Preview of A Walk in My Shoes
By Perry Tannenbaum
Playwright, poet, actor, director, songwriter, and community activist – it’s no wonder that multi-talented Jermaine Nakia Lee was once hired a community center called the PowerHouse Project. Or that he would be premiering his second new musical in the past five seasons. The first one, For the Love of Harlem, spotlighting key figures of the Harlem Renaissance like Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, was popular enough in 2011 for On Q Productions that they reprised it in 2014.
You can understand why there would be a clamor, in the Black community and beyond, for a new Lee musical. But you might not have expected Lee’s new A Walk in My Shoes to focus on HIV/AIDS. Isn’t that so yesterday?
Not at all, Lee will tell you. “In NC and in the country, African-American and Latino 13-24 year-olds are disproportionately living with HIV/AIDS,” he says. “In Mecklenburg County, African-Americans make up 70% of all new HIV infections. In most metropolitan U.S. cities, two out of four Black gay men are living with HIV/AIDS. As a Black gay man, these statistics alarmed me to action.”
And he had more than statistics for expressing his alarm. Each of the major characters is based, singly or as a composite, on the clients Lee met as program manager at PowerHouse. Located across the street from Northwest School of the Arts on Beattie’s Ford Road, not far from Johnson C. Smith University, PowerHouse mostly serves “young adult queer men and women living on or below the poverty level,” according to Lee.
Funded by the Center for Disease Control, a primary PowerHouse function is offering free, rapid, and confidential HIV testing. A lot of juicy confidences came Lee’s way – as soon as he was hired.
“After my first month at PowerHouse,” he recalls. “I was so moved by the lives of my clients, I began writing songs about their experiences. Then that led to poetry. And that lead to the first draft of A Walk in My Shoes.”
All the key members of the My Shoes crew boast stories to sing about, though they’re not always happy tunes.
Bonnie was born with HIV, but she’s still keeping the secret from her three besties, one of whom is Maseo, who has developed a mad – and dangerous – crush on his childhood friend. Overachieving O’Neal is the closeted son of the beloved Pastor Rutherford, a staunch homophobe who gets a rude shock when he issues an altar call for those in his flock who are wrestling with the “Spirit of homosexuality.”
The most serious drama centers on the most sensational character, Ms. Kara. Lee describes her as “a transgender female who can slay you with her sharp tongue or her killer eye for fashion. Those designer digs are afforded by her latest venture, online escorting.”
Problem is, Ms. Kara has just set up a rendezvous with Marques, a bona fide charmer – and a dangerous sexual predator. Apparently, Marques is a bisexual with a ravenous appetite, so you can bet he drives plenty of the drama.
Johnson C. Smith U, co-producers of A Walk in My Shoes, approached Lee during his final year at PowerHouse to help them with a federal grant to draw attention to the correlation between substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. The grant came through just before Lee resigned in 2016, and it was then that he committed to creating a community-based event with JCSU. The character of Maseo definitely targets the connections JCSU has sought to address.
With the backing of JCSU and its Collegiate Health Improvement Project (C.H.I.P.), Lee could aspire to far higher production values than the workshop version of A Walk in My Shoes that premiered in November 2013.
“A Walk in My Shoes 2013 was a poorly funded, community theatre effort,” Lee admits. “The intent was to cast ‘the community’: People living with HIV, people in high risk groups for HIV and inspired LGBTQ peeps. A Walk in My Shoes 2017 is a professional theatre production with a working budget, comped cast and crew, seasoned singer/dancer/actors and a grassroots marketing strategy.”
Right. This time, the press was actually informed that Lee was involved.
This week’s three-performance run at the Attic Theatre marks a homecoming for Lee. Before it became the HQ for Little Rock Community Development Center, 401 N. McDowell Street housed the city’s Afro-American Cultural Center, which was reborn as The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.
Lee was a resident teaching artist at the old Afro-Am – after graduating from UNC Charlotte, interning for the urban division of Arista Records in Atlanta, and performing on Disney Cruises for two years. So he knows the Attic well. In fact, he workshopped Love of Harlem up yonder, and directed Cheryl West’s Before It Hits Home there seven years ago.
“It’s the perfect intimate venue for a show like A Walk in My Shoes,” Lee says, “where I desire the audience to feel like players in the story…bystanders watching it all go down.”
Lee won’t specify exactly where his musical takes place, other than to say it’s in a Southern metro area “like” Charlotte. Or Atlanta. Or Houston. He also slipped the question of whether Pastor Rutherford was based on a particular local cleric or political figure, choosing instead to make a stunning statistical revelation: “More than 50% of the clients I referred to psychosocial care were wounded, sometimes suicidal, due to religious oppression.”
There is, however, an unexpected local tie-in to the new production of A Walk in My Shoes. Pastor Clifford Matthews Jr., spiritual leader of the St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, came out to his congregation and withstood an exodus of his flock, most of whom have since returned. This gay pastor will be playing the role of the homophobic Pastor Rutherford!
“It was important to him that affirming pastors and churches like his be highlighted sometimes,” Lee explains. “Respectfully, I told him my conviction was to give light to the most common truth, which is most traditional Black congregations are homophobic. His church and others like it are the anomalies.”
And it might be mentioned that Black churches are the wellspring of some mighty rousing music. Gospel is one of the prime elements of Lee’s score, co-composed with Tyrone Jefferson of A Sign O’ the Times Band. The music also roams into the realms of pop rock, R&B, and jazz.
For the pair of hip-hop song lyrics, Lee called upon local poetess L’Monique. Lee is nothing if not connected in this town, so he could also call upon the Reliable Brother dance group, who performed at Breakin’ Convention CLT in both 2015 and 2016, to make the hip-hop dancing world-class. Mesmerizing, Lee promises.
Back in 2014, when we last saw For the Love of Harlem, Lee was at best when his music was big and brash – as it was in the opening title song, presented with the added sizzle of splashy ensemble choreography. Expect more of the same for the opening title number up at Attic Theatre.
Later on, a funky R&B tune, “Trouble,” proved to be an audience favorite at the workshop production three years ago. Another big number brings out the dancers.
“The weekend anthem ‘Friday Night’ and the vogue dance ensemble are unforgettable,” says Lee. “People stop me in the grocery store singing that song.”