A Conversation with Vernell Lillie
Beneath the Benedum Center's 90-plus crystal chandeliers last year, Pittsburgh audiences saw those classic theater characters we've grown to love: Jean Valjean of Hugo's Les Miserables, Max and Leo from Brooks' The Producers, Oliver Twist in Dickens' Oliver! ... and T-Bone and Pookie wit' Marvelous Entertainment's Guilty Until Proven Innocent.
Marvelous Entertainment is responsible for such timeless works as What Men Don't Tell, Just Be a Man About It, PMS: It's a Man Thang, Can a Woman Make a Man Lose His Mind? and Lord, All Men Can't Be Dogs. All of these were executive produced, according to the program notes, by Jesus Christ.
If you've never heard of Marvelous Entertainment, you may find it hard to believe that a work with characters named T-Bone and Pookie -- played by two R&B artists named Jo-Jo and K-Ci -- could ever run in Downtown Pittsburgh. Not in the Cultural District, anyway. This is a production whose highlights include Pookie shedding the script, his shirt and nearly his pants. Elsewhere Pookie -- uh, K-Ci -- climbs onto the shoulders of an anonymous staff member (you know this because his shirt says "STAFF") and begins a medley of songs from his famous 1990s R&B group Jodeci -- all to thunderous cheers from the crowd.
But if you've never heard of Marvelous Entertainment, you're probably white. Because these shows aren't directed at you.
On Jan. 22, 2005, Guilty Until Proven Innocent played to a packed house at the Benedum. Cats came out in their slickest, silkest suits; women wore elaborate furs along with the flyest and highest of heels. In the lobby, photographers stood beside graffiti-sprayed backdrops, offering couples a chance to be photographed for $10 a flick. The floor was dotted with Steelers, hustlas and preachers. The only white faces were those of the ushers.
Such theatrical productions, called "urban circuit" plays, are heavily promoted in black churches, bars, barbershops and beauty shops. And they deal with "secrets" within the black community: mental illness, sexual abuse and even transgendering. They present material that -- if staged outside the black community -- would likely be decried for trafficking in stereotypes about blacks' work ethic, mental capacity and sexuality.
"I think there are some things that are intra-cultural and we need to deal with them," says Jeannine McKelvia-Foster, a local stage performer. "When white theaters do run black works, it always just shows the negative dirty part and never shows what's good about the African-American culture."
Yet no plays have aired black folks' "dirty laundry" more than those of playwright, producer and director Tyler Perry. Take his play Class Reunion, for example. The first character introduced is a bellhop at a black-run hotel. He regularly complains about and resists the work he has to do, joking the whole way through. When he's caught rummaging through a patron's luggage by the hotel manager, he goes trickster on her:
"Awww, look at you. You so sexy, big baby," he tells her. He rubs her body while breaking into a quick rendition of an R. Kelly song. "Can I get a toot-toot! Can I get a beep-beep!" -- slapping her on the ass with each toot and beep. Later, a gospel tune breaks out: "I waaansta be at the meeting around the throne," Perry spanking more asses as the spiritual plays out.
Not exactly a message of black power. And all this in a city that produced two black theater giants: August Wilson, who won global acclaim for plays like Fences, and Rob Penny, who along with Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater. The city that is home of Dr. Vernell Lillie, founder and artistic director of the 31-years-strong Kuntu Repertory Theatre. Pittsburgh is the modern cradle for black theater.
The plays of Kuntu, or the early Black Horizon Theater, were drawn from the Black Arts Movement, which sought to create art that was functional, collective and committing. The movement was born of cultural pride and social protest, in step with W.E.B. DuBois' early 20th-century demand that black theater be "for us, by us, about us and near us."
By DuBois' standards, these urban circuits are FUBU. They've also been successful: One of Perry's plays, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, went Hollywood: A film version opened number one at the box office in February 2005, and has raked in over $50 million to date.
But given the stock, quasi-stereotypical characters -- shiftless, ass-obsessed and holy-rollin' -- many blacks debate how "about us" these plays really are.
"You do not want white people to see this kind of spectacle; you want them to see the noble dramas of August Wilson," wrote Henry Louis Gates wrote in African American Performance and Theater History.
That sentiment is common among theater professionals in Wilson's hometown. Wilson set the bar high, collecting two Pulitzers and numerous other awards. Now many wonder why audiences stampede to productions where the standards seem so low. (See "Which Plays Clean, Which Plays Dirty?" page xx)
"I'm not a fan of those urban-circuit plays," says Jeanine McKelvia-Foster, who just earned her master's degree in theater arts at Duquesne University, and who will perform in Kuntu's upcoming show Mahalia Jackson: Standing on Holy Ground. "I understand they have a place and they have entertainment value for certain people, but there's a difference between that and a good piece of dramatic literature."
"These guys are touring plays all over the country, sometimes recycling the same play," says Dr. Viktor Walker, president of the African Grove Institute for the Arts, founded by August Wilson. "It's melodrama, anybody can do that, but it comes out of a very specific performance ethos, set up like sitcoms and that's the appeal. I don't see anything wrong with it."
The formula rarely changes: a love triangle that usually involves a chaste female, an abusive male and the perfect male alternative; a nuance-free title, long enough to be an actual line of dialogue; a script with punchlines ad infinitum; a musical score that empties entire gospel hymnals; and a cast made up of ex-soap and sitcom characters and/or ol' quiet storm R&B and gospel recording artists.
It's the "Gary Coleman syndrome," says Mark Southers, head of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater company, referring to the diminutive actor from the '80s sitcom Different Strokes. "It don't matter what the play is about: It could be Mama, Put That Down, You Don't Know Where It's Been. But then you have Ce Ce Winans or Jimmy Walker in it, and you gonna get people coming out."
Tyler Perry's productions are an exception. He features some of the same I-thought-she-was-dead actors, but people come to his shows to see Madea.
The "Madea" series includes such works as I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Madea's Family Reunion and Madea's Class Reunion. Madea is the overseeing, joint-smoking, saaaaaassy-mouthed, big momma character who solves 99 out of 100 problems with a gun she keeps in her purse. Madea is also ... Perry himself, queened up in wig, makeup and extra, extra large granny dresses.
In the last five years, the New Orleans native has staged productions all across the country, and distributed DVD recordings of the play (mostly burnt and bootlegged) to an even larger audience. But for some, Perry's trigger-happy female caricature is a problem.
"It goes back to the image of the black woman," says McKelvia-Foster, and how they're always depicted as "smart-mouthed" and insane.
Others find the image of Perry waddling around on stage in drag too reminiscent of the Jemima and Mammy characters from the minstrel shows of the early 1900s. During that time, black Mammy characters -- a perfect example would be Hattie McDaniel's handkerchief-headed, black maid in Gone with the Wind -- were the only roles black women could get. Kuntu's Lillie says that when she began acting, maid roles were the only ones offered to her. (See "Xxxxxxxx," page xx.)
"The Mammy is always giving tough love," says Kimberly Ellis, who's taught black theater and American history at Pitt, including a course on her uncle, August Wilson. "And the stereotype of the Mammy is not just that she's asexual. She's this larger woman, full-figured, taking care of the white kids but also strict and abusive to her own."
It's not that there aren't over-sized black women with sharp tongues. But it's one thing when these productions are staged before purely black audiences, and another when they're presented before the dreaded white gaze -- whether that be a few white ushers at the Benedum, or the whites who saw Diary of a Mad Black Woman in movie theaters.
"[A]s black artists, we always have to be conscious of the images we put out there," says McKelvia-Foster.
"If the rest of the world is looking at [urban circuits] and thinking that's the way we really are, then I don't agree with that," agrees Eileen Morris, managing director for Kuntu Repertory Theatre. "[I]s this the image that we want them to think we're portraying all the time?"
Among the first traveling plays directed at a specifically black audience was Diary of a Black Man, staged by Thomas Meloncon of the Maceba Affairs Theater Company. In the 1970s and early '80s, these productions were staged in small spaces -- church basements and school auditoriums -- in black centers like Harlem, Memphis and Atlanta. The tour was sometimes called "the chitlin' circuit."
The label certainly wouldn't apply now: These are big-budget productions, playing at the nation's ritziest theaters. Perry, whose next movie Madea's Family Reunion is scheduled for release early next month, has definitely outgrown the tag.
Mark Southers recalls going to Morgantown, W.Va. to see his friend, Pittsburgh actor Lamman Rucker, in an urban circuit called Friends & Lovers. He saw patrons out in their closet's best, taking pictures of each other. "The quality of the production, I don't even think it comes down to that," he says. "I think they were looking for moments" -- a night on the town, a chance to grab some laughs.
A production of Friends & Lovers came to Pittsburgh last year starring Leon, who played in a few music videos and the movies The Five Heartbeats and The Temptations. Southers got a similar idea: For his play 9 Days in the Sun, he cast Anji Corley, a popular radio show host from WAMO. Southers even gave away tickets through WAMO for people to come out. The results were less than impressive.
"A third of them left at intermission because they couldn't follow it," says Southers without bitterness. "Wasn't no laughs, no punchlines every 30 seconds, and wasn't nobody in the show they could identify with other than Anji. And she wasn't in every scene."
What keeps people coming to urban-circuit plays isn't just the names on the marquee. It's also jokes, and the huge volume of soul-stirring music, not to mention the provocative content. And more serious theater professionals literally are seeking to incorporate more of these elements into the traditional plays as well.
"When we look at black America where we're still out here working very hard, sometimes we just want to laugh," says Ellis. "Sometimes we just want to escape and not be all that deep."
Southers still believes big names are the key, though. He's planning his own national touring company, following that formula while still staging "straight up, real plays." What he envisions is Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom starring Faith Evans.
Broadway did much the same thing recently, when a production of Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun was cast with music mogul "P. Diddy" for the lead role. Many considered the casting blasphemous, even though it was done to attract younger, newer audiences.
"He wasn't godawful shoot me in the head, but had he not been P. Diddy, he would not have gotten that major role," says McKelvia-Foster.
Local community theaters can't afford to bring Diddy. But next month, Pittsburgh Playwrights will stage "August in February," in collaboration with Kuntu's Morris and Lillie. The production will have actor James Earl Jones performing his original role from Fences. Also next month, New Horizon Theater will bring in acclaimed actress Ruby Dee for a reading from her book, My One Good Nerve.
But even that hasn't been enough, says New Horizon chairperson Joyce Meggerson-Moore. "We have three large churches right in the area," she says. "I shouldn't have to be begging to get people to come see Ruby Dee. I should just say 'Ruby Dee' and these churches should get big groups out, but that's not happening."
So where did Perry get his nerve from?
According to Perry, he got it from ... August Wilson.
Last year, Perry told Ebony magazine that Wilson himself told him "Do what you do. Don't worry about these people, do what you do because I don't think it's bad at all."
No one else can vouch for this encounter, but Kimberly Ellis says it's not unlikely that her uncle shared this solace with Perry, even if Perry's work seems to fly in the face of Wilson's own legacy. Wilson, she notes, always encouraged young black men to write and produce plays. And while Ellis says she has misigivings about some of Perry's characterizations, she finds much of the material empowering.
In some ways, she says, Perry "is a protest playwright and performer." His first play, I Know I've Changed Since, was a gospel comedy about coping with childhood abuse, something he experienced personally. "His protest is a lil' bit more internal than external, but he does address issues of molestation, domestic violence, of abuse," Ellis notes. And such issues stir debate about "how we feel about black men in general and black men in the public sphere."
So while Perry claims Wilson is responsible for him, do Perry and other urban-circuit playwrights feel responsible to Wilson and his legacy of more serious work? Should they have to?
When Diary of a Black Man came to Pittsburgh in the early '80s, Eileen Morris knew some of the people involved in the touring play. (Her ex-husband was one of the original actors.) She saw an opportunity to introduce the urban-circuit audience to local theater companies like Kuntu and New Horizon.
Morris says she asked the producer if he would "let people know what we do, that there is a black theater in this city that they need to support, and he did. I gave him fliers for our shows, and he got up there and announced them and acknowledged Dr. Lillie."
Do urban circuit-plays have this responsibility?
"Of course they do," says Morris. "We're not doing enough to make it happen."
In fact, the urban-circuit productions do something other "serious" black theater companies haven't done in years. Regardless of the cheap devices they use -- or maybe because of them -- they draw massive audiences.
Kuntu's "three-week runs might attract two or three thousand people," Morris says. The urban circuits, meanwhile, "are attracting that potentially in one night."
They're also charging far more for tickets. Season tickets for Kuntu's 2005-06 offerings, five plays in all, cost $65. Catching Cheaters, an urban-circuit show based on an Eric Jerome Dickey novel, is gonna cost you $29.50 next month in Cleveland -- $36 if you catch it on the last day of its three-day run.
There's some irony in all this for theater pros like Morris, a former president of the Black Theater Network. Groups like BTN -- a national organization of theater academicians, performers and students -- strive to uphold the ideals of self-defining, self-determining black theater. Meanwhile some BTN members, like Pittsburgh's Kuntu, are partially underwritten by white-dominated universities. The urban-circuit plays, by contrast, really are self-supporting. Thus, urban-circuit companies remain independent of both white and black institutions.
For her part, Morris says she's stopped resisting the urban-circuit plays. She saw two last year and says they weren't that bad.
"At least it's bringing people together to have a discussion," she says. "And isn't that what art is supposed to do? Stimulate conversation, stimulate thought, create some kind of change in the universe?"