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Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors 


Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Phil Kenny resembles the starstruck dentist with songwriting ambitions in the stage classic The Bells are Ringing. Growing up in Omaha, Kenny played the lead in a high school production of Oklahoma! and appeared in a Ralston Community Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. Listening to the Les Miserables cast album became a ritual. He wrote plays through college with the ambition of penning a Broadway musical, The technology law attorney still pursues that dream today.

He and collaborator Reston Williams, formerly of The Blue Man group, hope one day to get their own four-years-in-the-making musical on its legs in New York.

Far from a frustrated wannabe, Kenny’s made himself a theater insider co-producing major musicals through his 42nd Club investors group. As unlikely as it sounds, this married, devout Mormon father of seven living in Utah has co-produced some of Broadway’s most successful musicals the past few years, including Anastasia and Sunset Boulevard.

In 2018 he even copped a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical with Once on This Island. On a side note, one of its stars, Merle Dandridge, shares a hometown connection: Both she and Kenny are Papillion LaVista High School graduates, though not classmates.

Odds are Kenny will take home another statuette at the June 7 Tonys since three of the five Best Musical nominees are 42nd Club co-produced shows: Hadestown, Tootsie and Beetlejuice. Kenny and Co. also co-produced King Kong – nominated for three Tonys and receiving a special Tony for puppetry.

 

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Phil Kenny and wife Clare

 

Meanwhile, the 42nd Club co-production Be More Chill enjoyed breakout off-Broadway success that’s transitioned into a Broadway run still going strong. The show led all nominees for the 2019 Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards nominations.

For Kenny, crashing the Broadway world as a producer never occurred to him as a thing until two people suggested he try it.

“A number of friends and I have been able to participate in Broadway musicals by investing in and co-producing, which we didn’t even know was an available option,” Kenny said.

The investing opportunity was first broached by Greg Franklin, a veteran investor and co-producer. Then again by Jay Kuo, himself an attorney who ended up co-writing the Broadway musical Allegiance.

“I told them both no initially,” Kenny said. “They didn’t pressure me at all. But after I called Greg (Franklin) to grab lunch and get answers to my questions, I decided to get into it. I found out Broadway investing is less like throwing money away and a donation, and more like a high risk investment where there actually is the potential to make money – and possibly a lot of money if you pick the right shows. That excited and interested me because I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what people like in a Broadway show.

“My first investment was a play called Living on Love starring opera star Renee Fleming. It ended up closing early and didn’t return any of our investment.  We didn’t have nearly the same type of access to the best shows then as we do now.  We were just excited lead producers were talking to us.”

Then Kenny got more connected.

“When you invest in a Broadway show you frequently get opening night tickets and after-show party passes,” he said. “Those parties are filled with other people who invest $25,000 or more in shows. I made it my business to meet everybody I could.”

With Greg Franklin, he said, “I came up with the idea that if we all grouped together we could then co-produce a musical rather than just be an investor. By co-producing we get a bigger say and might be invited as the table when lead producers are talking about various marketing initiatives or having creative discussions.”

This let’s-put-on-a-show economic model has paid off well enough that the club’s grown to 100 members.

“Most of our investors tend to be outside of New York. The interesting thing about we do is that we have the opportunity to invest in the very best and highest level of commercial theater – shows like Waitress, Matilda and An American in Paris – where the buy-in to invest in big Hollywood projects is cost prohibitive.

“Our members are all accredited investors who’ve invested in Broadway shows in the past. We are very selective about the shows we invest in.”

Scripts are read. Staged readings and workshops viewed. At a minimum, Kenny said, there must be “a great story and memorable music.” “And this isn’t a hard and fast rule,” he added, “but I do like to have some sort of commercial hook in the plot or title.”

 

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Once On This Island

 

He often bets on proven track records, such as an adaptation of a popular movie or a project featuring music that already has a built-in following.

His metrics also include analyzing the slated budget and calculating how many seats must be filled weekly to turn a profit. He prefers shows play in smaller houses of about 1,000 seats where demand exceeds supply, thereby creating extra urgency and buzz.

“Because we’re now at the co-producer level,” he said, “a lot of opportunities now come to us rather than us having to seek them out. Hadestown is one one them, Tootsie is another. A co-producer credit means the lead producer shares producing billing with you if you help with a variety of things, chief among them fundraising by bringing in an investment amount of a certain level – perhaps a half-million or a million dollars.”

Among the perks that go with getting your name above the title is being eligible to win a Tony Award

“Our first nomination was when we co-produced a new musical called The Visit by (John) Kander and (Fred)Ebb – the same composers of Chicago and Cabaret – with a book by Terrence McNally. Our second nominated show was Waitress – a huge commercial success. It’s been the most profitable investment we’ve been a part of. That show was nominated in the same year as Hamilton, so we knew we had zero chance of winning.”

Then came Once on This Island’s upset win. The odds-on favorite was My Fair Lady, which swept all the pre-Tony awards shows.

“Our winning was really a surprise to a lot of people, including us producing partners. I was in the back of the house pacing back and forth with my wife when they read Once on This Island as the winner. That single moment was probably the most exciting of my life – and vie had some pretty exciting moments.I looked at my wife and took her by the hand and we ran down the aisle with our other partners and we got to be up on stage for something we have such great passion for.

“It was just a thrill beyond explanation.”

Another perk: “Each of us was able to bring home our own Tony statuette.”

Kenny’s already joined a select list of Tony winners from Nebraska in Henry Fonda, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz and John Lloyd Young. A second win would put Kenny and Kurtz in select company as multiple winners.

Kenny shares the ride with wife Claire.

“We’re both huge musical theater fans,” he said. “Our whole family’s really into it.”

The couple met when he saw her in the chorus of a Utah community theater production of, you guessed it, a musical, and he complimented her backstage. Two weeks later he got her pone number and asked her out. Ten months later, they were married.

Even though Kenny’s met stars like Matthew Broderick and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he said, “A lot of the people I look up to in the Broadway world are people most folks haven’t heard of. They’re lead producers like Hunter Arnold and Tom Kirdahy, They’re bringing incredible art to the stage and taking huge risks. To me, they’re just as much heroes as the people dedicating their lives to the performance aspect of it.”

Kenny concedes he’s “not the normal, every day co-producer” but added, “I’ve found the Broadway community very accepting of me and my faith and our big family.”

He said he doesn’t currently aspire to be a lead producer. “Part of the reason I don’t have that on my bucket list is the fact that I live in Utah. It would be really difficult to launch a whole production from beginning to end not living in New York.”

Among the shows 42nd Club is backing next season is Jagged Little Pill. The musical opens on Broadway in December. It features music from Alanis Morissette’s best-selling album of the same name.

To date, only one show he’s co-produced has made it to Omaha on tour – Waitress – but Anastasia arrives in June 2020.

Visit 42nd.club.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

April 24, 2018 2 comments

Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The following story appeared in advance of the diva’s April 21 concert with the Omaha Symphony but after attending the show I can now report that she and her band in performance with the orchestra were off-the-chain that night. I have always admired Vanessa Williams for her beauty but I never followed closely or even casually her singing and acting career and so I never really formed an opinion about her as a performing artist. Well, count me as a convert to her immense talent after thoroughly enjoying her vocal artistry and stage presence. She delivered a world-class performance to the delight of the diverse crowd on hand. Her voice, her range and her stage craft and command are as good as anything I’ve ever witnessed live. This was her first performance in Omaha and I certainly hope it’s not her last.

 

Singer-actress Vanessa Williams, 55, brings a regal serenity wherever she goes.

The always put-together Tony, Grammy, Emmy nominee makes her metro debut headlining the April 21 Omaha Symphony Gala Concert at Holland Performing Arts Center. For the 8 p.m. gig benefiting the symphony’s community engagement programs serving youth, she’ll sing her own hit tunes (“Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind”) as well as American Songbook classics.

She looks forward to a backstage visit from an uncle who lives in Omaha.

The Broadway musical star, concert hall veteran, recording artist, film-television player and humanitarian has won multiple NAACP Image Awards.

“I’ve felt the embrace of the African-American community from the get-go – besides incidents where people felt I wasn’t black enough,” she said.

She’s proud of her behind-the-scenes reputation as a steadying influence.

“I’m usually the leader of calm. People say when I’m a part of an ensemble, it’s a calm and happy set. I know how to deal with people. I don’t like drama and I don’t engage.”

Thirty-four years into her career, she shows no signs of slowing. In February, she appeared in the New York City Center Encores production Hey, Look Me Over. She sang a tune idol Lena Horne originated in the show Jamaica.

Here, Williams will interpret standards immortalized by Horne and other icons.

She recently completed a three-week Asian tour. Then she went to Dallas to shoot an ABC episodic dramedy pilot, First Profits, about women cosmetics moguls. If picked-up, it will mark her fourth ABC series, following Ugly Betty,Desperate Housewives and 666 Park Avenue.

“It’s kind of like going back home. The character I play is a force to be reckoned with. I’m excited.”

She loves moving from one genre to another.

“It’s great because it exercises a lot of different muscles for me. It never gets stale and I get a chance to reach different audiences. Playing a small jazz club I can do some intimate, personal stuff. Doing a symphony concert allows beautiful, lush orchestrations I don’t get to hear all the time, so for me it’s a special treat. Then acting behind a camera, I get a chance to step into another character.

“The reason I get to do so many things is that I take care of my voice, I’m professional, I show up on time, I know my material. That’s how you have longevity in this business – being prepared and dependable.”

Performing is play. Preparing to play, especially doing eight shows a week on Broadway, can be a grind.

“The biggest effort is getting to the theater and going through the process of putting on your makeup and costume, especially when you’re exhausted or your voice doesn’t feel right or you’re dealing with distractions. Once you hear the downbeat, then it all goes away. You feel the electricity from the audience, the camaraderie of the cast, and it’s easy.”

The mother of four, who successfully manages her Type 1 diabetes, said she consciously “doesn’t try” striking a positive image but instead projects her authentic self.

“I think it’s a byproduct of who you are. I am who I am and I’m lucky I had great parents who instilled great values in me and I get a chance to demonstrate that. I think it’s also reflected in my children (one of her daughter’s is singer-actress Jillian Hervey).”

In 2012, she and her mother, Helen Williams, released a memoir they co-authored, You Have No Idea, in which Vanessa revealed being molested by a woman as a child. Though raised Catholic, she got an abortion as a teen. She became “a trailblazer” as the first black Miss America, only to have erotic photos she posed for published without her consent. Stripped of her crown, she recovered from the scandal.

“I’m seen as a survivor after being famous overnight at 20 and then having to create a career when, within 11 months, it all changed drastically. It shows fortitude, perseverance, talent. That’s what’s revered. That’ll never go away. That’s a badge of honor I continue to carry.”

She supports today’s women’s advocacy movements born from sexual harassment allegations against men, including some prominent film-TV-music figures.

“I know these are very positive and strong women helping to bring awareness to the issues,” she said.

She cautions branding all men with a broad-brush.

“I don’t want an attitude where every man is bad, a threat, a predator, untrustworthy. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented, wonderful, warm men – producers, directors, writers, actors – who are my good friends.”

She weathered divorce from NBA player-turned-actor Rick Fox – the father of three of her children.

She married businessman Jim Skrip in 2015.

Williams has come to represent what black women she admires symbolize.

“Lena Horne, Diahnn Carroll, Debbie Allen, Eartha Kitt.

All legendary women stellar in their career and active with civil rights. Their own personal struggles were such lessons for us and our generation. They paved the way.”

She’s a nurturing “mother bear” to younger artists.

“I’m always the one everyone comes to for advice. I love to connect people and make things happen.”

She’s encouraged by how many women of color have become creative forces behind the camera

“Progress is definitely apparent in movies and television,

Certainly, there’s plenty of opportunity now, which is fantastic.”

She’s may even direct one day.

Meanwhile, she despairs America’s divide. “The hate speak and the divisiveness,” she said, “is just really saddening”

Escape with her in music on the 21st.

For tickets, visit omahasymphony.org.

Unforgettable Patricia Neal

September 6, 2010 1 comment

Patricia Neal

Image via Wikipedia

I meant to post the following article immediately after hearing that Hollywood icon Patricia Neal had passed.  Better later than never.  I had the pleasure of interviewing her a couple times, once by phone and another time in person, and in each instance I felt I was dealing with a member of Hollywood royalty, although she never lorded her status over me.  Quite the opposite.  She was delightfully informal and humble.  My interviews with her, along with seeing her make some public appearances, all happened as a result of several visits she made to Omaha, where I live.  The first of these occurred in conjunction with a screening here of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  My article below resulted from a phone interview I did with her and the piece appeared in advance of the event.  She was the guest of honor at the screening and that was the occasion when I first saw her in person.  A few years I later got to meet her when she made two or three appearances at the Great Plains Theatre Conference here. During one of these conference appearances she made her As I Am presentation at the Joslyn Art Museum and afterwards my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to meet her backstage, where I conducted a short interview with her.  She was as charming and radiant up close as she was on the phone or on the stage.  I was making arrangements with her good friend and fellow actor Joel Vig for me to accompany her to a local bingo parlor – she loved playing bingo – and do a piece about her passion for the game.  It never worked out, as her increasingly frail health made travel more difficult.

Her life was filled with great triumphs and tragedies, and I feel privileged to have had my small brushes with her larger than life presence.

Unforgettable Patricia Neal

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

There is an elusive, indefinable yet unmistakable quality separating certain motion picture actors from the pack and, in a bit of celluloid alchemy, transforming them from mere players into bona fide stars.  Whatever It is, then Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal has got it.  In spades.

With her dreamy eyes, dark hair, fair complexion, musky voice, keen wit and earthy Southern charm she’s cast an indelible presence on the big screen since her 1947 debut.  Always at her best playing unadorned, independent women, she still retains an element of mystery about her.  She was Alma, the sensuous but no-nonsense housekeeper spurning heartbreaker Paul Newman’s advances in “Hud,” a role which won her the 1963 Oscar for Best Actress.  She was Maggie, the tough yet tender nurse romanced by John Wayne in “In Harm’s Way.”  And she was the beleaguered but unbowed wife and mother in “The Subject was Roses.”

The spunk this native Kentuckian has displayed as a performer is no act.  Her spirited determination in recovering from massive strokes suffered in the mid-1960s has made her a role model for stroke victims and an outspoken champion of physical rehabilitation efforts.  Her fight back from the debilitating strokes, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak, has been documented in her 1988 autobiography “As I Am” and in a 1981 TV film, “The Patricia Neal Story.”  In 1978, her example of courage led Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, TN, where she grew up, to dedicate the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center.

 

 

 

 

It isn’t often a genuine Hollywood legend passes through these parts, so you can imagine the buzz building in anticipation of Neal’s scheduled appearance this month at the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha.  The actress is coming from her home in New York City for a special revival showing here of one of her earliest and best pictures, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), which she co-starred in with the late Michael Rennie and Hugh Marlowe.

The one-night-only presentation, on Saturday, October 9 at 7:30 p.m., is the latest classic cinema showcase of Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford.  In addition to Neal, actor and former child star Billy Gray, who played her son in the film, will be on hand, along with a replica of the film’s famous robot, Gort.

The sold-out event is a fund raiser for Children’s Square USA.

Although largely absent from the screen the past two decades, the 73-year-old Neal, also a noted stage and television actress with a Tony Award and many Emmy nominations to her credit, recently made a triumphant return to the movies with her critically-acclaimed performance as the eccentric, pipe-smoking title character in the Robert Altman feature “Cookie’s Fortune.”  There’s even talk Neal may get an Oscar nomination.

She’s come a long way from Packard, KY, the now defunct coal mining camp she was born in in 1926.  Her father worked as traffic manager for the local coal company.  After moving with her family to Knoxville, she showed an early interest in acting, reciting monologues at church meetings and social gatherings.  As a Christmas present her parents enrolled her in acting lessons when she was only seven.  After her high school graduation she attended Northwestern University and its prestigious speech and drama department.  Two years later she joined her drama coach for summer theater in Eagles Mere, Pa. and then followed her fancy to New York, where like so many aspiring actresses she supported herself with modeling jobs while studying her craft (as an early member of the Actor’s Studio) and auditioning for parts on Broadway. The theater was her first love.

“I wanted to be a STAGE actress,” she emphasized in her throaty voice during a recent phone conversation.

After debuting on Broadway in 1946 she made her mark the next year when she reprised the role of Regina originated by Tallulah Bankhead in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.”  Her performance wowed critics and audiences alike, earning her the coveted Tony and Drama Critics’ Awards.  Soon, Hollywood came courting and she signed with Warner Brothers Studio and headed West.

“Well, I was thrilled to go,” she explained.  “The play I was in closed and everybody wanted me in Hollywood and so I thought, ‘Why not?’  So I went under contract with Warner Bros. and I was with them three or four years until we parted and then I did some pictures for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, some for 20th Century Fox and some for Universal.”

Her early years in Tinsel Town were frustrating ones.  She found it difficult adjusting to the new medium.  And it seemed studio moguls were unsure what to make of this lovely new starlet.  Neither a glamour queen nor a femme fatale, she was instead a smart down-to-earth woman whose grit let her hold her own with any man on screen, yet whose aura of deep lament lent her an appealing vulnerability.  A character actress at heart, she simply didn’t fit the leading lady mold of the day and found herself assigned to a string of weak parts in mediocre pictures.

She ultimately did cause a stir those early years, but not for her acting.  When the single Neal’s romantic involvement with married American screen icon Gary Cooper    was made public, a scandal ensued.  Cooper and Neal had starred together in “The Fountainhead” and “Bright Leaf” and while news of the affair left his stardom untarnished it unquestionably hurt her fledgling career.

Still reeling from her failed tryst, she started work on “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”  Understandably, she held small hope for the project, which appeared another in a long line of forgettable films.  After all, it was “just” a science fiction story, which in that era usually meant a low budget, low brow B-picture aimed at the Saturday matinee crowd.

One plus, however, was its director, Robert Wise, whom she’d worked with previously and admired.  Even though Wise was then a still up-and-coming filmmaker, his reputation for quality and professionalism preceded him.

Referring to Wise, she said, “He was very good.  A fine director.  I had done “Three Secrets’ with him and obviously he liked me because he wanted me for his next one.”  Still, she said, she found it hard to take “The Day the Earth Stood Still”  seriously.  “Oh, I thought it was hysterical when I did it.  I didn’t buy all that outer space stuff.  I could hardly keep a straight face, but boy it turned out to be a good one didn’t it?  Oh, I love that movie.”

Her jaundiced reaction then is understandable given the plot.  Capitalizing on the UFO scare at the time, the film opens with a flying saucer landing near the Washington monument.  Emerging from the craft is an alien emissary, Klaatu (Rennie), and his robot protector-enforcer, Gort.  Klaatu announces an ultimatum:  If humans cannot mend their violent ways, Planet Earth will be destroyed.  Klaatu is shot and imprisoned and, after escaping, hunted.  The strange visitor is finally befriended by Neal’s character, an earnest single mother, and her son.  Now regarded as a classic, “Day” is a message picture in the guise of sci-fi.  It is both an ageless plea for peace and tolerance and a time-capsule glimpse at the paranoia and tension existing under the placid surface of post-war prosperity.

 

 

While all quite silly to Neal, it was business as usual for Billy Gray, then 13 and far too young to appreciate the film’s campy elements or its serious intentions.

“It was more business-like than a romp in the park,” he said by phone from his home in Tapango, Ca.  “I didn’t realize how brave it’s subject matter was.  I didn’t have any understanding of its message.  I’ve had a chance to see the film a few times over the last two decades and it’s amazing how well it holds up as a piece of movie making.  You buy into it even though it’s a bit stylized.  You accept the concept and just go along for the ride.”

After the film Gray went on to his best-remembered role, as Bud, in TV’s popular “Father Knows Best” series. He still acts occasionally on TV and in theater.

Following the film Patricia Neal appeared in a few more pictures before returning to the stage.  She met and married author Roald Dahl, now deceased, and started a family with him.  The couple eventually raised five children in his native Great Britain.  In 1957 she was lured back to Hollywood by the opportunity to appear in “A Face in the Crowd,” a brilliantly-written and acted film under the direction of Elia Kazan, who directed her on stage in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”  Despite glowing notices, the film did little for Neal’s career, so she resumed stage work and raised her children.

As the decade of the ‘60s dawned, Neal and her family endured a series of tragedies that ironically coincided with her greatest success as a movie actress.  First, her infant son Theo suffered severe injuries when hit by a taxi in his pram. Next, her daughter Olivia contracted measles encephalitis and died at age seven.

“Sad things have happened in our family,” she said.

Then, in 1962, along came “Hud,” and the Oscar.  In 1965 she was fresh off co-starring in Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way” when she started work on legendary director John Ford’s last film “Seven Women.”  It was while in production on the Ford film that Neal, then three months pregnant, suffered the strokes that altered her life.

Neal credits Dahl with devising an innovative rehabilitation program enlisting the intensive aid of family and friends. Little by little her recovery progressed.

“Roald didn’t like the idea the doctors were going to send a person once a week for 15 minutes, so he had all my friends come in and teach me, and that was so good.  They played bridge and croquet with me.  It really worked perfectly.  Roald did a lot, you know.”

Years later, she and Dahl divorced.

Miraculously, the child Neal was pregnant with at the time of her strokes was born a healthy girl, named Lucy. It turns out Lucy is her lucky charm.

Neal, who made her a heroic film comeback in “The Subject was Roses,” had not done a feature since 1989 when Lucy, now a screenwriter, ran into director Robert Altman at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and discovered he was still looking for someone to fill the title role of Cookie in his new film.  Lucy suggested her mom.  Altman liked the idea.  Later, Lucy arranged for the two to meet at a part she threw at her Hollywood home.  Altman hired Neal on the spot.

 

 

As Cookie, Neal plays a colorful older woman who talks a blue streak, just the kind of part she likes sinking her teeth into.  “Oh, I loved it.  I’m a character actress.  I’m meant to be 85 in it, but I ain’t that old, so I’m really made up.  I have a wig on.  It’s fantastic.”

Asked to explain her method of creating characters, she answers:  “I sort of have an actor’s feeling for things.  That’s all I can tell you.  I just do my best.” When it’s suggested she purposely shunned fame, she surprisingly replies, “Oh, I’d like to be a star.  I’d like to be a bigger star than I am.  But I’ve done all right.”

Finally, asked to venture why so few roles have come her way recently, she quips, “Oh, I don’t know, but I’m getting, shall we say, not a lot younger.”

When not acting she stays busy traveling as an enthusiastic participant in the Theater Guild’s Theater-At-Sea cruise programs, which have taken her from Alaska to Australia.  “I love to travel.  Oh, it’s gorgeous.”  From Omaha she’ll travel to Atlanta to belatedly celebrate the 100th birthday of her mother, Eura Petrie Neal.

She often visits with fellow stroke victims and is a vocal advocate for rehab efforts addressing the whole person.  She’s pleased by the progress made in brain injury therapy.  “It’s wondrous what they do now for people with strokes.”

Also a frequent public speaker, Neal talks about her life and recovery in the hope she can provide inspiration to other disabled individuals.  Her simple message: “Never give up.”

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time

August 22, 2010 2 comments

My good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith have a daughter named Quiana who has inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York.  This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas.  Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays.  My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.

 

High Res Can't get enough of Q. Smith. Photo by David Wells.

 

©photo by David Wells

 

Quiana Smith’s Dream Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.

Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.

Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.

It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim,  “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.

Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”

Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”

She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive director Linda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.

Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.

“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”

What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.

“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”

Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”

In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”

To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.

“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”

Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”

A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”

Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”

Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.

She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”

 

 

 

 

Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.

New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”

Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”

For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”

She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”

While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”

Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.

Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.

Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.

That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.

The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”

Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time


Choir Boy

Image by Shavar Ross via Flickr

About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald.  I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter.  When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide.  We became friends along the way.  I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads.  I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.

I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally.  Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength.  She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well.  I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail.  With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:

 

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.

“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”

She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.

The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.

“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”

Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.

Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.

Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”

“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.

Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”

Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.

Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.

She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.

It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”

Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks  — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.

“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I  could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”

In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.

“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”

Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.

Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.

Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.

Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.

The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.

The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.

At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.

“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.

Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.

If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.

Madea is Perry’s signature character.

“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”

Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”

Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”

Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.

At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.

Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.

Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too ShortThere’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.

Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.

Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.

“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.

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