Stages of life: The Charlottesville Players Guild steps into the spotlight for its second act

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The Charlottesville Players Guild is performing Joe Turner's Come and Gone through April 29. Photo by Sanjay Suchak The Charlottesville Players Guild is performing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone through April 29. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

She’d been here before.

During a recent rehearsal of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a feeling of recollection overcame Brenda Brown-Grooms as she recited her lines. She was in character as Bertha Holly, wife of Seth Holly and a boarding house matron who likes to bake biscuits, make coffee and care for her tenants with warmth and laughter. But Brown-Grooms knew it was more than a line that’d tipped off her déjà vu.

She glanced down at her feet, and when Brown-Grooms looked back up and out into the auditorium, she traveled back in time to when she was a second-grader, sitting in that very spot on the very same wooden stage, pretending to sew an American flag out of construction paper, a pair of brand-new sky-blue patent leather shoes peeking out from beneath her Betsy Ross costume.

She had, indeed, been here before.

“I just knew I was gorgeous,” says Brown-Grooms, laughing as she recalls the memory of her first play. “I don’t suspect Betsy had sky-blue shoes,” she says, but that didn’t matter one bit to young Brenda. “[Betsy] looked like me that day,” like a sky-blue shoe-wearing African-American second-grader attending the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the early 1960s.

“I like this,” she remembers thinking.

Brown-Grooms, who fell in love with reading out loud as soon as her teacher, Mrs. Cage, introduced her to the alphabet in the first grade, had found the play on a school bookshelf just two weeks before and asked if she could perform it for the class. “Why not the whole school?” Brown-Grooms remembered Mrs. Cage asking.

And while Brown-Grooms liked performing, she loved knowing that “you can have an idea, and all of a sudden it’s born.”

Brown-Grooms, co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Community here in Charlottesville, describes herself as “a diva and a ham.” She’s taught New Testament Greek language and grammar at the college level, she’s preached in cities all over the country, and has joined a theater troupe in every city she’s lived in: New York, New Jersey, California and elsewhere. But when she moved back to Charlottesville in 2011, she couldn’t find a troupe that seemed more fun than competitive.

The Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms plays the role of Bertha Holly in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which runs through April 29 at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Brown-Grooms first performed on this stage in the early 1960s, as a second-grader at Jefferson Elementary School. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

Last September, Brown-Grooms caught a performance of Wilson’s Jitney, produced by the Charlottesville Players Guild on the Jefferson School stage, and she says she knew, in that moment, “I had found my peeps.”

“I am going to be in an August Wilson play,” Brown-Grooms declared after the lights went down. A few months later, she auditioned for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and nabbed the role of Bertha Holly. And when Brown-Grooms steps onto the Jefferson School auditorium stage on opening night on April 18, she’ll again be wearing sky blue—this time, a dress.

The backstory

Built with funds raised by the African-American community and the Freedmen’s Aid Society, the Jefferson Graded School building on Fourth St. NW opened in 1895 to provide an all-grades school for black children. At that time, and for some time after, Charlottesville public schools enrolled white children only. In a 2017 article for Vinegar Hill magazine, titled “Black Theater Charlottesville,” Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and local theater artist Leslie Scott-Jones wrote that “at the center of the new structure was a stage where students practiced elocution and presented Christmas pageants…there is ample evidence that performance was an important aspect of Charlottesville’s African American cultural life,” both at the school and in local black churches, which supported plenty of religious pageants throughout the year.

The school was rebuilt in 1926, as the city’s first high school for black students, and was expanded four times, and still, the auditorium and its stage remained a center of activity even when the school became Jefferson Elementary School in 1951. The 1941 edition of Crimson & Black, the Jefferson School yearbook, counted 59 students as members of the dramatics club, and by 1944, that number had doubled, and the group participated in the Virginia State Theater competition in Petersburg, Virginia, up until 1951, Douglas and Scott-Jones note in the Vinegar Hill article.

Many of the dramatics club students later became members of the Charlottesville Players Guild, an adult theater group that, the article notes, had as many as 40 participants at the height of its membership. Started in the mid-1950s, the all-African-American troupe performed one- and three-act plays in the Charlottesville area and throughout the region and “remained a mainstay of local community theater into the late 1960s.”

Over the years, many students from the Jefferson High School dramatics club (pictured here in 1945-46) went on to perform with the Charlottesville Players Guild, active in the Charlottesville Area through the 1960s. Photo from Crimson and Black, 1945-46 Jefferson High School Yearbook

Douglas first heard about the Charlottesville Players Guild from Mary Anderson, a Jefferson School alumna who Douglas believes is the only surviving member of the original guild. Douglas has learned a bit about the guild from Anderson, from Crimson & Black and from photography books that chronicle black life in Charlottesville through the 20th century, but says it’s been difficult to find information on which plays the troupe performed—active from the 1940s to ’60s—and when.

Douglas, who has served as executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center since it opened in 2012, says that supporting artists of color is an important part of honoring the school’s heritage. In addition to spaces devoted to exhibits on local African-American history, the center has gallery rooms that regularly house the work of local African-American visual artists like Yolonda Coles Jones, Lisa Beane and Frank Walker, and Douglas says she’d long hoped to stage the plays of Wilson—America’s foremost African-American playwright who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for Fences in 1987 and for The Piano Lesson in 1990—on the Jefferson School stage.

“If you’re going to announce yourself as an institution that addresses the 20th-century African-American experience in the most interdisciplinary way, there is no other artist that does it as completely and thoroughly as August Wilson does,” Douglas says.

What’s more, she says, when one considers “the broad scope of the arts in Charlottesville and its focus on ‘Americana,’ loosely defined,” one realizes “what isn’t part of ‘Americana’ on a consistent basis,” and that which isn’t often part of that Charlottesville Americana is art that explores and depicts the African-American experience.

Douglas mentioned her desire to stage Wilson plays on an episode of “Home Grown,” an arts talk show on WPVC radio that Scott-Jones, a longtime local theater artist, often hosts.

Scott-Jones, who studied theater at VCU and has participated in various community theater productions at Live Arts, PlayOn Theatre, Gorilla Theater and elsewhere, was ready to go all-in. She wanted the chance to stage Wilson plays in Charlottesville, and the chance to give actors, directors and producers of color the opportunity to participate in theater that was written expressly for them. She wanted to do black theater.

Black theater, Scott-Jones explains, happens when a black director produces a work with black actors playing black characters written by a black playwright. Wilson’s plays fit this bill; the playwright had an unofficial condition that no white directors should direct his plays.

Black actors playing black characters does not necessarily qualify a play as black theater. Plays like Dreamgirls and The Wiz (both of which have been produced with great success at Live Arts in recent years) tell stories about black characters, but they are written by white men and thus view African-American life through that lens.

Turns out, that’s the lens through which most theater produced in America is viewed.

The November/December 2015 issue of The Dramatist published the findings of The Count, an ongoing study by the Lilly Awards in partnership with the Dramatists Guild, which analyzed three years of data from productions in regional theaters in America. It found that 78 percent of the plays produced in American community theaters are written by men (63 percent of the plays produced in American community theaters are written by American white men, 6 percent by American men of color, 22 percent are written by American women, and just 3.4 percent are written by American women of color).

And so, in Charlottesville, as is the case across all of America, there are few opportunities to perform plays not written from that American white male perspective.

And while it’s true that the race of a character is not always specified in a script, Scott-Jones says that when a play is written by a white playwright, it’s often automatically assumed that that character is white, because playwrights typically write from their own perspective.

Leslie Scott-Jones has helped revive the Charlottesville Players Guild, an all-black theater troupe that was an important part of black life and culture in Charlottesville in the early part of the 20th century. So far, the new iteration of the guild has performed three August Wilson plays on the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center stage and plans to do many more. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

 

 

 

Scott-Jones didn’t play a black character until she was in her 30s, when she played Esther Mills in a January 2010 production of Lynn Notage’s Intimate Apparel at Live Arts. While she’s enjoyed many of her roles, including Iago’s wife, Emilia, in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at Live Arts, and bridesmaid Georgeann in Alan Ball’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress at ShenanArts, Scott-Jones says she trusts African-American playwrights to write characters and experiences “that are mine,” characters where she doesn’t have to ask herself—a black woman who can “never sever” herself from being black—if she should play a character with an unspecified race “white” or “black.”

She knew the value of this as an actor and wanted to open this up to other theater artists in town who had never had this experience; actors who wanted it, or who had experienced it and wanted more.

Sometime after that episode of “Home Grown,” Scott-Jones and Douglas met with Clinton Johnston and Ike Anderson, two fellow Charlottesville theater artists of color, and talked about what it would take to stage a Wilson play at the Jefferson School. The discussion of staging one play turned into a conversation about staging all 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (also called the Century Cycle) over the course of five years, and reviving the Charlottesville Players Guild.

Tiff Ames, a young theater artist from Charlottesville and current student at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, says that when the group decided to revive the troupe, they asked for, and received, Mary Anderson’s blessing to use the name.

Douglas and Scott-Jones wrote grant proposals for money to cover the costs of mounting the plays—for modest sets, costumes, lighting equipment and such—and paying the actors for their work. It’s not a lot of money, Douglas says, but she feels it’s important to pay the actors for their work to show its value.

“To even have August Wilson’s words spoken in your lifetime is valuable,” Douglas says. “His message, and what he tells you and how he describes life during Jim Crow, and moves us through that history of black people so eloquently, if you’re not experiencing those things until you’re in your 20s and 30s and moved away from here, then you’re not having the full breadth of the possibilities of what language and thought of all of those kinds of things can do for you. Those things are valuable and shouldn’t be thrown away and not considered. And the people who do the work in order to give you their best should not be thrown away in that way, either.”


Play ground

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in Pittsburgh in 1945 to August Kittel, a German immigrant, and Daisy Wilson, an African-American woman from North Carolina whose mother reportedly walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania with the hope of finding a better life.

Wilson’s father abandoned the family when Wilson was just a boy, and he was raised mainly by his mother and maternal grandmother. He fell in love with the work of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison when he was a teenager and at age 16 dropped out of school and worked menial jobs that allowed him to focus on reading and writing.

Playwright August Wilson.

Wilson published 16 plays throughout his life, 10 of which make up the Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of plays set mostly in Pittsburgh’s Hill district that track decade by decade the African-American experience throughout the 20th century. Each play presents a unique story, but some characters—and their offspring—appear throughout the series.

Wilson was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama five times—all for Pittsburgh Cycle plays—and won twice, for Fences in 1987 and for The Piano Lesson in 1990. Fences also won a Tony Award in 1987.

Wilson died in October 2005, just a few months after the final installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle, Radio Golf, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

A New York Times article from 2009 noted that “in life, the playwright August Wilson had an all-but-official rule: no white directors for major productions of his work.” It was important to Wilson that his plays—black characters written by a black playwright for a (mostly) black cast—be directed by black directors who themselves know firsthand the black experience in 20th century America. It’s a likely reason for why his plays haven’t been more widely produced.


The staging of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle began at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in April 2017 with Fences, a play about a couple of garbage men in the 1950s who wonder why they can’t be garbage truck drivers, and the theater troupe has since staged two more: Jitney, about jitney cab drivers in the 1970s, in September 2017; and, currently, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in a boarding house in the 1910s. Among other things, the series examines common themes of responsibility to family and community, fatherhood, intergenerational relationships, the anxiety of change and race and racism in 20th century America.

For Ike Anderson, an actor, dancer and choreographer who grew up in Charlottesville and is currently the membership coordinator at the Music Resource Center, participating in the Charlottesville Players Guild has been revelatory.

Sometime in his late 20s, Anderson, now 31, realized that after more than a decade of performing in Live Arts productions, he’d only ever had ensemble and supporting roles in plays like The Wiz (one of his earliest Live Arts efforts) and A Chorus Line. He started wondering why he wasn’t getting the roles he felt he deserved. And while he says he never felt like he missed out on parts because of his race, “I just felt like it wasn’t my place,” he says of the theater world.

He nabbed a major role in Live Arts’ 2013 production of The Motherfucker with the Hat—which Anderson remembers was described in the theater’s program as a “verbal cage match”—and that satisfied him for a while. But even still, he started looking around “to see where else I could take it,” he says of his acting career.

He suggested Live Arts mount Dreamgirls, and Anderson, who served as associate director and choreographer for the spring 2016 production, remembers that some folks at the theater wondered where they’d find a mostly black cast for the Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen-penned musical about a trio of young black female soul singers in the 1960s. Anderson knew they’d have no problem filling the roles; put them out there and the actors would show, he said. He was right. As for high-caliber black female singers? He found at least one of them, Kim Riley, who played Effie, at a karaoke night at Wild Wing Café.

While he was happy to see lines out the doors for Dreamgirls, Anderson says he knew that wasn’t an experience likely to be replicated over and over again, even though he was involved with Live Arts’ Melanin initiative, where he and other actors of color, including Scott-Jones, held staged table reads of plays like A Raisin in the Sun with the hope of increasing the visibility of actors and playwrights of color in Charlottesville theater (Melanin is no longer active).

So when Scott-Jones approached him with the opportunity to be part of the Charlottesville Players Guild and stage a Wilson play, Anderson jumped at the chance. He first played Gabriel, the pure, exuberant World War II veteran who suffered a head injury in combat that caused irreparable brain damage, in Fences. At one point in the play, Gabriel does a dance to send his brother, Troy, up to heaven. Anderson, having a hard time finding Gabriel’s dance, talked before a rehearsal with Scott-Jones, Johnston and Ames about performing on the Jefferson School stage, on hallowed ground for black families in Charlottesville, and how “the work of our ancestors comes from the ground up.”

In that rehearsal, Anderson remembers how he closed his eyes and went beyond a script that he felt a strong connection to, one that read like the stories told by his aunts, his uncles, his parents and grandparents. “I naturally found myself towards the ground, and then coming up and sending that dance up. I never felt myself do anything like that before,” Anderson says. “It was like a warmth in a place that you could not touch. It was…it was every feeling. It was love, it was anger, it was joy, it was rage. It was freedom. I’d never felt that free, like I did in that moment.”

He says that with Wilson’s plays, “there’s already that connection, because I know that story; I’ve seen my uncles, my aunts, my family dealing with the same issues. It’s pure blackness. It may be somebody else’s story, and people of other colors can connect to it, but as an actor, it makes it that much easier and that much more challenging, because you feel an immediate connection to the character, the story. When you’re already connected to those things and you don’t know why and you find out through a play, that changes you.”

Ike Anderson has acted and danced in, and choreographed for, many theater productions in Charlottesville. He makes his directorial debut with the Charlottesville Players Guild’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, where he’s helped a number of new actors find their voices. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

Anderson, who took a lead role in Jitney as the play’s fast-talking moral compass, Turnbo, makes his directorial debut with Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and feels an enormous amount of pressure with this production, both in spite of and because the Charlottesville Players Guild is telling actors of color “you can do this too. You can have your voice not only be heard, but be felt,” Anderson says. And what’s more, he says Wilson’s plays have brought him to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a black man in America.

For Ames, who fell in love with theater at age 9 while playing a sprite in a Live Arts summer camp production of The Tempest, the guild offers a place to try out some more experimental pieces of theater. Ames says that, aside from playing the title role in Cleopatra VII, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra that Scott-Jones directed at Gorilla Theater Productions in 2016, there were few opportunities to play characters of color on Charlottesville stages, and Ames didn’t even think about that until being introduced to black theater at Oberlin. “I had no connection to blackness in that world at all,” says Ames of Charlottesville theater.

Ames stage-directed Fences, and later played the role of Rena, a young woman trying to make a good life for herself and her son in a 1970s Pittsburgh that’s being boarded up in the name of urban renewal, in last fall’s Jitney.

Ames’ directorial debut for the Charlottesville Players Guild will be the summer production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth featuring an all-black cast.

Ames’ love for Shakespeare runs deep; Ames was the first black actor to win the English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition in 2012 at age 16. Ames loves the poetry, the universal themes, the way reciting iambic pentameter feels so natural, like a heartbeat in one’s mouth.

With this production, Ames wants to show how African diasporan storytelling works “so beautifully” with Shakespeare. Ames says that many productions of Macbeth focus on the blood, the gore, the tragedy. “This show is not a tragedy, in my opinion,” Ames says. Instead, it’s about learning the consequences of wanting power.

Ames has cut the script and made a few other changes, such as presenting the Weird Sisters of “double, double toil and trouble” fame not as witches but as elders of the community; when those characters are introduced into the play, they’ll be dressed in all white, like the elders in an African-American Christian church ritual. The show bends gender and age, too, and Ames hopes that the guild can stage the performance annually, almost like a ritual, using these characters to warn of the desire for power over and over again.

Douglas says that part of the Charlottesville Players Guild’s charge is to allow serious theater artists like Ames “to feel as if [they] can come back to Charlottesville and function, because there’s culture and opportunity [for them]. Ultimately, if you look at the history of this place, and what causes black flight, it is the notion of opportunity and the lack thereof,” she says.

With the Charlottesville Players Guild, “I feel like I am part of something bigger,” says Ames. It’s not just about putting on a good show; it’s about putting on a good show and adding to the tradition of black theater in the Jefferson School and in Charlottesville.

Eric Jones (right) and Will Jones (left) star in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, in production at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center through April 29.

It’s also about creating something for future generations to look to. Ames is particularly moved by the fact that young black children in Charlottesville “can see black people doing beautiful things on stage,” that the two young actors in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone are able to participate in this kind of theater from such an early age. Ames is sad to have missed out on this, but is glad it’s happening now. These plays say to young actors of color, “You are welcome here.”

The work of the Charlottesville Players Guild has sparked conversation in other community theaters in town. Bree Luck, producing artistic director at Live Arts who has worked on productions with Scott-Jones, Ames, Johnston and Anderson, says that she’s looked to what the Charlottesville Players Guild is doing as a guide to how to increase diversity and equity in Charlottesville theater, while also supporting—and not competing with— it.

“I think all of us in Charlottesville need to know where our blind spots are and how we can continue to grow,” says Luck, and that includes Live Arts and other community theaters. Luck says that the conversations she’s had with Scott-Jones, Ames, Johnston, Anderson and others inspired the 2018/2019 Live Arts season, where she’ll flip the ratio outlined in that The Count survey, and present a season of plays in which about 80 percent are written by women and people of color and 20 percent are written by white men.

Human experience

When Joe Turner’s Come and Gone opens on the Jefferson School stage, its cast and crew will be carrying on a rich tradition of African-American performance in a historically black space that they hope will shape Charlottesville’s future via an understanding of its past.

Set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh in the 1910s and chronicling the lives of a few freed formerly enslaved African-Americans, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has much to say about racism and discrimination, about the search for  family and oneself. “This story could not be more relevant today than if it were, truly, 1911,” says Brown-Grooms. “It’s set among primarily African-Americans, but it’s just as relevant for refugees and immigrants, and anybody who’s human. It’s relevant because it’s human. And this is a time, and an age, when it’s very important to remember how we’re human, to see what it looks like, to access what it feels like, to cry together and laugh together and to go ‘Oh, my God’ together.”

As the city undergoes a close examination of its history with racism and white supremacy, as the community attempts to heal in the wake of last year’s torch-lit rallies and the Unite the Right rally that left three dead and dozens others injured on August 12, Scott-Jones says that the revival of the Charlottesville Players Guild “happening at this moment in Charlottesville was definitely divine intervention.”    

Theater is “an opportunity for you to enter a life you could never live; for you to experience something that you could, or would, never do or never be,” says Scott-Jones, and that’s true for both actors and audiences. She hopes that people of all races, religions and beliefs will come to the Charlottesville Players Guild productions “with an open mind and be open to the experience of something that you think is so far removed from you and be surprised to find that it’s not.” Because while seeing these plays on the stage might mean something different for each person in the room, they are bound to mean something, because, as Charlottesville Players Guild member David Vaughn Straughn says, “this is no light work.”

Scott-Jones agrees. “As my nana would say, we are not given something that we can’t handle. And I think a lot of people in Charlottesville think we’ve been given stuff we can’t handle, without recognizing that we’ve also been given the tools to deal with it. And black theater is one of those tools. When you can understand someone else’s perspective without overlaying your own protectiveness or defensiveness over it, then you’re actually listening. Then you’re empathizing and not sympathizing…and that’s the beginning of finding a way out of it. And there is no other art form that does that better than theater.”

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