An opportunity like nowhere else7/5/2017
The night of the last election, I stayed up reading James Baldwin. His work from the 1960s seemed the best way to grapple with my own moment — and apparently lots of others felt the same. Baldwin has recently enjoyed a resurgence. There’s even a documentary, celebrating his essays, novels and activism.
“But he was also a playwright,” Ken-Matt Martin points out. “Baldwin wrote great theater, and there, too, he shows us people who we’d prefer to ignore.”
This means African-American churchwomen, in the 1954 drama “The Amen Corner.” Pitting faith against family, the show is so full of hymns that Martin hopes to use several different local choirs in his Pyramid Theater production. It also features seven local women of color, and he’s particularly pleased about one.
“It’s so great to have Tiffany Johnson back on stage,” Martin exclaims. “For this, we at last got her out of the director’s chair.”
Johnson was in “Fences” in 2014, doing some heavy lifting — the same role that won Viola Davis an Oscar. On that production the director was Martin, and he wound up so impressed by the city’s African-American talent pool, he decided Des Moines needed its own company. Pyramid was the result, and over the past two years it’s offered what Martin calls “a testament to the city as a place of welcome.”
Pyramid’s mission embraces more than classics like “Amen Corner.” Also it’s committed to bringing fresh blood to town, visiting actors and playwrights. The writers have used their time here to fine-tune new work. Last year the company hosted “Hooded,” still a work in progress, by Tearrance Chisholm.
“And that piece has gone on to Seattle and D.C.,” Martin adds.
This year, the drama breaking new ground is “Mississippi,” which concerns the 1963 murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers. The playwright, Jonathan Norton, is based in Dallas, but he’ll come to town for the entire run, and like Chisolm he’ll participate in “talk-back” sessions after every show.
“It’s an opportunity like nothing else in the country,” Martin argues. “African-Americans in theater just don’t usually get to try to things like this, and to share the response like this.”
His enthusiasm is echoed by another of the visiting artists, already in town, Antonio Woodard. A Brown MFA Candidate in Theater, originally from Oakland, Woodard also uses the word “welcome.” The comforts of his setup, he goes on, allow him to prepare for a rare challenge. This year’s schedule will run “in repertory,” presenting one show one night and the other the next, and on top of that, twice the program calls for both plays on a single day.
Martin calls this “the most theatrical thing I’ve done my whole life.” Woodard, who on the busiest days will handle two larger roles and one smaller part, sounds more restrained.
“I’m just glad I have such talent and commitment around me here,” says the visiting actor. “It’s like the emotion you feel reading Baldwin. When things seem overwhelming, there’s nothing like the support of an entire community.”
Overheard in the Lobby: Ankeny Community Theater has announced an ambitious new season, starting with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” ♦