For the past four years, we have been producing live theater in downtown Clayton at the rate of two productions a year.
Roxanne and I had to overcome a lot of obstacles and face many challenges before the curtain went up on our first show — beginning with the need to enlist a board of directors and raise sufficient funds to purchase the first play and rent the performance space. Fortunately, the Clayton Business and Community Association (CBCA) told us that they would match funds, so we engaged in a number of fundraising efforts and succeeded in collecting sufficient donations so that, with the CBCA matching funds, we were able to launch the company and put on our first show. The Clayton town center includes an adorable little building called Endeavor Hall. It isn’t a theater, but is a nice performance space that we could transform into a temporary theater.
In October 2012 we presented The Robber Bridegroom — a lively musical that earned nine awards when it was introduced in 1975, including the Tony Award for Best Book in a Musical. Clayton provided an ideal municipal setting for our first project because the town has a lovely stopped-in-time quality. The show suited the nostalgic elements that are part of the town’s legacy.
Happily, people liked The Robber Bridegroom, so the Clayton Theatre Company has been doing two shows every year since then, one of them a comedy, the other a musical, and each of them in Endeavor Hall. Roxanne and I wrote and composed the musical that we performed in the second year. We called it A Trip Down Broadway. It garnered Shellie award nominations for Best Musical and Best Director.
In July 2015 we opened our Summer Stage camp for kids ages 6 through 18. It provides three weeks of teaching theater skills as children work on producing a musical, leading up to a performance at the end of the final week. Last year we did Aladdin. This July we are doing Seussical JR, which will give the kids great opportunities for performing as The Cat in the Hat and other characters from Dr. Seuss’s writings. Roxanne and I are currently working on a comedy for this spring, the Tony-award-winning Lend Me a Tenor, which opens next month on March 9.
Roxanne and I are having a great time. Our Clayton Theatre Company is educating, entertaining, and elevating the community. We are bringing opportunities for genuine laughter and tears to our audiences. We’re providing live entertainment for both children and adults, plus opportunities for residents who are interested in theater as performers or to provide the back stage support required by every theater production.
My mother raised us five children on her own. Even though she didn’t sing or act, her life was a production. According to the family story, she was brought home from the hospital as a newborn dressed in a faux leopard-skin jumper. Mom maintained the style throughout her life and earned the nickname “Billie Jean the Leopard Queen.” We were a happy family. I was fourth of her five children and we got along well together. We moved to the Bay Area when I was ten so we could be closer to family in Oakland and Berkeley.
I’ve been interested in theater arts since I was seven years old, wearing big ears, and playing the role of Dopey in the Los Angeles Stoner Elementary School production of Snow White. I would have preferred the lead role, but I was too young. Plus, I’m African American and in those days the world was unprepared to embrace a Snow White played by a black girl. Even in the role of Dopey, as soon as I saw the reaction of the audience I discovered how satisfying it could be to entertain people by adopting another persona and presenting to an audience, a personality that was nothing like my own.
Beginning with Snow White I continued to perform in at least one play every year and often in several. I acted in all the school plays that I could and later did a little community theater. I even filled in as performer on a couple cruise ships. I didn’t particularly enjoy the lifestyle, but it added to my experience of performing before various kinds of audiences. By now I calculate that I’ve done at least 100 shows. I was often playing one of the leading roles or even as the star. However, my most memorable and satisfying performance was as a member of the ensemble in a production of Once on This Island. The music was hip-hop and Afro-Haitian, and I took great delight in the energy and exuberance that filled the stage and spilled over into the audience during each performance.
Even though Dopey was my first acting role, I had spent the previous year preparing for performance because Mom had put me in a dance class and I was learning the basic moves for both jazz and ballet. I subsequenlty studied music and dance at Pittsburg High. My business partner Roxanne Pardi taught voice and Orin Cross taught acting. Those two teachers encouraged me greatly to move towards my dreams. I’m a life-long student and never stopped trying to improve my acting and dancing skills. Following graduation, I took classes at various dance studios and actors workshops including ACT in San Francisco. I trained with a number of choreographers and instructors in places as far away as New York. My ultimate goal was to develop my skills to the point that I could be a choreographer and director. The ultimate dream was someday to direct productions of my own.
I found opportunities to teach at a dance studio and ultimately ended up providing instruction at eight studios. I was teaching some jazz, but my real focus was hip-hop. In fact, hip-hop was gaining popularity before they decided what to call it. At the beginning we just called it bop, which was a ridiculous name, so we were grateful when people began calling it hip-hop.
I was at the forefront of the hip-hop movement and people began seeking me out for instruction. For one thing, there was almost no other professional around at the time qualified to teach hip-hop. Even more than that, perhaps, students enjoyed my teaching style because I led them in enthusiastically engaging with hip-hop’s intrinsic movement and energy. The dancers enjoyed the vitality and power of hip-hop. They felt alive. The dance was particularly fun as students got more involved because they learned that it was more than merely shaking your body. They discovered the dance’s structured and technical underpinnings, so the more they mastered the style, the more satisfying the dancing became.
I entered some dance competitions and won some prizes. However, my real satisfaction came from coaching hip-hop dance teams and entering them in local and regional competitions. Over the course of a number of years, my teams participated in a lot of dance-offs and on many occasions walked away with first place.
I made an important step towards my ultimate dream when theater companies began hiring me to choreograph their productions. In 1992 I directed two productions, Cinderella and Scenes From Carmen Jones, for the San Francisco African-American Shakespeare Company. The experience made me conscious of my love for acting, directing, dance, and choreography. I wondered how I could put those things together, so I began working with musicals. My first major production in 1998 was as choreographer for Dream Girls at Concord’s Willows Theatre Company, where I earned a Shellie award nomination. I not only choreographed the dances but actually danced as an ensemble member in a number of scenes. Since then I have been choreographer for 33 different musicals. My work on Chicago earned me my first nomination for the Best Choreographer in the Bay Area Shellie Award.
My next big step towards my dream began in a conversation with my teacher from Pittsburg High, Roxanne Pardi. She had been engaged as an actress and vocal director in a lengthy list of plays and shows. During the years since high school, I had continued taking voice lessons from her whenever opportunities for doing so presented themselves. In 2010 at one of my vocal lessons with Roxanne, the two of us imagined how wonderful it would be if we could have our own theater company. Not long afterwards I landed the opportunity to direct an African-American Shakespeare Company’s production of Scenes from Carmen Jones. At my urging, the producer agreed to hire Roxanne as vocal director. The next year the two of us worked together on the company’s production of Cinderella. Both experiences demonstrated a successful alignment of our talents and confirmed the dream Roxanne and I had of starting our own theater company. Shortly afterwards, we got down to business to make our dream a reality.
Starting the company was a good choice. Roxanne and I love every part of performance arts and plan to ensure that Clayton Theatre Company continues to entertain the community for as long as we can keep the doors open.