Black Creek Risin’: LA Black Theatre Just Got Rejuvenated!
I have been so bored and annoyed, as of late, with Black LA Theatre. I have seen so many plays that have thrown out real technique, true story telling, and an editing skill of precision that the audiences have long been waiting to see again. More often than not I come across plays that are overly written, overly cast, poorly budgeted, and quite honestly lives to stay on the surface of the issues that some of these plays claim to be addressing. They have stolen the joy of experiencing a ride that is so magical in theatre, that nothing in the world compares to it.
Community theatre, though looked upon now as a low budget - throw away - type of production, was first birthed in an effort for a group of people to tell the stories that most affect them and their community directly. Stories that were not being told by the mainstream productions. Sound familiar? It was an open call for those who struggle alike to come together and create relevant stories and build strong, powerful and resonating stage work. In years past, it has been a terror to experience the same bad acting, the same horrible writing, the same overly done plot lines that have graced the local theatre for so long; to see community theatre slide down an unrepairable slope. Often times, audiences are like goldfish being put back in the water over the plays that offer the craftsmanship, attention, and theatre magic that most audiences are used to; plays that actually excite you. Albeit, they still tend to lack something, somewhere, but not the binge worthy ongoings that LA has known as a whole for so long.
That is, until last night!
I was blessed to have received an invitation to a theatrical stage reading of a work in progress called Black Creek Risin’. A play written and directed by Alabama native, LaDarrion Williams. Playing at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood, CA, I made my way to support a new name I hadn’t seen in the local circuit before. I have to say I was a bit hesitant. The synopsis stated that the show was about a bootlegging, New Orleans juke joint owner with a young lover who basically stares down death, love, and illegal activity in 1925 Louisiana. Admittedly I thought: Great all the makings of another overdone “Black” play.
With my bestie in tow, I walked into the theatre and was greeted with a warming smile from a young, tall, and burly gentleman. He handed us a program and instructed us that the house would open shortly. I later found out that this was Williams. Through a curtain and seated front row, I was ready and open for whatever this reading was going to be.
How pleasantly amazed I was! Williams’ writing style took me on a journey of truth embedded in the same classical era of broadway theatre I had grown to love. The actors were simply standing in front of podiums with their open books and reading their lines - in character of course - yet I was immediately teleported to the 1920’s of a Louisiana bayou where Mama Jakes (Dee Dee Stephens) is bootlegging the best whisky in the South. Helping her run the moonshine to her out of town customers is young musician, admirer and friend, Uncle Willie (DeJuan Christopher). Mama Jakes navigates life with her vibrant and inquisitive teen daughter, Hoochie (Cequoia Johnson), her overbearing, abusive, and domineering husband J.T (Lamont Young), and a young woman who is often accused of being the town….social worker…Cat (Shay Domingo). Phillip McNair makes an appearance as Monroe; a character that will be later developed as Williams intends to create a stage trilogy with Black Creek Risin’ being the first in the series.
Stephens delivery of Mama Jakes was as spot on as it could have been having had no rehearsal for this reading and not being able to embody the stage and the fullness of movement that Mama Jakes requires. Though Stephens is much younger than the character she plays, her tone and attitude immediately washed out all presence of Dee Dee Stephens and left only Mama Jakes. This backwoods juke joint owner with a history of hexing folks - I mean we have to have that good ol’ Louisiana hoodoo - enveloped the stage. As a reading, the audience was aware that the work is still being flushed out. There are things that may not make sense because we’re not actually watching a full production at the peak of it’s maturity. However, none of that seemed to matter when Stephens began to deliver her lines.
Stephens had such a strong and demanding presence. The audience knew from the gate who was the boss of this post prohibition roller coaster ride we were watching and listening to. Although Stephens’ presence and delivery was powerful, there were a few moments where Stephen’s could have softened Mama Jakes just a bit. No matter how strong we are as a person there are always nuances to explore when we’re dealing with such complex emotions such as love, pain, betrayal, and fear. Taking nothing away from what Stephens brought to the reading, I’m well aware that the ability to fully go into this character just wasn’t possible given the timeframe. However, with time, I’m confident that Stephens will be able to fully immerse herself into Mama Jakes. She will be able to explore those nooks and crannies of the character’s personality that help make the character a fully exposed and well rounded, multi-dimensional person.
DeJuan Christopher (Willie) is always masterful at what he does. He could be having coffee and reciting the ABC’s to you and you’d feel like he was giving you a Tony Award winning performance. His charisma is captivating. The way that he engulfs a character is like watching the first few seconds of a cocoon breaking open and releasing the transformed butterfly within it. His powerful masculinity married to his sensual and deliberate sensitivity brings young, horn playing Willie to life. As I watched Willie try to swoon Mama Jakes into running off with him to New York City - while running her hooch all over Louisiana - I was impressed at Christopher’s ability to come off as someone who’s still a bit naive. Granted Christopher - in real life - is a grown ass man that I don’t feel has too much naiveté in his system. So, to see him play a character that has an essence of bright eyed and bushy tail intricacies was interesting to say the least. His destiny in the piece is long foreseen, yet, when he gets there you still are on the edge of your seat wishing and hoping for the up swing.
Cequoia Johnson (Hoochie) was a pleasure to listen to. She truly captures that youthful arrogance and sassy teenage tone of a girl in any era. I do feel that as the project progresses that she may want to adventure into the different facets of who Hoochie really is and why her character makes the choices and stances that she does. Although Johnson sounded and looked the part, there were moments in her delivery where I didn’t feel like Johnson had really found the reason for some of the things Hoochie is scripted to say; that inner monologue and backstory. Again, I’m fully aware that this was just a reading and still in the development stages, albeit, Hoochie has a great potential for exploration and discovery.
I’m so very glad to have seen Lamont Young play J.T. He had a presence and a tone that shook me to the core. J.T is the epitome of dominance in all the hardworking, back breaking, strong - and even more so abusive - aspects that dominance for a 1920's black man entailed. An alpha masculine male of the time, J.T embodies that age old “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine and there’s nothing a woman can say to me but, ‘dinner is ready,’” type of mindset. Young delivered these lines like that had been wrapped into his DNA. He was powerful, demanding, his very being exuded an energy that was so intoxicating yet so vile that the audience sat there in love with how much they hated his character. Young’s portrayal of J.T is a testament to what happens when great talent is given great work, with meaningful and authentic direction.
The social and lively Cat played by Shay Domingo left a lot to be desired. Not that Domingo’s portrayal or delivery of Cat was horrible, I just wish we had more time to really uncover the type of woman Cat really is. It’s assumed that Cat is the town tramp, but I have a feeling that there’s more to her than what meets the eye. Something I hope Williams truly decides to explore as the stage trilogy progresses. Domingo brought an elegance to the role and tone of the reading that I felt was warming and inviting. Her choices to nuance certain phrases made Cat relatable and likable. So much so, that when we discovered Cat’s huge secret, the audience was angry but still cared for her and were rooting for her to win.
Philip McNair (Monroe), unfortunately, wasn’t in much of this installment of the series, however playing the son of 2 of the other characters, his progression throughout the totality of the trilogy looks to be very promising. Having spoken to McNair briefly, I believe that he is going to surprise many audiences with Monroe’s story. In part to what I believe McNair has to offer in Monroe's portrayal.
Williams’ keen insight on how to take real and relatable stories, pinpoint a plot line on one central character, and color the world in which he chooses to transport you is by far more than a breath of fresh air and a salve to a decaying era of Black LA theatre. He is the August Wilson of a new era. A playwright that see’s the complexity in simplicity and can brush a magical world of stage work with a precision I haven’t seen in quite some time. It’s very clear that Williams understands that not everyone in a cast needs to have a huge plot line or meaning or foreshadowing to make the work important, diverse, deliberate, and intriguing. Ultimately making the work a great piece of theatre. I welcome LaDarrion Williams to the LA theatre world and I look forward to the maturity of his work, the progression of his trilogy, and the respect to the art of true and classic theatre magic!
Feature Photo Courtesy of LaDarrion Williams' Facebook Page