On the final Friday in October, I met up with Lorey Hayes, a Broadway, film and television actress, who is also a director and an award-winning playwright, in Harlem at the Manhattan School of Music, for a spectacular concert tribute featuring MSM’s Grammy®-nominated Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, led by the renowned percussionist Bobby Sanabria, and featuring the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award Honoree, the legendary Cuban-born conguero, Candido.
The evening was a celebration of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, with The Orchestra kicking off a year-long “Harlem Nights” Concert Series with “Harlem Hothouses” saluting the venues such as the Apollo and the Savoy where Jazz flourished, and we were all dancing in the aisles during the encore.
It’s been a little over a week since Hayes and I shared the stage at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, appearing in a Celebrity stage reading of Hayes’ Power Play, alongside Pauletta Pearson Washington, Roscoe Orman, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Jeff Wallner, under the direction of Darlene Gidney of Be Rich Entertainment. The Schomburg was abuzz with excitement. Ruby Dee, Denise Burse, Penwah Phynjuar, Micki Grant, Garland Lee Thompson, George Faison, Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, André Robinson, Jeff Burns Jr., Constance C.R. White, Essence Editor-in-Chief, costume designer Karen Perry, Lawrence Evans and more, were among the standing room only audience.
The stage reading, produced by dynamic producing duo Executive Producer, Mr. Voza Rivers’ New Heritage Theater and Ms. Debra Ann Byrd’s Take Wing and Soar Productions, Inc. was a prelude to the 2013 revival production of Hayes’ Power Play, a story about politics, passion and the power of God. The pair teamed up last year for the overwhelmingly successful New York showcase production of Hayes’ Massinissa and The Tragedy of The House of Thunder, which received 3 AUDELCO nods, including Costume, Lighting and Sound Design.
Lorey Hayes is a 2011 Princess Grace Playwright Finalist for Haiti’s Children of God, her play with music that enjoyed a critically acclaimed 2011 run in New York as a co- production between Mr. Voza River’s New Heritage Theatre Group (Broadway’s Sarafina and Asinamali) and Mr. Rudy Shaw’s Caribbean Arts Repertory. Hayes is also the proud recipient of a 2011 Harlem Arts Alliance Community Arts Fund Award to create a new historic play. The play created under this grant is Hell in a Hand Basket, the Unofficial Story of Condolezza Rice, recently read at Harlem’s Dwyer Cultural Center sponsored by Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop. The Dragonfly Tale, co-written with Robert Crear was the winner of the 2007 Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writer’s Project and a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill 2006 Playwright’s Conference from more than 800 entries. Several plays have enjoyed acclaimed productions. As an actress, Hayes (an original cast member of For Colored Girls) starred on Broadway with Melba Moore in the late A. Marcus Hemphill’s Inacent Black as well as in the Negro Ensemble Company’s production of Home. She starred in London, England at the Royal Shakespeare festival as Eunice Evans in Miss Ever’s Boys. A regular face on TV commercials, Hayes is featured in the film Dream Girls and has guest starred in numerous television shows; including “Judging Amy,” “Family Law,” “Sister, Sister” and “All My Children.”
We chatted during the reception before the concert. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Lia: It’s been quite a whirlwind for you since you flew in from LA at the beginning of October, to act in the Celebrity Stage Reading of your play Power Play, which we first did in 1991 at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C.. The reading on October 18th at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was a teaser to the 2013 revival production. What was your experience seeing your characters come to life again?
Lorey: The experience was a humbling one. I must tell you that I am forever grateful to God for using me as a vessel. I tell everybody, I did not write this play. He chose me to have the words flow through. I listen to it and I am always amazed that it’s always fresh and new. I think, “Where did I come up with that?” It’s like it came from the ether. There’s no denying there is a higher power. Someone has put their hands on me and said, “I need to use you for my work.” When I saw those Power Play characters come to life, I realized that writing is like birthing children. I birthed this baby and in ’91, the baby was a newborn. And you were there; you were one of the newborns. And we went through the diaper changing stages and now these Power Play characters are getting ready to graduate from college and go out into the world. I’m just asking God to keep guiding me to make the right decisions as my Power Play Baby goes out into the world. This means for me the rewrites, and what I am going to focus on currently to keep it fresh and new, and to make it accessible on a global market. It’s not just New York, it’s not just local, and it’s definitely not just African American, it’s for all people. Pauletta said something really wonderful to me. She said, “The reason she decided to do this play when she came out of hiatus was not just because she wanted plays that had integrity, strong roles for women of color and all nationalities, but something to make young people, young teens, young adults that are developing, to understand the importance of moral integrity so they can make the right choices.” So I am very proud that I have been used by God in this way to bring Power Play’s story and characters to life.
Lia: There were a lot of people in the audience, a lot of people that you know personally. Who of the audience members excited you the most?
Lorey: The people who are going to be the paying patrons/supporters for the production are the ones that I was most excited about. The people who came from my doctor’s office and the people that I met on the street. A young lady that came up to me and thanked me because I gave her some words of encouragement that changed her life and helped her to grow. Part of my mission is to inspire, to elevate and to motivate. Those are the people that I was most excited about being in our audience because those truly are the real celebrities. If the people who make up our daily world are not there, then we have no one to perform to, and then what is our work about? Those are the people that I am most proud of being in that audience.
Lia: It was exciting to have the reading at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it’s such an institution. What is your connection?
Lorey: Not only is the Schomburg an institution, the Schomburg is where I did my major research for Massinissa and The Tragedy of The House of Thunder. It is also where I had the send-off celebration for my friend and partner Walter Thomas, with whom I spent 15 glorious years together in Harlem renovating a brownstone. I was able to send him off from his human transition there at the Schomburg’s American Negro Theater downstairs. I felt like Walter was in the house for our Power Play reading. The spirits of my mother Edna and grandmother Janie, our Elders and Ancestors, those people that have really paved the way for all of us, having carried the weight of slavery on their backs. I felt there were a lot of ancestors there because the Schomburg is full of history; not just for African Americans, but people of all races, of all nationalities, all cultures that have come to this country. I think it is really important that we recognize and pay homage, to not just the Schomburg, but to the ancestors who brought us where we are today.
Lia: What is Voza Rivers’ history with Power Play?
Lorey: Voza Rivers produced early readings of Power Play at New York’s B. Smith’s Restaurant with Hattie Winston, Dean Irby, Iris Little and Denise Burse. He went on to produce the play for the National Black Theater Festival’s Premiere Midnight Reading Series stage reading in Winston-Salem in 1991 (brainchild of Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop’s Mr. Garland Thompson in collaboration with then Festival head the late Mr. Larry Leon Hamlin). Voza is the one that hired the van that took us all to North Carolina. I’m sure he and the festival may have been influenced by the fact that Phyllis Yvonne Stickney had the tenacity and the perseverance to put together her own show, find her own venue in North Carolina during the festival, and put up her one-woman show. I’m so proud of her for that. Women have to do it for themselves. We can’t sit back and wait. Phyllis is a pioneer and as someone reminded me “a real power player”.
Voza Rivers has a rare kind of energy that is not only inviting, he embraces people and culture with great integrity; He is responsible for unifying so many cultures and artists and is instrumental for bringing them together for their mutual good. That’s one of the many things I love about him. Voza produces HARLEM Week. He was the producer who brought Sarafina to Broadway and is responsible for launching and nurturing the careers of so many artists. He has earned a tremendous respect, not just in Harlem and New York, but around the world. Possibly the fact that he started in this business as a music producer taught him to work well with so many different personalities. He does it with a calm and grace that is so inspiring. I learn so much from Voza Rivers and I am just so grateful.
Lia: During our brief rehearsal for Power Play, you learned that Massinissa, the epic that you wrote and directed, (also produced by Debra Ann Byrd’s Take Wing and Soar Productions in association Voza Rivers’ New Heritage Theater- the same team that produced Power Play) garnered 3 AUDELCO nominations, for Costume Design, Lighting Design and Sound Design. What is you experience with Debra Ann Byrd and Massinissa?
Lorey: I love Debra Ann. If I had six babies to birth, Massinissa was all six babies at one time. I started working on Massinissa when I was 17 years old. I learned the story of this man Hannibal who crossed the Alps on elephants. I was fascinated and had to tell the story. It was my mission. It was the most beautiful showcase production I have every witnessed in my life. It rivaled any Broadway play. It was so stunning. The reason for that is because of the team Debra Ann pulled together. Gail Cooper-Hecht, the costume designer was nominated for an Audelco. Her husband is from Lebanon. The Carthaginians are originally from Lebanon (Tyre). The play is set 200 years before the birth of Christ and the Carthaginians, who were from Tyre (modern day Lebanon) fled their country and came to Carthage (modern day Tunisia) Gail Cooper Hecht created the most incredible costumes you’ve ever witnessed. It was the same for the rest of the crew.
We also got AUDELCOs nods for Lighting (James “Prez” Carter) and Sound (David D. Wright). One of our creative team who did not receive a mention but definitely deserved was Chris Cumberbatch whose set was outstanding. Ironically, Chris also designed the Power Play set for the 2005 New York National Black Theater production co-directed by the renowned late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer and Adunni Shirley Faison. In creating these projects, I do a dream book and I put in pictures, feelings and moods. All of the creative team are then able to see on paper what my vision of the play as a writer is. They then take that vision and they elevate it. The Massinissa and The Tragedy of the House of Thunder’s creative team took my imagination higher than I ever believed possible. Then the actors stepped into the world and created Carthage, Africa (that had been burned to the ground by the Romans; the earth plowed with salt so that nothing would grow). Carthage came back to life on stage before our very eyes. That is true team work and the ultimate collaboration.
Lia: Not only did you write Massinissa, but you also directed it. Was this your directorial debut?
Lorey: No, I’ve directed many things before. In Fort Worth Texas, I directed 100 high school students in a musical called, Easin’ Down Broadway. I co-directed it because the project was so huge, and the task so monumental that we had to have two people on the directing team. It was an amazing experience. I actually got to direct For Colored Girls at the Jubilee Theatre (a play in which I was an original cast member). The For Colored Girls project – spearheaded by then Artistic Director Mr. Ed Smith was another spiritual awakening. I realized how powerful Ntozake Shange’s words still are today and how they changed the lives of so many people – women and men – for the better. I have directed many shows, full length readings for the stage and many readings. One of my greatest pleasures was directing a showcase production of works by writers I had taught in Dallas, Texas in my “Mind Gym” writing workshops for the Best Southwest Book Festival. Seeing my students (adults and teens) works come to life before their eyes and seeing the joy on their faces will live with me forever. I would always tell them, “just get out of the way and let God write through you”. When they witnessed their characters being birthed on stage you could almost feel them levitate.
The 40th Annual AUDELCO “Viv” Awards, A Ruby Jubilee will take place on Monday, November 19, 2012, in the Peter J. Sharpe Theatre at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street in New York. Click here for the AUDELCO website and here for tickets.
Lia: The reading of Power Play was very successful, standing room only, and a standing ovation. What are your plans for the show going forward?
Lorey: Again, I am just going to step aside and let God take the wheel. My plan is to go after the global market. Young, tenacious filmmakers have taught us the value of internet marketing, self-producing and alternative ways to provide content for a world hungry for inspirational works. Hollywood is not the only answer. “It’s a new world and a new day”. President Barack Obama’s historical re-election taught us that lesson. There are major backdoor opportunities that will make Hollywood come to us and my job is to keep working and fine tuning to make those opportunities into possibilities. Now that I understand a Higher Power is in charge, I will just let Spirit lead me, do what I am told to do, step out of the way and let God’s magic happen.
For more information about Manhattan School of Music and a full roster of performances, including the year-long “Harlem Nights” concert series, please visit http://www.msmnyc.edu.
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