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A DOUBLE LOVE FOR THEATER
by Brad Balfour
When creator David E. Talbert and actor Morris Chestnut joined forces recently they definitely moved forward the form of African American theater that Talbert spearheaded. For the last 15 years, he has pioneered and nurtured this blend of romantic comedy, serious themes and rich R&B tunes with such plays as "Love on Layaway" and "A Woman Like That."
Now the five-time NAACP Award-winning playwright/producer/ director celebrates his 15th anniversary as an influencer in the African American theatre circuit with the premiere of his 12th stage production. With sponsorship from BET, his much-anticipated "Love In The Nick Of Tyme" kicks off a 17-city limited engagement tour with its opening run at the Beacon Theater this month (from January 16th-21st).
Combining drama, romance, comedy and solid thumping R&B written by chart-topping vocalist Vivian Green, the play not only has veteran actor Chestnut ("Ladder 49," "The Cave") but an experienced cast such as R&B artists Terry Dexter, Avant, and Andre Pitre, with actors Ellia English, Trenyce, Blu Mitchell, Christi Dickerson, Jerrell Roberts and Lyn Talbert. Cinema star and heartthrob Chestnut makes his theatrical debut playing a hard-hearted, two-timing character like never before.
"Love in the Nick of Tyme" centers on a smart, vivacious beauty salon owner, Tyme Prentice (Dexter), who is successful in business but hardly a success with her love life. When Harvey (Pitre), an old admirer, re-enters her life, she's forced to confront her feelings for Marcellis (Chestnut), the charming but unfaithful jazz musician and father of her 17-year-old son.
Q: What is the play about?
MC: It's a love story, set in a salon called "The Nick of Thyme." The salon owner is named Tyme?hat's why it's spelled "T-Y-M-E." She's in a 17-year relationship with herson's father, Marcellis, who Morris is playing. He doesn't really want her but doesn't want anyone else to have her. And it's a journey of "How do you let go of something that once felt good to you in order to find something that'll be good for you?"
Q: Morris, are there roles you've done that have elements of that or does this role give you a chance to relate to an audience differently?
MC: It's always a trick question--how do I talk about this character without giving too much away. He's unlike any of the lead roles that I've played in romantic films. He doesn't always do the right things, and he doesn't always do good things. He doesn't always do what's good for Tyme, which is why she's going to have to struggle with her feelings and emotions for me in order to do the right thing for herself.
DT: And that's Morris Chestnut to make it even more of a struggle. [laughter] How do you let that go? Women in the audience are going to be like--"I don't care what he does, honey. Don't let that black man go nowhere."
Q: David, do you find the process of making films different from producing and directing plays?
DT: Stage is the craft where the stage actor has to make each moment feel like either a master shot, over-the-shoulder-to shot, or make it feel like the camera is going to slow-dolly in. When I directed "A Woman Like That?", I should have been thrown in a film-directing prison; because I directed that after I directed my fourth play and I didn't understand the only relationship that mattered was between the camera and the actor, and I was on the side because I'm used to directing proscenium. It was my eyes that were important.
N'Bushe Wright and another actor were in the scene. It was the first scene I shot in the movie. I was on the side and I told them what they got to do and everything. I was like [whispers]: "Okay, great, go, action." And they did. I said [whispers]: "Good, good. Good scene." And then my DP pulled me over and he said, "You might want to look in the camera." I said [whispers]: "Oh, that's right."
Q: How did you guys get together to do this project?
DT: We met on the set of the "Jamie Foxx: Unpredictable" special I
Morris was just finishing a movie with Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard, "This Christmas," and was about to do a movie with the Rock, "The Game Plan," so I said if you've got any time... We got together, and I found out he was a fan of my work too. He read the script, I spoke to him, and not only are we doing this theater piece, but we've formed a production company together and we're going to create content in other mediums as well.
MC: David came to me and [said] "You know, Morris, I just co-wrote a book with Snoop Dog, 'Love Don't Live Here No More--Book One of Doggy Tales (Simon and Schuster)." I was like, "Yeah, man, it felt good." He said, "I have a best-selling novel called "Baggage Claim: A Novel (Simon and Schuster)" and I just worked with Jamie Foxx." And he said, "Now you need to hop on this train [laughs]." I've been a big fan of David's work for a long time and when we finally had an opportunity to talk we realized we had the same vision and the same theory about certain things.
Q: What are those theories you share?
DT: Most actors are "Feel me, love me, see me, touch me, adore me, worship me." Morris is the exact opposite. He's about the art and when the art is done and the job is done he's on doing his thing. He's not into all that fou-fou stuff.
What I've always been about is not only creating your art but owning your art and then being able to distribute it directly to your audience. The first thing he said after he said he was going to do the play is, "Man, what I really want to do is create a sitcom. What I really want to do is have a production company." I started to realize that we were like-minded in that we have to control not only how we create or perform our images but then how we market and promote them and ultimately how we distribute them.
MC: It was primarily the way we approached the business. One thing Dave and I do share is, we definitely want to give back to the community and we also like to project positive images and values in the community. The messages we want to send while we entertain people are the same.
While we're touring on this play, we're going to be stopping at local high schools and colleges because we want to inspire the next young David E. Talberts and the next young Morris Chestnuts. So one of the ways we feel it's best to do that is to go out and let them see us, let them talk to us and ask us questions, and hopefully that will inspire them.
DT: So many times in Hollywood, our images are controlled by people who don't look like us. With the touring theater circuit, from the page to the stage, we are in control of our images, and the equity in our images. The first thing Morris said when I said, "Would you be in my play?" is, "I like your plays man, but I hear about some of the other plays, so we're going to make sure you're going to do this play like you've done your other plays."
It's important at the end of the day, that you won't see him in B-movies or anything. He's very protective of his brand, and I'm very protective of my brand, and I'm very protective of the genre which I have been able to help pioneer and elevate. So when you speak of touring black theater, you don't say, "Oh, one of those plays." It's held in the same regard aesthetically as a Broadway production.
Q: Has the success of such mainstream Broadway plays as "The Color Purple" and "Raisin in the Sun" made it easier or harder for you to do what you do?
DT: It raises the awareness. You would always see Hollywood actors in an obscure play Off-Broadway--the big ones. They do a Shakespearean play or something avant-garde, something Off-Broadway. But what Oprah in "The Color Purple" and Puffy in "Raisin in the Sun" and Morris Chestnut in "Love in the Nick of Tyme" have done is raise the awareness to say that when doors close for you in Hollywood, or when you want to just work out your craft and just want to exercise the connection with a live audience, this is a viable medium and it doesn't mean that your career has gone. So I applaud Morris and Puffy and Oprah for wrapping themselves around theater productions.
Q: Theater has always wrestled with trying to reach a younger audience. You have the younger audience because the films you have done have reached a younger audience. So who do you see yourself speaking to with this play?
DT: BET came on board as a promotional partner, so that is bringing a whole different audience that may have not patronized my plays. The mama came to see my play and the grandma is like, "Baby, you going to love your grandmama? Get a ticket today. That's a good boy [laughs]."
This one gives us a chance to reach a different generation and expose them to the art because it's the artistic community that births the leaders in our community. Those that we look back on and say these are the folks that we emulate and want to [be like] come from the church and the artistic community.
Q: Do you see yourself competing with other people doing theater and converting it to film like Tyler Perry ("Diary of A Mad Black Woman"?
DT: No. Everybody has their own artistic voice, and their own way of telling a story. I get e-mails that say, "I like your plays better than I like Tyler's plays." Well, that's not doing our community any service, because we support how he tells his story. He's expressing his art, he's reaching his audience, and he's helping to spread hope and inspiration and laughter in this community. I applaud that. So I don't ever compete with anybody else because no one can write a story the way I would write a story, just like I can't write a story the way he would write a story.
Q: Morris, you hear a lot of veteran actors say how performing in theater really enhances your performance on film. How has that affected your approach to film acting?
MC: Well this is going to be my first stage play. One of the reasons is because I've gotten into a comfortable rut for the past few years in the way I approach acting. I haven't really, truly, been excited and enthusiastic about acting for some time now. When David presented me with the opportunity to do this play, [I thought] that excites me because I know I'm going to have to step up my game.
They can say, "Morris, you're about to star in a $100 million movie with Denzel Washington and Robert De Niro tomorrow." And I'll be like, "Okay, cool." That's an old half of me. I already know when I go to work what to expect: worry about myself, go to my trailer, get my lines right, when they say "Action," perform. When I do a film, I get from one to 30 takes.
This is going to be different for me. I know this time, I get one take, and that one take had better be money. And it better be money tonight, it better be money tomorrow night and the next night, and then the next city. Then I have to deal with the live audience. They're going to be talking and doing whatever they do, so my level of focus and concentration have to be heightened. And that's where the whole honing of your skills and your craft is derived from, because you have to be able to stay in that character.
I know several people who have worked with David, and they are better actors after having worked with him. So I'm really excited to be doing this play.
Q: David. How have you prepared him for the call-and-response of the audience, and how have you prepared yourself for when they say, "You Go Boy!."
DT: Well, you just be black for any length of time and you're used to call-and-response. The theater circuit was born from the black church. When the preacher says something that you agree with, you Amen it. "That's right! You tell it! That's right!" And the same thing with theater. It's an extension of that. It's interactive theater in many ways. But he hears it when he comes on screen in a movie, I'm sure.
MC: It's different. That's one of the reasons I'm excited about it. He can tell me all day long until he's blue in the face about what I can expect to happen. But until I'm on that stage and have to be in the moment and stay in character, I'm not going to know.
DT: You know in the football stadiums when the wave comes up, that's what's going to happen.
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