Plan-B Theatre: Mama | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Plan-B Theatre: Mama

A look at Carleton Bluford's debut play

Posted By on February 11, 2015, 10:45 AM

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As the 2014-'15 theater season continues this month, Plan-B Theatre will be taking an interesting direction with the debut of Mama, a play by local actor Carleton Bluford which will start on Thursday, February 12. Selected out of a series of 24 plays from the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists, the play focuses on being a celebration of mothers and motherhood by looking at some real and fictional figures, both good and not-so-good, all written with Bluford's own mother in mind. Today we chat with the playwright himself (whose play is being credited as the first world premiere by an African-American playwright in Utah history), along with director Jerry Rapier and the complete cast of four about the production and the impact they're looking to create. (All photos courtesy of Plan-B Theatre.)

Carleton Bluford, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, William Cooper Howell, Latoya Rhodes, Elizabeth Summerhays & Jerry Rapier

Gavin: Hey everyone, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

I grew up in North Ogden, my mother was/is an actress who worked on Touched by an Angel, Con-Air and Dumb and Dumber. I grew up in entertainment and I love the business of telling stories. I've sung with some amazing people like Luther Vandross and Natalie Cole. I've taken master classes from Ben Vereen, Frank Wildhorn and Neil Patrick Harris. And I'm surrounded by the most hard working, imaginative, talented people of ever. I'm also Black, haha! What else would you like to know?

Dee-Dee: I am an avid recycler and I love to cook when I have time. I have two wonderful daughters who are smart and beautiful. My husband is ridiculously handsome and we both love to watch Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones and Scandal.

William: I love theatre probably more than I should. I’m from Santa Monica, California. Orange Creamsicles, long kisses, any kind of dog and a good pair of boots are a few of my favorite things in this world.

Jerry: I am both aging and staying young trying to keep up with my two-year-old son!

Latoya: I'm a local actress residing in Salt Lake City. I was born in North Carolina but grew up in Kaysville. I went to Southern Utah University (Go T-birds!) where I studied Theatre and Sociology. I love to sing at the top of my lungs, write poetry, dance my way through life, and doodle here and there. Oh, and I love being in nature and long walks on the beach.

Elizabeth: I have been working and playing as an actor and singer in the Salt Lake area for many years in various capacities including plays, musical theatre, opera, concerts, voice-over and film. I was born and raised in Salt Lake, and recently graduated from the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah. I currently live in Lake Point with my husband Rex. I run a private voice studio in my home when I am not performing.

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  • Rick Pollock

Gavin: What have all of you been up to in theatre over the past year?

I've been working on getting my documentary 2% off the ground. Most recently I was in The Rocky Horror Show at Pioneer Theatre Company. I didn't do much more than that but write.

Dee-Dee: It has been a busy year. I started with [title of show] at Utah Rep, then The Odettes, an original musical for Good Company Theatre. I just finished my first solo concert singing the jazz standards of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald for the Grand Theatre Backstage Series. It was fantastic and I couldn't be happier with the results.

William: Well, I’ve been working on trying to graduate from the University of Utah. Other than that I directed The Color Purple for Wasatch Theatre Company, was in The Threepenny Opera at the U, played my dream role of Paul in A Chorus Line at the Egyptian in Park City, and played Satan himself in The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, also for Wasatch.

Latoya: I felt really fortunate and lucky to be a part of some really exciting work. I was part of Saturday's Voyeur at Salt Lake Acting Company, I had the honor of playing Celie in The Color Purple at Wasatch Theatre Company, The Rocky Horror Show at Pioneer Theatre Company and the original musical The Odettes at Good Company Theatre in Ogden. I also had the privilege to be part of Different = Amazing at Plan-B (directed by Jerry) that spoke about the effects of bullying and that toured to schools throughout Salt Lake and Davis County. It's been a productive and humbling year of theatre. I'm very grateful.

Elizabeth: Most recently I played Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors at the Grand Theatre and I was part of the cast of Oedipus The King for the Classic Greek Theatre Festival.

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Gavin: Carleton, what influenced you to begin writing plays?

I had a hankering to write stories as a kid, but I didn't really consider actually writing plays until college. As I started learning about and crafting plays, I fell in love with the idea of creating worlds for people to see and new paradigms through which to see them. My fellow colleagues and professor Larry Dooley were the initial influences.

Gavin: Where did the inspiration for Mama come from, and what kind of challenge was it writing it?

Dawn Bluford, my mother, kept coming into my head. She probably doesn't know this, but she's often on my mind. The play's focus on motherhood was really just to show her that I understand her sacrifice – the sacrifice of most, if not all, women who give up so much for their families. So how do you write a play about motherhood? That was the challenge. But because of Tracey Callahan and my exposure to ensemble-based work, like what we do at Plan-B, it was really a no-brainer how I could/should go about it. I've said this before but the play is more like a patchwork quilt, looking at each square and eventually, by the end, you've experienced the overall story as well as individual slices of life.

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Gavin: What was it like for you winning the inaugural grant from The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists for the play?

A huge milestone. Ask Jerry, it's been a long time coming for me, trying to wrap my head around how a play is constructed and then how it's constructed well enough for anyone to genuinely respond to it. When Jerry told me that it was a blind submission, no one knew whose work was whose, and my play had risen to the top, I felt like, "Yes! I've finally done it!" You know? Finally done something that stood on its own. I felt very proud and relieved. To be honest, I had all but given it up being a playwright. I'm glad I did not.

Gavin: Jerry, what were your first impressions of Mama and what made you decide to produce it?

Mama is the first play produced in partnership between Plan-B Theatre Company and The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists. It was chosen from 24 submissions from Utah-based playwrights age 35 or younger; it was a blind reading process with the winner being guaranteed a production this season. The panel was composed of David Fetzer's friend/filmmaker/actor Johnny Kuene, who loved that it is experimental in form; playwright Jenifer Nii, who found it beautifully written; playwright Debora Threedy, who found it to be unique but universal; and I personally thought it felt like a play that Davey'd really like. We panelists unanimously ranked it first among the 24 submissions.

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Gavin: Was it like for you taking on directing duties for this play and what specifically drew you toward doing it above others this season?

Mama is the kind of play I enjoy directing the most. The story we’re telling is very clear but, unlike more traditional scripts, there are no rules regarding how to get there so we have an immense amount of freedom. I love the free-form vibe of Mama. It feels old school and new school at the same time. In a very literal sense, Facebook meets Harriet Tubman's mama! I love that the mamas in the play are not deified - they're complex, authentic women. My mother certainly wasn't a saint and trying to make her memory fit that mold would belittle what it took for her to navigate her life and help me navigate mine.

Gavin: For the cast, what did you think of Mama when you first read it and what were your feelings when you were cast?

I was part of the first reading and I was elated and proud when asked to be part of the cast.

William: I remember my mom always telling me “It is so hard to raise kids. No one gets it right. You just do what you can and pray that what you did was enough.” That was my immediate first thought. Carleton presents some beautiful mothers who are all over the spectrum of what we call “good” mothers and they all do the best they could to different degrees. I loved that.

Latoya: I was lucky enough to be around when Carleton started writing Mama. He had me read two of the scenes (which are in the play), and I saw the potential. I remember having conversations with him, and I would say "Did you finish your Mama play?" And he would reply, "Working on it girlie." Then when he completed the play, he had a table read that I was involved in (along with Dee-Dee), and we discussed it. The entire time I thought to myself, this play has something special about it, and already had a lot of promise. Fast Forward to the complete play, and reading it now, that special quality is even more present and the beauty of the piece will definitely leave you feeling grateful to the mothers of the world – especially your own.

Elizabeth: I was auditioning for another production Plan-B was casting the same time as Mama, and on my way home from the audition Jerry texted me to ask why I hadn’t read for it, and had me come back to read for the role of the white female actor (I didn’t read the script thoroughly enough at first and thought it was an all black cast). In preparation for that reading, I got my first glimpse of the script and immediately connected to the material. I was extremely excited to be cast for many reasons; I loved Carleton’s script and his characters, it’s my first production with Plan-B, and I have the opportunity to work with an amazingly talented cast and production team.

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  • Rick Pollock

Gavin: What was it like for each of you fitting into these roles and finding your characters?

I think I find resonance in each of the characters that I play, not necessarily in myself but definitely in the maternal relationships I have with the women in my life.

William: My primary concern was how bizarre it was going to be playing Carleton, who is actually one of my characters. I’ve known him for a while now and we’re good friends. I have always looked up to him and he has the most unique personality. I first thought that I was going to have to do my best “Carleton” impression but what’s great about his writing is the gratitude he feels for his mother isn’t unique to him. I love my mother so much and I’m given the opportunity to pay homage to her every night through Carleton’s words not just as him. The characters just fell into place working with this amazing Plan-B team.

Latoya: I always find it thrilling to figure out how to wear the shoes of a character, hoping that the character stands strong and separate from all the others I play with in the play, or have played in others. The fun part about Mama, and also the challenge, is figuring out how to do that with each monologue that is in the piece. To make sure that each one is individualized enough, and yet still feels like an actual relatable person. There is a character that I am surprised that I feel at ease with in Mama. Let's just say she is a character that is not afraid to vocalize her dislikes, regardless of her mother being present or not. I hardly get to play characters like that, so oddly it is fun for me to step into that character’s shoes and see how she blows up each night.

Elizabeth: The plays where actors switch between different roles are always fun, and they also provide their own special challenges. A lot of work goes into fleshing out a character for me, so the more characters I play, the more searching I do to fit into each roles. In some ways it’s simpler to play just one character, you have more time to develop them over the course of the play. However, it is also really fun to delve into different roles from scene to scene – my favorite challenge as an actor. The characters I play in Mama range from admissions officer to slave owner. It definitely has been a bit of challenge to fit myself into a character whose vocabulary includes certain racial epithets. It took me a while to say certain derogatory terms out loud without cringing.

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Gavin: How has it been interacting with each other and exploring the dynamics of the play together?

So much fun.

William: I’m hands down working with the three best actresses in Utah. Hands down. They take me to a place that I couldn’t be without them. Interacting with them has allowed me to explore dynamics of emotions I’ve never attained before. Best. Cast. Ever.

Latoya: We have way too much fun! I love my cast and creative team! We all have the same desire to do the best work we can to see this show come to life. All of us, even before rehearsal started, really strived to work hard and create a space where we can mess up, explore and create. There is a respect for one another, and a camaraderie that makes it a pleasure to come to rehearsal each day. We work hard, laugh hard, play hard. To work with everyone has been an honor!

Elizabeth: It has been a great experience working with these actors. They are all so incredibly committed and talented. I was a bit nervous at first because everyone else in the cast already knew each other, and I am the only one who hasn’t worked with Plan-B before. However, I haven’t felt like an outsider at all, and working with this cast has been so much fun. It is easy to interact and explore the play when your fellow actors are so open and generous.

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Gavin: How has the play affected each of you?

It has made me appreciate more the wonderful relationship I have with my own mother more and recognize that all of us just try to do the best we can do for our children.

William: The play has affected my gratitude for my mother. It has affected my respect for her, for all that she has done for me and continues to do. How could you not be in a play like this and not constantly reflect on your own mother’s greatness?

Latoya: I had this lovely moment with my mom last week where she hugged me, like she always does, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and told me that she loved me and was proud of me. I of course said I loved her back, but took a slight moment and looked at her and said, "But really mom, I really do love you I hope you always know that." How can you not reflect on your own mother and her sacrifices when you are in a play about mamas? It really puts a mirror up on the beautiful things that mothers do. It reminds me of how lucky I am to have a mother who will do anything she can to take care of her family, to make sure that we are loved, and that she is always there as a shield when we feel too weak to withstand the crashing waves of the ocean. The play makes me love my mom even more, honor her even more, and feel gratitude towards her even more. My mom is my superhero. My Wonder Woman.

Elizabeth: Throughout Mama, Carleton highlights different types of mothers in this play and the sacrifices they make for their children. It has caused me to reflect on the sacrifices my own mother has made for me, and to notice where I have taken those sacrifices for granted, even as an adult. I have also been deeply affected by the racial issues this play explores. As I said before, I play the character of Eliza, (Based on Eliza Ann Brodess, who was Harriet Tubman’s owner before she escaped) and exploring what that dynamic must have been as I research and rehearse this play – it really has given me a lot to think about concerning our nation’s history of slavery and racism, and how it impacts us today. I am so grateful to be able to explore these issues and play the minority. Working on this play, with this cast, has had a profound effect on me. It has been an experience I will never forget.

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Gavin: What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?

I hope they will laugh and enjoy a night of theatre. If they leave reflecting on their own lives and their mothers, I'll be happy.

Dee-Dee: I know that there will be one of my Mama characters that will resonate with the audience and I hope that will cause people to look at their own relationships and be able to glean a different perspective of their own mother.

William: That the experience of raising humans is the most bizarre and rewarding thing that we could ever do and the person that we become is primarily the product of the love and sacrifices of who raised us. Whether you’re a child or a parent you will be able to identify with the stories in this piece. Also I want them to think about when they last called their mother and then do it.

Jerry: My own mother passed away nearly six years ago at the age of 59. Spending all this time in the theatre with all these mamas feels like I'm getting to spend a little more time with her. I hope we can give the audience a similar experience.

Latoya: To reflect on their mothers, whomever that is for that audience member. To realize that time flies by so fast, and it's never too late or too early to show your love and gratitude towards them. To give their moms a call and let them know how much they are loved and appreciated.

Elizabeth: I hope that people will leave the theatre reflecting on their own mothers and be reminded of how much they do for us and how important they are in our lives. Whether or not our relationships with our mothers are close or maybe a bit more distant or complicated, they very much define who we are. It’s a profound relationship – the person who brought us into the world.

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Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?

I'm super proud, I can't wait, and I also can't think too much about it because I'll freak out.

Dee-Dee: Be true to the playwright and remember ALL of my lines.

William: I hope I get my line notes right.

Jerry: I’m excited to see Dawn Bluford’s reaction.

Latoya: To relax, tell the story, stay present, connect, and do the play justice for Carleton, and most importantly HIS mama.

Elizabeth: It’s always exciting and nerve-racking to open a new play, especially a world premiere that no one has ever seen before. I want to do my best to honor the words that have been written, and to have the playwright sitting in the audience will be a little daunting, even though he is one of the more supportive and generous people around. I really hope I can honor Carleton’s play and make him happy with our work. I am excited for audiences to see his words come to life.

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Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of this season?

I'm acting in A/Version Of Events, the next show on the Plan-B season, with the lovely Latoya Rhodes. I'll be filming a Documentary called 2%, about black people and being black in Utah. I will also be auditioning as much as I can and writing another play to send into Jerry called The Priesthood.

Dee-Dee: First, a break, I'm going to Hawaii the day after the show closes. I also hope to be doing more Jazz concerts this season and I will be recording a Holiday album.

William: I’m going to be Plan-B’s best cheerleader. I’m going to graduate. I’m going to get some sleep. I’m in Godspell at the U and directing A Streetcar Named Desire for Radical Hospitality Theatre Company. I’m going to enjoy my summer.

Jerry: I will be directing Pilot Program and Ruff! later this season with Plan-B and will be directing for Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project this summer. And spend every possible minute with my son!

Latoya: After Mama, I will be opening A/Version Of Events with Plan-B next month! Then The Music Man in May at Pioneer Theatre Company, then Ruff! in the fall (another elementary school tour) with Plan-B!

Elizabeth: At this point, I don’t have anything scheduled as far as theatre projects go. I will continue to audition and hopefully book work with my agent, and I do also have some theatre auditions I am looking at for the summer and fall, so hopefully something pans out. If not, I will be okay with a little break so I’m ready when the next project comes. I am not one of those actors who can do show after show; a good balance is where I am happiest. We will see!

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