Red Mountain Theatre Company’s upcoming season is an exciting mix of song and substance.
When is a play more than a play?
In Red Mountain Theatre Co.’s case, it is when the performing arts inspire conversation and stir the collective social consciousness. The Birmingham theatre company put that notion to the test when it staged MANDELA (February 5-8) at Red Mountain Cabaret Theatre downtown.
“This show was an opportunity to engage the community in conversation on issues that are much more than a history lesson,” says RMTC Executive Director Keith Cromwell. “Apartheid ended in South Africa only 20 years ago. I think people often associate Mandela and his struggle with our Civil Rights Era, but their struggle continued into the ‘90s, and they’re still struggling. As demonstrations sweep this nation—what’s happening in Ferguson and New York—show that our own country still struggles with racial issues.”
RMTC hopes that MANDELA has served as a catalyst for Birmingham audiences to engage in a new way regarding injustice and reconciliation for our past and present—to help pave the way for a better future. Each performance of MANDELA was followed by a talk-back session with community leaders on how the activist’s life can serve as an example. These panel discussions included opportunities for the audience to engage in discourse with some of Birmingham’s pre-eminent champions for equality. Renowned playwright Cheryl L. Davis (Barnstormer, MLK Project) and poet Sharrif Simmons collaborated on this original work based on the lives impacted by legendary humanitarian, Nelson Mandela. MANDELA explores the life of a true visionary through spoken word, music and video.
Such a thought-provoking production ties directly into the mission and role that the leaders of Red Mountain Theatre envision for their troupe—that of being an active part of the community and not only entertainment provider.
“The performing arts inspire conversation and stir the collective social consciousness,” Cromwell says. “If I just look at the shows on the Red Mountain Theatre Company Stages in the past few years this statement resounds. Les Miserables is an epic story filled with perseverance, faith, reconciliation, and a fervent desire to question society’s moral consciousness. This season we were thrilled to bring a new work to the stage celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela where clearly the same themes will be explored.
“I have had the pleasure to witness incredible audience exchanges during our talk-backs after powerful performances. The Martin Luther King Project, The Color Purple, Legally Blonde etc. In the wake of these shows authentic conversation was spawned in multiple ways, igniting a renewed social exchange. During one of our talk-backs, a patron heavy in the civil rights movement recalled how affected she was sitting in our theatre with the realization that it was the first time she had returned to that building since her youth. The same building where on a wall not far from where she now sat was a “colored only” drinking fountain,” Cromwell says.
The upcoming season is a study in diversity with shows that focus on families and adults. Shows that tackle big issues from Mandela to divorce. “Big themes. That’s what makes a good season,” Cromwell says.
Musical Theatre offers a “fun escape” for an audience. Last season’s Grease and La Cage Aux Folles and this season’s Band Geeks and Mary Poppins are good examples. While offering a release from life stresses these shows also impart wonderful messages of acceptance, unconditional love and reminders to inspect the priorities of our lives.
The rest of the 2015 offerings are The Last Five Years (February 19-21), Band Geeks (April 16-19); The Wiz (May 15-31) and Mary Poppins (July 10 – August 2).
This modern musical from Jason Robert Brown ingeniously chronicles the five-year life of a marriage, from meeting to break-up and from break-up to meeting. Both Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor will travel with Brown to Birmingham to reprise their roles as Cathy and Jamie, a twenty-something couple in New York who explore the last half-decade of their relationship through song. This unique show starts with Jamie at the beginning of their romance; Cathy starts her story at the end, and throughout “The Last Five Years,” the audience watches as their love blossoms and deteriorates.
“Telling the story from different vantage points—in both the natural order and reversed order—is incredibly interesting,” says Keith Cromwell.
RMTC will stage an intimate, concert version of the “The Last Five Years.” Cromwell says is thrilled to bring Jason Robert Brown back to Birmingham. Rated R for strong language.
Band Geeks is a work written by Tommy Newman. The show is a celebration of the tribulations of the millions who have spent football halftimes pounding out Sousa-like renditions of “Maria.” Whether you were in the band, on the team, or in the stands, you’ll recognize the woes and revel in the fun of Band Geeks. The show’s uncanny ability to bring smiles to audiences’ faces is undeniable. A performer and director’s dream, every new character that takes the stage is more dynamic than the last.
The Wiz will bring audiences great Gospel music performed by an all African -American cast. The show will stay very much like the original in the excitement and virtuosity of the performances. Rufus Bonds Jr. is directing and he is no stranger to Red Mountain having taught and given concerts on our stage. The Wiz choreographer is Ron Kellum.
July 10 – August 2
The director and choreographer of Mary Poppins, Robin Lewis, is a long time friend of Red Mountain Theatre. He came up through Summerfest and now teaches musical theatre at Rider University, after traveling and performing on Broadway. This is one of his favorite shows, Robin says, because it reminds him so much of his childhood. Excitement for the show continues to build with over 200 people auditioning for roles.
The heart of Red Mountain Theatre is its sense of community. At its bedrock, the organization opens up the world of theatre not just for patrons, but also for artists both aspiring and accomplished.
“I watch students go from our education programs to our stage to advancing to national tours or to excelling in almost any field of endeavor,” Cromwell says. “When you see these students work as hard as they do to get that dance step or learn that line and then to see them excel in other parts of their life because of the training they have received here, that is rewarding. Our shows just keep getting larger and the talent gets better. When we challenge the community to audition we find that many of our greatest actors are right here. To give them a stage on which to perform is joy for us.”
So for Red Mountain Theatre, the play is just not the thing. It is in fact so very much more. “I believe that the work we do in reaching 17,000 students in the Birmingham area for the arts is important. I believe that the arts changes lives and shows people that the impossible is possible,” Cromwell says. “Musical theatre shows offer fun and escape for an audience. While offering a release from life stresses, these shows also impart wonderful messages of acceptance, unconditional love and reminders to inspect the priorities of our lives.”