Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Columbia where we lay our scene...
The year is 1903. The Tillman family, headed by the Lieutenant Governor for the State of South Carolina, and the Gonzales family, headed by the founder of The State newspaper, are in a known feud. This ancient grudge (that began in the 1880s) broke to new mutiny as Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman murders NG Gonzales.
That’s where local actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter Jason Stokes’ story begins.
“I first heard about this story at my ‘real’ work (Media Director for the South Carolina Bar) in 2000 during a presentation on the subject by Donnie Myers. I was fascinated by the story in part because of the sensational nature of the crime, but the more I began to research the story I realized that there was much more to it than just a murder and a murder trial,” Stokes explains. “The Tillmans and The Gonzaleses were two powerful families in the city of Columbia who did not like each other for various reasons. This feud began in the late 1880’s and continued even after the events of January 15, 1903. During that time one side wielded power and opinion in the public press while the other side railed against the Gonzaleses and The State newspaper with every stump speech.”
This Saturday, Stokes presents an original screenplay titled Composure based on this rich piece of Columbia’s history. His cast includes such luminary local talent such as Paul Kaufmann, Eric Bultman, Stann Gwynn, Terrance Henderson, Hunter Boyle, Clint Poston, Katie Leitner, Stan Gardner, G. Scott Wild, Libby Campbell, Kevin Bush, Jonathan Jackson, Nate Herring, and Kendrick Marion.
“I’ve been very fortunate not only to have these talented actors lend their craft to this project but they are also valued friends and colleagues. I promise to anyone in attendance, if the story doesn’t impress you the talent certainly will,” Stokes says.
While Stokes is certainly no stranger to the Columbia arts community, having been seen in productions ranging from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Rent, not many know that he is a writer.
“I began writing just after my father passed away in 1989. My mother gave me a notebook to write down memories of my father when I had them but, being an adolescent, as I started writing down a memory or story it would veer away from facts to whatever fiction my mind was dreaming up at the time. So I’ve been writing for the last 27 years (to varying degrees of success),” Stokes said.
After writing about 30 screenplays, some of which have television spec scripts pitched to shows such as The West Wing and Castle, Stokes has developed his own style and writing process.
“Each screenplay is different, but they all seem to start before I really know where they are going. For example, I’ll write a scene that I either have no idea what it’s trying to say in a grand scheme, or I don’t know where it belongs in the story I’m thinking about,” Stokes delineates. “Composure was no different. The surface story was there but to make it interesting and make it build to something that makes people think was the challenge. This being a historical piece I just kept doing more and more research to see if I could find anything new to add to the layers, which took time. I worked off-and-on on the screenplay for about three years, and it wasn’t until I decided to begin with the murder and then bounce back and forth in time during the trial, to add the ‘why’ of the murder, that made it really exciting for me to want to write it.”
Being an actor himself adds a particularly interesting dynamic to Stokes’ work and process, as well.
“As an actor, it’s always a blessing to work on a well written piece of work, Tennessee Williams, Terrance McNally, Jonathan Larson, you want to chew on it as long as you can because really good, juicy dialogue and lyrics don’t come around all the time. So when I write I like to think of the story and dialogue in the vein; Would this be something I would want to sink my teeth into as an actor and rejoice in the fact that I GET to say these lines and tell this story?” Stokes adds.
Don’t miss the two hours’ traffic of the Trustus Side Door Theatre this Saturday, January 16 for free! Doors and bar open at 6:30 with the performance beginning at 7:30.
“Opinion reporting is nothing new, as evident by this story, but with the advent of technology and polarizing news outlets only compounding the divisive nature and climate I think we find ourselves in today, this is a true story that still has relevance and meaning,” Stokes says. “No one story, one person, one political ideology can be measured strictly in absolutes. If the audience can be entertained and enlightened in some way through the events of these gentlemen, then maybe the cast and I will have offered a different perspective in which to view our own world.”
Trustus Theatre is bringing a world premiere to the Midlands as Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich’s Big City comes to the Thigpen Main Stage. This winner of the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival will have a limited run from August 14 - 22, 2015. Audiences can also meet winning NYC playwright Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich when she visits Columbia and attends opening weekend.
The Trustus Playwrights’ Festival is a national competition that is held annually. Last season over 500 submissions made their way to Trustus Literary Manager Sarah Hammond in NYC, and Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley and Hammond chose Big City as the winning play. The show is receiving its first professional production on Trustus’ Thigpen Main Stage this summer under the direction of Scott-Wiley.
Big City is a modern tale about 21st Century relationships and communication, Big City introduces audiences to Jane and Joe. These friends have been living with each other for a while and are "just roommates," except for Friday nights and the occasional Sunday morning. Now he's drowning in urban angst and wants a deeper commitment -- a baby! -- but Jane says no. Deep down, are they really in love? Or is it just the narrowing of options and fear of being alone that comes from being closer to 30 than 20. Anything can happen over a meal of Chinese takeout and muscle relaxants, especially when unexpected guests invade the small apartment they call home.
Big City playwright Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich is a NYC playwright. Her work has been produced/developed in NYC at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, Roundabout, Rattlestick, Women’s Project, EST, New Georges, AracaWorks, Urban Stages, and many others. “Life these days seems to move at a faster, scarier, and more absurd pace than it used to,” said Blumenthal-Ehrlich. “Wifi and cell phones mean our work follows us wherever we go. Twitter and Facebook bring a false sense of friendship and intimacy. Not to mention that the world is scarier since 9/11 and ISIS. The irony is that in an era of heightened fears and isolation, we need each other more than ever. This can make for some oddball and heartrending hookups. That’s the back story of Big City, a quirky high-stakes comedy about Jane and Joe, engaged in an escalating conflict over their life as not-so-platonic urban roommates.”
Big City boasts a cast entirely comprised of Trustus Ensemble Members. EG Engle plays Jane and Clint Poston plays Joe. Catherine Hunsinger and Jason Stokes play Sandy and Bill – two characters who enter in the second act and bring even more chaos to this apartment nestled in the Big Apple.
Trustus Theatre’s Big City opens on the Thigpen Main Stage on Friday, August 14th at 8:00pm and runs through August 22nd, 2015. Showtimes for Big City are 7:30pm on Thursdays, 8:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3:00pm on Sundays. Tickets for musicals are $30.00 for adults, $28.00 for military and seniors, and $20.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Patrons are encouraged to reserve early at www.trustus.org as the show has a limited run.
Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.
For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season information.
Trustus Theatre's new production of Lynne Nottage's play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark tackles an odd paradox from early Hollywood: talented actors of color were finding professional success on screen in mainstream films that starred white performers, but most commonly were cast as maids, slaves, "mammies," and other stereotypical roles. Hattie McDaniel, for example, broke the color barrier when she won the Oscar, but still she played a servant, not a teacher, mother, or romantic lead. Employing a dizzying array of narrative and dramatic techniques, Nottage traces the career of the fictional Vera Stark (Michelle Jacobs), an aspiring African-American actress in the early '30's who works by day as a maid for the frivolous Gloria Mitchell (Katie Mixon), a Mary Pickford-like starlet famed as "America's Little Sweetie Pie." Advance press material notwithstanding, Vera Stark is neither a screwball comedy (although it is sometimes funny, if perhaps not hilarious) nor a riff on Gone With the Wind (although Mixon sometimes channels the breathless drawls of Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.) Gloria is desperate to land the lead in The Belle of New Orleans, a weepy film melodrama that draws from classics like Camille and Dion Boucicault's The Octaroon. That term, by the way, turns up frequently: it's a 19th-century term for a person with one-eighth black heritage, who would still have been classified as a slave. (A mixed-race friend of mine once laughingly used that term to describe herself, and later a co-worker asked "What did you say you were again? A Macaroon?")
Vera, clearly a close friend, confidante and sister-figure for her scatterbrained employer, wants a shot at playing the “Belle's” maid, an actual dramatic role with lines beyond "Yes, ma'am." In moments that define the play's central issues, Vera and roommate Lottie (Annette Dees Grevious) discuss the inherent irony of Vera's situation; these conversations, and scenes where Vera flirts with ambitious, driven jazz musician Leroy (an earnest and smooth Jabar Hankins) could be excerpts from a good August Wilson drama set in the 1930's. Strangely, however, different scenes and different characters in the first act are written in drastically, sometimes jarringly different styles. When Jacobs and Grevious banter with Janell Bryant (as their saucy friend Anna Mae, who intends to find stardom via affairs with white producers and directors who think she's Brazilian) the mood lightens, and the laughs come fast and furious, in the vein of socially-conscious comedies from the '70's like Good Times. Hollywood types turn up: Bobby Bloom as a no-nonsense producer who could be from a realistic 1940's drama, and Clint Poston as an idealistic director, clearly an Otto Preminger figure, but as broadly comic as if Franz Liebkind's accent and Roger DeBris's flamboyance were taken from The Producers and morphed into a single character. Bloom's studio exec, by the way, could easily have been one-note, and played by an older man, simply a quasher of any projects that won't sell at the box office. The youthful Bloom gives a remarkably three-dimensional performance, proving that there are no small roles, only small actors. With the simplest of tools - suspenders instead of a belt, hair parted a certain way, a cigar held like Bogart, wire-rimmed glasses, assertive body language - he perfectly conveys an Irving Thalberg-like visionary, who wants to give audiences a brief escape from the grim realities of the Depression.
Mixon, meanwhile, dives into the role of the vodka-fueled Gloria with as much gleeful abandon as she dove into that quiche a few months ago in the Side Door Theatre, flamboyantly vamping like Lydia Languish or other 17th and 18th-century heroines of classic farce. When all these characters are on stage together, the show comes closest to capturing the spirit of a vintage screen comedy, a la Golddiggers of 1933, or How to Marry a Millionaire, with Grevious taking the older, more cynical Lauren Bacall role, Jacobs becoming sweet Betty Grable, and Bryant as the luscious but clueless Marilyn Monroe. But if these references to obscure shows and characters you may not be familiar with are becoming a little annoying, that to some extent is my point. The author clearly intended this mash-up of genres, and each cast member does just fine, but at times the effect is confusing, as if disparate characters from separate plays all found themselves on stage together.
The storytelling chaos coalesces into something different entirely, however, as Act Two becomes a retelling of, reflection on, and subtle satire of the themes we saw in Act One. Three modern scholars (Grevious, Bryant, and Wela Mbusi) debate the legacy and sociological impact of Stark's life, as we see first a "clip" from The Belle of New Orleans, featuring Gloria, Vera, Lottie, and even "Brazilian Spitfire Anna Fernandez" (i.e. Anna Mae) in the roles that defined their careers, followed by a clip from a 1970's Merv Griffin-style talk show, where we see the older Vera and Gloria reunite. Here director Dewey Scott-Wiley brilliantly captures the differing levels of narrative: we the audience are watching a contemporary academic forum, whose participants are in turn watching a 40-year-old TV clip (acted out live by the performers from within a framed portal;) the talk show guests are in turn watching a film clip from 40 years earlier, the very movie that the characters were obsessing over live on stage in the first act. Confused? It actually makes perfect sense, and is a superb payoff to the confusion of Act One. Vera has become a parody of herself, much like the aging Josephine Baker or Eartha Kitt, and we learn that she ended her life soon after this TV appearance, dying young like Dorothy Dandridge, who likewise struggled for mainstream roles in Hollywood. Leroy turns up as a bitter and defiant Charlie Parker-style burnout, excellently embodied as an older man by Hankins, while Gloria has naturally become a beloved screen goddess of yesteryear. Scott-Wiley's inventive staging places the live action of the 70's clips behind scrims, eliminating the need for any significant make-up effects, while the 1930's movie was actually filmed in black-and-white by Jason Steelman, and directed by Scott-Wiley. While it is supposed to be a parody of the era and its cinematic and acting conventions to some extent, the movie-within-the-play is actually pretty decent, with some nice angles, and plenty of attractive shadows, beams of light, and shades of gray. Bloom doubles as the talk show host, and again manages to create an entirely different character, saying volumes with his pained expression as his interview/reunion devolves into a catfight.
Scott-Wiley doubles as scenic designer, and the art deco-influenced set is serviceable, but looks unfinished. The scrim effects are outstanding in the second act, but really should have been covered up by paintings, tapestry, anything, in the first act. Portions of the stage become particular locales (Vera's apartment, the exterior of the studio, etc.) but little is done to give any sense of change, and the actors' blocking within these smaller areas sometimes seems cramped and constrained. Costumes by Amy Brower expertly define varying eras; a number of characters wear striking creations from La-Ti-Da Jewelry Designs, which are also featured on display in the theatre's bar/gallery area.
Nottage has won just about every award imaginable: Pulitzer, Obie, Guggenheim, even a MacArthur "Genius" grant, but I don't think any were for this play. The show is enjoyable enough, but never entirely decides what it wants to say, or what kind of play it wants to be. It's never a complete laugh-fest, nor do the more serious moments delve particularly deeply into material ripe for exploration. I also fear that some of the structural madness and much of the very broad comedy in the first act may turn off patrons who expect more from Trustus. To them I say that the second act is the pay-off, and it's worth the wait. Remember - the venue is called "Trust Us" for a reason.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through Saturday, May 18th on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus. Information can be found, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org , or call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 PM at 803-254-9732. And you can read James Harley's review of the production at Onstage Columbia and at the Free Times.
~ August Krickel