BWW Interviews: BLACK ODYSSEY Star Cleavant Derricks Chats about Denver, Sliders and Dreamgirls
Cleavant Derricks, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy rehearsal schedule to speak with me and BroadwayWorld today.
Have you been to Denver before?
Yes I was here about eight years ago for FULL MONTY at the Buell Theatre. I played the character of Horse on the National Tour and it was a great opportunity. The last time I was here I think it was also during the winter time; there was a lot of snow here, I remember that. I remember trekking over from the hotel and I was like "oh my god, what am I going to get out of this place?" but then I grew to really enjoy it. I was staying over at this hotel where they had a fire place and everything and it was during the holiday season and I was looking out through the window and of course the 16th St Mall, was there and I really found myself enjoying it, and I thought 'Well maybe I will get chance to come back and play here again and see more of it.', and now I have. And you know, I have a daughter who just got her masters here at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo. So she just graduated and my wife and I went down there while I was here for a rehearsal, So now she's looking to get her doctorate in psychology. It's amazing, I'm like, 'Wow, where does she get that from?' I'm thinking maybe from my dad.
Have you worked with the Denver Center Theater Company before?
No no no. This will be the first time and it has been a lot of fun. I really enjoy it and it's a lot of the right people.
What are your thoughts on your cast of Black Odyssey?
Oh, I love them..absolutely! I think they really cast it well, they cast it really well. It's my first time having a chance to work with Tony Todd, whom I've always been a fan of. We run into one another in California from time to time. And we're always speaking but we just never sit around and talk, because when you're going into auditions we are very focused. A lot of guys will come into an audition and they will just talk, talk, talk. But we are there to get a job, so we go in and he and I both, we will just speak to each other and then we just focus on what it is that we have to do. So this is just a really nice opportunity to get to know him after seeing him so much in California. And the rest of the cast. All of them except for Brenda Pressley. Brenda Pressley was one of the young ladies who worked with me on DREAMGIRLS thirty years ago. It was just when she had come to New York and she got into the chorus for DREAMGIRLS. Yeah, so she still looks the same, she is still the same and she's wonderful, and I am glad to see her playing the role of Athena. It's really wonderful. The show is rich, it really truly is. I love the fact that we get to play different characters and stretch ourselves a little bit. And we have fun with it as well as give information in the show. Its fun being mythical gods and then coming in and playing people that will help steer a person in the right direction that we think they should go. To protect them and to watch over them. Which is a lot of what life is. Parents looking after kids, trying to guide them in the right direction. Families going back and looking after one another. This last Christmas I had my kids to go and visit my mother in law who is the last monarch in my wife's family. And so I said listen, don't do gifts, don't do any of that stuff, just go back and spend time with her. Sit down with here. I don't want you to just go in and just say Hi Grandma and then go and try to have an adventure there in Virginia. I want you to spend time just to sit and learn and also give her back something, because birthdays and holidays, she is always giving. So I said you've got to learn to give something back,
You know the greatest gift is time. Especially as we get older we realize that, especially with family... the greatest gift is time. You know presents are nice but it's really time. I try to honor that and I love that.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah....
Can you talk to me a little bit about this new insight into this classic Greek tale and your role?
It's fascinating! What Marcus has written is absolutely just mind boggling. When you look at someone's writing like this, at what he's done, and what he's interpreted as pretty much a black culture and how he's brought out that culture throughout the history within this nation. To bring it into the times of the Iraq War and going back in history and all and to put them side by side with the Greek mythology. It's fascinating what he's done with it. His mindset, you know, where does a mind like that come from, how is that stipulated to write like that? So it's a privilege and an honor number one, to be here and to be a part of it. Especially the first production of it opening here in Denver. I like my character Deus, I like what he's done with the writing to describe this guy. He's not a perfect being, he's got flaws and he's very arrogant. But at the same time he had to be a god because he's the one that fate had chosen to be the one to look after and to guide the other gods. Out of a family of gods as Zeus was out of a family of gods, it was Zeus who went in and brought his siblings out because his father Cronus had taken them and swallowed them. Zeus was the one who figured out how to rescue his Brothers and Sisters. It could have been one of the other gods but it wasn't, it was Zeus. And what gave Zeus that gift and that talent and that knowledge to go in and save his siblings like that? Well Deus is.... When we open the show with Poseidon, they're brothers. There's a lesson that Deus is, I think, going to teach his brother as well as his daughters.
MICHAEL: Right, because Zeus is in favor of Odysseus (Ulysses), but Poseidon is actually against him.
Right, but at the same time, there is also a lesson that Marcus has put here that Poseidon is also teaching Zeus. Because he tells him at the beginning, he says, "You know what? You spoiled your kids." And he goes through all the kids of Deus and he talks about what they are doing and what they've done and they are spoiled brats. Including Athena. So that's a lesson that Zeus has had to learn and to understand that maybe he had been a little lenient with his children and maybe it's time that he tries to give them a lesson about being gods in their existence. So when Athena goes down to help Ulysses, Zeus allows it to help her to understand that it's not about so much as we as gods what we do, but what it is that humans have to go through. What it is that we as people have to go through in life. And you sit and you look at your own life and you look at what goes on in your own life, and you wonder why people would even believe in a god with so much devastation and so much turmoil and so much strife. The wars that keep coming. The devastation and the families that seem to break apart more and more and more and more. But it really is all about the trial. Everything is a trial here, and I believe that it's a trial to make us.
If you look back at the history, there were some things that were done and we speak of it in this show. But look at us today. Look at where we've come, and we are a lot better, but none of us is perfect. None of us whatsoever are perfect but we are learning as we go along. I think that's part of a plan. To learn as you go along from generation to generation. Some of us learn faster than others. Some of us sometimes don't learn at all. It may take another generation or so to get it, but it's a wonderful journey and it's a fascinating journey. I think that with this particular piece that we have here it's an interesting journey that anybody who is interested in theatre to come take a look at because you are going to get something from it. It's not just about black history although it is told in that way, it's saying something to us as this generation that it is important to remember who you are and where you come from. Because if you don't know where you are coming from how in the devil are you going to know where you are going? If you don't study history how do you know how to make a change?
What do you hope audiences take from this production?
I think what this show is saying is that there are cultural differences but at the same time we are all under the same umbrella. It's about coming together, not only for Black history but for American history. For other cultures' history. I'm interested in knowing about other cultures' history. It's interesting to me and it's fascinating. And once you understand the culture it helps you to understand the person. Where they come from. We learn by fellowshipping together and I think this piece is about that. It's about coming together as family on all levels and understanding that you cannot go on until you understand where you come from.
Now I have to totally geek out for a minute - I loved you in Sliders and saw every episode! I that a lot of memorable sci-fi characters get pigeon -holed into the genre. Do you think that this now classic show elevated or held back your career?
When you're doing a show like Sliders, and my character and how I got involved.... It was a light hearted piece coming out of the gate, and my character was a clown coming out of the gate. And I understood that and as a matter of fact when my agent sent me the script I turned it down. I said no I don't want to do it because I looked at it and said this guy is just going to be a caricature. Everybody else in the script were like real people and this guy was just a caricature. I met with the writer and the director at that particular time, and the director had seen me in DREAMGIRLS and I hadn't met him yet. But I got calls and everybody was like, "This director is calling for you." He keeps asking everybody after who he's seen that's going to play Rembrandt Brown, "Have you seen Cleavant Derricks?" because there was an ideal in his mind. So a colleague of mine from DREAMGIRLS calls me and he says, "Listen, man, I've auditioned for this piece called Sliders and the director keeps asking about you." And I said, "I don't want to do it." And he said, "Look, you need to come down here and see this guy because he is not going to give up. He wants you, he wants to see you." So I went down there and I did it and they were on the floor. The thing about comedy is like.... When I do comedy it's not like I'm trying to be funny for folks I look for the honesty in it. With James Early in DREAMGIRLS, it was the honesty of it, it was the reality of the moment. You know I don't know what makes me play sometimes, I really don't. I just do what I do. And that's what I did for Sliders and that's how I got the job. I knew coming out the gate that it was going to be a struggle for the show to be some kind of success. We did the pilot and the critics there in LA all said the same thing. You know, they got this guy and he's playing the buffoon and you gotta do something with this black character and blah blah blah. And as we went on I started discovering things and I would sit down with the producers and I would say, "Look, I know this guy here, he's the comic relief and I understand that. But when you are with people, when you are traveling with people there are things that you pick up, and this is one thing about him, I said, this guy is street smart. If he's street smart then there are some things that he is going to participate in that he is going to know better than these guys who are book smart. So when you are dealing with scenes that have something to do with the street, if you are writing something then give him something where he can help assist them so he can grow a little bit. We want to see him growing. And I think they did that. I really do. They did that as best as they could. And they changed out producers quite a bit, but by the second season we lost a little bit and everybody started jumping ship, and I was left hanging. But you know, I was like, this is a great idea but it was kind of sinking ship and you know black men just don't up jump off of no ship (laughter). When you have an opportunity to do a series you want to stick it out. You don't know when you're going to get another one like that again. So I was like, I'm gonna hang, I'm gonna stick with this. And the next thing you know we did the third season and then the fourth and the whole thing came back around. It was huge in London, it was going crazy. It was huge in Paris and in Germany, huge. And back here in the States when they started doing reruns it became very very popular and everybody was asking, "What are they gonna do with this show?" But it was done. You can't move back because everybody has moved on. So what it was for me was just a wonderful joy ride. And I think they did the best they could. I had fun with it. I enjoyed it and it was wonderful and I'm very proud of the work we did with that show.
The world premiere of BLACK ODYSSEY is enthralling audiences now through February 16th on the Space Theatre of the Denver Center. For tickets or more information on this amazing show, contact the Denver Center Ticket Services by calling 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jennifer M Koskinen (above) and Alexandra Griesmer (below)
Cleavant Derricks and Michael Mulhern