Vanguard tackles race issues in ‘Memphis’

Maplewood theater company stages musical in Bloomfield about interracial love, music in the ’50s

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BLOOMFIELD / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Vanguard Theater Company returns to the stage with a dynamic lineup of young local talent and seasoned Broadway actors with their production of the popular Broadway musical “Memphis” at the Westminster Arts Center on the campus of Bloomfield College from July 13 to 16.

​Founded in 2015, Vanguard Theater Company, based in Maplewood, is a nonprofit arts organization committed to producing transformational theater dedicated to diversity, community engagement, education and professional artistic mentorship.

Always looking for thoughtful and creative ways to bring people together with theater and music, Janeece Freeman-Clark was not initially keen on the idea of putting on a production of the show “Memphis,” which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2010.

Set in the 1950s, “Memphis” is a musical about both the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the forbidden romance between a white DJ and a black singer at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States.

“I have this fabulous board of directors and Vanguard is all about diversity, and all about musicals that bring social awareness, especially with themes or issues that are still relevant today,” she said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “A couple of years ago we did ‘Hairspray,’ which deals with integration in Baltimore in the 1960s. When my team first brought the idea of ‘Memphis’ to me, I dismissed it because it is so similar to ‘Hairspray.’ But as I started digging deeper, I realized that, though there are similarities, the two shows are quite different because it’s a different time period — 1950s versus 1960s — as far as the civil rights movement.”

For Freeman-Clark, the parallels between the storyline in “Memphis” and what is happening in United States currently were too important to ignore.

“This show is about the parallels of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the civil rights movement; rock ‘n’ roll is a mixture of R&B, gospel and the blues. Also, this was right around the time that the church, which was so influential in the movement, joined forces with secular organizations like the NAACP. In the same way, gospel joined with R&B and had a collective effort in bringing about change,” she said. “I also feel like the piece is so relevant because in some ways we are still stuck in this rut where we see color before we see anything else, and we have so many prejudices and we are so quick to judge as opposed to embracing our differences and that’s what really holds back the country and the world. What I love about this piece is that it reminds us where we were and that we have come a long way, but we have much further to go.”

Freeman-Clark, who lives in South Orange, also directed a recent production of “Oklahoma!” for Seton Hall University’s spring musical. It was there that she connected with Toni Gardner, a bright local talent, who will be performing in the musical.

In a recent phone interview with the News-Record, Gardner said, “Janeece mentioned the Broadway Buddies program and publicized it while I was working with her on ‘Oklahoma!’ so I auditioned for the program and was accepted, and I had a mentor. And when we had our cabaret in May, I thought that Vanguard had a great concept of diversity and mentorship and I saw that in the program.

“Then Janeece contacted me about ‘Memphis’ and asked me if I was free to do the show. For me it was a great way to spend my time in the summer so I said ‘yes.’”

Last spring Vanguard, which Freeman-Clark founded with friend Daryl Stewart, initiated its Broadway Buddy Program to pair talented youth with veteran actors who serve as mentors. The “buddies” met one-on-one on numerous occasions during which the professional actors shared their personal experiences in the industry and gave advice to the aspiring performers. They also worked together on a piece presented at the Broadway Buddy Mentorship Cabaret, held in May 2016. The program and cabaret featured students from more than 18 New Jersey towns ranging from Wayne to Newark and included Broadway professionals from shows including “Hamilton,” “Aladdin,” “The Color Purple,” “School of Rock” and more. A portion of the proceeds from the cabaret was used to fund scholarships for Vanguard’s next initiative, Vanguard’s Kid’s Camp, held in August 2016.

“Coming into ‘Memphis,’ I had no idea what it was about. I think the focus of it is, of course, the overlying talk of racism and how evil that is, but on top of all of that is the music and how amazing music is and that it is a force that can transcend hate. I think that’s such a beautiful concept, especially in the theater world,” Gardner said. “I think Vanguard is an amazing company and they’re doing some great things for kids and for the state of New Jersey. I think it’s amazing that they are bringing these productions locally.”

“Memphis” also features the choreography of Maplewood resident Gregory Omar Osborne, a 2008 graduate of Columbia High School who serves as both choreographer and assistant producer for the show.

Though Osborne has been involved in regional productions of “Memphis” in Florida, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, this is his first time working with Vanguard, and his first time working on the show in his home state.

“I fell in love with the show the first time I did it because of the story, because it’s honest and there’s not a lot of shows that show black people making it and being successful, so that’s one of the reasons why I love it. Working on it, I get to put my own spin on it and tell my truth,” he said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I know I have had a few instances with racism and I can bring that forward in my work. All of these instances of young black men getting killed now are very similar to what was happening to people in the 1950s. It’s making me dig deeper and I’m growing as a choreographer and as an actor as well.”

For South Orange resident Whitney Pillsbury, the opportunity to participate in this show brought him full-circle on many levels.

Pillsbury serves on the board of Vanguard Theater Company as the director of marketing, and he and his children also take lessons from Freeman-Clark in her private studio.

“Janeece is our next-door neighbor and we are very close, and my children have taken piano and voice lessons and I have taken voice lessons from her and been inspired by her expertise and creativity,” he said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I really like that it’s a biracial story, I think that’s very unique and beautiful. In South Orange in particular, just about everyone on our street is biracial. As a gay man who is married, I appreciate the story of love that isn’t legal. There are lines in the musical about going to New York where it’s legal to get married and those lines still ring true for me today. It’s not just race inequality that this show speaks to; I get the feels too, as a gay man. It’s a beautiful story and important in this day and age.”

The show previews on July 13 at the Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield, with additional performances from July 14 to 16. For more information, visit www.memphisnj.com.

Photos Courtesy of Whitney Pillsbury

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