Maybelle Wallace and her daughter Sonya met me at the Starbucks in the new main library downtown. After some back and forth about this and that, we got down to some pretty interesting stuff: the challenges of a black theatre company in Tulsa, money, color blind casting, the future of Theatre North, and even a little politics.
FG: When did you start Theatre North?
MW: Well, I didn’t start it. I started working with them in 1977. I started out as Treasurer, then in 1980 we got our 501.c.3. In 1982, I became the business manager. But I found out that some people didn’t want to talk to the “Business Manager” about various things, so my title changed to Executive Director. For a long time, we had an office down in the Greenwood area. We don’t have it any more.
SW: This was a real grass roots group. Mother didn’t have a background in theatre, she learned on the job. It’s amazing to me that she came in, and had the fortitude to build what she did.
FG: You’re basically the African-American company in town. [There’s also a new group started by some black actors out of ORU, Certain Curtain, that is sporadically active]. With that in mind, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
MW: Well, it’s always been about money. When we started out, there was no [African-American] company. At one point we had excellent funders, the Williams Co., Amoco. Amoco gave us $5,000 a year for three years.
FG: That’s a fairly substantial amount of money.
MW: There were other companies who gave us that much or more. We are still funded by the OK Arts Council, the National Foundation for the Arts. But it’s a pittance. We’re not getting a lot of money, just enough to produce, to stay alive.
FG: Are you still getting grants from companies, like you did before?
FG: That seems to me to be one of the major issues in the theatre community in general here. Corporations don’t support the local groups any more.
MW: I’ll tell you one of the reasons. Well, we didn’t have Greenwood Cultural Center when we started out. After that was built, it started to receive some of those donations. I think some people thought that if they’d given to a black organization, that they’d taken care of that part of the community.
SW: The "black slot." When we started, we didn’t have competition, no other black arts organizations competing for money. We got a lot of attention, as an identified black group.
SW: There are challenges within the community, and some of it’s on us. It upsets me when I hear that “black artists are able to do quality theatre” because of … I don’t know, it’s hard to ... Look. We’re like any other company. We do good shows, we do shitty shows, pardon my language. This company has been here a long time and I wish that there were more people who would come and work with us. That’s not happening right now. Now that I’m back home , I want to get more involved, start working with the company, try to take it to the next level. If there is such a thing.
MW :I want to say something. Most people who give out money are white. Because they own the corporations, the television stations, they are owned by white people. I don’t know if you can relate to this, me being black and you being white. But racism exists, and it exists in everything. And we’ve found a lot of that. I would say more in individuals rather than foundations. Some people are friendly and some not.
FG: Where would you like to see Theatre North.
SW: We need more funding. We need a staff. Mother does everything basically. Her and Keith Jemison, who’s President of the Board. That’s not to take anything away from what anyone else is doing, people are doing great things, but the majority of the work is done by these two people. I’m going to start learning how to do grant writing myself, so I can do more grants. I would like to see us become an Equity theatre, but that’s far down the road. The next thing we’re planning on doing is youth theatre …
SW: We don’t have an office anymore, I’d like to see that happen. I’d like to see us have our own theatre space. I know a lot of people who don’t want to come downtown, which I think is crazy, the PAC is a public building, we citizens of Tulsa, and people from North Tulsa should be able to be comfortable, because it’s our space. But a lot of people who don’t want to go to the PAC, and they don’t want to come to Guthrie Green either. Because they don’t feel like it’s theirs. But it is ours. But it would be good if we had a building over in our side, in North Tulsa. We need to have more dollars coming from the community, but because it’s economically deprived in North Tulsa, those dollars are very competitive. I’ve had friends who won’t pay to see one of our shows. But you can’t comp every ticket. There are so many things.
MW: And I want to mention Dr. Rodney Clark as well, someone who works with us as well.
SW: Our Artistic Director.
MW: He’s directing “Court-Martial at Fort Devens,” which is our next show. We used to bring in people in from out of the city, out of state, to direct the shows, that’s just not feasible any more. Dr. Clark is very busy, running a school, and a bed and breakfast. The time he can give us is a blessing. Not everybody knows this: He wrote a play for Theatre North, “Reverend I’m Available.” We did that show at the PAC, it went over so well, he was able to take that show on the road.
SW: How many years?
MW: Seven years.
FG: Oh my Lord! That’s incredible. How many people were in this show?!
SW: Huge cast. Plus a band.
FG: Jeez. That’s so expensive. Amazing that he could pull that off. What are some other shows you’re particularly proud of?
MW: We won a state championship (OCTA), with “For Colored Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Then we won, what was the name? The two 104 year old women, we won the state festival with that. “Having Our Say.” That was the title. We won a regional festival (AACT) with “Who Will Sing for Lena.” Vanessa Adams, she’s still doing it around the country. I think she’s going to be doing it in New York. By our organization being here, we gave this person, and others, the opportunity to do what she’s doing now. We don’t get credit.
FG: But you know it. You feel that pride in sending that person out to do what they do.
MW: We have had a lot to do with the, I would say, cultural climate in Tulsa.
SW: We’ve had an impact. And I think we’re important still. We’re important to the community and to Tulsa overall. When we started this company the only time I saw black people in the theatre was the old, tired cliché. “Yes ma’am” and open the door. You didn’t see our stories. We’re the only ones who can tell OUR stories. Granted there are other companies coming along, not just ethnic companies, but the foundation is there. Foundation that we helped to lay. I see Tulsa growing, and with the city growing I see the theatre community expanding exponentially. I know there are going to be great things happening, I believe it.
FG: What are your thoughts on color blind casting?
SW: It depends. Being an actress, I want to play everything. I’ve always wanted to play a man! I feel that there’s universal truth, we’re all human beings and the basic things we can all identify with. I think the color blind casting is important. But there are instances when you have to have a black actor, or you have to have an Indian actor. They did a show recently where they had a white Martin Luther King--
SW: -and a lot of people were upset about it. I understood the reasoning, why they were doing it, it was an experiment. But I would not say that usually you should have someone white play Martin. There’s a fine line.
MW: They had a white guy playing Obama.
SW: Anyway. (Laughter) And he was your favorite too.
MW: Yeah, I liked him.
FG: Where was this!?
FG: Ah, of course.
MW: He did a good job. But back to color blind casting. We’re in all walks of life. Starting with the President of the United States.
SW: If it’s not race specific, there’s no reason why. You know, that’s something where people should be able to think outside the box. But there are instances where it wouldn’t make any sense. A gang in a black neighborhood, whites might not be able to relate to the language, or relate to the experiences. It’s not truthful. As long as it’s truthful, you should be able to play any character.
FG: That’s an interesting criteria. It cuts to the heart of the issue. I’ve done plays that cut both ways. I cast black actresses in a production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-Moon Marigolds.” Which is usually done with white actresses, but there’s nothing in there that a black woman couldn’t relate to. And when Clark and Theatre Tulsa partnered on “Up the Down Staircase”, it was absurd that we would do this play set in an urban high school with nothing but white kids. I worked with Lincoln Cochran at Booker T. to bring in some black and Hispanic kids, so there would be some sense of truthfulness. And I think that in large parts of the country, color blind casting is becoming more and more common. I’m not sure about locally.
SW: Half the country is insane, and half’s the country’s ok. (General laughter) It’s true!
FG: I’ve said the same thing. You gotta quick reaction on the current political scene?
MW: This is ridiculous. (More laughter) You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid we might have a war.
MW: Maybe. But I’m talking about externally, a nuclear war with another country.
SW: I think there will be violence if he loses. Which I’m sure he’s going to.
FG: It does seem insane, that his supporters are so violent in supporting him.
MW: I think it’s a group of people who think they’re losing out . . .
SW: And they are.
MW: And they are. And they don’t want to give up.
SW: Power’s changing hands. The culture’s no longer being male and white dominated. The demographics are changing. There’s so much upheaval. People having to deal with gay people having the right to marry, and all these things are happening so fast, they’re scared. The only way they know how to react . . . They don’t care what that man says or what he does, they just want him, because that’s something they can identify with. But I have hope. There’s hope for us because … I feel like it’s growing pains now, that we’re at the beginning of something that’s going to happen that’s going to be wonderful. That’s just what I believe. The last vestiges of all of those dark things that we had in America are just trying to hold on with everything they’ve got. But they’re not going to win.
MW: Well, I think it’s time we had a woman president. It’s time. They say the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. You ever hear that?
FG: I have, and I couldn’t agree more.
MW: I think it would be good if we would take that verse in the Bible, Love thy neighbor as thyself. I think that’s what’s going to heal us. Without love we don’t have anything.
And that interview couldn’t have ended any better if it had been scripted.
The last time Whit Hanna posted here, he talked about the need for cooperation among the theatres in town. Of course, we’ve always had a certain level of cooperation among the theatres. After all, most of us are friends. But there’s an element of competition that has existed and will continue to exist as well. That’s only natural, and not necessarily a bad thing; competition sharpens our edge, inspires us to excellence. You know how you can tell when that competition becomes a problem? When people stop being friends because of it.
No, actually by that point it’s probably too late to do anything about it. When we stop talking to each other, or when we’re reluctant to pick up the phone, that’s when we need to reevaluate what we’re doing and how we’re thinking. We should see silence as the warning sign. It tells us something’s not healthy in the community, and we’re likely hurting ourselves.
All this imho, of course. And what do I know?
But allow me to be the bearer of good news on this front. In doing my design work with T.Pops “All the Way,” I ran into a couple of pretty cool examples of companies working together. Pops was short a cast member; they needed a Ralph Abernathy for this historical drama. Abernathy was the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the civil rights organization that Martin Luther King headed up before his assassination. That’s his picture at the top. Well, lots of actors out there. So no problem, right?
No one wants to admit it, but yes, there's a problem, and that problem is called "history." How can you overcome history? Maybelle Wallace found an African-American actor who was eager to get onstage, and he was matched with a company that was eager to have him. Connections were made that aren't normally made. And Lee Roach Jr. Joined the cast. And in producing a play that spoke eloquently about history, maybe we made a little along the way.
One more. Everyone knows that finding tech people certified to work in the PAC is an issue. T. Pops suddenly found itself without a lighting designer just a couple of weeks before opening. I agreed to do it, but told Meghan and Angela up front that I only had two nights I was free. The whole design would have to be finished by Wednesday. By the way, there are over 150 cues in this show, it moves more than a freaking musical. Sara Phoenix and Isaac Holton, who were striking "Glengarry Glen Ross" on the Sunday before, agreed to coordinate a couple of things with us that allowed me to finish the design on time. They didn't have to do that, but it made a difference to me that they did.
And with that in mind, this:
Theatre North Tulsa is holding Auditions on October 29th from 1-5pm and October 30th from 2-5pm at the Rudisill Regional Library for the play 'Court-Martial at Fort Devens.'
Roles are reserved for FOUR African-American Women, TWO Caucasian Women, TWO African-American males and TWO Caucasian males to portray adult roles.
For more information please contact Theatre North Tulsa.
Full disclosure, I will be designing and running lights for this play. Come join us.
We have had a loss in our community. Lee Roach Jr. joined the cast of Theatre Pops “All the Way” at the last minute when another cast member had to pull out of the show. With Maybelle Wallace helping Pops to find another African-American actor, Lee volunteered. As I worked the lights for this show, I was told repeatedly what a great guy he is and how hard he worked.
Lee lost his daughter last week. LeKisha Todd died due to complications from giving birth. Lee has decided to continue with the play, dedicating it to his daughter’s memory. I join with cast of “All the Way” and the Tulsa theatre community in keeping Lee Roach Jr. in our thoughts and prayers.
Last season (June 2015-June 2016) TATE eligible theatres had the following number of performances:
Th. Tulsa 59
Th. Pops 24
Th. North 7
Nightingale 22 (includes Odeum show)
Clark Youth 63
Spotlight Youth 24
Th. Tulsa Family (youth) 21
Total adult community theatre performances: 196
Total youth theatre: 108 (does not include class or camp performances)
Total all: 304
This does not include performances by Echo Theatre, Certain Curtain, G Rated Theater, Encore (youth), or in the suburbs (Broken Arrow Playhouse, etc.). Which almost certainly takes the total over 400.
Total performances of some other Tulsa performing arts organizations (again, does not include youth classes or camps):
Tulsa Symphony 10
Tulsa Opera 6
Tulsa Ballet 36
Total performances: 52
What am I trying to say here? Because I realize I’m comparing apples to horse apples. Really expensive horse apples. The best horse apples ever. And by the way, I love the ballet—my wife and I have had season tickets for years and it’s one of the jewels of this city in my opinion. If you aren't going, you're missing out on something very special. So what’s my point?
Just that community theatre is alive and well and a huge part of Tulsa’s cultural scene. Hundreds of people are involved in its productions, thousands go to see the shows. On any given weekend you're likely to have multiple shows to choose from, from musicals to classic comedies to the latest dramas from New York. It is an activity that thousands of Tulsans learn to love while they're in school, and faithfully follow that love throughout their lives. It's an affordable entertainment opportunity for everyone in the Tulsa area, all ages, every taste.
Over 400 performances over the course of one year. That's the kind of activity that deserves support. Millions of dollars are spent annually on the Big 3 arts companies in town. But it's the Little Dozen companies that are making opportunities for local artists and audiences every weekend, all over town, for all ages and for every taste. Here's hoping they get the support they deserve.
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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, but a lot of stuff’s been happening, so here’s a grab bag of what’s been going on in my little corner of Tulsa’s theatre world.
First of all, I miss the TATE controversy! It’s like the French Revolution—after you get what you want, you get kind of bored and you miss all those heads lying around. So What Now?
Luckily, “What Now” is a new theatre season with tons of promise and a guaranteed happy ending. (Well, not that last part, but at least it’s a possibility.) As you may know, your faithful correspondent has been appointed a TATE judge, so I’m now officially part of the status quo. To celebrate, I’ve deleted 32 incriminating emails (so much for my sex life) and set up a charitable foundation—Foundation Gallagher. Just make out your check to F Gallagher and your contribution will go to a deserving recipient. So deserving, I’m not kidding folks, the most deserving ever, believe me.
I’ve already seen two, and sort of three TATE shows. Romeo and Juliet Live from the Underworld was a hugely ambitious undertaking by Clark Youth Theatre, involving Shakespeare’s text, music by John Cruncleton and Liam Goodwin, and visual design by Vincent Price (executed by JC). The fact that the cast, who probably averaged around 15 years old, was able to pull off this kind of challenge says all you need to know about the level of actor’s training that’s happening over at Clark, as well as the always sharp directorial abilities of Erin Scarberry. A unique experience.
David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross has achieved iconic status, one of the very few plays from late last century to do so (Alec Baldwin’s monolog from the movie, though not in the stage play, has become an icon in and of itself, and you should go on YouTube immediately to watch it again so you never forget why people can be such assholes sometimes). Mamet’s language is an aphrodisiac for actors, and some of Tulsa’s best were drawn like moths to a flame to get the chance to work on this show. Brian Rattlingourd and Will Carpenter played Shelly “The Machine” Levine and Ricky Roma respectively, and they, along with the rest of a top notch cast, lied, cheated, and backstabbed each other through 2 hours of theatrical ambrosia. Revelations (because I don’t get out much) were Rattlingourd playing a character way against his usual type and doing a fascinating job, Sidney Flack who qualifies because I’ve not seen him onstage before and he’s wonderful, and Tony Shanks direction, after an equally strong outing in last year’s Hedwig.
The show I’ve ‘sort of’ seen is Theatre Pops ‘All the Way’, opening this weekend at the Doenges. I’m designing the lights for this show, full disclosure, and have only seen it in tech. When a show gets up into 150+ lighting cues, tech rehearsals are a little like wading through wet cement, but that’s so it can fly in performance. With Tim Hunter as LBJ, Freddie Tate as Martin Luther King, Dan McGeehan as J. Edgar Hoover, and Chris Williams as George Wallace, it’s also exceedingly well cast. Kind of a blast to hear Tim Hunter with a heavy Texas accent.
Even if I didn’t work on it, I’d recommend everyone see this show. It depicts the time from John F. Kennedy’s assassination up until the reelection of Lyndon Johnson. It was during this period that Johnson was able to get the first Civil Rights bill passed by Congress. It took horse trading, arm twisting to the point of blackmail, and, eventually, a rash of murders across the South before enough Congressmen would vote for it. I was a kid when these things were happening, but was somewhat aware of what was going on. But the details are still shocking. Within my lifetime, United States Senators argued against allowing “mongrel races” equal rights with whites, defended the rights of shop owners not to sell to entire races of people if they didn’t like their smell, while governors refused to prosecute the murders of civil rights workers, even when the perpetrators were widely known (it was open knowledge that a county sheriff was responsible for three murders in Mississippi. He was never charged with murder, and was acquitted in the eventual federal trial for “violating their civil rights”, i.e. killing them).
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. If you’re not up on these events, see the show. If you have some idealized vision of politics, where white knights save the day while keeping their hands clean, see the show. If you want to find out why LBJ said, after the Act had passed, “The Democratic Party has lost the South for generations,” see the show. If you want to know why he seriously underestimated that time period, check your Facebook feed.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre