WEST ORANGE, NJ — Luna Stage is in the midst of its silver anniversary season, celebrating 25 years since the theater company was founded. While traditional plays are still going on through the season, this December is seeing Luna stage its first ever SoloFest. Five solo artists — all from New Jersey — will take the stage in their own productions for SoloFest. On Dec. 8 and 9, the West Orange stage will be welcoming South Orange resident and actress Ami Brabson, whose show “Phenomenal Woman” is a musical celebration of extraordinary women.
Brabson’s primary inspiration was the Maya Angelou poem of the same name, on which she decided to model her show after reading it.
“The person in it is confident in herself,” she said in a phone interview on Dec. 4. “She has power and beauty and she’s not ashamed of it, and I loved that. I started with the poem and it came from that. It was my desire to create something with singing. And I’m not necessarily talking about each woman for what they’re famous for; it’s something else.”
In her show, Brabson makes reference to several women, including Angelou, her own mother, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California and civil rights activist Ella Baker.
The show is a solo endeavor, as Brabson will be the only actor on stage. A veteran actor who has worked in both television and on stage, working with a cast of other characters is the standard to which she is accustomed. But now she is taking on the role of actor, singer and producer.
“It’s wonderful and it’s terrible,” Brabson joked about being the only star of the show. “I’m responsible for everything; it’s all on me. But I am working with three musicians. They’re there and even though they’re not acting, their presence is backing me up. That’s worth mentioning.”
While “Phenomenal Woman” a solo show, it’s not a solo project. Director Corinna Sowers Adler is a collaborator on whom Brabson has relied to put the show together, and Adler took the helm to produce most of the music.
“I bring a lot of the text, and I have some ideas about what I want to do,” Brabson said. “But Corinna is the one who really puts it together. I bring stuff in and we collaborate, which has been really wonderful.”
Brabson said this has been useful, especially when incorporating something into a show that she has never done before. She started taking voice lessons 11 years ago, but only started singing publicly about five years ago.
“Music has become a prominent part of my life,” she said. “I think it’s important to learn how to do something you’ve never done as an adult. If you had asked me 10 years ago if would do a show with singing and music in it, I would have said no. So part of the reason I did this was just because I can.”
Brabson moved with her family to South Orange in 1998, and said she did less theater than television while her three sons were growing up. The area was a draw because of its arts scene, she said, compared to Baltimore, where she had previously lived. Recently she has had more opportunities to get back on stage.
“What I’m liking now about a piece that I’ve produced is a feeling of pride that I haven’t had before,” she said. “There’s this sense of accomplishment.”
Brabson has enjoyed performing in smaller theaters. She debuted “Phenomenal Woman” at the Westminster Arts Center at Bloomfield College, and said taking it to Luna has been a good experience.
“Luna is a wonderful little theater; it’s cool because it’s part of a community,” she said. “Keeping it going is hard, and it’s great that it’s been around for so long. It’s nice that friends that I have in this neck of the woods can come and see it.”
Brabson sees her show as being accidentally timely.
“It’s a celebration of these women,” she said. ”There’s a real message for people in one way or another. The world is so fraught in so many ways, and it’s about women coming into their own and holding hands. It’s timely without me really trying.”
Photos Courtesy of Ami Brabson