By Lynn Venhaus
As an ever-busy presence in the St. Louis theater community, Ellie Schwetye has created a diverse body of work — acting, directing, producing and sound design for a myriad of companies. While she has been recognized for her individual achievements with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, she thrives on collaboration.

But her name associated with a project means that there will be a high bar for quality and a sharp attention to detail, from selecting a soundtrack to a Jane Austen homage, “First Impressions,” for SATE; to guiding Will Bonfiglio to a third Circle Award for Best Actor in a Comedy in “Fully Committed” at the New Jewish Theatre; to bringing haughty Mrs. White to life in SATE’s “Classic Mystery Game” play; and portraying Emily Post, one of the hostesses in ERA’s “Trash MacBeth.”

She is the co-producer of SATE and has directed and/or worked with Equally Represented Arts (ERA), YoungLiars, West End Players Guild, New Jewish Theatre, Prison Performing Arts, The Tennesee Williams Festival St. Louis, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, The Black Rep, R-S Theatrics, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, The Midnight Company, Stray Dog Theatre, Mustard Seed Theatre and others.

Joe Hanrahan in “Here Lies Henry”

Like many other artists, Ellie was eager to return to live theater when it was safe to do so — either on stage or behind the scenes. And now, it’s happening — she’s directing the one-man show “Here Lies Henry” starring frequent collaborator Joe Hanrahan, whose Midnight Company is producing.

It runs Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. June 10 – 27, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. June 27, at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s black box theatre.

Most COVID restrictions have now lifted, so with larger capacity audiences allowed, tickets are now available at the door. Midnight was deemed MissouriArtSafe by the Missouri Arts Council, received permission from the City of St. Louis for the production, and followed strict safety protocols. 

Written by Daniel MacIvor, Henry is a man on a mission to tell you something you don’t already know. It is an idyllic — sort of — miserable — sort of — storybook — sort of — nightmarish — sort of — remarkable — sort of — regular show.

Ellie said she was immediately drawn to the material.

“Initially, what I liked about “Here Lies Henry” was the opportunity to collaborate with Joe Hanrahan again. I’ve joked that Joe could hand me the phone book and I’d direct it, if it meant working with him,” she said.. 

“But, of course, the material of the play itself is a draw. The character of Henry is so quirky, he’s such an innocent — but trying desperately not to appear so. It’s a lovely, weird, off-beat meditation on love, life, and death. There’s a Virginia Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness quality to the text, as well as moments that have me thinking about David Lynch and Andrew Wyeth,” she said.

Ellie and Joe have collaborated multiple times.

Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in “Cuddles,” directed by Joe Hanrahan

“Working with Joe is always a treat. ‘Henry’ is, I think, the sixth project on which we have worked together. Joe finds and writes amazing scripts – all of which are real studies in personality,” she said.

” As both an actor-producer and a director Joe is very laid back. He comes into every project with really clear ideas, and a great sense of play and collaboration. We experiment and laugh a lot during rehearsals. Joe has a great affinity for incorporating rock and pop music into his shows, as I do. I appreciate that he lets me sound design the shows I direct, which he knows I love doing.”

Since the pandemic forced live theater to shut down in March 2020, she said she kept her theater itch scratched with some outdoor theater, video projects and “a few, now ubiquitous, Zoom plays.”

How does it feel to be ‘back in the saddle’ again?

“It’s fantastic! This is my first in-person indoor production since March 2020. It’s pretty cool to be doing this play. Directing a one-man show was the best choice to ease back into the process. The first rehearsal was both terrifying and exhilarating,” she said.

Now she is returning to produce and sound design the play “Top Girls” with SATE — Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble,

“It’s a play we had programmed and cast since before the pandemic. Both my producing partner, Rachel Tibbetts, who is directing the play, and I really love the story, the script, and non-linear storytelling of Caryl Churchill’s text and are thrilled we finally get to bring it back to St. Louis,” she said.

And while filling up her plate after such an absence is tempting, she has reflected upon the next steps after the quarantine break.

“As for easing back into commitments, I think the pandemic taught me that being busy isn’t a virtue. I love the many facets of my work in the theatre, but I don’t need to do eleven projects a year anymore. Having said that, I am quite excited for some projects this fall including “Top Girls” with SATE, directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School, and another project with Midnight later in December,” she said.

Ellie as Emily Post in ERA’s “Trash MacBeth” with Rachel Tibbetts

Schwetye, 39, was born and raised in St. Louis.

During the down time, she explored activities that she had an interest in, but hadn’t given herself the time to dive in — and the opportunity was much appreciated.

“Unsurprisingly, much of it has been outdoors, since that’s been the safest way to socialize. I’ve been gardening a bit. The brilliant Nicole Angeli has been my hiking guru, and it’s been lovely to explore gorgeous conservation areas in eastern Missouri and central Illinois. Last summer, I supported my sister as her ground crew while she paddled the Missouri river — 340 miles! — from Kansas City to St. Charles. Now that was the ultimate stage management gig. Being on the river for four days and the fact that our team was representing the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper organization opened my eyes to how precious and critical the Missouri river system is to our region,” she said. 

“I’ve also gotten to spend a lot of time at my family’s property in Labadie, Mo., which we affectionately and unoriginally call the Farm. We completed building a house that was inspired by a one-room schoolhouse that once sat on the property. I’ve been working with my dad for the past year on much of the finish carpentry in the house, including framing and hanging doors and cutting and installing window trim and baseboards from hemlock,” she said.

“The Comeback Special” as part of the LaBute New Play Festival at St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Q &A WITH ELLIE SCHWETYE

1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?

“I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. Theatrical storytelling is a kind of magic. I’m also a bit of a show-off, so performing was a great outlet for that energy. As I developed though, I learned that I love directing and producing so much more. I find the process of bringing artists together in collaboration so much more rewarding than a curtain call.”

2. How would your friends describe you?

“Classic Aries: attention-seeking, passionate, optimistic, ambitious, independent, competitive, a bit selfish, impatient and impulsive.”

3. How do you like to spend your spare time?

“Recently. it’s been out at the Farm with my nieces and nephews, hiking with buddies, and reading my dad’s first edition “Foxfire” books.”

4. What is your current obsession?

“My meadow is my current obsession. It’s one little corner of the Farm. I’m keeping a path cleared through it to better observe the variety of grasses and native plants growing there. I have been trying to learn a lot more about our native species. Since I’m out at the Farm almost every week, it’s been amazing watching the changes from season to season.”

5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?

“I used to be a pretty fast runner. I won a state track meet in the 800m event.”

6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?

“My college theatre experience was a defining time. I went to a women’s college, which is certainly where my feminist theatre aesthetic was solidified. Knowing that my mentors were a fashion designer who got her start on London’s Carnaby Street in the 60s, a former Breck girl-turned radical feminist bass player, and an East German dramaturg with the Berliner Ensemble probably makes a lot of sense for the theatre I like to make and watch now.”

“A Lovely Sunday in Creve Coeur” as part of an ensemble at The Tennessee Williams Festival in 2019

7. Who do you admire most?

“This is the hardest question of the ten! So many people. My parents, certainly – especially my mom; my sisters. I’ve been learning more about my grandparents and ancestors, and there are a lot of hard-working, gritty folks in my family tree to admire.”

“Artistically, I admire the folks I have the privilege of collaborating with – and there are so many amazing and inspiring artists in this group! I admire my teachers, like Kelley Weber, who encouraged me to be a theatre artist. And I admire the producers who took a chance on me, like Edie Avioli and Scott Sears, and Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy.”

“And I always admire the real women from history whose stories I often get to tell – like Henriatta Leavit, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, Rosalind Franklin, Sr. Jacque-Marie, or Helen Keller. Theatricalized stories of real women will always be the most fascinating to me.”

8. What is at the top of your bucket list?

I keep a Google doc of plays I’d love to direct or scripts I’d love to develop. Rachel Hanks and I started musing a while back about a play based on the Stevens Sisters (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell). Writing something original is certainly on the bucket-list. And as a some-time performer, I’m ready for the challenge of a one-woman show.

9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?

“Discovering and exploring unexpected nature and conservation areas in the region.”

10. What’s next?

“I’m looking forward to the YoungLiars Summer Training Festival in July, then “Top Girls” with SATE in September. I’ll be directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School in the fall, then in December I’ll be performing opposite Joe Hanrahan in his new trio of short plays “Tinsel Town” about artists in LA, directed by Rachel Tibbetts. It completes a trifecta of work the three of us have collaborated on, which has included “Cuddles” and “Little Thing, Big Thing.”

Ellie with John Wolbers in “First Impressions”

More on Ellie:

Family: my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, 5 nieces and nephews, and cousins (who are like sisters).
Education: The St. Louis answer: Clayton High School; the real answer: Mount Holyoke College.
Day job: Production Manager with my family’s business serving the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry.
First job: My first post-college job was as a professional Intern at the Black Rep. 
First role: Abigail Adams in the 5th grade musical “Dear Abby” (I still remember my big number!)
Favorite roles/plays: My Ozark adaptation of “As You Like It”, Rachel’s and my adaptation, “First Impressions” based on “Pride and Prejudice” (and getting to play Elizabeth Bennet in it!), ERA’s “The Residents of Craigslist”. I’m also really proud of co-founding and producing SATE’s Aphra Behn Festival, celebrating women writers and directors.
Dream role/play: There are two weirdo comedies I’d love to produce, direct, or perform in: “All Our Happy Days are Stupid” by Shiela Heti and “Freshwater” by Virginia Woolf, which she wrote for her sister Vanessa’s birthday party.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for Production, Sound Design, Directing, Script Adaptation, and Performance in an Ensemble; PopLifeSTL’s 2019 Artist of the Year 🙂
Favorite quote/words to live by: “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves”
A song that makes you happy: “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn

“Silent Sky,” which Ellie directed, at West End Players Guild in 2018
“Oedipus Apparatus” at West End Players Guild in 2017

The St. Louis Black Rep rounds up its season of virtual programming with a final mainstage production of an original work.  Do I Move You? –  based on a collection of poetry by Dr. Jonathan Smith, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Saint Louis University and President of The Black Rep Board of Directors – will stream on Vimeo June 15-30.

Smith’s collection of poetry, music, and dance pulls inspiration from Jazz, religion, love, family, and some of the greatest musicians of our time –  Donny Hathaway, Louis Jordan, and Marvin Gaye. Conceived by Producing Director Ron Himes, using devised theatre, Black Rep Director and Choreographer Heather Beal weaves a web of music, dance, and poetry. Themes of betrayal, identity, discovery, and love flow throughout the performance, culminating to answer one very important question, “Do I Move You?”

Produced at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, the production features the Black Rep’s Acting Intern Company Kentrell Jamison, Christian Kitchens, Theorri London, Brian McKinley, Tyler White, Jesmelia Williams, and Christina Yancy. Also featured are local Vocalist and Musical Director, Amber Rose, Dancer Samantha Madison, Percussionist Bernard Long Jr, Bass Player Jeffrey Anderson, and Lead Guitarist Dennis Brock. With scenic and projection design by Peter and Margery Spack, lighting design by Sean Savoie, costume design by Ellen Minch, sound engineering by Kareem Deanes, editing by Avatar Studios, and Kasey Dunaski as Stage Manager.

Tickets for Do I Move You? are available at theblackrep.org or by calling our Box Office at 314-534-3807. Streaming free on demand, a suggested donation of $25 will directly help support the theatre company and its artists.

The Black Rep continues its season of virtual programming with a mainstage production of Home, a moving love story by American playwright and screenwriter Samm-Art Williams, streaming on Vimeo beginning on April 15 and running through April 25. Nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award, the play moved from the Negro Ensemble Company to the Cort Theatre on Broadway in 1980.

Directed by Producing Director Ron Himes, Home tells the story of farm boy Cephus Miles who has inherited the family farm. He is content working the land until the girl he loves leaves for college and marries someone else. After a stint in prison for his opposition to the Vietnam War, he moves to the big city where he enjoys the fast-paced city life. His return to North Carolina, the farm, and the girl, reveals the true meaning of Home.

Produced at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University, the production features members of the Black Rep’s Acting Intern Company with Brian McKinley (Spell #7, Milk Like Sugar) portraying Cephus Miles, Christina Yancy (Spell #7) as Woman One/Pattie Mae Wells, and Tyler White (Spell #7, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope) as Woman Two; with scenic and projection design by Peter and Margery Spack, lighting design by Joe Clapper, costume design by Ellen Minch, and Kasey Dunaski as stage manager.

Home is supported in part by The Nebraska Rep #realchange. Tickets for Home are available at The Black Rep website at theblackrep.org or by calling our Box Office at 314-534-3807. Streaming free on demand, a suggested donation of $25 will directly help support the theatre company and its artists.

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Founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes, The Black Rep is one of the largest, professional African-American theatre companies in the nation and the largest African-American professional performing arts organization in Missouri. Quality professional dramas, comedies and musicals by primarily African-American and African Diaspora playwrights are produced. Mainstage productions and education programs combine to reach more than 80,000 people annually.

The St Louis Black Repertory Company announces three virtual programs for the month of September. Two virtual readings and a virtual discussion with playwright Melda Beaty and Artistic Director of The Ensemble Theatre in Houston, Eileen Morris.

Coconut Cake will be presented in conjunction with The Ensemble Theatre in Houston who originally produced a zoom reading of the play on Father’s Day Weekend. The Black Rep will stream this production September 11-13, 2020 at 7pm.  Coconut Cake features Producing Director Ron Himes who says,

“What I miss most is the chatter in the lobby and the feeling of anticipation as the lights go down and we sit for a moment anticipating another evening in the theatre. We can never replace that experience but we can maintain our connections with our audiences until it’s safe for us to come together again. We are so happy to introduce the work of Melda Beaty to our audiences in September.”

When Eddie Lee’s wife, Iris, joins him in retirement, the truth about his “ladies man” ways resurface. To avoid her, Eddie retreats to the sanctuary of McDonald’s where coffee refills are free and the rest of his retired friends, with marital problems of their own, wait faithfully for him. When a mystery woman moves in down the street, with her Creole wiles, melt in your mouth coconut cake, and medicine cabinet secrets, Eddie is not the only one who pays her a visit; a visit that threatens to change all their lives forever.  Coconut Cake also features, Jason Carmichael, Ted Lange, Alex Morris, and Ed Muth. 

The Black Rep will then have a virtual discussion with Eileen Morris, who directed the production of Coconut Cake, and Melda Beaty, the playwright. This will take place on Friday September 18, 2020.

Melda Beaty

The Black Rep will close the month of September with a virtual production of Front Porch Society by Melda Beaty.  America is on the eve of electing its first Black president. Amidst the town’s excitement over Barack Obama, Carrie Honey grieves her son’s tragic death. After 40 years of failed attempts to seek justice, Carrie has grown bitter and is no longer interested in life’s celebrations, but when a scandal in town rocks this historic day, a past secret is revealed that restores her faded faith.

This production will be live-streamed with direction by Ron Himes. This cast will feature Marjorie Johnson, Marsha Cann, Thomasina Clarke, Perri Gaffney, Keith Bolden, Christian Kitchens, and Wendy Gordon. This production will live stream on September 25, 2020 at 7pm.  The production will then be available until Sunday September 27, 2020 until 7pm.

Additional programming will be announced at a later date.

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About The St. Louis Black Repertory Company

The St Louis Black Repertory Company was founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes. The Black Rep is one of the largest, professional African-American theatre companies in the nation and the largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri. Quality professional dramas, comedies and musicals by primarily African-American and third world playwrights are produced. Mainstage productions and education programs combine to reach more than 80,000 people annually.

The Black Rep announces a shift in the schedule of its 44th season. Bubbling Brown Sugar, which would have opened the 44th season at The Edison Theatre in September,  will move into Season 45. Producing Director, Ron Himes explains,“We were looking forward to opening with BUBBLING BROWN SUGAR but we’re not sure what the world post Covid will be. But, we know things will not be business as usual.”

The company’s annual gala scheduled for November 14, 2020 will occur as a virtual event that promises a wonderful evening filled with performances, testimonials, celebrity appearances and award presentations. There will be opportunities for the community to support the work of The Black Rep during this live stream event.

Information regarding the remainder of Season 44 will be forthcoming as we continue to monitor the guidelines and recommendations of the CDC and the county government.

“Due to the impact of Covid 19 on our community and the uncertainty of when it will be safe for our staff to return to work, our artists to the stage, and most importantly when our audiences will feel safe enough to return to the theatre we have decided to postpone the beginning of our regular season”, said Board President, Jonathan Smith.

For information visit theblackrep.org or call 314-534-3807.

“Spell # 7” will be The Black Rep debut of rap artist Tef Poe. Tef Poe has received numerous Hip-Hop awards for his work, and was recently featured as a Harvard Fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Research institute.

Tef says “This is an opportunity for me to sharpen my skills and work with some of the best talent in this region.  The Black Rep is known for reimagining what’s possible in Black entertainment.  I knew this would be a challenge for me. My background obviously isn’t rooted in theatre. But the hip hop world has a few commonalities so I’m able to play into my strengths with this character. I’m honored to be a part of this production.  My respect for my cast mates and our director is insurmountable.”

“Spell # 7” will also feature Drummond Crenshaw, Robert Crenshaw, and Jacqueline Thompson as well as four of our Professional Acting Interns: Brian McKinley, Tyler White, Christina Yancy, and Camille Sharp.

“Spell # 7” is a striking choreopeom by the author of “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf”, Ntozake Shange.  Set in a bar in St Louis frequented by Black artists and musicians, actors, and performers. In a series of dreamlike vignettes and poetic monologues, they commiserate about the difficulties they face as Black artists.  The piece is framed by the narrator, Lou (played by Brian McKinley), a magician who wants to use his magic to help the artists come to terms with their Blackness and rejoice in their identities.

“Spell # 7” is the second production supported by the Sophisticated Ladies Giving Initiative.  This initiative supported last year’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham.

This production is also funded with support from the Regional Arts Commission, World Wide Technology, Washington University in St. Louis, Steward Family Foundation, and Centene Corporation. “Spell # 7” is also underwritten in part through a grant from the Creative Impact Fund for Diversifying the Arts – a partnership between the Arts and Education Council and local community leaders.

“Spell # 7” is directed by Ron Himes, with choreography by Heather Beal, scenic design by Dunsi Dai, lighting design by Joe Clapper, costume design by Brandin Vaughn, and sound design by James Biko.  Jim Anthony is the stage manager and D’Angelo Himes is the assistant stage manager.

The production will run Feb. 19 – March 8 at the AE Hotchner Studio Theatre on the campus of Washington University. Tickets are available at www.theblackrep.org/, or by calling the box office at 314-534-3807.

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About The St Louis Black Repertory CompanyThe St Louis Black Repertory Company was founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes. The Black Rep is one of the largest, professional African-American theatre companies in the nation and the largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri. Quality professional dramas, comedies and musicals by primarily African-American and international playwrights are produced. Mainstage productions and education programs combine to reach more than 80,000 people annually.

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company announces additions to its Board of Directors. Joining the Board is Feleccia Moore-Davis, Wanda Starr-Ferguson, and Paul Steger. “The new members further diversify the board towards the goal of bringing the magic of live theatre to everyone by entertaining diverse audiences, educating promising youth, and enriching our community,” says Ron Himes, Founder and Producing Director.

Feleccia Moore-Davis is Campus President at St. Louis Community College: Meramec. Feleccia is a first generation college graduate that recognizes the importance of education. She has more than 20 years of higher education experience teaching and in cross-functional administrative roles within Community Colleges. Prior to coming to STLCC Feleccia served as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Tallahassee Community College in Florida and Vice President for Instruction at Lone Star College-CyFair. Feleccia brings leadership, grant writing, fundraising, and program management to the board and plans to expand partnerships support and further expose students to the arts.

Wanda Starr-Ferguson is the Inclusion & Diversity Specialist for Edward Jones. Throughout her 20-year tenure at Edward Jones, Wanda served in multiple capacities the Compliance and Operations division including Asset Surveillance Officer, leading to a promotion to Field Supervision Director. Wanda has a passion for developing relationships with the community and giving back.  In 2017, Wanda was awarded “Volunteer of the Year”, by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. Wanda brings leadership, program management skills, and a strong passion for inclusion and diversity to the board. She looks to increase awareness of the Black Rep offerings to the St. Louis Community.

Paul Steger, Dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts at Webster University. Paul is a director, producer, actor, and action designer with credits on Broadway and in numerous regional theatres. He is a Certified Teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors and holds certificates from the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat, the Nordic Stagefight Society, and Fight Directors Canada. Paul is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Screen Actors Guild, and the National Theatre Conference among others. He plans to serve as a liaison to higher education institutions across St. Louis and nationwide.    

About the Black Repertory Company

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company was founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes. The Black Rep is one of the largest, professional African-American theatre companies in the nation and the largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri. Quality professional dramas, comedies and musicals by primarily African-American and third world playwrights are produced. Mainstage productions and education programs combine to reach more than 80,000 people annually.

The Black Rep will present a concert version of the
Broadway hit musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the 560 Music Center on Saturday,
Oct, 12, for One Night Only.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a musical revue with a book by
Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., and music by various composers and
lyricists as arranged and orchestrated by Luther Henderson. It is named after
the song by Fats Waller (with Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf), “Ain’t Misbehavin’”.

The musical is a tribute to the black musicians of the
1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing
creativity, cultural awareness, and ethnic pride. It was a time when Manhattan
nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of
high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out
the new beat known as swing.
An ensemble of performers present an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous
songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect Waller’s view
of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play.

The Chicago Sun Times said: “Fun and off-the-charts
galvanic energy are the main orders of the day in this show… Talk about
“Spreadin’ the Rhythm Around.” Pure joy.”

The Huffington Post said: “This is a boozy, after hours
party, and we’re all invited.”

The cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in concert features cast
members from the Season 43 opening hit production of “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t
Cope” led by Drummond Crenshaw, Amber Rose, Tyler White, Robert Crenshaw, and
Sieglinda Fox.

It is directed by Producing Director Ron Himes, with
musical direction by Charles Creath, choreography by Kirven Douthit-Boyd and
Heather Beal.

Proceeds from the 2019 Gala go to support The Black Rep’s
Community and Education programs such as: 
Summer Performing Arts (SPA), Teen Tech Program, The Professional Intern
Program and many others.

Other highlights of the evening will also feature a
presentation of the Frankie Muse Freeman Spirit Awards to Anne Marie Clark and
Wesley Bell as well as the Woodie King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr.
Glory Van Scott and George Faison.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is sponsored in part by Centene
Corporation, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Edward Jones, Webster University, McCormack
Baron Salazar Inc., Keith Williamson, Gisele Marcus, Tom and Barbara Feiner,
Loren and Marcia Grossman, Lionel Phillip, Hank Webber and Chris Jacobs.

For tickets or more information, contact the box office at
314-534-3807 or go online to theblackrep.org.

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

During a weekend hyper-inflated with entertainments of mass
distraction – in particular, the Game of
Thrones series finale and the St. Louis Blues’ game of Stanley Cup – a
modest-sized audience was invited to engage with a deeper, more troubling, more
pressing and more prescient entertainment. Completing its 42nd
season, the Black Rep presented its production of Nina Simone: Four Women at the Edison Theatre on the Washington
University in St. Louis campus.

Set in the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist
Church in Birmingham after the 1963 bombing that killed four children, the play
earnestly, if unevenly, stands as a monument to the notion that everything old never
stops being new again. Playwright Christina Ham’s mash-up script attempts to
synthesize an array of social issues including, but not limited to, civil
rights, waning traditional religious values, the legacies and injustices of the
Old South and Jim Crow, adoption/abortion issues, culture and cultural
appropriation, white-on-black violence and intergenerational differences toward
sexuality and womanhood – all through the lens of Simone’s prickly personality
and her own artistic, personal and political frustrations.

Ham’s approach to this bomb-blast of issues is to sew its
many subjects into a large quilt rather than delve too deeply into any single patch
or two. In other words, a macro rather than micro approach. That’s a tall
order, especially when combined with a retrospective of Simone’s signature
songs and a presentation that’s equal parts concert, cabaret, revue and jukebox
musical, ala Mama Mia!. Ham’s conceit
seems to be: come for the Simone, stay for the social commentary.

At the heart of the play is one of Simone’s defining songs, “Mississippi Goddam.” And at the heart of that song are the lines, “Just try to do your very best / Stand up be counted with all the rest / For everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.”

This production, ably directed by Ron Himes, embodies that “do your very best” spirit while working through Ham’s something-for-everybody script. The four characters of the title are doing their best in their respective bad situations, each according to her experience, abilities and station in life.

The
four actresses playing those characters are the real strength of this
production. Maybe the conceit should be: come for the Simone, but definitely
stay for the performances of Leah Stewart as Simone, Denise Thimes as Sarah (aka
Auntie), Alex Jay as Sephronia and Camile “Cee” Sharp as Sweet Thing. Stewart
and Thimes make the most of their well-rounded characters. Sharp deserves extra
credit for her yeoman’s effort to animate the borderline one-dimensional
character of prostitute Sweet Thing. Scenic designer Tim Jones’s bombed-out
church set evocatively captures the devastation through which the characters
literally and metaphorically must move.

Impressive, too, and a testament to the strength of the St. Louis theater community, is that Stewart, Thimes and Jay are all natives of the Gateway City. Rounding out this exemplary local talent pool was a near-silent fifth character, the onstage piano accompanist, St. Louis native and musical director Charles Creath.

Cast of “Nina Simone: Four Women” Photo by Philip HamerThe script of Nina Simone: Four Women is too often clichéd (“walk a mile in my shoes”), too often expository in a biopic/Wikipedia sort of way (“It was my first top 10 hit”) and sometimes period-inappropriate (“skin in the game”). Yet, with the exception of a few flubbed lines, the actresses more than compensate for these shortcomings with their snappy timing, true heart and deep authenticity. And they soared and rose above the material individually and collectively performing “Old Jim Crow,” “Brown Baby” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and the other well-curated selections from Simone’s songbook.

The play seeks to make connections among the many issues it
touches and attempts to reach an epiphanic conclusion with the four characters
joining together for Simone’s song “Four Women.” The play’s wide-ranging reach
surpasses the ability of this one song to offer a satisfying resolution to the
issues it raises – but perhaps that point. It’s one woman’s (Simone herself) or
each character’s way of navigating a barrage of cultural adversities and finding
some meaning, strength and hope despite these challenges.

For this culmination, the attention instead should return to
“Mississippi Goddam.” Though the lyrics are relatively tame by modern urban
music’s standards, the anger is still palpable, real and relevant. It should
leave the audience realizing it’s not just Mississippi or Alabama goddam, but St.
Louis goddam and, yes, America goddam.

“Nina Simone: Four Women” plays at the Edison Theatre May 15-June 2. For tickets or more information, call the box office at 314-534-3807 or go online attheblackrep.org. A special $20 deal is available on Wednesday nights through the run.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Plays with substantial women roles were spotlighted at the seventh annual St.
Louis Theater Circle Awards March 25, with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’
musical production of “Evita” and a homegrown “A Streetcar Named Desire” from
the third annual Tennessee Williams Festival each receiving seven awards.

Both iconic female-lead shows had received the most
nominations, 11 apiece, when the Circle announced them in January. The awards
recognized outstanding work locally produced by regional professional companies
during the calendar year 2018.

Nominees Kari Ely and Michelle Hand in “Into the Breeches!”The comedy “Into the Breeches!”, the first play in Shakespeare
Festival St. Louis’ new program, “In the Works,” won four awards. The world
premiere was in January 2018, with its first St. Louis performances in
September. The comedy from Chicago playwright George Brant is about a
fictitious theater group in 1942, and with the men away at war, the director’s
wife sets out to produce an all-female version of “Henry V.” It had roles for
six women and two men. In addition to awards for ensemble, director Nancy Bell
and best production, Michelle Hand won best actress.

The Circle, which includes veteran area theater critics, annually recognizes outstanding work in comedies, dramas and musicals, and with two opera categories.

Each of the 33 categories featured five nominees, with 23 local companies cited for 54 shows, and 120 artists receiving nods, including 10 with two apiece.

This year, there were three ties: sound design in a play, costume design in a musical and musical ensemble.

Evita won seven awards from the Circle“Evita,” the vibrant Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, earned awards for musical direction (Charlie Alterman), choreography (Gustavo Zajac and Mariana Parma), set design (Luke Canterella), lighting (John Lasiter), director (Rob Ruggiero, his third), ensemble and production of a musical.

The landmark “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written in 1947 by the great American playwright Tennessee Williams, who spent his formative years in St. Louis, earned honors for Sophia Brown as Outstanding Actress – for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the emotionally needy and mental fragile faded beauty Blanche Dubois, sound design (original music by Henry Palkes and sound by Amanda Werre), lighting design (Sean M. Savoie), set design (James Wolk), direction (Tim Ocel), ensemble and production of a drama.

The 18 other awards went to separate shows, with both The
Black Rep and The Muny winning three apiece, and The Rep adding two more for earning
the most, nine.

Jeff Cummings and Katy Keating in “Life Sucks.” Photo by ProPhotoSTLIn comedy, Katy Keating won for Supporting Actress as feisty but unrequited lovesick Sonia in New Jewish Theatre’s “Life Sucks,” a ‘sort of’ adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by Aaron Posner. She was also part of the award-winning ensemble of “Into the Breeches!”.

Isaiah Di Lorenzo in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo by Ron James.Isaiah Di Lorenzo won Supporting Actor as The Player, the leader of the Tragedians, in St. Louis Shakespeare’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” He also was in the award-winning ensemble of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Will Bonfiglio as Mary Dale in “Red Scare on Sunset.” Photo by Justin Been. Will Bonfiglio won his second Outstanding Actor Award, as film star Mary Dale in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Red Scare on Sunset.” He was honored in 2017 for the one-man show, “Buyer & Cellar,” also at Stray Dog.

For costume designs, Lou Bird won for The Rep’s “Born Yesterday” vintage wardrobe in the play category and there was a tie in the musical category between Leon Dobkowski, who won for The Muny’s colorful “The Wiz,” and Darryl Harris for the elegant “Crowns: A Gospel Musical” at The Black Rep.

There was another tie in sound design in a play – besides “Streetcar,” Rusty Wandall won for Lucas Hnath’s contemporary “The Humans” at The Rep.

Laurie McConnell, left, as Birdie Hubbard in “The Little Foxes.” Photo by Patrick HuberIn drama, Laurie McConnell won Supporting Actress as forlorn
Birdie Hubbard in St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of Lillian Hellman’s “The
Little Foxes.” She won in 2017 for Supporting Actress in a Musical, for her portrayal
of Joanne in “Company” at Insight Theatre Company.

Eric Dean White as Satan and Chris Ware as Judas. Photo by Ann AuerbachEric Dean White, a previous nominee, won Supporting Actor for playing the slick, smooth, haughty and conniving Satan in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Ron Himes in “Fences”

Another previous nominee and winner, Ron Himes won Outstanding Actor as bitter garbage collector Troy in August Wilson’s “Fences at The Black Rep last winter. In 2014, The Black Rep won best ensemble and production for “The Whipping Man.”

The Black Rep’s “Torn Asunder” best new playThe Black Rep also won Best New Play for Nikkole Salter’s “Torn
Asunder,” which dramatized true stories of newly emancipated African Americans
trying to overcome the vestiges of slavery so they could reconnect with their
families.

Joy Boland won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of the imposing villainess sea witch in Variety Theater’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”

Beth Leavel as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” Photo by Philip Hamer.For their powerhouse musical performances, Corbin Bleu won Outstanding Actor as the fleet-footed matinee idol Don Lockwood in “Singin’ in the Rain” and Beth Leavel was honored as the controlling stage parent Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” both at The Muny.

Corbin Bleu in “Singin’ in the Rain” at The Muny. Photo by Phil Hamer.Leavel had been nominated three times before (“Hello Dolly!” “Oklahoma!” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” all at the Muny. She is currently performing on Broadway in a St. Louis-produced original musical, “The Prom.”

Stephanie Merritt and Kent Coffel in “The Light in the Piazza” Kent Coffel won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical for his performance as well-meaning haberdasher Signor Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s father, in “The Light in the Piazza,” presented by R-S Theatrics in its St. Louis regional premiere.

Anything Goes at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter LindbergTying with “Evita” for musical ensemble was New Line Theatre’s vivacious “Anything Goes.”

It was a three-peat for Ruggiero, who won for directing “Evita,” and had previously been honored for The Rep’s productions of “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”

“Regina” at OTSL was Outstanding Opera ProductionIn the opera categories, Opera Theatre of St. Louis was honored
for both Outstanding Achievement in Opera, which was given to director Patricia
Racette for “La Traviata,” and the Mark Blitzstein adaptation of “The Little Foxes”
— “Regina,” as Outstanding Production of an Opera.
Three special awards were bestowed:  To the
Muny for a century of performances celebrated during its centennial season of
2018; to Kathleen Sitzer, founder and long-time artistic director of the New
Jewish Theatre, for lifetime achievement; and to Steven Woolf, Augustin
artistic director of The Rep for more than 30 years, also for lifetime
achievement.

Sitzer retired after New Jewish Theatre’s 2017-18 season, while Woolf will retire after The Rep’s 2018-19 season this spring. Organized in 2012, the St. Louis Theater Circle includes founding members Steve Allen of stagedoorstl.com, Mark Bretz of the Ladue News, Robert A. Cohn of the St. Louis Jewish Light, Chris Gibson of Broadway World, Gerry Kowarsky of HEC-TV’s “Two on the Aisle,” Chuck Lavazzi of KDHX, Judith Newmark, now of judyacttwo.com, Ann Pollack of stlouiseats.typepad.com, Lynn Venhaus, now of St. Louis Limelight magazine, Bob Wilcox of HEC-TV’s Two on the Aisle, and Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tina Farmer of KDHX and Michelle Kenyon of snoopstheatrethoughts.com. Eleanor Mullin is the administrator.

Those who helped produce the show at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University included Andrea Torrence and Peggy Holly, who put together the slide show; awards assistance Hannah Daines, stage manager Alycia Martin and assistant stage manager Delaney Dunster, voice-over announcer Colin Nichols and box office assistants Kimberly Sansone and Harry Ginsburg.

Renowned local musician Joe Dreyer was the accompanist and Deborah Sharn performed an opening number.

Special thanks to Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, Price Waterhouse Cooper LLC, who tabulate the Circle ballots, and to the awards certificate calligrapher Susan Zenner.

Contact the Circle by email: [email protected] and like us on Facebook.

Evita at The RepInto the Breeches! at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

“La Traviata” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis