At a pre-season game in 1978, Jack Tatum, defensive back for the Oakland Raiders, made a hard, but routine tackle on New England Patriots’ wide receiver Darryl Stingley. The hit left Stingley paralyzed for life.
“Assassin,” now being staged at InterAct Theatre Company through Feb, 10, is a fictionalized “what-if“ inspired by these true people and events.
Inspired by Tatum, the play begins with a careful cat-and-mouse game between the retired football star and the now-quadriplegic’s lawyer as it quickly spirals into a volatile evening of stinging accusations and startling confessions.
New York actor Dwayne Thomas, new to Philadelphia theater-goers, plays Lewis, the smart and calculating lawyer. “I’m there to represent the injured party, protect him and seek some kind of resolution without exposing him to any further injury.” And Thomas says he can identify with this character.
“David (Robson) wrote this play and chose me, I think, because the character of Lewis is so much like me. I knew what the story was based on, and Lewis says a lot of things that I say or think about in my own life,” Thomas says.
While he never thought of himself as an actor, growing up Thomas performed in the church choir and loved to write. One day, his high school was getting ready to put on one of his plays when one of the actors fell ill.
“I thought that was the end of my play until one of my teachers told me I’d have to take the part. I did and I think that’s what started the acting process for me,” Thomas says.
Later, that one experience led to an interest in acting and a college degree in business and economics from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
“I got a good job in corporate America, started making good money but continued to do plays on the side,” he says. “But the days just dragged on, while the nights were so much better that I eventually realized what I had to do.”
So the young man quit his day job, started waiting tables and tending bar while trying to become a fulltime actor. It’s been a struggle, but Thomas explains that he’s been performing professionally since 2001.Recently he’s been writing and directing independent films involving the many talented people he’s come across during his artistic journey such as “Blackout” and others.
“Being on stage as an actor is very fulfilling, but so are all the people I meet and the things I go through to enjoy the life I’m now enjoying. And I’m very honored most of the time that people come to see and hear what I have to say and really enjoy it. Life is hard, and for them to take the time out to see me is very special,” Thomas insists.
Urged by his brother not to let himself be pigeonholed, Thomas says he’s finding many ways to express himself in addition to acting. “My future plans are to keep it simple and work in all aspects of the business that I can. When I was first getting involved in the business I talked to lots of the technical people behind the scenes and found them very fascinating. They make this a real team effort and are the people who virtually go unrecognized but keep everything going.” For times and ticket information, call (215) 568-8079.
Celebrating the 55th anniversary of the longest consecutively running jazz festival in the world, The Monterey Jazz Festival arrives in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater Feb. 2 at 8 p.m.
Featured artists include Christian McBride, Benny Green, Lewis Nash, Chris Potter, Ambrose Akinmusire, and the multi-talented Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Born Denise Eileen Garrett in Memphis, Tenn., her father was a jazz trumpeter and a school teacher who exposed his young daughter to jazz early on. At the age of sixteen, she was a member of a rock and rhythm ‘n’ blues trio before she eventually took off on her own.
“After winning some talent shows, my dad got me jobs in local clubs, which is where I started to learn my craft,” she says. “In 1970, I met and married Cecil (Bridgewater) and we moved to New York City where Cecil played in Horace Silver’s band, and I eventually joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra as the lead vocalist, which I think was my major professional breakthrough.”
Since then, Bridgewater has enjoyed a multifaceted career spanning more than four decades, earning three Grammy awards while pursuing a parallel career in musical theater and winning a Tony Award for her role as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South in ”The Wiz.”
Other theatrical credits include “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Black Ballad,” “Carmen” and “Lady Day,” a Billie Holiday tribute for which Bridgewater received the British Laurence Oliver Nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
Bridgewater also has the distinction of being the first African-American actress to play the role of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” a production mounted in Paris.
“I love both facets of my career,“ she offers, “and I wouldn’t mind doing more theater work but I never seem to be able to find the time to make it happen.”
That’s probably because she is so busy doing so many other things. Among her other work, Bridgewater acts as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) while continuing to fight against world hunger.
Additionally, she continues hosting NPR’s award-winning weekly syndicated show, “JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater,” now in its second decade on the air.
She’s also continuing additional work on her album “Red Earth,” released in 2008, and featuring African-inspired themes and contributions by numerous musicians from the West African nation of Mali, while digging into her own ancestry there.
And while she describes herself as primarily a jazz singer, she admits to loving all genres of music. “So I would say I am a jazz singer who can do just about everything else.”
And it would seem that every day Bridgewater seeks to add new meaning to her life with various projects. “I love everything I do and I have no regrets, none at all,” she insists. “I believe that we gain from every experience we have in life. We learn from the bad things and profit from the good. I choose to have a positive outlook about it all.”
Her main goal, she concludes, “is to fondly embrace my past as well as my present while looking happily into my future.”
For more information, call (215) 893-1999.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world’s most beloved and popular dance companies, performs at the Merriam Theater Jan. 30–Feb. 1 under the leadership of the new artistic director Robert Battle. Battle succeeded Judith Jamison as artistic director after her departure on July 1, 2011.
Jamison said that “choosing Robert Battle is the giant leap I want to take to ensure that this company stays vibrant in the future.”
Battle, a Juilliard alum, had a long association with the Ailey organization and had danced with other fine companies before forming his own Battleworks Dance Company in 2002. Among his other powerful dances, Battle created a piece called “In/Side” with young dancer Samuel Lee Roberts, a dance Roberts claims to be very, very proud of.”
Roberts says performing at one of the final performances of Battleworks proved a turning point in his life. “That’s when Ms. Jamison saw me, loved the solo dance, and began talking about me possibly auditioning for her company. At the time, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was a little self-doubting. But I talked it over with some friends who were very encouraging, so I decided to audition and got the job. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am. This experience is absolutely amazing.”
Growing up in Quakertown, Roberts says his love of dance actually began at the age of 10 when he attended a dance class with his cousin, Janine. Deciding to go with her, Roberts says he was so intrigued by what he saw that he decided to take lessons as well and hasn’t stopped dancing since that day.
“She studied at a small studio called Dance Works — where eventually I began to study too. I remember everything was warm and inviting, and when the teacher saw me fidgeting she invited me to come up and join in. And I will never forget the absolute joy I felt for the next 45 minutes.”
And that joy has continued ever since. Roberts eventually studied at Juilliard, and later danced with a number of companies, including the Rockettes. He also became a founding member of Battleworks. And now, of course, he is in his fourth season with the Alvin Ailey troupe. During the company’s run in Philadelphia, Roberts is scheduled to be featured in Battle’s ”Strange Humors,” Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court” and Rennie Harris’ “Home.”
The company was founded by Alvin Ailey in New York in 1958, and its original mission remains the same, according to Roberts. “Ailey believed that art was for the people and should be delivered back to the people. And no matter who is in charge, I think that goal will always remain the same.
“And being part of this company, with its legacy so powerful and great, challenges all of us to rise to the high standard that was created before us.”
While enjoying his role in such a prestigious company very much, Roberts, who has also done some film and TV work, admits that acting has become a dream of his.
“So has returning some day to my hometown to perhaps taking over the dance studio where I once studied. I come from a community that really supported me and helped me get to where I am today. So I’d like to give back to that community whenever I can.”
International recording artist Freda Payne joins Jerry Blavat’s show “The Divas of All Time,” tomorrow at the Kimmel Center. Payne joins classic performers from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, including Darlene Love, Candi Staton, The Tymes, Baby Washington and others.
Payne’s career began when she was a shy child growing up in Detroit, Mich., learning to express her feelings through music. “I was taking piano lessons and my teacher discovered I could sing and she said I should sing,” Payne remembers. “I auditioned for a talent show called ‘Ed McKenzie’s Dance Hour,’ which was Detroit’s version of ‘Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.’ I entered and won. Then, about six months later, they asked me back and I won again. That’s when people started encouraging me to work on my singing and pursue it as a profession, which I did.”
Working her way up the music charts, Payne says some of her inspirations growing up were Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few.
Hoping to make it big in the business, Payne got her wish when her first release for Invictus called ”Band of Gold” shot to the top of both the Pop and Soul charts. Released in 1970, the song, about a new marriage gone sour, was lyrically vague enough to create quite a stir among listeners around the world who speculated as to the underlying meaning.
And even though the song made her a household name, she admits she never thought it would become as successful and popular as it was and still is today. She says, “There were a lot of other songs that I did that were just as good or even better. You don’t know which one is going to be the winner and when that one became such a mega-hit, I realized this was my time now. But I never could have predicted it in the beginning.”
Over the years, Payne produced other hits like “Deeper and Deeper,” “You Brought the Joy” and ”Bring the Boys Home,” which was recorded in 1971 and happens to be one of Payne’s favorites.
“It was the timing,” she says. “We’re talking 1971 and the United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War. It wasn’t a very popular war at all. They came up with this song and they played it for me and it brought tears to my eyes. So I loved it and they loved it and we went into the studio and cut it and then put it out. It just addressed what was going on at that time.”
Payne’s longevity and ability to remain in the limelight despite an ever-changing industry is remarkable. She has more than 17 albums under her belt with much more music on the way. In late 2007, she released “On the Inside,” her first new album in over half a decade. Soon, she says, she’ll be heading back to the studio to record a new jazz CD, explaining that jazz is really her forte and where her musical roots are.
Still motivated to stay in this business no matter what, Payne says, “The spirit of life and the belief in God that I have a purpose motivates me. Especially in this business where they’re quick to put you out to pasture. I also stay motivated because I haven’t reached the heights I aspire to yet. But I’m doing what I love and so I intend to keep going as long as I can.”
And for an artist just starting out, Payne says to “believe in yourself, be tenacious and go for it. If it’s meant to be, it will happen. They say many are called but few are chosen. If you don’t try, then you’ll never know.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the man, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader merge in Katori Hall’s award-winning drama “The Mountaintop,” receiving its Philadelphia premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) through Feb. 17 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
Set in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the play imagines the events that might have taken place the night before the assassination of the civil rights leader. After delivering his magnificent “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, an exhausted and defeated King retires to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where he encounters a mysterious and spirited stranger as an epic storm rages outside.
Sekou Laidlow, making his PTC debut, plays King, which presents both a challenge and an honor for the Baltimore-born actor.
“It is quite a challenge to be playing this man, who is obviously larger than life,” Laidlow admits. “The weight of playing someone like him is very intimidating. The real challenge is to let go of what my perception of what people coming to see this play expect to see, and giving homage to him in terms of trying to tell his story. I put my whole heart and soul into the role so that the audience can experience this journey as told by this wonderful playwright.”
“The Mountaintop” received its world premiere in London, winning the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play. It then premiered on Broadway in 2011, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
As for Laidlow, a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, he acknowledges that he attempts to bring all his training as an actor to deliver his best as Dr. King. But it’s not always easy.
“In fact, there’s a joke among actors that if you want to hear them complain, just give them a role,:” he says. “In doing this role, I am definitely not complaining, but simply trying to do the best work I can while hoping to give audiences something that will inspire them to do more with their own lives.”
Over the years, Laidlow has appeared in such regional theater productions as “Of Mice and Men” at Pioneer Theater Company, “Runaway Home” at Studio Theater, “Stonewall Country” at Theatre at Lime Kiln and others. His television credits include “Law and Order” and “The Wire,” as well as his performance in the short film “Pop Foul” which earned him the Best Performance for a Lead Actor at the Columbia University Film Festival.
“But after all that, I realized that I probably would never get a chance to be in plays off-Broadway, and most especially on Broadway, if I didn’t further my education, which is why, even after years of performing, I went back to school to attend Juilliard,” he says.
“Even with a pretty good amount of credits to my name, I realized that most people who got the kinds of jobs I wanted went to a conservatory. The people in charge just didn’t hire people without that kind of training, so that was my incentive to go to Juilliard.”
And whether one can afford a school like Juilliard or not, Laidlow says one of the keys to making it in this business is definitely education.
He says, “You have to educate yourself the best way you can and always know what’s going on. You also have to cultivate relationships with people in the business, and be genuine.” He explains that’s what he’s done and continues to do. “And today, the best thing about what I do is the ability to tell stories that have some significant content that change me, broaden me, and hopefully, like this play I’m doing now, leave an impact on others.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 985-0420.