• Radical Acts of Love

    by 
    Macelle Mahala
     | Feb 02, 2022
    Maynard Jackson
    Maynard Jackson at his first press conference as Mayor, Atlanta, Georgia, Jan. 8, 1974. (Al Stephenson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

    Election night, 1973. Maynard Jackson’s victory is certain. He will be Atlanta’s first African American mayor and the first Black mayor of any large Southern city. His campaign team is ecstatic and exhausted. They did it! Now the real works begins, but first champagne! As the reality of victory sinks in, each character ponders what comes next. J.P. Madison, a legendary civil rights attorney and one of Jackson’s trusted advisors, is hoping for a spot in Jackson’s new administration. Ann Madison, his significantly younger second wife, is thrilled to work on her first campaign, but not so thrilled by the sexism she encounters. Lena Jefferson, a seasoned campaign veteran, is trying to balance optimism for the future with the realism that comes from a life in politics. John Nelson, J.P.’s junior law partner, is hopelessly in love and trying to untangle the conflicting demands of his personal and professional life.

    The dynamic of the group is upended when J.P.’s first wife, Eve Madison, returns to town to celebrate Jackson’s victory. For two years, Eve has been living as a bohemian, traveling to Paris and exploring the sixties and seventies counter cultural movements of California. She has embraced and internalized a sense of personal freedom that the other characters have yet to achieve. Beautiful, calm and generous, Evie shares what she learned in Paris with each of the other characters, transforming their lives at a moment of personal and political crossroads.

    Themes in the play resonate with each of the life lessons Evie helps to impart. These include how to recognize burnout and the incredible emotional cost of social and political activism. This cost is particularly acute for African Americans, who face psychological trauma from repeated threats to ourselves and our loved ones’ physical safety, as well as the incredible burden of being “the first” or “the only” person of our race in myriad socioeconomic and political contexts. This is as true today as it was in the seventies. Another lesson examines how to balance our individual needs and happiness with the needs of our family, our people, our nation—what J.P. calls “the demands of history.” Finally, Evie’s presence helps the characters confront the corrupting influence of power and inspires them to live truthfully, with integrity and purpose. Her arrival and her lessons from Paris prompt them to examine their own lives and make choices rooted in wisdom and love. As such, the play is prescient for our current moment when so many of us have experienced hardship over the course of the pandemic and could use a nudge toward self-care, love and healing.

    Bringing this beautiful play to life is Obie award-winning director and founder of Penumbra Theatre Company Lou Bellamy, who directed SCR’s 2020 production of Fireflies. Long recognized for his meticulous and naturalistic direction of African American drama, Bellamy leads a powerhouse cast featuring Erika LaVonn, reprising her role as Eve Madison; Celeste M. Cooper as Lena Jefferson; James T. Alfred as John Nelson; Russell Andrews as J.P. Madison; and Kaye Winks as Ann Madison. LaVonn and Cooper are no strangers to Cleage’s work. LaVonn played Eve in Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 2015 production of What I Learned in Paris, and Cooper played Delia in the Chicago Court Theatre’s 2017 production of Blues for an Alabama Sky. A consummate playwright, poet and best-selling novelist, author Pearl Cleage delivers words of wisdom, sparkling dialogue and situational comedy that hits home while making you laugh out loud. 

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

  • Celebrating Black History Month with SCR Commissioned Playwrights

    by 
    SCR Staff
     | Feb 01, 2022
    Photo of Covenant Reading
    Israel Erron Ford, Ashley Denise Robinson, Toree Alexandre, Akilah A. Walker and Kwana Martinez in the 2021 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of ​Covenant by York Walker.

    Over the course of a half-century plus, South Coast Repertory has commissioned more than 200 established and emerging playwrights from a variety of backgrounds through SCR’s new play development program, The [email protected] Through commissions, the theatre is able to support writers—both artistically and financially—which allows them to create new plays and musicals. In the development process, commissioned writers are offered a number of ways to hear their work including in-house workshops and public readings. Some may be selected for the Pacific Playwrights Festival, SCR’s annual showcase of new work. All of these experiences provide artists with the unique opportunity to see their creations come to life. In celebration of Black History Month, meet some of our commissioned playwrights.


    ​Bleu Beckford-Burrell

    Bleu Beckford Burrell

    Playwright ​Bleu Beckford-Burrell

    Beckford-Burrell is a first-generation Jamaican-American actor and playwright. Born and raised in New York City, she works for non-profit organizations, teaching acting to teens, as well as writing and directing plays. Her works include P.S.365 (finalist, 2019 O’Neill Theater Center Playwrights Conference) showcased at EST (Youngblood Workshop series) and The National Black Theatre (Keep the Soul Alive reading series), Lyons Pride (2018 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, 2019 Princess Grace Award finalist, 2019 Kilroy’s Honorable Mention and Yale Drama Series, runner-up) showcased at The Playwrights Realm (INK’D Festival of New Plays) and EST (Bloodwork Reading Series), La Race (2020 Normal Ave/NAP finalist; O’Neill Theatre Center and BAPF semi-finalist). Her work will be featured in upcoming showcases at Faultline Theatre (Irons in the Fire) and Page 73 (Virtual Residency). She is the 2021 Page 73 Playwriting Fellow and has been a Playwrights Realm Fellow (2018), as well as an I73 playwright (2020) and Colt Coeur resident (2021). She was a finalist for the PWC New Voices Fellowship (2018), P73 Fellowship (2020), NYTW/2050 Fellowship (2019), PWC Core Writer (2020), WP Lab (2020) and a semi-finalist at Working Farm (2019). She received the Playwrights Horizons, Jody Falco and Jeffrey Steinman Commission for Emerging Playwrights (2020) and a South Coast Repertory/Elizabeth George Emerging Writer Commission (2021). She earned an MFA from Rutgers University. Learn more.

    ​Ike Holter

    Holter

    Playwright ​Ike Holter

    Holter's plays include S.L.O.P., Vigilante and Serven. His play, Hit the Wall (2013), about the Stonewall Riots, became Holter’s first work to play off-Broadway in New York City. His other works include B-Side Studio, Exit Strategy, Sender and The Wolf at the End of the Block. He was a writer for the television series, “Fosse/Verdon,” and is developing a new TV series about Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. Holter is openly gay, but prefers to create works beyond his personal experience. “I am Black and I am gay, but the minute that I only write work that is about being that—I don’t think that’s interesting. I like getting into the head of a white woman in her 30s. I like getting into the head of an Asian dude in his 20s.” Among his honors is the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Drama (2017). Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minn., Holter later moved to Chicago, where he studied theatre at DePaul University.

    ​Dominique Morisseau

    Morriseau

    Playwright ​Dominique Morriseau

    Morisseau is recognized for numerous ​works including The Detroit Project (a three​-play cycle), which includes Skeleton Crew (Atlantic Theater Company), Paradise Blue (Signature Theatre) and Detroit ’67 (Public Theater, Classical Theatre of Harlem and National Black Theatre). Her other plays include Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theatre), Sunset Baby (LAByrinth Theatre), Blood at the Root (National Black Theatre) and Follow Me to Nellie’s (Premiere Stages). Morisseau also has written a book for the musical, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations (Berkley Repertory Theatre and Broadway). She is ​a graduate of The Public Theater Emerging Writer’s Group, WP Lab and Lark Playwrights Workshop. Her works have been developed at the Sundance Lab, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Eugene O’Neil Theatre Center National Playwrights Conference and she has been commissioned by Steppenwolf Theater, WP, South Coast Repertory, People’s Light and Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival​ and Penumbra Theatre. Most recently, she served as the co-producer on the Showtime series “Shameless.” Learn more.

    ​Kemp Powers

    KempPowers

    Playwright Kemp Powers

    Powers is a playwright, screenwriter and storyteller. He adapted his play, One Night in Miami, for Amazon Studios and he is co-writer/co-director of the Pixar Studios hit, Soul.  His plays include Little Black Shadows, The Two Reds, Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue and A Negro by Choice. He received the 2013 Ted Schmitt Award for Outstanding New Play (Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle) for One Night in Miami (world premiere, Rogue Machine Theatre). That production earned three additional LADCC awards, four NAACP Theatre Awards and an LA Weekly Theater Award. ​One Night's 2016 production at London’s Donmar Warehouse was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Play. Powers' work has been developed at South Coast Repertory, Denver Center Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Classical Theatre of Harlem. For television, he has been a writer for Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access). He has toured nationally as a storyteller for the Peabody Award-winning series, "The Moth," and was one of 50 storytellers selected for publication in the New York Times-bestselling book, The Moth: 50 True Stories (Hyperion Press). Powers is a founding member of The Temblors, a producing playwrights collective in Los Angeles, where he resides.

    Charly Evon Simpson

    Charly Simpson

    Playwright ​​Charly Evon Simpson

    Simpson's plays include Behind the Sheet, Jump, form of a girl unknown, it’s not a trip it’s a journey and more. Her work has been seen and/or developed with Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Lark, The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chautauqua Theater Company, Salt Lake Acting Company and others. She is a recipient of the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award and the Lanford Wilson Award. Simpson was a member of WP Theater’s 2018-20 Lab. She’s a former member of SPACE on Ryder Farm’s The Working Farm, Clubbed Thumb’s Early Career Writers’ Group and Ensemble Studio Theatre/Youngblood. Learn more

    ​Mfoniso Udofia

    ​Mfoniso Udofia

    Playwright Mfoniso Udofia

    Udofia's plays include Sojourners, runboyrun, Her Portmanteau and In Old Age and have been seen at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT), New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), The Playwrights Realm, Magic Theater, National Black Theatre, Strand Theater Company, and Boston Court. She’s the recipient of the 2017 Helen Merrill Playwright Award, the 2017-18 McKnight National Residency and Commission at The Playwrights’ Center and is a member of the New Dramatists class of 2023. Mfoniso is currently commissioned by Hartford Stage, Denver Center, ACT, Roundhouse, and South Coast Repertory. Her plays have been developed by Manhattan Theatre Club, ACT, NYTW, The Playwrights Realm, McCarter Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, New Dramatists, Portland Center Stage/JAW Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre/The Ground Floor, The OCC, Hedgebrook, Sundance Theatre Lab, Space on Ryder Farm, Page 73, New Black Fest, Rising Circle and others.​ She has worked as a television writer on the third season of “13 Reasons Why” (Netflix) and the first seasons of “Little America” and “Pachinko” (both AppleTV). ​As an actor, she appeared off-Broadway in The Homecoming Queen by Ngozi Anyanwu and in the feature film, Fred Won't Move Out. Learn more

    York Walker

    York Walker

    Playwright York Walker

    Walker is an award-winning writer based in Harlem, New York. He is the inaugural recipient of the Vineyard Theatre's Colman Domingo Award, where he is currently an artist in residence. He is also a member of Marcus Gardley's New Wave Writer's Workshop. His work includes Holcomb & Hart (Victory Garden's New Plays For A New Year Festival), Asè (Harlem9, Harlem Stage and Lucille Lortel Theatre's Consequences digital series), The Séance (​winner, John Singleton Short Film Competition, 48 Hours… in Harlem), Covenant (Fire This Time Festival, Access Theatre’s 4 Flights Up Festival, Arizona Theatre Company's Digital Play Series), White Shoes (Fire This Time Festival), Summer of ’63 (The Actors Company Theatre’s New TACTics Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Apprentice Reading Series) and Of Dreams To Come (American Conservatory Theatre’s New Work Series). York received his MFA in acting from American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

  • Dana Rebecca Woods Approaches Designs Like a Good Mystery

    by 
    Brian Robin
     | Jan 31, 2022
    Dana Rachel Woods and What I Learned in Paris Logo

    Dana Rebecca Woods fell in love with costume design because she loves murder mysteries, a revelation brought to her when she designed her first play: a University of Massachusetts production of Gullah by Alice Childress.

    “I went to see a play there when I was in college (Amherst) and they were looking for people to do costume design for their next production,” she said. “Someone suggested to me that since I’ve always been interested in fashion and clothing, I should look into this. I said, ‘Why not?’ and I learned from there. I thought it was one thing and found out it was something else and I fell in love with it. I thought it was more fashion and then they explained, ‘No, this is costume design. You’re designing for a character, for a story.’

    “I fell in love with it because I love murder mysteries. I always have. Costume design is like a who-done-it: Who are these people, what are they doing and why are they doing it? Therefore, what are they wearing? My job is to interpret all these things and create a costume. I’m telling a story of who they are and what they’re doing.”

    Woods’ latest project in her 25-year costume design career is unlocking the mysteries of What I Learned in Paris by Pearl Cleage. The romantic comedy set in 1973 Atlanta in the wake of Maynard Jackson’s election as that city’s first African American mayor runs Feb. 19 to March 19 on the Segerstrom Stage.

    Creating the costumes for this brought Woods’ considerable research skills to the forefront. To say Woods does her homework as a designer doesn’t do the phrase justice. After she reads the script, she creates what she calls a costume breakdown—a grid that features the design on one half of the page and the act and scene on the other. Along with that come notes on the time of day, what’s happening in that scene and the corresponding script page number.

    Then the fun begins. Woods goes on a deep dive into the period. What she finds plays a fundamental role in how she designs for each character.

    For example, take the character of Lena Jefferson, played by Celeste M. Cooper. From the script, Woods realized Jefferson was a labor and "get-out-the-vote" organizer, which provided a starting point.

    “That tells me what kind of person she is and what kind of clothing she would wear,” Woods said. “Practical, because in that role, you have to not call attention to herself doing something that, at that time, could cause her physical harm. Back in the day, the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and even into the 20th century, labor organizing was dangerous work. People died doing that work. That tells me something about her that she does this work.”

    Woods said her biggest designing challenge on What I Learned in Paris came designing Eve Madison’s costumes. She had to get a Bohemian look. Not a Hippie or Beatnik look—Bohemian. So Woods perused everything from 1970s television shows like “The Streets of San Francisco” and “McMillian and Wife” to Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine. She talked with director Lou Bellamy, which sparked an interesting conversation that gives insight into Woods’ attention to detail.

    “Lou saw my first designs and said, ‘Beautiful, but no. She wouldn’t wear that in Atlanta in November. It’s too cold.’ I went back and looked at the weather in Atlanta in November 1973 and it was 47 degrees. It got up to 60 some days. Lou said 'OK. Make her look like a butterfly.' I said 'OK, she’s a butterfly.'”

    Then, after some trial and error getting the flow of the design right, she found works by Thea Porter, who designed Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits in the 1970s. That sent Woods into designing the flowing caftan outfits you’ll see Erika LaVonn wear in What I Learned in Paris.

    For Kaye Winks’ Ann Madison, Woods went conservative, dressing the 25-year-old Madison “like she’s 50. She’s dressing like a woman older than herself,” Woods said. This meant lots of skirts and dresses, complete with matching handbags and shoes.

    “Women at that time did not wear pants,” Woods said. “When you watched ‘Lucy’ or ‘Leave it to Beaver’, women were wearing dresses or skirts. We’re at the tail end of that in the 1970s and a woman in her 50s or 60s, or dressing like one, would still have remnants of her past life wearing dresses. Pants would be a novel thing.

    “We don’t think about it now, but women wearing pant suits was a very empowering thing back then. … Older women didn’t wear pants back then. Younger women wore pants.”

    Woods’ research led her to one inescapable solution to the mystery of designing costumes for What I Learned in Paris.

    “I wanted to make everybody conservative, not on fashion trends,” she said. “We’re in 1973. That means the last time they bought clothes was 1969 or 1968. If you looked around the room [now], you couldn’t tell what year it would be except for the masks on our faces. Most people wearing collared shirts or T-shirts, some kind of sneakers and jeans. That’s what most people look like in every era. You very rarely see someone head-to-toe in the fashion style of the day. I wanted to be conservative, so Eve could stand out.”

    Learn more and buy tickets.

  • Matt de la Peña on "Last Stop on Market Street"

    by 
    Brian Robin
     | Jan 14, 2022
    Matt de la Pena

    The emotions poured over Matt de la Peña that evening in Chicago. Emotions he felt the moment he saw Christian Robinson’s illustrations. The illustrations that led him to write Last Stop on Market Street, and the illustrations that—along with his artful words--brought de la Peña the Newbury Medal and placed his book into schools across the country. The illustrations that brought him to the Chicago Children’s Theater that night in 2018 when he saw Last Stop on Market Street performed on stage.

    “I can’t believe it’s being performed. What a miracle. It just blew me away. How is this possible?” he asked. “It kind of reminds you of the moment I got those illustrations for the first time. Here are these illustrations you never even considered. Now, this is in the hands a talented writer, director, actors and you just go ‘Wow. Look what they did with this tiny little story. It’s just crazy.’”

    How this one-time college basketball player wrote one of the most beloved children’s books in the country is a story that is a little crazy, a little serendipitous and more than a little touching. It features writer’s block, an eye-opening career transition and more than a year of de la Peña writing, rewriting and sweating every word—hundreds of times.

    The story behind Last Stop on Market Street’s creation started when de la Peña’s agent sent him a Robinson drawing of an African-American boy and his grandmother on the bus. In a fortuitous twist, the illustration coincided with a book for young adults de la Peña was trying to write about seeing the beauty in a working-class neighborhood.

    “It opened my eyes to maybe a different medium. Instead of a novel, a picture book,” he said. “I had a different sense of characters, but the same theme before I saw the picture. But when I saw that picture, I saw this idea. Maybe this can be about seeing the beauty in your neighborhood. It wasn’t working out for a young adult novel.”

    This is where de la Peña’s self-described “inefficient process” kicked in. He had little experience with picture books. His first draft took three months to write. He said from there, his obsession with the music of the language—how the words flowed together in a musical structure—sent him on another four-month journey that featured more than 10 revisions. Because picture books are read out loud, de la Peña was obsessed with more than the story. The words had to flow in a melodic rhythm.

    “The bummer about this medium is sometimes you’ll spend two days looking for one specific word. You know it’s there. You can’t access it and you’re searching so hard for it and you have nothing to show for it, even though you’re working eight hours a day,” he said. “When you do discover that word and that sound, you have that euphoric moment and the whole book comes together.”

    That four-month process featured de la Peña obsessing about the ending. He thought his original ending was “too quiet.” So he spent three weeks writing alternate endings—before going back to his original one.

    Finally pleased with his year-long labor of love, de la Peña finished Last Stop on Market Street in 2015. He and Robinson went on to other projects and didn’t think much about it.

    Until the award season. Last Stop on Market Street won the 2016 Newbury Medal, the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.

    “That’s when it became a different thing,” de la Peña said. “It was a book that would be in every school, every state and every city library. That’s when you have a different proposition. Kids are going to get it. Not just some schools—all schools will have it. That’s what blows you away.”

    It still blows de la Peña away. The one-time University of the Pacific basketball guard, who earned an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State because four professors surreptitiously submitted his application behind his back, remains thankful the world found a place for his “tiny little story” about gratitude, kindness and a boy finding the good in the world.

    “I’ve always been interested in writing about diversity. I think back to when I was a new writer. That was a super niche,” he said. “You couldn’t expect to make much money. But I didn’t want to write anything else,” he said. “I always knew what was interesting to write about, but the world changed more to having a thirst for books with diverse characters. I wasn’t at the right place at the right time early, but I watched the field shift around me and audiences and publishers became more interested in stuff I had been writing about the whole time.”

    Learn more and buy tickets.

  • Keeping In Step With Choreographer Kelly Todd

    by 
    Brian Robin
     | Jan 10, 2022
    Kelly Todd

    Kelly Todd started choreographing plays and musicals when she was 17. And you could say she slid right into the deep end of the choreography pool.

    “My first musical was Grease, the first one I got to do by myself from beginning to end,” she said. “I was 17 and the cast was 14-through-19-year-olds. I just remember it was hard to work with the boys, asking them to dance. They get self-conscious because it’s an extremely vulnerable act to get people to express themselves through their bodies and movement. Even for professional actors, I have to create a place for them to feel comfortable and take risks. That’s a big part of my job.”

    Fast-forward 30 years later and Todd is a master at that “big part of her job”—the latest example being SCR’s production of Last Stop on Market Street, which runs Jan. 16-23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

    The high-energy, entertaining musical joyride is exactly the vehicle to show off Todd’s skills at getting people comfortable with movement. Did someone mention “vehicle?” The presence of a bus the size of a shuttle bus on stage creates a new vehicle—and challenge—for Todd’s talents.

    “This challenge has turned into something really cool,” she said. “Working with the replica of a bus is challenging in that you’re confined and are trying to create movement. The one advantage I have is that it’s not a true bus. There are half walls and no ceiling, so there is some extra space for arms and heads to bob and weave. Also, sometimes when we go into a character’s mind, they hang from the bus and get out of the bus.”

    Todd got her SCR start in 2012 working for Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa and the Summer Players cast on Seussical. Impressed with the professionalism of Takakuwa and her staff and crew, Todd took on more opportunities. She worked on SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences production of Ivy + Bean the Musical. That segued into such productions as The Light in the PiazzaOnce and Sweeney Todd. She recently choreographed SCR’s holiday tradition: A Christmas Carol.

    Opportunities like that opened Todd’s eyes even larger to what she could do with the elements of movement. In Once, she was asked to choreograph actors moving with musical instruments in their hands. She had choreographed people playing drums and the blocks. But a tambourine solo?

    “That was quite the experience and quite challenging, but also really exciting, she said. “The big number in there was one of my favorite numbers I ever choreographed.”

    The teacher of movement moves around frequently these days. When she’s not choreographing a production at SCR or the Chance Theater, Todd runs the musical theatre department at Pepperdine, were she is a professor. And when she’s not teaching the art of movement, Todd is often moving toward another award for choreography.

    StageSceneLA named her Southern California’s Choreographer of the Year in 2011 and 2012. Todd won Ovation Awards for Jerry Springer: The Opera (2011), Triassic Parq (2013) and Lysistrata Jones (2014). She won an LA Drama Critics Circle Special Award for Fight Choreography in West Side Story (2014).

    In Last Stop on Market Street, Todd gets another stage to show off her versatility. Cheryl L. West’s adaptation of Matt de la Peña’s New York Times best-selling book and Lamont and Paris Ray Dozier’s music and lyrics gives Todd numerous vehicles inside the vehicle to display her craft.

    “It’s a really fun show. It’s heartwarming and uplifting and just a joy to choreograph,” she said. “Especially with the awesomely talented actors, who are also great human beings. I love all the different styles of music: there’s a hip-hop number and a Latin number and a disco number. It’s been really a joy.”

    Learn more and buy tickets.