Tag Archives: Tyrone Jefferson

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.

Art and Business Clash in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.

Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.

So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.

What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.

But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.

Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.

Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.

Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.

Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.

Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.

Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.

With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.

Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.

The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.

No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.

In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.

Sex, Drugs, Homophobia, and HIV Keep Today’s Youth in Turmoil

Review: Jermaine Nakia Lee’s A Walk in My Shoes

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By Perry Tannenbaum

After the Afro-American Cultural Center moved to Uptown Charlotte and became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, I wondered whether I’d ever review a show at the old Attic Theatre again. In my early years on the job, I might climb the stairs at 401 Myers Street as many as three times each season to see such works as Bubbling Brown Sugar, Salomé, A Raisin in the Sun, or To Be Young, Gifted, and Black staged by Defoy Glenn and his GM Productions.

Nowadays, the old Afro-Am building functions as the Little Rock Community Development Center, taking advantage of a block-long entrance to their parking lot to change their address to 401 N. McDowell Street. As far as I know, Little Rock’s portfolio still doesn’t include theatre, so it’s fortunate for me that Jermaine Nakia Lee and the Johnson C Smith University C.H.I.P. Project decided to stage the premiere of Lee’s new A Walk in My Shoes at the Attic – especially since a workshop version of the musical had previously been presented on the JCSU campus in 2013.

Just walking up the flights of stairs to the Attic – and then, once inside the theater, walking down the steeply sloped orchestra section to the front row – brought back memories of Glenn and the stellar actors who once graced the Attic: Margaret Freeman, Wayne DeHart, Sandra Beckham Lewis, and Michael D. Lowe. The house was packed to near-capacity when I arrived, and it was instantly apparent, from the activity of the light booth to the functionality of the narrow seats, that Little Rock has kept the Attic in fine repair.

Still, fine repair and state-of-the-art are not the same. There is no roof in sight looking up, so there is no fly loft. Entrances must all come from backstage since there are no wings, and it’s obvious that the Attic wasn’t conceived with musicals in mind. The trio led by musical director Kevin Staley was lined up against the right-hand wall of the stage, visible to audience and actors alike throughout the performance. Staley’s other option, to camp upstage behind the Attic’s curtain, would have required a video setup to cue the cast, with one or more monitors facing the stage. Reality presumably collided with that possibility and quashed it.

Yet the budgetary constraints of the Lee/JCSU collaboration were still apparent from the moment the core members of the cast began to sing. To be heard above the band, all of them needed to be singing in the sweet spots of their range, so body mics wound up as the actual necessities that the budget couldn’t cover. Notwithstanding the artistic merits of Marius James’s freestanding mural, split and separated to opposite thirds of the stage, scenery was fairly rudimentary, usually rolled onstage by the crew and the players themselves. When the trouble-prone addict Maceo was hospitalized early in Act 2, they didn’t dare wheel him onstage already in the bed, sparking some unintended laughter from the crowd as he carefully climbed on.

Played by newcomer Quinn Marques, Maceo personifies the population that JCSU wanted to address when they first approached Lee and sought his help in applying for a federal grant: substance abusers who engage in risky sexual encounters. Before he climbed into that hospital bed, various scenes of A Walk in My Shoes gave ample evidence of Maceo snorting, shooting up, and drinking to excess. Maceo says that he would like to be up-close and sexual with longtime buddy Bonnie, but the effects of various drugs seemed to be tamping down his libido when it came time to take action, which enabled Bonnie to keep pushing him away. Bonnie, portrayed by newcomer Tiffanie McCall, hasn’t been straightforward with her friends, hiding the fact that she was born HIV-positive. Keeping her distance from Maceo was a responsible thing for Bonnie to do while she kept her HIV secret, but as the action unfolded, she learned another reason for maintaining restraint.

So it’s the transvestite Ms. Kara, portrayed with queenly gusto by newcomer Tara Anderson, who wound up drawing Maceo into dangerous sexual activity. She’s the member of the crew who is always flush with cash, earning it by running a escorting service online and on her handy cell phone. After taking a call from Marques (an unseen baddie, not the actor), Kara gets a warning from Travis, the supervisor at the LGBT center, that she shouldn’t be making assignations with this Marques. But divulging the fact that he was actually raped by Marques and his cronies would cost Travis his job, so he left that info out. As a result, Kara had no idea of what the full consequences would be when she cut Maceo into the action.

Completing the crew is Keon Sunkins as the local preacher’s closeted son, O’Neal. His troubled relationship with his homophobic dad and mom, Bishop Rutherford and First Lady Shirley Rutherford, was the first of four tableaus in the opening title song, but there really wasn’t any meaningful sequel until deep into Act 2. So Lee, who wrote the book as well as the music and score, missed an opportunity to fully develop what could have been his most significant character. As Lee said in his genial curtain speech, this is a “long-ass” show, so audience members may give up on ever returning to the church – or wonder why O’Neal doesn’t hang out with a secret boyfriend instead of refereeing Bonnie and Maceo’s squabbles.

Fortunately, Lee has made some important progress as both a writer and as a composer. Dialogue between Maceo, Bonnie, Kara, and O’Neal is far more natural than Lee’s previous musical, For the Love of Harlem, which introduced us to Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other notables of the Harlem Renaissance. A former program director at the PowerHouse Project, where he counseled HIV-positive youth and other at-risk populations, Lee doesn’t always resist the impulse to giftwrap teachable moments for us or to double-underline the fact that the four besties and Travis are an ongoing support group for each other. He’s at his best when he keeps it real between the friends – and when his songs usher us into his musical world. Too often, Lee gave in to his penchant for writing soul ballads in For the Love of Harlem. There is more variety in A Walk in My Shoes – jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel all get their turn – and more consistent quality. “I Will Never Leave Your Side,” closing Act 1, was the only letdown.

Stage directing isn’t Lee’s forte, and an inexperienced cast might have sustained more compelling dramatic tension in between songs with more detailed, nuanced, and polished guidance. In casting his production, Lee clearly got what he was looking for from a vocal perspective. Anderson and Marques scorched their “Trouble” duet at the LGBT. With co-composer Tyrone Jefferson, Lee has written a cluster of memorable songs for his more peripheral characters. Shuffling around with a teeming shopping cart, Kyran McShaw as the homeless Mr. Jimmy teaches the young folk a different beat with “Jazz,” scatting along the way.

After serving mostly as comic relief with her irresistible cooking, Gail Ford (an oasis of splendor when I last wrote her up at the Attic in the 1997 edition of Bubbling Brown Sugar) gets to cut loose at Maseo’s bedside with “Ms. Wynetta’s Lullaby” before blushingly receiving some rusty romantic moves from Mr. Jimmy. Among the younger players, Elijah Ali stands out as Travis, as a singer and an actor – a good thing, since he was charged with bringing Lee’s most moribund character to life.

When we finally return to the church, there’s plenty to see and hear. Following up her rousing sermon as the church’s First Lady Rutherford, Myrna J. Key-Parker struck up the most infectious song of the evening, “Wait Don’t Mean No.” I finished worrying whether Key-Parker’s bravura could be equaled, let alone topped, when the Bishop stood up to deliver his sermon, for Clifford Matthews, Jr., left no doubt. A gay senior pastor at the St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church in real life, Matthews spits fire and stomps thunder as the Bishop, quoting ominous Scripture into his son’s face after O’Neal has had the nerve to answer his father’s altar call for all those in the congregation suffering from the “affliction” of homosexuality.

Although it’s more compartmentalized than in most musicals I’ve seen, the dancing in A Walk was consistently topnotch. In addition to a trio of voguers, one of whom danced in high heels, there were two hip-hop artists to wow us. The Reliable Brothers, identical twins who were featured at the prestigious Breakin’ Convention dance festival, danced to poetry by L’Monique King. Although they are identical twins, the Reliables didn’t always dance identically, occasionally going their separate ways and occasionally partnering as they choreographed their own spots. The fascinating part was watching each the Brothers as they expressed King’s words with their bodies and gestures. There could be no doubt that Lee and King had plenty to say.

Drugs, Homophobia and HIV Collide in Lee’s New Musical

Preview of A Walk in My Shoes

By Perry Tannenbaum

Sunkins (from left) with Tara Anderson (who plays Ms. Kara), Tiffanie McCall (Bonnie), Quinn Marques (Maseo) and Elijah Ali (Travis).

 

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.”