Home > African-American Culture, Authors/Literature, John Beasley, John Beasley Theater & Workshop, Omaha, Playwright, Race, Theater, Writing > Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater &amp Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater &amp Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”


My concept for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.como) was deceptively simple – embed myself with a community theater group as they rehearsed and mounted a play over the course of several weeks. Practical realities dictated that I be there off and on, for a few hours there or few minutes here, in observing and reporting the experience, but I think I managed a compelling behind the scenes glimpse at some of what goes into the development of a theater production from first table reading to opening night. My theater of choice was the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  The theater’s namesake, John Beasley, is a fine stage, film, and television actor and his small theater is a good showcase for African American-themed stagework, particularly the work of August Wilson. And it was a Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, that the theater prepared and performed during my time covering the company.  On this blog you’ll find more of my stories about John Beasley and his theater, including many more pieces related to other Omaha theaters and theater figures, as well as authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers.  I am posting lots of of my  theater stories now to coincide with the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, and you’ll find several of my stories about that event and some of its leading participants.

 

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean “

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mounting a production has its own dynamic. Discoveries happen incrementally over weeks. This creative process occurs not before a paid house but among a theater family in the privileged moments of readings-rehearsals.

It means late nights, running lines, working scenes. Over and over. Until truth emerges. Developing a play is by turns grueling, moving, satisfying. It’s all about exposing and confronting your fears — in service of emotionally honest expression.

It’s not all inspiration. More like a grind. Adrenalin feeds anxiety. Caffeine fights exhaustion. An edge cuts the air. Making a fool of yourself is a distinct possibility. Doubts creep in. Anticipation awaits resolution. Tension seeks release.

The process unfolds hundreds of times each theater season. In big state-of-the-art facilities, in intimate black box spaces, in church basements. Fully realized performances spring from coaching, encouragement, cajoling, berating, freaking, experimentation, work and prayer.

Over several nights at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop a fly on the wall observed this company developing their production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. The two-act drama is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience. The JBT’s produced seven works in the cycle. Set amidst 1904 Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Gem’s a story of redemption.

Like most community theaters the JBT uses largely unpaid, untrained people who fit the work around busy lives-careers. There’s scant time to get things right. Much can go wrong. Chronic tardiness, family crises. Recasting a major part 10 days before opening. As a veteran JBT actor put it, “It seems there’s always something but in the end it all comes together.” Until opening night, the process, not the play, is the thing. In classic show-must-go-on tradition the troupe pulled Gem off. Getting there was heaven and hell.

Jan. 7 – “It’s a lot of work”

The first reading convenes. It’s like Bible study. Actors explore the sacred text — the script — under director Tyrone Beasley’s sober guidance. Hallejuah!

John Beasley, journeyman film-TV-stage character actor, headlines as Solly Two Kings, a loquacious drifter and former underground railroad conductor-turned- pure (dog manure) merchant. John arrives late, brimming with excitement about a new gig — acting in an August Wilson festival at the Kennedy Center in D.C.

Joining him in Gem are three regular JBT ensemble players. Retired electrician Charles Galloway is Eli, gatekeeper for Aunt Ester, a sage and spiritual adviser. Eli, also an ex-freedom fighter, is Solly’s best bud.

Andre McGraw, owner of Red Hot Barbershop, is Citizen Barlow, a fugitive come far to get his soul washed by Ester. Carl Brooks, Union Pacific systems analyst, is Caesar, a big, belligerent cop enforcing the white man’s law. Carl has an excused absence tonight. Ty reads his part.

JBT newcomers fill out the cast. Lovely Lakeisha Cox, grad student, plays Black Mary, Caesar’s sister and Ester’s successor-in-grooming. Tom Pensabene, dean of information technology and e-learning at Metropolitan Community College, debuts as Selig, slave finder-turned-slave runner-turned-peddler. Enigmatic Yvette Coleman is Ester. She’s a no-show. Stage manager Cheryl Bowles reads her part.

Everyone’s seated around a wooden table on the bare stage. The auditorium floor is stripped to the studs, awaiting new carpet-seats. Cast-crew wear street clothes. Introductions are made. When it comes his turn Andre jokes, “I’m born and raised in the John Beasley Theater.” Its namesake discusses the play’s musical language.

“It’s tough at first picking up the rhythm August writes in. I think August gives you enough that you won’t have to try to force it. It’ll be there.”

John commands respect. It’s he, as much as Ty, the ranks look to please.

Ty shares a JBT philosophy:

“We believe acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Being yourself is the first thing we’re looking for. Being in the moment. Being present.”

He suggests the players use personal experiences to make their characters extensions of themselves. “Be as specific as possible.” All to better ground one in the reality of the situation. That’s what “brings a character to life.”

He assigns homework. Actors are to flesh out character objectives, backgrounds and relationships, plus research facets of early Pittsburgh.

Ty impresses upon the cast what’s expected. “It’s a lot of work. It’s important to be here on time. It’s a long play and there’s relatively little time to do it in. If you’re here, you should always be working.”

“Let’s get started.”

The reading, opened scripts in hand, proceeds. Even dry, the drama’s inherent power is felt. In-character John tests Lakeisha by making direct eye contact with her. She rises to the occasion, By reading’s end the energy lags and lines suffer. John officially welcomes newbies Keisha and Tom with hugs and handshakes. He and Ty discuss a Plan B should their Ester prove unreliable.

Jan. 8 – “We’ll turn Omaha on its head”

Before rehearsal John covers a pivotal Act II scene with Andre. Ester puts Citizen in a trance that transports him to the City of Bones. Citizen imagines himself in a boat at sea. John says Andre must visualize it.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

“You’re going to have to take us to the City of Bones. We see it through your eyes. If you do this right, we’ll turn Omaha on its head –and we’re going to do it right.”

Citizen’s killed a man and the death of another haunts him. He needs to make himself right with the Lord. His inward journey to be justified drives the story.

This night’s about working the prologue, when the agitated Citizen appears at Ester’s house demanding his soul be washed. There’s many takes of a tussle he has with Eli (Charles). The commotion awakens Ester, whose serene bearing calms Citizen. The movements, pacing, blocking require much attention.

“Take it again,” Ty repeats. “Good work,” he says after another.

Our missing Ester’s here. Yvette strains finding the right beat. Ty wants her moving slowly, not feebly. Exuding an aura. He contextualizes Ester in the Wilson canon.

“Aunt Ester is someone that’s talked about in several of August Wilson’s plays. She’s a powerful, spiritual woman and her power comes from her faith. This is the first time she’s seen…People are anticipating her, so when you come out there has to be a powerful, spiritual presence.”

After false starts, Yvette hits her stride.

For the reading actors have underlined or highlighted their lines in their scripts.

Ty demands more from his players. “What I want you guys to do is look each other in the eye as you’re saying your lines. Try to lift the words off the page and really talk to the person…Really communicate. Really work on seeing the images.”

“Let’s take it from the top.”

He looks and listens hard as they work. Cheryl gives stage directions, feeding lines as needed. Ty has comments for everyone. Keisha needs to find Mary’s stubbornness, Charles must avoid indicating his actions, et cetera.

“Good, that’s better, let’s do it again,” Ty says. After a bit he declares, “OK, good, let’s get this on its feet.”

Before walking through the scene he takes Keisha aside, reminding her the words she speaks must be anchored in thoughts-images.

Minimal props are introduced. Blocking addressed. The scene plays disjointed, stilted, lifeless. Ty has actors try different things. “See how that feels,” he says.

 

Jan. 10 – “Let the words do it”

Scene one pits Solly and Mary in a dispute over the pure he peddles. Ty’s been on Keisha to be ornery: “Black Mary has an attitude.” Keisha shoots back, “You want some real attitude? Put some real pure in there.” Laughter.

The action’s fuller, tighter than two nights ago. When Ester enters she asks Mary for the pure. Yvette, realizing what Ester’s supposed to examine, asks, “So that’s what I’m looking at? Is it real dog poop?” She’s teased. “It’s going to be dry. All you gotta do is break it up,” John quips, trading smirks with Ty. They begin again, but Yvette’s still thrown by the doo-doo.

LaKeisha Cox's photo.
LaKeisha Cox

 

 

While not the director per se John freely instructs, careful not to overstep Ty’s bounds. John goes over movements with Charles, who, as Eli, responds to loud knocking at Ester’s door. “The urgency will determine how fast you walk,” John says. He shows him. “Does that make sense?”

“OK, let’s sit at the table,” Ty says. All the principals gather round. They read scene three. It flows well. The intensity builds. The volume so high John gestures for them to tamp it down. Carl’s feeling Caesar. In a long speech his bellowing voice rises in anger. After he’s done John comments, “You don’t really have to be that forceful. You’re a big man. It’s all there in the words. Let the words do it.” Carl says, “Yeah, I don’t have to make him a caricature.”

“OK, top of the scene,” Ty says. They read it again. Carl’s quieter yet still formidable. John can be overpowering, too. It’s why he works hard “to bring everybody up to my level of energy.”

John confers with Andre, who’s concerned about finding the right note for Citizen. “He’s a full man. He’s carrying that burden with him,” John says. “You working it. Don’t be afraid to try anything because Tyrone will pull you back.”

 

Jan. 14 – “Being here, being now”

John helps Keisha modulate her delivery. Her thin voice pitches up to make  statements into questions. “Try it again,” he says. “Down on the inflection. Keep going…One more time…Better.” “I’ll work on it” she promises.

The Gem set, which Tyrone builds by day, is more filled out. It’s basically a kitchen, dining room, parlor and staircase.

Ty and John discuss replacing Yvette. She’s missed rehearsals. She’s late for this one. “If she’s not here tonight,” John says, “then that’s it.”

John puts the cast through warm ups. “Get yourself loose. Focus on the breath. Slowly breath in and slowly breath out. It relaxes you. It keeps you focused in the moment and that’s what we need. Being here, being now.”

“One of the worst enemies of an actor is tension,” Ty says. He works with Keisha on a yoga position. He’s cast her and the others for qualities they share with their characters. Expressing that means letting go. “She has the power of Black Mary, but she’s shy to let it out on stage.”

Yvette finally arrives. She flounders with her lines.

John and Ty work with the actors on their characters’ motivations.

 

Jan. 15 – “It’s gotta be in your voice”                                                                                                                                                        

Yvette and John work one-on-one. He presses her to make it real.

“You don’t believe me?” she asks him. “Talk to me,” he says. “Make me hear it. Make me hear what you have to say. It’s gotta be in your voice because I don’t believe those other voices.” She tries again. “There it is. Did you feel the difference?”

 

Jan. 18 – “I want to get my soul washed”
The set’s now dressed with furniture-fixtures. The stage speckled with paint and sawdust. Ladders lean against walls, electrical cord snakes across the floor.

Per usual Carl’s arrived early to work his lines. He studies at a chair in the lobby. Others find sanctuary in the overstuffed theater tech booth or back stage amid the flats, costumes and props or in the cramped wings. Tonight, Carl and Keisha animatedly share the back stories they’ve concocted.

As actors straggle in, they run lines, scrounge for eats or just kick it. Charles is distracted. His Navy Lt. Commander son has gotten orders for Iraq.

Ty asks Andre why, as Citizen, he’s timid with Ester. “I’m feeling her out. I’m kind of like hesitant because I don’t know her. I’ve got this picture of her that’s she’s a scary looking lady,” he explains. “No, she’s not,” Ty says. “Why are you in her house?” “Because I want to get my soul washed.”

“Just remember you know that she’s the reason you’re there.”

“Lights up.”

Jan. 25  – “Come take the circle”

Nitty-gritty time. The Beasleys grow more direct. Ty announces, “Come take the circle,” a cue for players to form a tight circle in chairs. “Remember the exercise,” he says. Working in close quarters the actors call each other out on whatever rings false. Ty makes sure no one gets away with anything. In this intimate, in-your-face interaction there’s no where to hide. The extreme scrutiny bares all. It’s a living tableaux of pure concentration and naked emotion.

“I don’t believe you,” Ty tells Keisha, who’s plays opposite Carl. “Do you believe her?” he asks Carl, who nods no. “Then why are you letting her go?” “I’m just asking you to believe what you’re saying,” Ty tells all. Keisha goes again, but stops in frustration, saying, “I didn’t feel it.” Ty chastises her for breaking character.

Keisha’s under extra strain these days as her mother and aunt battle illnesses. She says the play provides a needed vehicle to channel her feelings.

Yvette’s AWOL again. And so it goes…

Jan. 29 – “We’ve all got to be in this”

There’s a new Ester. JBT favorite TammyRa Jackson has replaced Yvette with the opening less than two weeks off. A cosmetologist and mother of five, she concedes she’s anxious joining the cast so late but is warmed by how supported she’s made to feel. John won’t push back the run — not with the house sold out opening night. Besides, he’s confident his new Ester will “put the work in.”

“We brought TammyRa in because we felt she was the only that could do this in this short of time. She’s a tremendous talent. As she commits the words she’s bringing a lot of new stuff to the table, which I figured she would.”

 

Cover Photo

 TammyRa Jackson

 

 

Fresh carpet’s been laid down. A noxious chemical smell permeates the auditorium.

With “C’mon y’all” John beckons cast to work the crucial City of Bones scene at the table. The scene’s not jelled. The time’s short, the stakes high, the nerves raw. Music director Leon Adams hovers over the group to consult on song verses.

“We need to find this thing,” John tells the pensive cast, “so I need you to do as much work as you can.”

They begin. “Feel it, feel it,” he says. “See the stars, Andre,” who rocks in Citizen’s trance. TammyRa’s spot-on with the sing-song spell that puts Citizen under. John and Charles take up the chant. When Keisha and Cheryl speak out of character the chant’s broken, making John upset.

“Wait a minute, what’s going on there? Don’t talk during the exercise. You’ve got to stay in this, Keisha. We’ve all got to be in this. This is a very difficult scene. You’ve got to stay focused…This is a chant, and if you focus in on this you can feel a rhythm come up…If you find that, we’ll be half-way home.”

She’s taken aback. He holds her hand to show he’s not mad.

Next he turns to Andre to say he’s unconvinced by Citizen’s born-again epiphany.

“You’re still acting, Andre. You’re not there yet. You gotta go deeper, man. You gotta believe it. Just like in any ritual, any spiritual thing, you gotta be listening and open…in order for it to really take over, and I think you’ll find it in the rhythm. You’ll feel it. You’ll hook up into it.”

They take it again and again. Leo advises more “embellishment” here, more “swung” there. John reminds TammyRa to “keep the contemporary” out of her voice. She asks lots of questions. A good sign. Her young daughter Nadia hangs by her side as she guides Citizen on his way. John’s pleased after another take. “Just paint those beautiful pictures with those beautiful words. That’s nice, nice work.” He wants TammyRa to do more with the title line and cautions Keisha “not to throw away” a strong line about Satan.

A work in progress.

Feb. 6  – “I think we’ll be ready for Friday”                                                                                                                                          

It’s tech week and 48 hours until show time. The stress shows on people’s faces. The tense actors get costumed.

The seats are in. So are Ty’s notes from the staged run through two nights before.

The company lost yesterday to a snowstorm. “I was confident enough to give them that time to study their script and do their work,” John tells a visitor. “They’re finding their characters. We’ve come a long ways. I think we’ll be ready for Friday.”

A key player’s missing, however. Carl’s father died a few days earlier and he’s still in his native St. Louis for the services. Ty’s assumes the role tonight and may open in it Friday. He’s told Carl to take as much time as he needs.

As cast filter in crew clean up the freshly painted set.

“Actors to the stage please,” Ty says. They gather round and he reads aloud their notes — hand-written critiques, refinements. As is his penchant he works from general to specific. He directs packing Caesar’s gun in a waist holster.

“Overall, it was low energy…The audience is not going to be feeling the show. So keep your energy up everybody.”

His individual notes cover stage positions, cues, intonations, intentions. He demonstrates various actions. His most telling comments concern Andre. “If you don’t have that urgency of why you’re there…then it’s a tough show.”

Before the run-through John reiterates “it’s important we keep up the energy. Just keep the story moving along…”

They work late into the night. No preview tomorrow. Another rehearsal. Then it’s on with the show the next night.

Feb. 8 – “It’s finally here”                                                                                                                                                                    

Opening night.

6:30. An hour to curtain and jitters abound. On stage John runs lines with Carl, who got back last night. John presses him to emphasize each subject. Ty, unhappy the way Carl handles a speech to win over Mary, gets up in his face with, “You got to try to get her on your side. That’s what you’re trying to do here.” “Let me start over,” Carl says. He nails it. “Good, good,” John says.

 

 

 

 

Carl, hours removed from his dad’s funeral, never considered not performing. He says the play’s “a pretty good distraction.” He frets having “missed some valuable time” but is risking it anyway. “Something’s going to happen — stick around.”

John, wife Judy, Ty, Cheryl and production staff scurry to place props. Tom and Charles, already costumed, work lines backstage. The other actors get made up and change in the dressing room.

Past 7 the lobby fills with patrons. “We’re getting ready to open the house,” John announces. “Hold on, man, I need two minutes,” says Mark O’Leary, who hangs a picture and touches up a faucet. “You got it.”

Andre runs over lines to himself in the wings, pacing in a circle. He and Keisha share a tender moment. “A lot of different emotions,” Keisha says. “It’s finally here, so no matter what you’ve just got to go out there and have fun at this point.”

As insurance, TammyRa’s wearing an earpiece that Cheryl will feed lines into.

The house opens and folks stream in, unaware of the activity on set moments before and the beehive backstage.

Cast members squeeze into the small dressing room. They flit in and out. John, bandana wrapped around his head and big ass walking stick held in his hand, offers final notes to Charles and Keisha. There’s the usual “break-a-leg” well-wishes.

“What’s our time like?” Charles asks. “Not much — like five minutes,” says John, who asks Cheryl to round up the others. All the players cram inside. They clasp hands as Cheryl leads a fervent prayer. She refers to how “we’ve come up against everything” on this show. “We thank you God for this time we’ve been able to work together and join hearts and become friends and even family. We thank you for John Beasley and all of his hard work…He struggles to keep this going…but he hangs in there because he believes in us. He could walk away, but he doesn’t.”

“We pray you God that you will give us victory. Amen.”

A chorus of Amens goes up. John cracks, “Anybody got a collection plate here?”

The full house gets their money’s worth. The rich, naturalistic performances the JBT’s noted for are evident. TammyRa’s imbued with Aunt Ester’s old soul spirit. Keisha’s found Black Mary’s stubborn streak. Andre’s got Citizen’s raw yearning down pat. Carl strikes the right balance as Caesar. John shines as Solly. Charles and Tom believably inhabit their parts. Aside from a few awkward pauses, it’s fine theater. Few glitches or flubs. All the hard work’s paid off.

“I was proud of them.” Ty says afterwards.

Just another opening, another show.

Gem continues through March 2.

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: