That moment when everything comes together exactly as you envisioned it happens at least once if you’re lucky.
And Greg Williams Jr. doesn’t take his good fortune for granted.
He’s written plays in the past, comedies and musicals that have been produced by New Venture Theatre, and he was more than satisfied with each of the productions.
But it’s different with SHOUT!. That’s Williams’ musical journey of the American black experience through gospel music. It opens Thursday, May 23, at Independence Park Theatre, and Williams not only is the playwright but its director.
He’s also New Venture’s founder and artistic director, and three years ago he set out on a mission to tell the story of the American black experience.
Just the thought of it could be overwhelming. There are years of history encompassing so many key events.
“I wanted to tell the story of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come,” Williams said. “And I wanted to tell about where we are now.”
But how? That was the biggest question of all.
Williams is black, and New Venture many times will stage all-black casts in its productions. The company also has staged shows with mixed casts, something of which Williams wants to do more in upcoming productions.
But SHOUT! is different.
“I wanted to celebrate our voices in the community, but I didn’t want this celebration to be limited to one month,” Williams said. “February is Black History Month, and SHOUT! would have fit well during that time, but African-American history should be celebrated all year, because it isn’t just African-American history — it’s American history.”
And Williams soon discovered that this history is best told through gospel music.
“Three years ago, I went to hear the Heritage Choir perform,” Williams said. “And last year, I produced a contemporary gospel concert with a friend. And it was through the music that I saw the struggle and how the contemporary music celebrates how far we’ve come. I realized that the story of the black experience is documented in these songs.”
So, Williams began listening — really listening — to gospel music. He listened to old and new and consulted members of local gospel choirs about choosing the best selections for the show.
“It was a decision I took seriously,” Williams said. “I wanted this to be right.”
The result is a cast of some 40, all dressed in choir robes. But don’t be mistaken; this is not a church service. It’s a theatrical production with a story narrated by a character named Sista Eloise, played by April Skipper-Washington.
“Greg told me to study this character and create a history for her,” Skipper-Washington said. “I’m from Jonesville, which is a small town, and Sista Eloise reminds me of my grandmother and aunts. Sista Eloise is 61, and her husband has passed away. She’s either retired or she’s been a housewife, and she’s very well respected and involved in the community. And people tell her everything.”
So, Sista Eloise is trustworthy.
“But she’s not afraid to speak her mind,” Skipper-Washington said. “And I love her.”
She laughed. She wasn’t expecting to land the lead while auditioning. She simply was trying to find a way back to the stage.
Though Skipper-Washington wasn’t a theater major at LSU, she acted in several productions with an LSU group known as the Apollo Players. She’s acted in two local productions since then, but most her time has been spent teaching second grade at Buchanan Elementary School and making a home with husband Jeremy and their 2-year-old son, Jared.
“I cried when Greg told me that I was chosen for the role,” Skipper-Washington said. “I was pleased and grateful, and I’m already planning to audition for The Wiz.”
The Wiz is New Venture’s summer musical. It won’t hit the stage until July, so Skipper-Washington’s priority is stepping into the role of Sista Eloise to tell the story of SHOUT!.
“We also have a character named Pastah, and he represents pastors from all eras, from the beginning, to Dr. Martin Luther King to the contemporary pastor,” Williams said. “And we have the Ministress of Music, who is a person you don’t play with.”
And then there’s the choir, in the role of Greek chorus.
“I have to say that this cast has the most talented singers of any we’ve ever had,” Williams said.
This is saying a lot, because New Venture has staged its share of musicals in the past, all with impressive voices. But again, SHOUT! is different. Many of the cast members are performing songs they’ve spent a lifetime performing in church.
There is meaning in the music, both in content and history, and they perform it with heart.
It’s when this cast gathered for the first rehearsal that Williams knew that he is one of the lucky people whose plan not only has come together but it’s exactly as he envisioned it.
And it’s perfect.
CAST: April Skipper-Washington, Sista Eloise; Ahmad Harris, Pastah; Seanre Harding, Ministress of Music; members of the story: Alyseia Darby, A’sjah Edwards, Brionia Gougois, Chaneyra Valentine, Chris Murray, Christian Jones, Courtney Jacobs, Dana Jackson, Darian Veals, Denisa Joshua, Exlymonda Britten, Henry Harris, Hope Landor, Infiniti Eaglin, Jada Delpit, Jarred Walker, Jeremy Williams, Jessyca Williams, Kentro Mason, Ketreon Butler, Kristie Ambrose, LaNea Wilkinson, Latavia Williams, Lenear Tennart, LeTiger Walker, Lindsey Legros, Megan Lawrence, Michael Russ, Phyllis Carter, Sageda Mason, Sandra Alexander, Sarah Barfield, Tanesha Craig, Tara Winder, Taylor Jordan, Tyshawn Clark and Wendell Shelby.
ARTISTIC STAFF: Greg Williams Jr., director; Kelly Latchie, set designer; Alvin A. Temple, costumer; Amos Singleton, musical director; Brian Jordan, choreographer; and Christopher D. Daniel, production manager.