By Byrne Harrison
After attending Juneteenth Blues Cabaret, I was interested in finding out more about the Juneteenth Legacy Theatre. I had an opportunity to speak with Lorna Littleway, Juneteenth Legacy's founder and producing director.
Tell me how Juneteenth Legacy Theatre came about.
I attended a summit, in 1999, on the state of black theater that was convened by August Wilson at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. At the time I was vice-president of Black Theatre Network, a service organization for theater academics, and I was teaching at the University of Louisville where I was co-Director of the African American Theatre Program. The conference identified needs of black theatre and number one was the development of black playwrights. It was noted that hardly any black theater companies had multiple stages and were in a position to develop emerging playwrights. I came away from the summit INSPIRED, not just by August’s words and the workshops, but also by the rural environment around Lebanon, NH. Fugitive slaves beating a path to Canada could have passed through that part of New Hampshire. Sharing thoughts over food and drink in a local tavern there was so MYSTICAL. I felt the ancestors encouraging me to DO SOMETHING. When I returned to Louisville, I vowed to start a black theater company there that focused on developing new works because the school program was mostly it for black theater in Louisville, Kentucky. So in December 1999 with a graduating senior, Kristi Papailler, I co-founded Juneteenth Legacy Theatre. In 2002, the company incorporated in NY State; and in 2005 in addition to producing in Louisville, started producing in the city - mostly at summer festivals like the NYCFringe and Midtown International Theater Festival. Three years ago we started producing at Nuyorican slowly expanding from one show a year to two, and in this our third year plan to produce our Juneteenth Festival of New Plays, which was a staple at Actors Theatre of Louisville for eleven years. Up until this past summer, we were producing in the two cities, Louisville and New York. But this season and for the foreseeable future, we are producing solely in NYC.
Having growing up in Texas myself, I'm familiar with Juneteenth and the celebrations that go along with it. Being a New York-based company, why did you decide to commemorate that event in your name?
I worked in radio news when I was a grad student at SMU in Dallas, Texas and heard about Juneteenth for the first time. I was very excited about the story of “delayed” emancipation being announced to slaves in Galveston 2 ½ years after the fact; and the image of their mass movement to Dallas to celebrate their freedom for ten days followed by an exodus north, east and west to inform other communities of slaves about their decreed freedom. Imagine the life change of being able to commune together, do whatever - talk and share freely among each other when previously your every move, thought and being was strictly dictated. Those moments of marveling were followed by disgust about yet another event in our American history being omitted in the classroom. So nearly 20 years later when I co-founded a theater company, the name Juneteenth was chosen to give wider play to that historic event because everyone inquires about the origin of the company’s name. The name Juneteenth also was chosen to underscore the universality of the African-American experience. And personally it has been very freeing as an artist to have and lead a theater company.
Tell me a little bit about your current show, Juneteenth Blues Cabaret.
We have been developing the play over seven years. Several actors, directors and designers have contributed to the process and there have been previous productions in Kentucky, Indiana and New York City. The songs have stayed the same, the text changes minimal to accommodate three-women and two-women/one man casts. With this production the score was changed and created by Music Director Ivan Thomas collaborating with “Blues Queen”, Jannie Jones. Can you believe Ivan was the original “Cool Dude”? With this production all the elements have come together – cast, composition, scenery, costumes, lights and venue! We’re working on posting “The Making of Juneteenth Blues Cabaret” on our website.
What drew you to these particular five singers (Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Lena Horne)?
They were my Mom’s favorites. She would play their records as she combed my hair at night before I would go to bed. I loved the stories the songs told. They were like mini plays. I would sneak and play them on Saturday mornings when my parents slept in. Also I grew up to Ethel Waters. I watched “Beulah” and saw her movie, “Pinky” as a kid. As described in the book, I too was disappointed by Ethel’s refusal to support the Civil Rights movement, unlike Lena Horne, who did. But I was not embarrassed by her show, “Beulah”. I thought it was great that a black actress starred in her own television show. Beulah was the brains and moral compass of that family.
If you could meet one of these blues divas in person, whom would you choose?
That’s a hard one, but if I must choose then it’s Dinah Washington. She was my Mom’s favorite. “Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith” was a cherished LP in our home. Her blues medley: The Blues Aint Nothing But a Woman Cryin For Her Man, Mean Ole Man’s World and Nobody Knows How I Feel This Morning is a three act play and Jannie delivers with such fervor
What's next for Juneteenth Legacy Theatre?
Our spring show, which opens March 31st, is an adaptation of scenes from three of Pearl Cleages’ plays, A Night With Pearl Cleage’s Women. The concept is similar to August Wilson’s Women which we produced last season and focused on 14 women from all ten of his plays. It’s a great way to introduce audiences to the body of a playwright’s work. Generally they are familiar with one or two, like Fences or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone for August, or Flying West for Pearl. One of the most satisfying comment from audiences, last year, was they didn’t know that August had written so many plays and that they now were interested in reading his plays because they had seen excerpts from all of them. Kind of how Juneteenth Blues Cabaret made you want to pull out your CDs and listen again to your collection of songs by Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. What I want to do is inspire people to stay connected to the black legacy in American culture.
Juneteenth Blues Cabaret
Nuyorican Poets Cafe
236 E. 3rd Street
Thursday-Saturday at 7 PM, through November 19th
November 20th at 3 PM