Curtain Up, Computer On
The Company: A St. Bernard Community Theatre presents Flowing Robes, a play that examines the lives of women as the British attempt to invade New Orleans and how they are changed as a result of that. Performances will be at The Azienda Theatre (2000 Paris Rd., Chalmette) July 29 thru August 1.
Producer Mark Cortale and Host/Musical Director Seth Rudetsky have added Norm Lewis (July 19), Megan Hilty (July 26), and Cheyenne Jackson (August 2) to the line-up of The Seth Concert Series, the fabulous virtual cabaret/interview series similar to Broadway@NOCCA. Each show premieres on Sunday night at 7pm (CDT) with a second showing the next day at 3pm (CDT). Tickets are available at www.thesethconcertseries.com.
PAST PRESENT FUTURE IV
For the fourth PAST PRESENT FUTURE, Anthony Bean lets us know what was going on at the Anthony Bean Community Theater and Acting School (ABCT) when things shut down, what it’s doing now, and what plans he has for its future.
Over 8 years, ABCT was nominated for 64 Ambie Awards, winning 15; Bean won Best Director in 2004 for King Hedley II which also won Best Drama. Reviewing that August Wilson play I wrote “Bean coaxed beautiful performances from his ensemble with fluid, unobtrusive direction. His production hurtles along yet properly slows down when characters address the audience with mesmerizing monologues.”
Of The Sty of the Blind Pig, which also won the Ambie for Best Drama, I said in 2007 “With his extraordinary cast, director Anthony Bean avoided the play’s excesses and found a rhythmic beauty in its little daily rituals.”
After losing its home of 17 years on Carrollton Avenue, ABCT has been operating out of the campus of Southern University at New Orleans for the last three years as the company prepares to relocate this Fall to its own space in the Gentilly area.
It was a Wednesday, February 26, the day after Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We all agreed that we have to work fast after Mardi Gras to make this August Wilson Theater Festival a significant success.
The Anthony Bean Community Theater (ABCT) and the Center for African and African American Studies at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) would be hosting the event. Everything is going as planned. We just got a grant from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and we are booking flights for our intended guests. We have artistic directors of theaters coming from around the country to help us celebrate the legendary August Wilson, my hero.
Elise Felix, my assistant, got the news that there is a virus in Wuhan, China, and it has reached the States. And people are dying. Someone suggested that I should watch the news and be prepared to move this event to the summer months. I immediately said “No.” We needed to have this festival in April. August Wilson was born on April 27, and there will be a national celebration. We will be the first announced festival that will celebrate this man. So, it must be in April.
That Monday, March 2, I received the most devastating news. I didn’t think it could get any worse. An executive from the August Wilson Estate called to inform me that we could not use the August Wilson name for this event. I was confused; I had been communicating with his Estate for the last two months, they were excited that I was having this event and, now, they want to tell me that I can’t use the name.
Naturally, I asked why and was told that there would be significant events, including a festival, in his hometown, Pittsburgh, and the Estate has granted his home city exclusive use of Wilson’s name for this period. I was crushed. Why can’t we both do it together? After all, I’m in New Orleans, far from Pittsburgh. They wish me luck and hang up. I immediately called an emergency committee meeting to tell the Board this awful news.
So much was planned for this 4-day event. The recipient of The August Wilson Award was going to be renowned actor Samuel L. Jackson, who assured us that he would be here to accept the award. Theater groups from all over the country would present one-act plays. ABCT actors would perform Fences. High School students would participate in the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
The schedule also included an ABCT Benefit Gala, where we would honor our prominent donors as well as Oliver Thomas, Irma Thomas, Sally-Ann Roberts, Adella Gautier, and Terry Jones. It would be the first of its kind in the Southern region, and now, you are telling me that I can’t use the festival’s namesake to bring attention to not only August Wilson’s legacy but to this New Orleans community theater, one of the few in the entire country that has performed all ten plays of Wilson’s “Century Cycle”.
The August Wilson Festival Committee didn’t see the world tumbling down as I saw it. Gail Glapion, the Board’s President, stated we had come too far to give up. How about staying on course but change the name? They all agreed, which gave me a sigh of relief.
So, we came up with The First Annual Black Theater Conference and Festival. I liked the idea of inclusiveness with the other black theaters in Louisiana. Now, we have to find out who is still with us, now that we can’t name the festival after Wilson. After many phone calls, a few artists/celebrities, all of a sudden, had something else to do, and I can understand it. However, overall, everyone was still excited, especially the few black theaters we have throughout Louisiana. All we had to do now was to create panels and find moderators for them so we could discuss the vital minds in the African American southern theater community.
We called a press conference/luncheon at the renowned restaurant Dooky Chase’s on March 12 at noon. All of the prominent honorees would be there. How exciting to have Irma, Sally-Ann, Terry, Oliver, and Adella under the same roof.
I thought about my dear friend, actress extraordinaire, and award-winning storyteller, Adella Gautier. I called Elise to make sure Sally and Irma would receive a dozen red roses at the Gala Benefit. Still, I wanted Adella to have two dozens lavender roses, her favorite color. Elise never asked why. She knew I wanted Adella’s night to be extraordinary. The last time I saw her, Adella was in the hospital. She’s been battling multiple myeloma, a bone cancer disease, but to quote her, she is a “cancer thriver”. The lady’s got a zest for life—the energy of a lion protecting her cubs. I have never seen her depressed about her condition nor soliciting sympathy from anyone. She’s a warrior to the highest degree. But still, I don’t want to see someone I love and care about going through pain, even if it is the natural order of things. So April 17 couldn’t come soon enough.
Elise reminded me of the ABCT/NORDC Performing Arts Youth Summer Camp. NORDC had been calling about this year’s program. They wanted to know how many kids we were accepting and how many workers I was planning on hiring. We have been in partnership with NORDC since the beginning of ABCT, 20 years ago. We let all NORD kids come in at a third of the price, and the City pays the balance for each child.
Now, I’m cursing myself. I completely forgot about the summer camp. But Elise had already spoken to NORDC and confirmed we would receive 80 kids from them, including teens and ten workers. Overall, we would have at least 200 youth this summer. I gave Elise a big hug. She knows how to make my day.
I then got the good news that New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell had agreed to introduce the honorees at the Gala; she assured me she would stay for the whole evening “providing an emergency doesn’t come up.” Boy, what a lift in spirit. We now have the Mayor on board. What could go wrong?
On March 11, a day before our press conference, everybody on our committee, including me, is glued to their TV sets. The World Health Organization announced COVID-19 as a global health crisis. It is officially a pandemic.
I couldn’t comprehend this. A pandemic? Suddenly, my whole vision of a festival and conference came crashing to earth. Suddenly, America had come to a standstill. People were afraid to fly, and the airlines shut down. Schools and universities closed. The local and federal government came to a halt. On the same day, our Mayor and other City officials announced the cancellation of weekend parades, such as St. Joseph’s Day for the Indians and St. Patrick’s Day parades, as a precaution. On March 23, Gov. Edwards enacted a statewide stay-at-home order to encourage social distancing, and President Trump issued a major disaster declaration.
Just when I thought nothing wrong could happen, it did. The world was under attack from an invisible enemy.
Two months later, and COVID-19 is making people sick all over the world. The death toll in Louisiana is in the thousands, and there isn’t any cure in sight. People have been sheltered in place for too long, and they desperately want to get back to their regular routines. My regular ABCT Kids are calling quite often. They want the camp as much as I did.
Elise has been setting up regular staff meetings using Zoom. I had been unfamiliar with this American-based company, but was impressed with its reliable outlet for video and audio conferencing, chat, and webinar. I wanted to learn more about Zoom.
One day I was on Facebook when I saw a video post of gospel singer Kirk Franklin’s new rendition of his old hit, Smile. He had several artists performing with him, and they were all in their houses singing in harmony using Zoom.
That’s when it hit me. I could still have my kids’ summer camp, and we can have it using Zoom. I told Elise, and she agreed. She did her research and came back with good news. We can accommodate up to a hundred kids and even put them in break-out rooms when they need to do scenes. Each teacher will have their place, and I can Zoom in and out of each room I want to monitor. I loved it–that’s what we’ll do. We announced that ABCT would be having a Performing Arts Summer Camp this summer, and it will be virtual.
The response we got from parents was immediate; a lot of the kids had to return their laptops to the schools at the end of the school year. Also, some parents were out of work and could barely keep food on the table.
I had to move quickly. I had been able to raise money to pay my staff, which was a few thousand dollars, but this would be the first time since we began that we are not in partnership with NORDC. So we send out an email stating:
To my ABCT Summer Camp Families:
We understand that due to COVID-19, some families may be experiencing unforeseen hardships. Therefore, any parents of our regular, longstanding, ABCT kids who may be experiencing difficulty during this time, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and explain to us your current hardship and all fees will be waived. We will not deprive ABCT kids of their usual summer experience here at ABCT. We are more than a theater. We are a culture. We are a family, the ABCT family. Thank you.
Sincerely, Anthony Bean, Founder/ Director
Well, we solved the money problems parents may have, but with this short notice there’s nothing we can do about a child not having access to a computer, or if they have a phone but no Wi-Fi connection.
Fifty-two kids show up, however, instead of our normal 150-250. And I must say the kids have been very attentive. It’s a challenge to use the internet for a temporary camp, but you must make do. The young actors are collaborating with other artists, learning about performance, and making lasting memories – all from home.
As I go from room to room on Zoom, I can’t help but grin to myself. Who said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? As the campers see that I’ve signed on to greet them, I can hear them shout “Mr. Bean is in!” as they all sit at attention. What a life!
This year’s production will be a 45-minute show the kids wrote themselves called ABCT KIDS TikTok House, about kids coping with COVID-19 while sheltering-in-place. The young characters in it will communicate with each other through the internet. Although they can’t reach out and touch each other, their emotions and frustration seep through as they relate their stories.
One child, whose mother is in the hospital with COVID-19, is left alone to deal with an abusive father. Another is coping with a nagging grandmother who’s addicted to drugs. A third child has to live with her father after her mother has contracted COVID-19, and the stepmother sprays down the room every time she enters or exits; this child is not happy. They all feel hopeless about their conditions and want out. The theme is “Where Do You Go When All Hope Is Gone?” and each child will define the answer to the others.
Starting Friday, July 24, at 6:00pm, ABCT KIDS Tiktok House will be streamed online at the Anthony Bean Community Theater website. www.anthonybeantheater.com
While I’m experimenting with the Zoom platform, I’m also in rehearsal for August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning drama, Fences, which will be part of our tribute to August Wilson in two months, hence “August in September”.
The show had been ready to go for the theater festival. I spoke with Gwendolyn Foxworth, Will Williams and the rest of the cast, and they are still prepared. Williams, Foxworth, Harold X. Evans, Alfred Aubry, and DC Paul are reprising roles they performed at ABCT in 2015. [Ed. note: Williams won the 2006 Ambie Award for Best Actor in a Play for an earlier ABCT production.]
Set in 1957, Fences is a bittersweet, moving drama that’s filled with compassion. The underlying themes are about family, responsibility, love, friendship, and respect. In it, Wilson challenges the “American Dream” through a poetic, powerful, and deeply personal story that will especially resonate now.
Fences will begin streaming online on the Anthony Bean Theater website, www.anthonybeantheater.com, beginning on Friday, September 11, at 8:00pm.
Being virtual will be different from seeing a live play. And, if by chance, the virus prevents us from coming together, then I’ll do what I’m doing with the kids’ show, attempt to do the best we can using Zoom. Fortunately, Fences is well-suited to this new technology because of its small cast with usually only two or three actors in scenes together. Whatever it takes, I’m determined to continue to do theater, even if we have to teach audiences to look at theater in a new way!