Right now, there’s a debate raging about the American dream. What does it look like? Who is it for? And what will we sacrifice in order to achieve it?
The debate itself isn’t new. Art has always asked these questions. And Live Arts offers a poignant example with Dreamgirls, which caps off the theater’s 25th anniversary season and features a range of new and familiar faces from the Charlottesville community.
Dreamgirls, which debuted on Broadway in 1981, follows the rise of an R&B girl group called The Dreamettes, and their sweeping influence on American popular music. Inspired by The Supremes and the Motown record label, the show chronicles the aspiration, manipulation and determination of African-American women and men pursuing artistic success during the 1960s culture wars.
“On one hand, it’s about these beautiful young innocent women coming up through the ranks to stardom, what they lose and gain in that process and the men that help and teach them difficult lessons,” says Julie Hamberg, director of the Live Arts production. “But you cannot forget that society at that time is incredibly racist and that’s the demon that they are fighting.”
She points to the song “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” as an example of the musical’s complex thematic layers. When Pat Boone rips off The Dreamettes’ first major pop hit, their manager decides to use payola (bribing disc jockeys) to get onto white radio stations.
“He loses a little piece of his soul to do that,” Hamberg says. “Now he’s on his way to hell. That’s what has to happen—and it changes radio, and our society and the way black society is heard, forever. [Dreamgirls] tells the entire United States’ story there.”
Hamberg also notes the importance of viewing the American dream through the lens of the African-American experience. “Every single one of us in this town needs that story,” she says. “We need many, many of those stories.”
Ike Anderson, the show’s associate director and choreographer, agrees.
“When you picture the cast of shows like Rent and Les Mis and The Producers and City of Angels, you don’t picture someone who looks like me,” he says. “That’s a problem. It’s the reason why I’ve worked as hard as I have.”
For Anderson, who cut his theatrical teeth as a choreographer for Charlottesville High School and recently created and directed the sold-out musical revue Black Broadway at Live Arts, Dreamgirls marks his 19th production with community theater.
“If I want to have the roles white males get cast in, I have to work twice as hard,” he says. “There’s a scene [in Dreamgirls] where they talk about lack of opportunity in the entertainment field for blacks, so they have to create their own. I can’t attest to stepping into the bad side, but I know what it’s like to have to create your own opportunities.”
Though Live Arts’ new works initiative Melanin dedicates three to four staged readings each season to exploring ethnic diversity, the 20-person cast of Dreamgirls is the first all-black ensemble to appear on the theater’s main stage in many years.
“All of us at Live Arts have been trying to make sure that there have been not only opportunities [for diversity in the theater] but working toward making that a reality,” Hamberg says. “We choose plays that call for an African-American actor or a Latino actor so that we have to recruit those actors. There are roles so that artists know they are part of Live Arts.”
She goes on to say, “It’s not enough to be invited. It has to be yours. It’s not, ‘Please come and help us,’ because if there’s an ‘us,’ there’s a ‘them.’ At Live Arts, we’re trying to make the ‘us’ everyone.”
The result in Dreamgirls is a lineup of passionate performers with powerhouse vocals. “Deandra Irving will be phenomenal playing Lorrell. She’s been in The Mountaintop and Les Mis,” Anderson says, “but for the most part, [these actors have] never done a Live Arts production before. It’s exciting to see completely new faces join the Live Arts family.”
“It’s also up to the people we see on stage,” she says. “After this experience we’ve had, this can’t be their last production. It has to be their gateway to showcasing their talent in Charlottesville.”
When talented folks gather to make art, they knit the fabric of a community. Every performance of a show like Dreamgirls invites the public to join them. And within that community, love comes more naturally, eyes open more easily and unity deepens.
“One day we were having a discussion with the cast and crew, and one of our cast members said she was really grateful that she got to work on a show that had a positive portrayal of African-Americans, where good things happened that were happy and joyful,” says Hamberg. “Because so many shows about black people were tragedies, were about horrible things happening to them.
“…I had never thought of it like that before. Like, ‘Oh my God, that is the state of theater in America.’”
But the joy of watching talented hopefuls claim their rightful place in the spotlight doesn’t preclude some tears. With Dreamgirls, Anderson has one piece of advice: “Make sure you bring your Kleenex,” he says. “There are so many moments from this show where the emotion from singing is incredibly high. Just be ready for that.”