Sunday, August 05, 2007

National Black Arts Festival - Woodard and Holliday

The National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) is well over two weeks long. It features series in jazz, dance, theater and a film festival (the Pan African Film Festival, to be exact). Of the DOZENS of events that were produced, I only managed to attend two of them. However, those two featured talent of such stature, that I felt fully satiated. An evening with Alfre Woodard opened the film festival and the 25th anniversary production of DREAMGIRLS, starring Jennifer Holliday, was the centerpiece of the theatre productions.

First, Alfre Woodard, who was interviewed for the National Black Arts Festival by Pearl Cleage. (This took place at the Woodruff Performing Arts Center.) After a series of introductions (Stephanie S. Hughley, Executive Producer; the 'sponsor moment' by a representative of Wal-Mart; and finally, a couple hysterical anecdotes from Tanya Richardson, aka Samuel L. Jackson's wife), Ms. Cleage and Ms. Woodard began.

Now, it would have been easier for me to have sneaked in a tape recorder than going over the four pages of notes I made of the conversation, but I'll just include a few highlights here. The interview was a step above James Lipton's "Inside the Actors Studio", mostly due to Ms. Cleage's listening skills and the opportunity to watch Alfre Woodard answers trail into a brilliant stream of consciousness. Questions about her past would send her down paths of memories, most of which were humorous. Her first moment of performance was when she was 14 and played a Nazi in Weiss' "Investigation", at the Catholic school she attended in Tulsa. The nun told her she could do it because she had witnessed her "fascist ways in the playground." She said she found a "sense of freedom and place" on stage and she knew she belonged in Los Angeles even then.

Regarding her preference in performance, i.e. stage, television or film, she said she is "built for the stage" and that is where she can "blow out [her] inner Jaguar." She LOVES film, though she hates the system it has become. She used the example of trying to get a project about Harriet Tubman off the ground and the blockade of "committees" of producers who can't reach the 'white male demographic' with such a subject. However, she loves "the state of refinement" that film allows her to achieve in a performance. She had some very interesting things to say about television. First, it is a daily grind that she does not particularly like. However, she appreciates that her "healing work" (she did a lot of referencing to a universal power which she taps into and guides her work) reaches everyone's home, and that the medium allows people access to artists that can transport them from their daily stress.

As for her 'process' she is of the 'body as an instrument' school and NOT of sense memory, or as she referred to it "psychodrama" technique. She says she just "squats and breathes" to relax her body and get it out of the way of the character. She also had advice for young performers. "Train for the stage... offer what you do as a service... spiritualize your thoughts..."

The audience was highly receptive, particularly as the conversation moved to more spiritual matters. So with that in mind, I feel compelled to point out how out of place I must admit I felt. However, I did NOT feel uncomfortable. Well, except that I was under dressed. Tickets were only $15 and coming from a San Francisco perspective, this meant I could show up in shorts and a blousey casual shirt. People dressed up for this like an opening night, which it was. Also, I was one of two Caucasian males in the audience. The other one being Ms. Woodard's husband. (My taking copious notes throughout the evening was also a bit conspicuous, as people around me asked who I was writing for.) I did not feel unwelcome, but I could tell that I had piqued people's curiosity.

I was not so out of place at the Fox Theatre for the 25th anniversary production of "Dreamgirls", starring Jennifer Holliday, reprising her role as "Effie". I consider myself to be something of a 'Dreamgirls' connoisseur, as I saw the NYC production three times and the national tour in Denver three times (once on psylocybin mushrooms!). This production was a revival of the national tour, including the recreation of the sets, costumes and lighting by Robin Wagner, Theoni V. Aldredge and Ken Billington, respectively. There has been a lot of hydraulic advancements since the Dreams hit the stage 25 years ago, but these production values hold up. Considering that Atlanta is the only city it is playing, and for only ten performances at that, it is a blessing that so much work went into recreating the original production. Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj directed with Kevyn Morrow choreographing according to the Michael Bennett 'template'.

It is as close to a reproduction of the original as possible. Ironically, the only difference might be in Jennifer Holliday's performance. With her HUGE vocal performance, the play has become Effie's story. Whether that is due to Ms. Holliday's diva-hood, or perhaps the casting was purposefully to support her and not to complement her and create an esemble is hard to say. However, this would be one of the rare occasions when I was aware of the music direction. Holliday is allowed (as IF anyone could stop her?!) vocal gymnastics within her three BIG NUMBERS. Whereas the rest of the cast is pretty dead on, as far as traditional vocal arrangements are concerned.

Cindy Herron-Braggs (an ex EnVogue girl) plays 'Deena'. In previous productions I've seen, the two women were fairly well balanced. In fact, the national tour featured such a STRONG 'Deena', that her character arc was particularly impressive. In this production, Deena, along with most of the rest of the cast, are just filling time between Effie moments. There are two performers who do stand out, however. Destan Owens as 'C.C.', Effie's brother, has the most classically trained voice in the cast and is therefore, the only performer able to vocally stand up to Ms. Holliday. Brandi Chavonne Massey plays 'Lorrell', which is nearly thankless, but she makes the most of every chance she gets in her flirtation with 'Jimmy' and she nearly stops the show with "Ain't No Party".

The audience was properly appreciative of the style and performances. The show plays well to a high energy and enthusiastic crowd. Yes, there was some shouting back during Holliday's vocal pyrotechnics, but considering what a huge performance it is, this didn't feel out of place at all. If anything, especially during "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", it only encouraged Holliday to go further.

There was a little something in me that wanted to see the production one extra time, just to verify the consistency of the performances. I saw it on a Tuesday night, which was the first performance of the week, after a three day opening weekend. However, I decided to let it go. The second time I saw it in NYC was probably my peak 'Dreamgirls' experience. A second view of the Atlanta production might only confirm that Ms. Holliday had turned it into a stage concert for herself, which isn't a BAD thing for the diva's groupies, but it doesn't serve the production.

Maxxxxx says: "Dooby doobie dooo-ooo!"

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