Monday, September 5, 2011

The Journey of Transitions by Kellie Roberts

Best Playwright Local - Kellie Roberts (WINNER)

Best Ensemble - Amentha Dymally, Joyce Lee, Kellie Roberts, Kenyetta Lethridge, Lamont Thompson, and Rosie Lee Hooks. (WINNERS)

About a month ago, Ben Guillory the Artistic Director of the Robey Theatre Company asked me to write a blog about the play that I wrote, Transitions: A Trilogy of One-Act Plays. I was certainly happy to do it but was a little daunted by the task and I procrastinated about writing it. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to begin. It has been such a world wind of a year for Transitions, and a lot has happened in my life both personally and professionally. However, after a lot of pondering (procrastinating), I felt settle to write a blog about the Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights Program, and howTransitions was written through its process. I also wanted to illuminate and give credit where credit is well overdue to the many unsung heroes at the Robey, who have helped make my stage play, and the plays of other fellow Robey writers, a living breathing reality.

For starters, I would have to acknowledge and thank Levy Lee Simon whose award winning trilogy on the Haitian revolution, For the Love of Freedom, was produced by the Robey.

Levy Lee Simon and me at the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival.

Levy was the person who introduced me to the Robey Theatre Company upon learning I was leaving New York to move to Los Angeles back in 2005. At that time, I was more comfortable as an actress than a writer and initially joined the Robey’s Advance Scene Study Class. Ben encouraged me to go ahead and submit to him 10 pages of my play, which was about all I had at the time, and after some trepidation I finally did. Those 10 pages I gave to him was what would later morph into the last of my one acts inTransitions, Why Elaine Miller Became A Photographer.

I was accepted into the morning session of the playwrights program for the newer playwrights. (The morning session has now become reserved for the more advance writers.) It was there I met Aaron Henne who changed the whole way I approach my writing process, and he still remains instrumental in my evolution as a writer. During those 10-week sessions, I was instructed to surrender all judgment, to just write, and write, and write, and trust the process; the story would be revealed. Aaron once shared with me he contemplated becoming a Rabbi and because of this I have secretly and affectionately been calling Aaron my Rabbi for years. The dictionary defines Rabbi as one who is an ordained chief religious official of a Synagogue; a Jewish scholar or teacher. Much of what Aaron gives us and what goes on at the Robey on Saturdays, to me, feels like we are in a place of worship. Although, the appearance of our work space at the Robey is far cry from looking anything like Synagogue. We sit huddled around a rather haggard-looking wooden table, eating doughnuts and cheese, drinking coffee, while constantly kicking props from Robey shows that have come and gone and are now housed underneath our work table - certainly not any one’s idea of a Synagogue for sure. And no, Aaron isn’t an ordained Rabbi. But he is a teacher who does lead us through writing exercises that feels much like “passages” into that ineffable netherworld of creation. He will often stand and move around the room of his congregation, us, the writers, as we attempt to tune our inner ear and deeply listen to our muses, seeking to access that nontangible, thrilling space of Magic and Now

A Saturday morning writing session at the Robey.

Transitions came from this Magic. It started out as one and only one, one-act play, about a woman who was being called by Spirit to take some rather interesting photos. The question for Elaine was would she heed to the call from Spirit or not, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, and in spite of what her husband or anyone else may think or say.

Lamont Thompson and me in Why Elaine Miller Became A Photographer.

Upon the completion of Why Elaine Miller Became A photographer, I rejoiced, I thought, Whew! I finally finished a play! I showed my work to, two fellow creative friends of mine Bill Robertson and Skip Jennings, and they both loved it. It was Skip who then made the suggestion that I make a trilogy of one-act plays. I thought Skip lost his mind when he said that to me because it took me four years to complete one, 25 page script. Skip assured me the other one-acts would come to me and he was right, they did. Thanks to Aaron and his “passages,” I had written so much. I had scenes from previous writing exercises I liked and abandoned because at the time they were written, I didn’t know what to do with them. One of those scenes came from an exercise asking for us to take an object from the room and write a scene about it. Along with each writing assignment Aaron assigns, he gives us a few parameters to adhere to, none of which I can recall at the moment for that particular assignment, but I do remember choosing to write about a picture frame that I spotted in the Robey space. This brief writing scene ending up morphing into what is now the second of the trilogy of one-acts called, The Picture Frame. A play about two cantankerous elderly sisters who are arguing over the whereabouts of a missing solid gold picture frame, but in the end as with so many ridiculous family arguments, it turns out their quarrel really isn’t about the picture frame at all, but about something deeper.

: Amentha Dymally and Rosie Lee Hooks in The Picture Frame

The last of the three one-acts called, The Voice of Hope, started out as a modern day story of Job featuring two women; it evolved into a very different piece. The Voice of Hopewas by far the most challenging of the three one-acts to write and for a hot minute I thought I was not going to have a trilogy. But thanks to our dramaturge Dylan Southard, I was able to salvage The Voice of Hope, and shape it into a cohesive one-act. Dylan has what I consider an arduous task of keeping us playwrights on point by widening back and challenging us by asking the tough questions: What’s the significance of this character or this part of the play? What is this story about? What are you trying to show the audience?A running joke at the Robey is Aaron is the “nice guy” and Dylan is the “heavy.” It is an extreme exaggeration of the two, after all, both Aaron and Dylan ask hard questions and both want our plays to be successful. But it is Dylan who has the job of objectively analyzing our plays, and poses questions to help us really think about our pieces and the reasons behind the choices we are making as the writer, thereby helping us to shape our work without losing our voice.

After a dramaturge session with Dylan, it is advised and extremely helpful to take his notes back to class with Aaron, who will then give you writing exercises to attempt to remedy the concerns that speak to the storytelling of the play.

Dylan Southard (left) and Aaron Henne (right) bookend Kurt Maxey, another Robey Theatre Company playwright participant. The Robey will be producing, Pity The Proud Ones, written by Kurt this Fall 2011.

How Dylan finds the time to read all of our plays, often only having a few days to read them, and then by Saturday afternoon able to give you thoughtful notes amazes me. Dylan’s notes gave me the awareness that I needed to sculpt The Voice of Hope into a one-act about a gospel singer who was being serenaded from the netherworld by her decease finance, and her having to make the choice of letting him go or not.

Joyce Lee and Kenyetta Lethridge in The Voice of Hope )

In general, Transitions is a trilogy of one-act plays featuring women who find themselves at the crossroads of their lives. As these women attempt to navigate through the vicissitudes of the crossroads, Spirit uses the medium of sound, sometimes unbeknownst to them, to prompt and support their life changes. The question that each woman face in Transitions: Will they take heed to God’s call or not?

Transitionswould never had the success that it has had without the actors who have been with this project from the very beginning. Joyce Lee, Kenyetta Lethridge, Rosie Lee Hooks, Amentha Dymally, and Lamont Thompson. Without these actors, their talents, insights into the characters, and their self-less efforts, Transitions is just words on paper.

Cast and crew ofTransitions: Upper Row: Kenyetta Lethridge, Joyce Lee, Debra Ann Morris, Kellie Roberts, Lamont Thompson. Lower row: Amentha Dymally, Dwain A. Perry, Rosie Lee Hooks.

I feel so blessed to have had such wonderful, talented people that worked on Transitionswhich would include: Cydney Davis and Earl Buffington who were the singing voices used in The Voice of Hope, Harry Lennix who did our sound design, and our director Dwain A. Perry. It was Dwain’s insight that made me change the ending to The Picture Frame. After one reading, Dwain came up to me and said, “You know Kellie, what message did you want to leave the audience with at the end? What if….”

Dwain A. Perry and me after a performance of Transitions

I also owe the success of Transitions, to my fellow playwrights whose thoughtful comments and questions allowed me the space to ponder why I had certain elements in my play, and helped me decide what to leave in and what to take out, who have helped me find my writing voice. I treasure my time with my colleagues, the gathering, and sharing of our musings and our frustrations with each other. We get to know each other, our writing style, our characters. Even our characters in our plays can feel just as real as any one of us as they, too, sit about the table chattering with us. There is a definite camaraderie and fellowship that occurs within the playwrights program. When I found out the Robey planned on producing the Reckoning by Kimba Henderson, I went up to Kimba and said,“Kimba! They are producing our play!” And when the Robey produced Melvin Ishmael Johnson’s The Emperor‘s Last Performance, I had the wonderful opportunity to work as an actress in that production and I remember feeling so protective over Melvin’s words, knowing how long it had taken Melvin to cultivate that play, to find just the right words. It took Melvin close to 20 years to write his play about Charles Gilpin. What a blessing for all of us that he was able to finally finish it and have it produced by the Robey.

Jah Shams as Paul Robeson, Kellie Roberts as Anita Bush, and Dwain A. Perry as Charles Gilpin in The Emperor’s Last Performance. )

I am so delighted to be sharing my nomination from the NAACP Theatre Awards for Best Playwright Local with both Kimba Henderson and Melvin Ishmael Johnson. I don’t feel competition but an alliance. Whomever receives the award I think we all will feel like a victor, knowing that we were part of the process which made our plays a success, all of which would not have been possible if it wasn‘t for Ben Guillory and the Robey Theatre Company.

Since the first production of Transitions, with only a two week run in June 2010,Transitions went on to be one of the featured main stage productions at the 2010 NAACP Theatre Festival. It has since been accepted and performed at the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and it has garnered 5 NAACP Theatre Nominations:

Best Ensemble

Best Director

Best Producer

Best Playwright

Best Set Design

(The Robey Theatre Company has received a total of 12 NAACP Theatre Award Nominations for 2011.)

I am grateful to call the Robey Theatre Company my artistic home. Part of the Robey’s mission is to give artists who are relatively unknown, like myself, an opportunity to work. It certainly has given me so much more than just work. It has been a place of refuge, and has given me and so many other artists a place to grow as actors, writers, and directors.

Artistic Director of the Robey Theatre Company Ben Guillory and me doing radio promo for Transitions. )

I owe a great heap of thanks to Ben Guillory, Danny Glover, Judith Bowman, Aaron Henne, Dylan Southard, Erin Devine, Debra Ann Morris, Dwain Perry, Harry Lennix, the Robey Summer Interns, Anthony Phillips, Tony Roberts, Bill Robertson, and Skip Jennings. I also would like to thank my parents Timothy and Pearlethel Henderson for all their love and support, and for allowing me to bear witness to 54 years of marriage. And last but certainly not least, I would like to thank God, the Creator for it all, for the breathe of Life, for my transition.

Me and my parents Timothy and Pearlethel Henderson.

I often have my moments of doubt whenever I sit down to write, but the Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights Program has helped me become better equipped to work through those areas of apprehension. It also helps me to remember this quote:

“Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it” -Mahatma Mohondas Karamchand Gandhi.

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