Saturday, May 20, 2017

Obba Babatunde Stars In 'Five Guys Named Moe'

Obba Babatunde
photo courtesy of Obba Babatunde

By Darlene Donloe

The show may be called Five Guys Named Moe, but there is one guy named Obba Babatunde who will, undoubtedly, rock the stage and then promptly bring down the house.   

A consummate showman known for his spirited, authentic and high-energy performances, Babatunde who has been entertaining audiences with his acting, singing and dancing for more than four decades, knows how to make it do what it do. And, he’ll “do” just that when Five Guys Named Moe, opens tonight (Sat., May 20) in the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the musical written by Clarke Peters (HBO’s The Wire and Treme).

Five Guys Named Moe celebrates the timeless music of Louis Jordan, the pioneering saxophonist, singer and bandleader, who was called, "The King of the Jukebox." The musical tells the story of Nomax — who is down on his luck. His girlfriend, Lorraine, has left him, he's been drinking and he's listening to the radio at 4:45 a.m. Emerging from his radio are the Moes – No Moe, Little Moe, Four Eyed Moe, Eat Moe, and Big Moe. They encourage Nomax through song and stories to turn his life around and tell Lorraine that he loves her.  Babatunde, who can be seen in three new television series (Netflix’s Dear White People, Comedy Central’s The Detroiters, and Showtime’s forthcoming I’m Dying Up Here, plays Nomax.

Five Guys Named Moe began its journey with a six-week run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The musical went to London’s West End Lyric Theatre in 1990 where it played until 1995 when it moved to the Albery Theatre.  In 1992, Five Guys Named Moe made its Broadway debut at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where it played 445 performances and 19 previews. The show’s popularity grew, as regional and touring productions wowed audiences across the U.S. and the world.

A show that has music, dancing and acting is right up Babatunde’s alley. He loves each medium equally. The Emmy Award-winner (Bold and the Beautiful), Tony Award nominee (Dreamgirls) and Ovation Award nominee, also has a NAACP Image Award (A Soldier’s Play). Some of his stage credits include Sammy at The Old Globe, Chicago on Broadway, and Jelly’s Last Jam. He received an Emmy Award nomination for the HBO Movie Miss Evers’ Boys and an NAACP Image Award nomination for HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Some of his film appearances include: The Manchurian Candidate, The Notebook, Philadelphia, The Celestine Prophecy and John Q.  He has appeared in too many television shows to mention (Madame Secretary, Kingdom, Hand of God, Dear White People, Dawson’s Creek, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). He co-produced and directed Oscar’s Black Odyssey as well as the multi-award winning short film Clarissa’s Gift and co-produced Dorothy Dandridge.  These are just some of the credits he’s amassed and accomplished in his more than 45 years career.

Today Babatunde is seated in the ERT rehearsal room, comfortably dressed in black slacks and a blue baroque shirt. His age, which is north of 60, belies the pep in his step, the twinkle in his eyes and his youthful spirit. He greets you with a big, friendly smile and embraces with a sincere, warm hug.

Although he’s one of the nicest and most personable people you’ll ever meet in Hollywood, when he’s talking about his craft there’s no nonsense and no pretense. He shoots from the hip and wants others to do the same. His choice of words is deliberate and his gaze is piercing.

(front) Obba Babatund√©, (rear L-R) Octavius Womack, Rogelio Douglas, Jr.,
Eric B. Anthony, Jacques C. Smith and Trevon Davis.
Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography
Talking to Babatunde about the role and his career, it’s clear that he loves what he does and that he enjoys taking on stimulating roles.  The veteran actor says he has no doubt that Five Guys Named Moe will be a success. He has nothing but praise for Clarke Peters, Keith Young (director), Abdul Hamid Royal (musical director) and his cast, which includes Eric B. Anthony (Eat Moe), Trevon Davis (Little Moe), Rogelio Douglas, Jr. (Four-Eyed Moe), Jacques C. Smith (No Moe) and Octavius Womack (Big Moe).

Our conversation was quick, but satisfying.

DD: So, how are rehearsals going?

OB: Sensational. We have an amazing group of people. This being the 25th year, for those who have or have not seen it, I highly recommend coming to see this production in this house. There is something new about it. It has a fresh face. We still have the same wonderful Jordan music and arrangement, but the treatment of it is different. It bares watching and experiencing it.

DD: Tell me about the first time you ever saw this show. What did you think?

OB: I enjoyed it because of the performances. Being a stickler for character, I thought that I would have enjoyed it more had I been engaged by who the five different personalities were as opposed to ‘this is just great music by a great performer.’

DD:  Describe Five Guys Named Moe.

OB: In this production there is a unique experience identifying, through the use of Jordan’s music, the journey of a man named Nomax, who is challenged with habits that have caused him to be stymied in his growth and relationships particularly with Lorraine, his girl. But we see more of an evolution as he witnesses that which is placed before him. His challenges. And through that there is a growth and development that affords him a desire as well as a methodology to move out of it.  This is all done through song, dance and pure entertainment.

DD: Tell me about your character, Nomax.

OB: I love him. He’s challenged. When you play a character, whether you’re the villain or the hero, you must always see yourself as the hero. Otherwise you can't portray it honestly. Someone who has screwed up doesn't go through life waking up saying they are screwed up.  They keep making excuses for what has happened to them. No one sees themselves as a villain. I love the characters I portray. They are full human beings. I don't play “isms” or aspects of a character. The reason being is - everybody you meet is a full human being. Particularly in black skin, we have often been relegated to playing an idea of who we are, somebody else’s idea of who we are. Before you are anything, you are a human being. Every character I’ve ever portrayed is my attempt to play them as a full human being. How they express their humanity may be different – either through drama, comedy or tragedy. All of those things exist in every human being.

DD:  Why are you the right person to play Nomax?  What do you bring?

OB: I was asked to do it by my friend, Wren T. Brown (ERT Producing Artistic Director). I’m capable because of the experience I bring because of my many years in theater and the understanding of the different levels that can be portrayed by an actor.

Obba Babatunde as Nomax in 'Five Guys Named Moe'
Craig Schwartz Photography

DD: How did you go about developing the role?

OB: To prepare for the character I have to be in shape. I make sure I stay in shape so I don’t have to get in shape. I get vocally prepared, physically prepared and, uh, I have to be aware of the period so that I can be true to the period and how I present this character. I have to be aware of the musical styles of this period so that I can present it the way it should be presented.

DD: As a song and dance man, you’re in your element.

OB:  Interestingly enough, for me I am the subject. It's the five guys who are doing the heavy lifting. I’m along for the ride. It’s different from what Obba, in his song and dance element, would do. It’s more of an acting role for me.

DD: How do you feel about that?

OB: I love all aspects of the theatrical experience whether it’s song, dance, acting, comedy, farce, feature film or television, it’s all part of the wheelhouse of Obba Babatunde.

(l-r) Obba Babatunde and Keith Young
Photo by Malcolm Ali Photography

DD: Talk about your director Keith Young.

OB: To talk about Keith Young, I have the utmost respect and regard for him. I worked for him as the choreographer for the show Sammy, where I played Sammy. We worked very close together to present magic. As I see him work in this as a double duty as director and choreographer – creating on stage without having the practical reality of a set and scenes it’s not locked in a specific place that’s supported by the scenery. He creates in a way that’s not easy to do.

DD:  Talk about the cast.

OB: Each cast member brings a unique individualistic gift and talent and expertise. It is a joy to work with these five gentlemen with all the potentiality of testosterone. I’ve not experienced false ego in one. We all are a family. I want to include our musical director Abdul [Hamid Royal]. We are fortunate and blessed. With his long list of credits we receive the benefit. He was also the original director of the Broadway cast. He is a creator from its inception. We have a wonderful stage manager and assistant stage manager. Everybody I’ve named is male. Everyday we start out by holding hands in a circle and each one of us takes a turn to unite us in prayer. That also speaks to who they are.

DD: Why should people come see this show?

OB: People should come to see Five Guys at Nate Holden because they will be lifted and entertained. You get a chance to laugh and get reminded what it feels like to be moved by the great music of Louis Jordan. These five guys are brilliant. Our band and our physical production can compete with any show presently running anywhere. That it’s being done here at this theater speaks volumes. The reason I say that is when you have huge budgets you can make a spectacle. But when you’re challenged with not having a huge budget, but you bring in the best of talent in lighting, sound, choreography, director, and talent on the stage you are seeing the best of the best. It’s not shrouded or bamboozled because of all the expensive glitz. It’s pure.

DD: How do you prepare to go on stage?

OB: It doesn't matter whether I’m doing a play, a musical, a drama, a soap or a feature film, I start by warming up with tap steps. It starts from the soles of my feet and then resonates itself up my legs to my body, arms fingers and head.

DD: What happens to you when you’re on stage?

OB:  I’m no longer me. I’m now Nomax. He has a drinking problem.  Obba doesn’t drink.

DD: By what method do you decide whether to take a role?

OB: My barometer for measuring has more to do with what the piece is about than what my character is about.   If I look at the production being film, TV or stage, it seems to represent something to glorify something that I am personally juxtaposed to.  I emphasize the word “glorify” – then I pass on it. I choose not to do it. I understand the power of the media and, uh, how it shapes the viewpoints of people who experience it or witness it. I can do a character or I can do a project that is about a horrific circumstance as long as it is not glorifying that circumstance.

DD: What do you learn about yourself or your craft each time you take on a project?

OB: If I had to examine what I learn from each project, it’s a little bit more about myself because I get to explore through that character a different part of one’s humanity and a reflection of my own.

DD:  What does acting do for you?

OB: I love the arts. I am so excited about all that I’ve done in more than 45 years. I’m more excited about what I am to do. I feel so fortunate and blessed that I found my purpose at an early age and I’ve lived it.

DD: What did you expect from Hollywood and what did you get?
OB: I subscribe to this. In life one can not take from me what they did not give to me. I didn't come to Hollywood with expectations to get anything from Hollywood. I came to Los Angeles to continue the practice of my craft and that’s what I’ve done.

DD: Sing, dance or act. You can only do one for the rest of your life. Which one do you pick?

OB: I come out of the post vaudevillian style of entertainment like a Sammy Davis Jr.  They are all one art form for me. I dance through my singing, I sing through my acting and I act through my dancing.  So it’s all one. There is never like, ‘I’m going to be a singer, or actor or dancer’.  It’s all one. It’s all a part of the same. That’s how I’ve fashioned my career. It could be the secret to my success.

Five Guys Named Moe, written by Clarke Peters, directed by Keith Young with musical direction by Abdul Hamid Royal, stars Babatunde, Eric B. Anthony, Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas, Jr., Jacques C. Smith and Octavius Womack.

Five Guys Named Moe, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 11; $30-$55; or 323-964-9766.  Groups of 10 or more: or 323-964-9766.

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