Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York is my TCG/Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellow host theatre. Geva produced a world premiere production of my proposed project Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant, February 5-22, 2015.
Opening Night. The 7:00 p.m. world premiere, opening night performance of Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant began with a 7:45 a.m. call for a radio interview, then rehearsal from 11:00 to 4:00, a final fitting and at 6:00, the traditional Geva Opening Night Toast. Artistic Director, Mark Cuddy delivers inspiring congratulatory quotes to the company. From Suzanne-Lori Parks he chose, “For Aunt Katherine and her Colored Lieutenant, “Every play I write is about love and distance. And time. And from that we can get things like history.” For Nora Cole, “The writer has two kinds of faith: actual writing and sitting openly. Have faith in your personal effort or sweat. And faith in God, or whatever you want to call it. Then the voices will come. Faith is the big deal.” And for myself and my fellow actor, Michael Early, “I learned that if we embrace what’s happening, we are also embracing what is possible- and a road opens up for God to meet us halfway. “ The toast left me an emotional mess. This was the culmination of a two year journey of research and writing. Thank goodness I was already in make-up or the dam would have broken.
Until places every other second was dedicated to reviewing lines. I conceded early on I would be sleeping with the script until the end of the run. My third solo show had evolved into a two-act play for two actors and I was the actor who never left the stage. Being the writer was not as advantageous as one would think when I had to switch to my actor hat.
For two weeks, we rehearsed from noon to 6:00. After dinner and a glass of vino, I would work another three hours mainly on the script and then my text for the next day of rehearsal. Mornings included running lines lying in bed, in the shower and during the drive to the theatre.
Opening night. I braced myself waiting at places. The waters would be choppy and I was exhausted and on overload. I plunged in with notes to self: Stay in the moment. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
Now, rehearsal time is precious and a personal favorite part of the process. Sadly, it is diminishing with each new season. Budgets demand that our art be processed as fast as our food. The result delays layers of development. Layers of exploration and discovery, rhythms, text tripping off the tongue, the comfort and security of donning the role like a second skin, all the things that secure and ground you even if the sky is falling are delayed. They can’t be skipped so they spill into tech and performance delaying the new layer of development that naturally occurs as the run of the play begins. I can explore space, my vocal range, whatever physical range my injury ridden body will allow and work with costume pieces and props as soon as I am on my feet, but dare I say it? We get on our feet too quickly.
Opening night. Seating late comers in an intimate theatre with the odd single entrance is a challenge. First the clank of the hulking metal fire door, then the ruffle of movement and whispering as ushers assist with seating that begins from the front of house too close to you on stage. Add some cell phone glow, a few ring tones and you have a recipe for blowing a fuse in your concentration.
Opening night. Did I mention my physical and mental exhaustion was bordering on delirium?
Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant is inspired and based on a collection of fifty letters written to my aunt, Katherine Cole Lawery from her fiancé, Tuskegee Airman Robert Stanley Lawery circa 1941-45. The letters chronicle his experience in the segregated military of WWII and their relationship.
In this play about letters, except for one time, a physical letter is never used. They were conversationally delivered sometimes face to face as if in real, physical time, but mostly without looking at each other. Within that convention we created intimacy, conflict and distance.
Well into the first act we are in this intimate moment of longing, holding hands, but no eye contact. You have to listen intently and speak “as if” you are face to face. The rhythm of this moment had never flowed, but this time it worked. “It worked!” The playwright in me beamed, but the moment came and went as quickly as moments do and the millisecond distraction crashed my actor computer. “What’s my line? What happens next?” I was left alone in the void of a spotlight hopelessly blank. I had blown a fuse and was blacked-out blank, knowing nothing was going to click in. I walked off stage and almost without breaking my stride I whispered, “Becca” to our wonderful assistant dramaturg/wardrobe/crew person who was backstage on book. She whispered back a cue and I continued through another entrance onto the stage as if it had been blocked.
There was no panic. I didn’t have the energy to panic. I yielded to the situation, went directly to solution and continued without incident……. until the last five minutes. The fourth wall is broken. I am in presentational mode. Someone is blatantly recording! I-phone held up with GLOW!
I have given up competing with cell phones, candy wrappers and late comers. Sometimes I simply pause. I don’t drop character or call people out. I simply pause until the culprit(s) becomes one with the body again. But now someone is blatantly recording. “Stop recording”, I say. It just came out. “Stop.” “Recording”. Some people thought they were my lines. They didn’t stop. I moved on. End of play. The audience loved it.
Tomorrow is another day. Actually, a two show day (don’t you love two show days after opening night) two of seventeen wonderful remaining performances to grow and get it right. Ah, another opening night.
Nora Cole – I have journeyed through the theatre via Broadway, off Broadway, national tours, regional theatres, the UK, Europe, the Caribbean and Japan. For 15+ years I worked with Vinnette Carroll in NYC and Ft. Lauderdale. Productions included, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (B’Way, Nat’l & European tours), MEDEA (Title role), Boogie Woogie Rumble of a Dream Deferred (Theatre of Renewal Award), When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate (Kennedy Center). My article, Vinnette Carroll: The First Black Woman Broadway Director was published by Black Masks. Cherished credits include, Rinde Eckert’s, two character chamber opera, And God Created Great Whales (Obie Award, Drama League & Audelco Nominee, David Schweizer, dir) at the Culture Project, Barbicon and Bonn Biennale. With George C. Wolfe: Caroline or Change, National Theatre, Jelly’s Last Jam (B’Way) opposite Gregory Hines, Nat’l Tour opposite Maurice Hines, On the Town (B’Way). In the regions, Doubt, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Colored Museum, The Good Times Are Killing Me, Avenue X, I Have A Dream, Langston Hughes Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz with Hale Smith’s original score and WNYC Selected Shorts. Solo Shows: Voices of the Spirits in My Soul (Audelco nominee) and Olivia’s Opus. Television: The Cosby Mystery Movie, All My Children, Loving, Another World, Guiding Light, numerous commercials and voice-overs. Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA). Actors Theatre of Louisville Women in Music Award, Torch Bearer for Black Theatre recipient, Spencer Cherashore Fund Individual Artist Grant, Joseph Jefferson and Connecticut Critics Award nominee, Hedgebrook alum and Eastern Connecticut State University intermittent adjunct, director and coach of 12 years.
The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.