Mark Doerr, Giovanni Adams, Daniel Bellusci, Chauntae Pink, Emily Yetter and Elyse Mirto in Little Black Shadows.
Two of the six actors in the world premiere of Kemp Powers’ Little Black Shadows have been with the play from the beginning—when it started being developed at South Coast Repertory nearly two years ago. All of the cast members are returning to SCR—where they celebrate the opportunity to create their characters for the first time. Read on to learn some of their secrets, indulgences and more.
My character is Colis.
My previous credit at SCR is the Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) reading of Little Black Shadows.
My other credits include The Model Apartment, Mount Misery, One Night in Miami… (by Kemp Powers, world premiere), Br’er Cotton, The Recommendation, Miss Julie, King Lear, “Criminal Minds, “Grey’s Anatomy,” Nina.
The book I read as a child, in secret: I wouldn't say I read anything in secret. Despite growing up in Jackson, Miss., I had liberal parenting from my social worker mother who gifted me pamphlets on the many changes I could expect from my pre-pubescent body, though most things were out in the open. Oddly enough, I was also born into a very religious extended family and I remember being obsessed with the Christian apocalyptic Left Behind book series; I gobbled them suckers up like Harry Potter!
The movie that made a big impression on me: Dirty Dancing for sure! That movie told the story way better than momma's sex pamphlets! I remember watching Patrick Swayze's moving hips and dipping the ladies and thought, "How can I be like that guy!"
Something else that had an impact: Seeing Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre was definitely a powerful encounter. I was a middle school dance student, in the public performing arts school in Jackson, and seeing those beautiful black bodies in motion I was arrested at first by the magic of their leaps and turns. But, on a much deeper level, I saw my story, witnessed maybe for the first time, a life I knew in the movement, music and the emotion. Watching a tape of them performing "Revelations", no doubt, convinced me there was a place for me in the art world. (Watch "Revelations" here.)
Colis is: Bright-eyed and curious. He knows no other life, other than his position as slave/servant to his childhood master, Daniel. Having said that, like any other boy, he takes pride in watching over and looking out for Daniel. He's competitive and wants the world to know it; he wants to be seen and affirmed. So, it only makes sense that his biggest wish, however good he's convinced he has it living under Daniel's bed, is to see his momma! More than anything, he wants her to tell him he's valued and loved.
I love working on a new play: Because I feel the excitement and responsibility of bringing something new into the world. I've been with this play since the first public workshop that May [Adrales] directed two years ago at the Pacific Playwrights Festival. Lucky me, this is also my second world premiere with Kemp [Powers]. And I feel just that, so lucky to be involved in work that matters.
My literary hero: Of course, it would be too hard to name just one. Elizabeth Alexander—poet, essayist and playwright—is a personal hero of mine. As my professor at Yale, she was my introduction to the black literary canon and helped me imagine a life as an artist.
The dessert I indulge in: My momma's pound cake...cuz it reminds me of home.
My character is Daniel.
My previous credit at SCR is Ella Enchanted: The Musical.
My other credits include The Fantasticks, Urinetown, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Rock of Ages, Merrily We Roll Along, Hit Song!
The book I read as a child, in secret: I was obsessed with a young adult fantasy series called The Spiderwick Chronicles. It was blessed with a bad movie adaptation.
The story that had a lasting impact on me: The one with the heaviest impact on my life would have to be Harry Potter. Growing up with those characters was a blast and the series really solidified my love for fantasy novels.
Daniel is: A sweet, sensitive momma's boy who loves his musical instrument—the flute—as much as he loves his mother. He is not the man his father wants him to be.
I love working on a new play: Because I get to collaborate with the playwright. It is such a joy to be able to have Kemp [Powers] around to give us his insight into the piece and to make changes for us on the fly in rehearsals.
My literary hero is: Patrick Rothfuss. He is the author of my favorite book and series ever, The Name of the Wind.
My character is Father.
My previous credits at SCR include Studio SCR (Ameryka, Track 3, Big Shot).
My other credits include The Visit (Broadway), Sharon: The Musical (off-Broadway), The Treatment, Peace in Our Time, The Malcontent, Liberty Inn: The Musical, “Mad Men,” “Leverage,” “Bones,” “Lie to Me,” Red Tails, Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles II.
I didn’t have a book that I read secretly as a child because: My family were big readers, so I never really read in secret. I was one of those kids who would get obsessed by something, go grab books from the library to read all about it, and then lose interest a few months later when I was on to a new obsession. When we went on summer vacations, my mom and dad would bring a bag of books that they wanted to read in the evenings, so my brother and I would bring some as well. I read in bed at night a whole lot, and constantly fell asleep with books in my hands. One of the things I used to read in bed was the Encyclopedia Britannica. My father’s old encyclopedia set ended up in my bedroom, so I read entries on things like the solar system, how to throw a curve ball, Harry Houdini and whatever seemed interesting. The funny thing is, I do the same thing now, but with a laptop and the Internet. And sometimes I fall asleep while reading with that on my lap, too.
The story that had a big impact on me: A school production of A Christmas Carol that I did in sixth grade. Up to that point, I was a bit of a cut-up in school, not always paying attention or doing my work, causing trouble and being a distraction to just about everyone around me. There were going to be students and teachers in the show, so I went to the audition because a friend of mine was auditioning. I ended up getting cast as Harry Cratchit. Rehearsals were fun, but when we got in front of the audience for the first time and I got a laugh on one of my lines, it was like a huge light bulb went on. I decided my mission in that show was to make everyone laugh, both onstage and off, so I would make up new lines every performance just to see if I could get everyone to laugh. It worked. I had the cast laughing and the audience laughing and I thought, “Hey, this is a whole lot of fun and I’m good at it. I have to keep doing this.” I’m not sure the rest of the cast or the director entirely appreciated my newfound mission, but it gave me something to focus my unbounded energy towards and led me to the path of becoming an actor.
Father is: The head of a family in 1851 who owns a Georgia cotton plantation. He wants to move the family to Louisiana where he can get more land and run a sugar plantation so they’ll make even more money. He’s worried that his son isn’t capable enough to help him or even take over for him some day, so he plans to get him prepared. Some people might say he can be harsh, but I think he’s just passionate.
I enjoy working on a new play because: I love the mystery of it. When you’re doing a known play, you typically have an idea of how it will be received by an audience. You know if it’s funny or not, how it’s been reviewed in the past and, if it’s a classic work, there is probably already a set of expectations of both the great performances and productions that everyone is aware of and by which you will be judged. With a new play, all of that is unknown. It’s like starting out on a great expedition to uncover all those answers. You have no idea how people will react to it, whether they’ll empathize with certain characters or whether the plot will resonate with them. Audiences will only judge it based on who they are on the day when they experience it in the room. It’s especially exciting when the expedition is led by smart, passionate people like May [Adrales] and Kemp [Powers], who bring so much creativity and care to the process.
My literary hero: Wow. That’s hard. Putting aside playwrights—since that seems like cheating for an actor—I would say that two of the writers who had a huge impact on my life, if judged by the fact that I read their biggest novels multiple times each, would have to be Frank Herbert and Robert Pirsig. In high school, I read Herbert's entire Dune series twice and Dune itself four times. And in high school and college, I read [Robert M.] Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance five times. Just thinking about them now makes me want to go read them again….
My favorite dessert indulgence is: Generally whatever is within arms’ reach….
My character is Mother.
My previous credit at SCR is Shakespeare in Love (as Queen Elizabeth).
My other credits include Les Liaisons Dangereuses, As You Like It, Collective Rage, A Flea in Her Ear, Figaro, The Guardsman, Steel Magnolias, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Next Year in Jerusalem, “NCIS,” “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Last Ship.”
I didn't read in secret: I only acted in secret. Making up elaborate scenarios that I’d act out in my room, behind closed doors.
Mother is: (Hmmm what is her name?) is a product of her times. Not a mean woman, but a privileged woman concerned with appearances and perceptions of others in her community. Outspoken but ultimately knows her place as all the characters do in this play. She says “cruelty to animals and slaves is NOT normal behavior.” Yet she believes, like Father, that “God gave us the cursed children of Ham to aid us (white people) in our mission so that we might be fruitful.” It’s hard for me to stomach that and to play it as an actress, but that is the task at hand: to show how these people were and how distorted and grotesque one's views and beliefs can be.
I love working on a new play because: It’s exciting to do a world premiere knowing you are the first actor to put your stamp on a character that many others will eventually play.
My literary hero: Well, I don't know if I have a literary hero, but I'm partial to Ayn Rand, Paulo Coelho, William Shakespeare and Joseph Campbell.
My favorite dessert indulgence: Ohhhh! Dessert is my favorite meal! I'm a dark chocolate fiend, especially when combined with either mint or peanut butter and I’ll never turn down ice cream!
My character is Toy.
My previous credit at SCR is the (PPF) reading of Little Black Shadows.
My other credits include Bulrusher, The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Scream, “Two Broke Girls,” “Franklin and Bash,” “American Koko,” Straight Outta Compton, I Do…Until I Don’t.
The book I read as a child in secret: A Divine Revelation of Hell. I was really into apologetics from an early age.
The recent film that had an impact on me: Black Panther. I can honestly say it was the first time I saw black femininity portrayed in such a positive light, strong and intelligent. Natural. Tender. And sweet. Nuanced—like me.
Toy is: A child slave who sleeps under her master’s bed. She is as innocent and imaginative as she is maternal and nurturing. This is the only life she has ever known and she is truly content with things, just the way they are.
I love working on a new play because of: New discoveries I always end up making about myself as a person. There’s something about inhabiting a new character that sort of inadvertently holds a mirror up to you a lot of times.
My literary hero: Brené Brown. She taught me to view my vulnerability as my strength and not a weakness
My favorite dessert indulgence: Cheesecake! Carrot cheesecake and red velvet cheesecake ... don’t make me choose between them!!
Learn more about Little Black Shadows and buy tickets.
My character is Mittie.
My previous credits at SCR include The Night Fairy, OZ 2.0.
My other credits include The Exorcist, Peter Pan (national tour), Oregon Trail, The Strangers Experience, “Grimm,” “Spooked,” “Relationship Goals,” Project X.
The book I read as a child, in secret: Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snoggings: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson.
The film that had a lasting impact on me: Requiem for a Dream was my favorite movie for a long time. I was so affected by it because it offered me a window into a world I knew nothing about. It was, and is, a challenging movie to watch, but I was left feeling like I had entered another's reality and therefore had a greater appreciation for my own. I wanted to tell stories to make others feel as strongly as I did when watching that movie. And I still do.
Mittie is: A strong-willed, precocious and crafty adolescent girl living on a plantation in 1851 Georgia. She lives during a time in which women were not able to aspire to anything beyond finding a husband and she makes the best of that.
I love working on a new play because of: The unknown! There is no blueprint, so the whole creative team is stepping into, what feels like, an undiscovered land. It's also exciting having the playwright in the rehearsal room as the script changes throughout the process, which keeps me on my toes and constantly seeing the play under new light.
My literary hero: Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons from “Game of Thrones.”
My favorite dessert indulgence: Ice cream. Ideally with a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.