New theater company creates opportunities on and off stage

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A new theater company will make its debut in Maplewood when “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” premieres at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 16 and 17, produced by Progressive Theater. Founded by Gregory Osborne, the company aims to put on shows targeted at minorities while giving people opportunities to work on a musical in more than one capacity. “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” is being produced in partnership with the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.

“It started with a personal problem, like a lot of things do,” Osborne, an actor and choreographer, said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Feb. 11. “I was tired of playing the token character. I wanted to create opportunities for people of color and women.”

Osborne has previously produced his own shows and is the choreographer for “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” a musical that tells the story of a young black girl trying to become a performer. He said that, until he came across the show by Kirsten Childs, the only musicals he found that predominantly featured black performers were “Hairspray,” “The Color Purple” and “Dreamgirls.”

“There are other stories that need to be told, so this will give people a chance to get onstage but also work behind the curtain,” Osborne said. “I want them to walk out and go on to start their own things or direct their own shows. I’m trying to build that confidence in people.”

Progressive’s first production has an 11-person cast. Also involved are director Jasmin Richardson, music director Victor Burks and costume designer Antonio Consuegra, all of whom have spent time in the theater world, either acting or designing on Broadway. Osborne said they are examples of what he wants to teach at Progressive — that actors can do more than act. He wants to encourage them to become involved in all aspects of theater, from acting to set construction and lighting.

“A lot of actors have an ego problem,” he joked. “If we don’t hear applause it’s the end of our jobs, and we miss it when we’re not performing. So I urge people to find an extension of that, whether it’s writing or producing or directing. I talk to a lot of people who say ‘There’s not enough parts for me,’ and I just say, ‘Then write it yourself.’”

In addition to teaching the ins and outs of theater, this production is the first step in amplifying voices that need to be heard more.

“She is really sharing her experience in this show,” Osborne said of Childs’ musical. “‘West Side Story’ and ‘Miss Saigon,’ which are some of the other more ethnic shows, were written by white people and more often than not directed by white people. Sometimes we misrepresent different groups when we are looking at them from the outside.”

In a community that is already full of artists and actors, Osborne said that Progressive can open up the conversation about race and culture even more through theater projects.

“Nobody is the same person,” he said. “But are we accepting of each other? We talk about it, but at the end of the day we go back to our own little corners. So I think this show will open up that discussion in South Orange and Maplewood. A lot of other theaters won’t take on a piece like this. We touch on topics like race and sexism and police brutality, and the cast is amazing.”

The show is only running for two days and three performances, and the cast has only had about two weeks to rehearse, but Osborne said it is coming together. In the future, he wants to produce theater that features other cultures and to possibly write an original show.

“People would be able to come and see the table read and then a stage read,” Osborne said. “Then we’ll build it up from there. The community doesn’t usually get to see that process and that would get them to see what it takes to put on a show. I want to find shows that speak to all cultures.”

He plans to reach out to students at Seton Hall, Montclair State and Kean universities to create a partnership, and wants to work with actors to teach aspects of theater business, like how to find an agent and finance a production.

“It’s another theater company here, but it’s not a regular company,” Osborne said. “We target people of color and women. We’re focusing on specific races and getting their stories out there rather than doing something else. Every show we do will aim for that.”

For tickets to “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” visit www.gregoryomarosborne.com/tickets or call 862-283-1235.

Photos Courtesy of Progressive Theater

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