Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tracy Nicole Chapman Is Ready To 'Shout!'



By Darlene Donloe

Everyone knows Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, Koko Taylor is the Queen of the Blues, Ella Fitzgerald is the First Lady Of Song and Queen of Jazz, Tina Turner is the Queen of Rock & Roll and Beyonce is the Queen Bae, but very few people are familiar with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, affectionately and accurately called the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

Tharpe’s story and the impact of her music on the industry are brought to life in the world premiere musical, Shout Sister Shout!, set to open at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, July 30.

A noted electric guitarist and legendary gospel singer - Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose hits included Down by the Riverside, This Train, and Strange Things Happen Every Day, was considered a trailblazer in the history of American music. Her music influenced music giants like Tina Turner, Little Richard, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Dylan.

Playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Shout Sister Shout! is Broadway veteran Tracy Nicole Chapman, whose credits include: The Lion King, Little Shop of Horrors, Into The Woods and Caroline, or Change and more. Chapman, a married mother of two, lives in Los Angeles with her family.

Tracy Nicole Chapman

I recently caught up with Chapman (TNC), best known for originating the role of Shenzi in the Broadway production of The Lion King, to talk about the show and her career.

DD: Talk about how and when you first became acquainted with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music. Also, as a singer yourself – talk about your impressions of her, her music and her guitar prowess.

TNC: She was fierce. I first heard of her about 20 years ago. I’m a guitar player. I wanted to find every African American woman I could, who played guitar. I think Tracy Chapman was out at that time and so was Joan Armatrading. I listened to Sister Rosetta play. I wanted to find others.  That's how I first heard of her. I found out she influenced some people like Elvis, Little Richard, in fact, Rock n’ Roll - period.  I also read the book.

DD: What are your impressions of her?

TNC: She was a beast. She had her own style. She was confident. Her finger-picking was flawless. She was fearless - not afraid to try something new. No one else was doing it. It was inspiring.  It was written that she wanted to remain a gospel artist, but was forced to do secular music. I’m inspired by her to be able to cross over. She had an incredible blues and gospel voice.

DD:  How would you describe Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

TNC:  She was a fearless and independent thinker who made her own way. She was a trailblazer. She was a strong woman. She was a child prodigy. She toured with her mom at six-years-old. All that experienced was gathered up. She was really about being yourself.

Tracy Nicole Chapman

DD: In the show do you get into who she was as a human being or is it all about the music?

TNC: It’s really more about her being a human being. We start with her at age 18 and talk about her marriages and the business.  We try to explore who she was as a human. Cheryl West (the playwright) did a good job in capturing her essence.

DD: What kind of research did you do and what did you find out about her that you didn’t know?

TNC:  I read the book by Gayle Wald. That’s where I got most of the information. There is also a PBS documentary. What was interesting was that she cursed like a sailor – that was surprising. She also had a wedding with 20,000 people at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951. They recorded the wedding and made an album. Decca Records thought it would be a good idea. About 20,000 people brought her gifts.

DD: When you’re preparing for a role like this, how do you start? How do you prepare for this role?

TNC: They had custom guitars made. They had custom-made Les Paul guitars made – that’s what she played. At first I stared at it. I said, ‘Ok, Rosetta what do you want people to know about you?’ People don’t know about her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. That has since been rectified. What little we do know we tried to incorporate. We took creative license with some things. I try to find ways I think we’re similar. She was open-minded.  I asked her to come forth so I could get inspiration.

DD:  There is footage of Sister Tharpe.  Mimicking her and the essence of her are two different things. It’s a fine line. How do you balance your interpretation?

TNC:  The good news is the creative team all said for me not to mimic. They said, “Be you. Put some inflections of her.” I noticed there were some mannerisms. She rarely looks down at her guitar. The essence is playing the commonality, not trying to mimic or be her.

DD:  Why did you want to take on this role?

TNC:  It’s funny you ask that. I didn’t go in for this part. When I heard about it two years ago, I said I was going to go see this show – not be in it. Then, I was going in for the role of Marie, her singing partner. They said, “You play guitar, come back and do Rosetta.”  This is a huge part. I don’t leave the stage – expect maybe for five minutes. God has sent this my way, so I’m going to do it.

Tracy Nicole Chapman

DD:  What is it about her and her music?

TNC:  She’s a hidden figure. She was so influential. A lot of people don’t get their ‘just due’. She was very natural and real. She was funny and down to earth. I think that’s what makes her stand out. She didn’t put on any fronts. Sometimes brilliant people get lost in the shuffle.

DD: Talk about how you prepare to go on stage to become Sister Rosetta.  What is your ritual? How do you prepare your instrument?

TNC: Voice lessons. I do vocal coaching warm ups in the morning at eight. I warm up again in the afternoon and right before the show. I do this via Skype with my vocal coach. I usually don’t go out. I go home and rest. I try to be quiet during the day. This show covers jazz, pop and some musical theater. This show is a vocal workout. I do the scales, some sirens, you know like doing the Soul Train siren up and down. I also drink tea with honey.

DD: She was a monster on the guitar. How good are you at playing the guitar?

TNC:  I know how to play a little bit. Not on her level. She did a lot of finger picking. I’m more about playing chords. I can accompany myself. I’ve recently taken lessons.  I started three weeks ago.

DD: What was it like working with Randy Johnson who did A Night With Janis Joplin. 

TNC:  Randy is very giving. He gives us freedom and flexibility. He’s open. He creates a team environment. 

DD: You’ve had an impressive career. Your Broadway credits include: Little Shop of Horrors; Caroline, or Change; Into the Woods and The Lion King. You originated the role of Shenzi in The Lion King. Talk about the trajectory of your career. What is the criteria when deciding on a project?

TNC: Usually it’s about what the piece is about. This is the scariest one I’ve ever done. It’s about the story and the music.

DD: What did you expect from this business and what did you get?

TNC: I was blessed. I was in Ohio. I knew when I was 11-years-old what I wanted to do. I remember seeing Purlie, and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. I went to the University of Cincinnati for music theater. I went on tour and then went to New York to do the Dreamgirls tour.  I was a singer who moved well and did chorus work. That was fun. I was living the dream. I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. Now, because I’m older, I pick and choose what is interesting to do. That’s kind of nice to be able to take a pass on some things. I’ve been lucky to work with the best directors.

The play, written by Cheryl West (based on Gayle Wald’s book Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe), created and directed by Randy Johnson, stars Tracy Nicole Chapman, Logan Charles, Yvette Cason, Michael A. Shepperd, Angela Teek, Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr.

Shout Sister Shout!’s creative team includes: choreographer Keith Young, musical director Rahn Coleman, scenic designer Steven C. Kemp, costume designer Dana Rebecca Woods, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, sound designer Jon Gottlieb, wig/hair designer Carol F. Doran, casting director Michael Donovan, CSA; and associate director Tyler Rhodes.

Shout Sister Shout, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena; 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 4 and 8 p.m. Sat and 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. through Aug. 20, 2017; (Note: there will be one Tuesday performance on August 15 at 8 p.m. and no Sunday night performance at 7 p.m. on August 20; Tickets: $25-$115; PasadenaPlayhouse.org or 626 356-7529.


Friday, July 21, 2017

The Penis Is The Focus Of 'The Johnson Chronicles'




By Darlene Donloe

“A hard dick has no conscience. Says it all, don’t it?”

Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t.  The answer may be revealed in Peter J. Harris’ play, The Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales About My Penis, set to open tonight at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood.

A week ago, at an empty Matrix Theatre, I caught up with Harris and Terrell Tilford, the star of the play, as they were waxing lyrical about the show and about their friendship. The two of them together are hilarious. Their priceless banter and quick repartee is that of two old friends who have a loving, familiar and respectful acquaintance.

Tilford, casually dressed in a striped shirt and shorts, is straddling a bench on the stage, while he goes over his script. A bespectacled Harris, donned in a green flak jacket, black t-shirt, jeans and sandals, 
is pacing back and forth with a confident energy.

They are literally on the same page when it comes to presenting an updated version of Harris’s classic tome. At one time Tilford directed Harris in the Johnson Chronicles. Now it’s Harris’s turn to reciprocate. For Harris there was only one man who could bring the strength, sensibilities and skills to this one-man show and that’s Tilford.  Previous incarnations of the show had several males presenting the material as a reading.  This time it’s being presented as a solo production.

In the Johnson Chronicles, Tilford plays My Man, a character who speaks on the Truth and Tall Tales about the pleasure and pain of living with Johnson, the all-purpose African American euphemism for his penis.

Nothing is held back in this show. Harris has constructed a heady presentation that “confronts My Man’s personal, political and mythological Johnson in bold, funny, sensual, historical vignettes, intellectual dozens, vows, and affirmations about first sex, size, fatherhood, intimacy and intimate violence, vasectomy, and the impact of racism on his humanity and sexuality.”

The Johnson Chronicles has been described as a poetic, conversational, 'body memoir' about the black penis.
 
Harris says he got his inspiration for the show after a friend invited him to see Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

Please note: this show is FOR GROWN FOLKS ONLY!

Following is a brief discussion I had with both Harris (PJH) and Tilford (TT).

Playwright Peter J. Harris
DD:  Men are so connected to their penises. What is it about the penis?

PJH: It’s conditioning. We get slighted. Conditioning at its worse reduces us to our penises. You are seen as that thing that can have someone make money for themselves.  Johnson and the reproduction system is what made money in tandem with the women’s reproductive system. It’s also about our own internal cultural dynamics. If we’re not careful we will pass on the worse of things.  There is nothing funnier than a big black Johnson joke. It’s like a “Yo mama joke,” ya know? This is about every man being named My Man.  If you hit the right tones that guy can symbolize a number of other men. I’m in my 60s now. I should be wiser now. I am wiser now. To go through divorce, custody battles and heartbreak, you get seasoned. For me, if you are surrounded by the community of men. If you get the right connection with the right dudes, the Johnson just becomes a part of your body, except when it grows in power with a particular person who is your partner.

DD: What is it that a woman could NEVER understand about the penis?

PJH:  I don't know. There is nothing mysterious about it. If you are a heterosexual - you want his dick to work. Taking care of my body is a lifelong thing to do. Isolating my Johnson is not going to keep me alive. I don't’ like to mystify it.  We have to keep generating work like The Johnson Chronicles. I’m a distinctive writer. My idea is to contribute to a body of work. I’m striving for a simple humanity. History eliminated our humanity.

DD: How has the show evolved?

PJH: I cut out some chronicles that were in the earlier readings. I refined some of the other chronicles. We have found a new core to it. There is something about the solo form that demands that you don’t kill your actor - because we have a show on paper that was easily 90 minutes or more. When you’re investing one person in the show, you want to make sure that person is a worker. I work harder to edit myself -  harder than anyone else could. That’s how it’s changed in the most fundamental way. I’ve given Terrell more room to absorb the pieces.

DD: Why did you choose to direct?

PJH:  I’m directing this to get some basics in place. The collaboration and the fearlessness to collaborate has kept us on the balls of our feet.

Terrell Tilford 
DD: Terrell, at one point you directed this show, now you’re starring in the show.  Talk about each experience and what each does for you?

TT: Having been in the biz a long time, as you get older you know more things, it gets to a point when you know you have a stronger point of view, which is why I wanted to direct the previous version. This has been a collaborative process in terms of him (Harris) being open to us being open and candid with each other the entire time. He likes creative conflict. It’s out of that conflict that has gotten us to where we are today. We are in a good opening position.

DD:   Tell me about the first time you heard about and saw this show?

TT:  I heard about it when he did some excerpts.  It was a different voice. Upon hearing the first audio of it, you go, “Shit, this guy is on a different trip.” I thought he was crazy. Listen to what’s being said. There is a vibration within the tone of the work that it was honest and sincere. If we allow ourselves to get to that point then we’ll find the dichotomy in it. And the stuff we relate to and that which has no connection to us. But that wasn’t the experience. The first reading I thought he was on to something.
  
DD: Why did you want to do this show?

TT: I didn’t think I was interesting enough to do the show. I didn't think I had the right temperament to be in the show. I didn’t want to do it at all. I only wanted to be the director. I didn’t want it to be about me. I didn’t want Peter to do it either because writers have a particular connection to their work that they’re not open to in terms of the criticism while they are in the piece. But, this brother was humble. We fought. Creative tension is good when it’s about the work. Our egos was never involved in the work.

DD: What are some truths and some tall tales about the penis?

TT:  I don’t know where and how to delve into my own truths. The voice within this in demystifying what the black penis is all about. The myth is that we are Mandingo slinging apes that have no connection to our humanity or any sensitivity. That we can’t have a logical or sensible conversation with our partners and that we are incapable of having sit down with each other and have a grown ass conversation. It’s about saying, I’m not in the mood today. I’m just not. I’m stressed out. I’m thinking about bills. Black men are dying at the hands of cops. Where and how can I celebrate life or engage in this in the midst of that.” It takes two grown ass people to have that discussion. It’s introspection of yourself.

DD:  I saw a reading of this show a while back. There were several men. This is a single male. It’s a solo show. What impact does one guy bring to the show?  Is it more impactful.

PJH: The impetus for this run of the Johnson Chronicles is to bring in an actor I trust. He (Terrell) says I’m ready to go back. If we’re going to do it, I don’t want to stop. It’s a lot of work.   Joe Stern the owner of the Matrix Theatre was very supportive.

DD: But, why solo?

PJH: The first reason to go solo was budgetary. For this run and given the work we’ve done on the script. This is a seamless version. It seems natural. I can’t imagine an ensemble now. It’s written by the prospective of one black heterosexual male.

DD:  Terrell, he chose you.

TT: I’m humbled.  This is not a vanity project. I love what I do. I love honoring the work. The rest of it is the universe. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. I don't have control over it. When I get up on the stage, that's all its about.  It’s about leaving it on the dance floor.

Peter J. Harris
(YouTube screenshot)
DD: Peter, explain your process of bringing this show to life.

PJH:  If I could characterize it, it would be quietness. Trying to listen. Listening to what I’m actually saying and trying to find the rhythm and the intonation. It’s about bringing the resonance of the depth of the circumstances and then trying to let it go and repeat. I’m looking for some version of that.   There is no one formula. Every piece of art requires something different.

DD: Terrell, you and Peter have been inhaling this show for a while.

TT:  For this particular piece, Peter and I have been at it longer than a normal process. We started four months ago. We were trying to get ready to go to Washington, D.C. I still wasn't tapped into the understanding. I didn’t understand the piece at that time, not what I think I needed to understand for the piece. When we got into the regular process here, I asked if Peter and I could just meet at my house and just talk and listen, and find the heartbeat and the through line.  I feel like we’ve weaved together a symphony. It’s a beautiful piece of music.

DD: What does theater do for you?

TT: Television is my mortgage. Film is happenstance and theater is my bloodline. Theater is my greatest gift to myself. It’s because of the immediacy of the connection. I wish the stage was as narrow as a tightrope. It's the highest vibration.

Terrell Tilford in Take Me Out

Terrell Tilford (foreground) in Stick Fly with Chris Butler

DD: Peter, why is Terrell the right person for this one-man show?

PJH: That's the irony to me. I met Terrell at World Stage in the 90s before he went to grad school. He was an around the way dude. I know how serious he was. I remember him pulling me aside and saying, “I m going to grad school to get my MFA.” I knew he would have the chops. I’m a fan. I saw him in Take Me Out and Stick Fly. I also saw his Shakespeare stuff. I like working with people who are serious.  He and his wife, Victoria [Platt], are good people. What I do know is that he “gets” a lot of stuff. I knew he would work hard. I wanted someone who took seriously that they are professional actors.   I’m not an actor. I know the work he has put in for his craft.   He has a great presence as a dude. He’s not just handsome - he has a presence. That's the dude I saw stalking a stage. He was always my first choice. I saw him chewing it up and chanting it up.  That’s it in a nutshell.  I haven’t been disappointed. I’m about the culture. I’m about the work. He stands for integrity. This guy is a contemporary curator of African American art. This dude loves this culture. We are in association. We talk about everything. I’m quick to think, “What do you think?”  Lets set the highest standards we can set.

The Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales About My Penis stars Terrell Tilford and is written and directed by Peter J. Harris.  Thomas A. Gordon Ph.D/TAGA Consulving is the associate producer. Inspiration House PopsnAde/Restorative Notions, in association with YardBird Media.

The Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales About My Penis, The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave.  Los Angeles, CA 90046, 8 p.m., Fri., Sat., Mon. through Aug. 7; tickets @:



Celebs Attend Opening Of Musical 'Born For This'



By Darlene Donloe


Last night's opening of BeBe Winans’ Born For This: The Musical was a star-studded affair with celebs from the world of music, theater, television and film in attendance.

In Born For This, Detroit teenagers BeBe and CeCe Winans experience the ultimate in culture shock when they are invited to join Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise The Lord network in Pineville, North Carolina. The Bakkers become an unlikely surrogate family as BeBe and CeCe rapidly become the hottest stars in televangical America. Eventually crossing over to mainstream fame, BeBe must learn to reconcile the temptations of fame and fortune with the things he values more.


Born For This, book by Randolph-Wright and BeBe Winans, featuring music and lyrics by BeBe Winans, is choreographed by Warren Adams and plays at the Broad through August 6. The show, directed and co-written by Charles Randolph Wright (Motown: The Musical) premiered last year at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

(l-r) Charles Randolph Wright, Berry Gordy and BeBe Winans

Loretta Devine (The Carmichael Show)
Freda Payne

Greenleaf's Jason Dirden
Suzanne de Passe

Garcelle Beauvais

Debbie Allen

BeBe Winans and Reginald Hudlin

Actress Starletta DuPois

Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo

Isaiah Washington
Marvin Winans, Freda Payne and BeBe Winans

BeBe Winans addresses the star-studded audience which included
Sidney Poitier,  Stevie Wonder, James Pickens and Robert Townsend

**all photos by Darlene Donloe