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Center Stage

From confrontation to communication

3/2/2016

During the past six months, the best performance in a Des Moines production may have come from an African-American. Aaron Smith, in “A Soldier’s Play,” drew audiences into a howling private torment.  Yet he was working under a death threat.

Ken-Matt Martin of the Pyramid Theater Company. Kum & Go Theater and elsewhere. www.pyramidtheater.com

Ken-Matt Martin of the Pyramid Theater Company. Kum & Go Theater and elsewhere. www.pyramidtheater.com

“Before opening night, we got a terrifying phone call. The police had to post a plainclothesman in the lobby,” reveals Ken-Matt Martin, Smith’s co-star.

The threat proved empty, but its motive remains potent. “Soldiers’ Play” features mostly black actors, in a charged drama about race. For some people, such material can unleash a monster. And during the recent caucuses, media coverage often mentioned the state’s lack of diversity. All this, for Martin, came together as reason to launch a local African-American theater company.

“It’s time we took more part in the national conversation,” he says.

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Above all, Martin wants to provide Des Moines with more than just black talent onstage. He wants it backstage, too, choosing plays and directing them.  He himself first took on those challenges locally in the Social Club’s production of “Fences,” a Pulitzer winner set in Pittsburgh’s African-American community. With that, Martin discovered what his own community could accomplish if given full control. Now “Fences” (which also starred Smith) turns up on the new Pyramid website as the company’s first show.

As for “Soldier’s Play,” despite the threat, it enjoyed the same success as “Fences.” It played to full houses and won glowing reviews.

“The run was nervewracking but also inspiring,” Martin admits.

Over the ensuing months, he brought his inspiration to life. For a board of directors, he reached across the country, signing up people out of Yale and New York. Martin himself, after all, currently works at Chicago’s Goodman Theater and gets to Des Moines twice a month.  Together the crew hammered out a schedule for summer 2016, pairing a classic, “Raisin In the Sun,” with an edgy new work titled “Hooded.” Just last week, they won Community Foundation sponsorship.

“It’s been exciting,” he says. “Still, at the end of the day, what Pyramid’s all about may be having Tiffany Johnson direct ‘Raisin.’ ”

Johnson, the company’s director of development, makes an exciting story herself.  A single mother with no formal theater training, she began picking up parts for Stagewest and elsewhere. Eventually Martin gave her a lead role in “Fences.”

“I’m so grateful to him,” says Johnson.  “He and others in Pyramid — they’re like walking encyclopedias for me.”

Johnson has also done her own learning, for instance as assistant director on “Soldier’s Play.”  Now when she talks about “Raisin,” her early preparation, she’s at once deep in the world of the play. She speaks of the woman characters as if they were mythic figures.

“You’ve got the mother, the wife and the sister-rival,” says Johnson. “The emotions involved there — anyone can identify. Anyone watching can sympathize, and with that, maybe they’ll begin to communicate.”

Overheard in the Lobby: On March 3, Iowa State University’s Stephens Auditorium hosts the musical “Bullets Over Broadway.” CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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