I spent some time sinking into my seat at the West Coast premiere of "Hiram & Nettie" last week at the West Las Vegas Library. The gospel tale of life on a Southern plantation had scene after scene of mean white men viciously beating defenseless slaves. It didn’t help that I was one of the very few white people in the sold-out audience.
At intermission, I asked a woman sitting beside me how these scenes made her feel. Angry? Bitter? Vengeful?
I didn’t know it at the time that I was talking to actress Dawnn Lewis, who was featured in NBC’s "A Different World" and the Pasadena Playhouse stage production of "Sister Act."
Lewis said these sorts of productions remind her of what other people had to do to allow her her freedoms and privileges. It made her wonder if she would have the moral strength to be able to go through the same situations. (During one dialogue-less moment, she began humming with the music. I told her, "You’ve got a great voice!" I didn’t realize she was a musical star in her own right.)
"Hiram & Nettie" — a musical treatment about two slaves who unexpectedly find love and freedom — played for only one weekend, but we’re going to hear from this theater troupe again. The large cast consisted of a slew of top-notch vocalists, backed by some stunning visual effects — including an almost too-real look at a woman getting hanged and body makeup (by Shakira Johnson) that provided graphic (and realistic) looks at the slaves’ wounds.
They call themselves "Broadway in the Hood" (under the sponsorship of A Source of Joy Theatricals) and they’re hoping to do a full season this year (including "Smokey Joe’s Cafe"). What makes them unique is that their tickets are always free. They’re supported by donors who believe theater should be made available to everyone.
Producer and director Torrey A. Russell took the stage afterward to comment that the purpose of the enterprise isn’t to just benefit the audience, but the cast members as well. Some, he said, were former prostitutes, drug dealers and current pastors. The show was meant to bring together different types to tap their creative resources.
I think Broadway in the Hood is particularly needed in Vegas, where blacks are seldom seen in "mainstream" plays, onstage or in the audience. It makes sense that this movement would be born at the West Las Vegas Library, located in a troubled neighborhood where most of the actors live. But I hope eventually they will be able to afford to go into the city’s other theaters and neighborhoods. Vegans need a better sense of just how much talent is out there waiting to be nurtured.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas NV 89125.