, his supporters. I didn't want to feel obligated to incorporate their visions. By telling the fictionalized story of those around him, I felt free to talk about any and everything, including those brownies! I felt liberated to tell the stories I knew best, the stories of those of us who raised an exhausted glass of champagne on election night and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

    Mahala: It strikes me that the energy and chaos and magic of a successful campaign like Maynard Jackson’s is a great setting for a comedy because of the quick pace of events and the emotional highs and lows. Do you agree? What made you think of this campaign and this particular moment in history as a good setting for a comedy?

    Cleage: I knew any campaign and the immediate aftermath would be full of comedic possibilities. Campaigns are filled with moments of "laughing to keep from crying." Everything in a campaign is do or die and the pressure is enormous, but so is the humor. People are often the funniest when they are being so serious about what they are doing. Human beings reveal so much of themselves at moments of great challenge and stress. Campaigns are always that kind of setting, and I've had enough experience with them to know that sometimes the only way to survive it all is to laugh.

    Mahala: You have been involved in political life and have also had a very successful career as a writer and artist. What do you think the relationship between art and politics is, or what do you think it should be?

    Cleage: I was raised in a very political family so the idea of art ever being separate from politics didn't occur to me. I came of age as a writer during the Black Arts Movement and we proudly pointed our work in the direction of the revolution. We wanted our writing to be part of the righteous movement of Black people to be free. I was inspired by Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lee, Amiri Baraka and a host of other writers whose lives were a part of their work. They/we were trying to articulate an aesthetic and then live and create within it. Later, I encountered feminism and it was a revelation to me. All the things I knew about struggling as a Black person were now part of the lens through which I could examine gender oppression. It was very exciting to me that I could struggle on two fronts at the same time—race and gender. Not only could but had to! I've always known I was a writer and I've always written. As my politics evolved and sharpened my point of view about one thing or another, those ideas of course made their way into my work. I wanted to create characters who were going through the same life struggles I was trying to figure out. I'm always trying to answer questions for myself in my work and I am convinced that if I can find the right question and answer it honestly, other people will find truth in it too.

    Mahala: I love how the characters in this play call each other out for their sexism and ignorance of other racial minorities. It is done lovingly but firmly, a complete embrace of freedom and equality that goes beyond the more narrowly constructed narratives of Black liberation of the 1970s. It was wonderful to read your memoir and to see that you and other Black people were challenging some of these things back then, things that we are still challenging and trying to achieve today, trying to achieve that greater and broader experience of freedom. So that’s not really a question, but I wonder if you have any commentary about that? Do you think we are still dealing with these same issues now, or how, in general, do you feel the play speaks to our present moment?

    Cleage: I think we have a responsibility to look at our country through a lens that has to be both critical and loving. Critical because there is still so much work left to do and loving because this is the only country we've got, and we've got to figure out how to fix it and make it more equitable for everybody. As Black writers we have to understand that the people and systems that oppress us do the same to many other folks in this country. I have been reading poetry by some Indigenous poets whose work I didn't know. Our Poet Laureate Joy Harjo's work made me realize how much I don't know about the many nations of people who were here long before other folks migrated to their ancestral lands. I am curious and challenged by trying to know more Indigenous people better through their creative work. I hope my own work can help people do that, too. It was fun to include Evie telling JP not to say, "Chinamen's chance" because "they don't like it." He was flabbergasted, but how often do we say things that are offensive simply because we are ignorant of what we are conveying by what we say? Evie is helping him do better! I feel like if I keep pushing myself to be more inclusive and more compassionate and better informed, that can only make my writing richer. 

    Mahala: I agree. There is something in this play for everyone and it operates on several different levels. It is a hilarious comedy, but it also includes all of these interesting and important historical references and profound words of wisdom. Thank you so much for sharing your play and your wisdom. 

    Learn more about What I Learned in Paris and buy tickets.

  • Renowned "What I Learned in Paris" Director Lou Bellamy Talks About Returning to SCR

    Brian Robin
     | Feb 07, 2022
    Lou Bellamy

    The experience of working for a protégé he greatly respects. The ability to direct a play he is passionate about, one with messages about where we were and where we are now. Oh, and there’s that perk of escaping Minnesota in January.

    Lou Bellamy couldn’t wait to get back to SCR. And no wonder SCR Artistic Director David Ivers couldn’t wait to bring the director of SCR’s 2020 production of Fireflies back to direct What I Learned in Paris by Pearl Cleage. The smart, funny romantic comedy about political operatives finding themselves as they find love in a pivotal time in history runs Feb. 19-March 19 on the Segerstrom Stage.

    “When I was here last time, we sort of conspired I would come back again. It was a good experience,” Bellamy said. “We turned out a good show and people were happy with it. I’ve known David since he was a grad student (at the University of Minnesota) and he wanted to have me back. It was then a matter of finding the right vehicle. We looked at several plays, but because of various reasons, we settled on this one.

    “I think it has something to do with where this country finds itself. There’s a lot of turmoil, a lot of division, a lot of animus—all these things. This is a chance not to run away from them, but take a breath, get a little slack and come into the theatre. We’re excited to bring you in, breathe the same air and experience this wonderful story together. And we sorely need that.”

    One of the leading theatre directors in the country, Bellamy is the founder and artistic director emeritus of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. While teaching theatre at the University of Minnesota for 32 years, Bellamy built Penumbra into the nation’s premier theatre dedicated to exploring the African American experience.

    At Penumbra, Bellamy developed a healthy respect for Cleage’s work. During the 1999-2000 season, he produced and directed Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky. In 2015, he directed What I Learned in Paris for Indiana Repertory Theatre. He’s read all of Cleage’s work and said he still talks to her, “more than occasionally.”

    That mentor and protégé reunite over Cleage is apt, considering Ivers wanted to bring Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky to SCR. But Bellamy kept pushing Ivers to read What I Learned in Paris again. Once he did, Ivers said he caught the uplifting play “at the right moment.”

    And once again, Ivers realized his former professor had the right answer.

    “He’s just a beacon for many people, me included,” Ivers said. “He’s a man of grace, of keen intelligence. He’s focused his career on the things that matter and the things that are important to him and several generations of artists coming up. … He knows the material like the back of his hand. He’s just well-versed in anything he’s working on. And of course, he’s always been focused on the canon of the Black experience in this country and how that intersects with his life and the life of the arts around him.”

    For his part, Bellamy always viewed his directorial legacy as evangelistic. Go in, show future generations of theatre directors the art of storytelling comes with a responsibility to show the wisdom, courage and humanity of his characters in a respectful, honest manner for both audiences and actors. And between Cleage’s captivating material and the talented cast at his disposal, What I Learned in Paris provides him another rich, storytelling tapestry to do just that.

    “African American writers perceive the position of African Americans in the U.S. as tenuous and fraught with issues and these playwrights write within the context of the world they’re in. They have to address that,” Bellamy said. “Pearl Cleage has done exactly that in centering her play in 1973 around Maynard Jackson’s election. But it’s a rom-com. You get all the info, the stakes are all there, the consequences of racism and all those things are still around. But yet, she’s found a space for joy around that. People have babies and affairs. It’s a relief. This remains true to what’s happening in the world. But it’s happy. You laugh. And we need to laugh.

    “The audiences, they’re going to leave happy. Without giving away the ending, her lovers solve their problems and it ends the way you hope it would end. But they will also leave informed by what it takes to be part of a movement like the election of Maynard Jackson as the first black mayor of a large Southern city. The cost of that will be there, but that cost is the hurdles these people are forced to run over trying to live life. But it doesn’t stop there. They’re vulnerable, they make mistakes and they do all the things we all do while still accomplishing monumental things. It’s really satisfying.”

    This is why Bellamy joked that he’s like “Johnny Appleseed,” when it comes to spreading the word about how he embraces his craft. And he enjoys embracing it at SCR, where a healthy, creative atmosphere fosters Bellamy’s vision.

    “All the people who make things happen at South Coast Repertory are very welcoming and willing to do anything for the text and the show, so it’s just a pleasure to be around them,” Bellamy said. “All the craftsmen are very, very skilled and the work is top-notch. I bring in a design, they realize it right down the inch.

    “David is a very, very skilled leader. He gives you what you need and the room to be the best you can be inside of that. Artistic directors vary all over the country. David has settled on a formula that gives you what you need, but he doesn’t hover over you or push you too hard. It’s a very healthy atmosphere.”

    That formula created a partnership with What I Learned in Paris that stood the test of time. Retired from teaching, Bellamy turned over the artistic direction of Penumbra to his daughter, Sarah. These days, Bellamy and his wife travel the country, directing four to five plays a year. For him, it’s the best of all worlds. He gets to stay active and involved for the reasons that brought him into theatre more than four decades ago, spreading his talented vision to audiences and actors.

    “But I don’t have to worry about the budget or any of the other stuff, like faculty meetings. I just get the fun part. It’s a pretty good existence. It really is,” Bellamy said.

    “I’m excited he’s back and the plays in good hands,” Ivers said. “That’s really the highest compliment I can give him. It’s in the best hands and it’s in the right hands.”

    Learn more about What I Learned in Paris and buy tickets.