BWW Interview: Carlton Bell II Brings The BIRMINGHAM BLACK REPERTORY THEATRE COMPANY To Life With 'CHOIR BOY'
Birmingham is a hot city. Not just due to the summer temperatures. But hot in growing startups. We are the nations top rated city for entrepreneurs to come and grow successful businesses. Opportunities in the performing arts are no different. Carlton Bell II is a young Birminhghamian with an artistic theatrical vision. Bell is an artist who wears many hats; actor, filmmaker, director, producer, and now head of the Birmingham Black Repertory Theatre Company. Next week they will have their inaugural performance of the Tony Award winning musical "Choir Boy." The play is written by Oscar-winning writer of "Moonlight" Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Bell returned home to Birmingham last August after working in New York and Atlanta. Bell landed a contract performing with the Birmingham Childrens Theatre and quickly dove back into the theater scene. "As much as I love the city. I was going into audition rooms for shows. But none of them are about people that look like me. When they were about people that look like me. No one who looked like me was behind the (directing) table." After leaving one specific audition. Bell felt his spirit churn with inspiration "I remember having this movie moment feeling; like this is not working out, and doesn't feel right for me. I looked up at the theater marquee and asked myself "what do these companies this place have that I don't?"
After that moment, Bell was inspired to bring an original theater company to life. "I literally just got on Google and searched how to start a company. It wasn't as difficult as I thought. You just have to have x amount of dollars to do the paperwork. Bell reflected on how BBRT could look like for Birmingham, and what specifically does Birmingham need. "I really felt that Birmingham needed a mainstream space that was doing black contemporary work. I feel like we have had that on and off. But I wanted something more central to downtown to really focus on my vision."
Bell's vision found inspiration in the eclectic theatres he admired. "Broadway is going under this crazy change. In the past five years there has been not only more black people on stage. But more black queer people are on stage. More women are on stage. It's remarkable. And I think it be a disservice to not showcase that in Birmingham. It's funny because one of the things I was auditioning for on Broadway before I moved back down here was "Choir Boy." It didn't happen obviously (Laughs). But it's been one of my favorite shows for a really long time."
Now that BBRTC had a foundation to build on. Bell was tasked with selecting a show for the inaugural run. "I knew I wanted our first show to be something that no one has done here. It's got to be something that I'm heavily involved with creatively, and that I am passionate about. We were torn between choosing "Choir Boy" and "Wig Out." Something inside told the time to do "Choir Boy" is right now."
David Perry - What is it about "Choir Boy" that really captured your passion?
Carlton Bell - "I related so much to the character Pharus. I really felt like their story was also my story in a sense. I was this black queer kid in Birmingham who wanted to do my thing, and consistently everyone was just telling me no."
Bell incorporated BBRTC in January of this year. "Choir Boy" was still running on Broadway at the time. The rights to produce it on stage would be delayed and difficult to acquire. "I applied to Dramatist (play-licensing and theatrical publishing agency) and didn't hear back anything for a long time. I was super nervous. Then eventually they replied saying we could obtain the show. But the stipulations in the contract are kind of intense. It's really incredible that BBRT are the first people to do the show since it's Broadway run. This version has never been done in Alabama or the Southeast."
With the rights to the show secured, Bell now searched for a venue. "I started knocking on every theater's door. Honestly a discovered a lot of people had never heard about "Choir Boy." Bell was without the funding to secure a location. But that did not deter in working to find a space "I've been a friend of the President of Birmingham Festival Theatre Rhonda Erbrick for a very long time. She told me to come sit with her after one of my rehearsals. She was just talking and talking. And then she was like "Oh no. We're doing the show here." It was a done deal. I walked out of that meeting like what just happened? (Laughs) Not only did BFT offer to co-produce the production. They also provided some funds to go toward the initial costs. "It's been incredible having that amount of freedom. What we have been able to incubate, and make the choices to really do this thing." Producer Aija Penix from Atlanta stepped up to the task of being music director. "The music of the show is Amazing. Aija has truly outdone herself in the arrangements. There are many great gospel songs that are that we know. And there's a couple of well known secular songs as well. The music in show is all acapella. All of the sound in the show we are making on stage."
Waiting for the grants and funding to be approved was a stressful moment that brought much doubt for Bell. "I remember telling my team I didn't think we're gonna have the money to do the show. My team was like no we're still on board let's just figure out how we do it without the money. I was prepared to put on multiple hats. I was about to challenge myself as an artist to figure out putting up the show. The next day we got a check from the LBGTQ fund. We also have received amazing support from the coffeehouse Filter, and Substrate Radio."
Bell placed a nationwide casting call and was inundated with hundreds of submissions. "We saw 376 people for the show, including online submissions and locally.We actually had people send in audition tapes specifically with dancing. Because "Choir Boy" on Broadway choreographer Camille A Brown won the Tony award for Best Choreography for a reason. Our choreographer Rachel Brown runs the theater department at A H Parker High School, and she is a beast. (Laughs) This dancing has a lot of work to it.
DP - How important is it to you to spotlight queer and trans voices?
CB - It's super important to me just on the fact that we don't see those voices ever reflected. I know specifically in the black community. Those voices get silenced, if not fully ignored. And I'm like "homey don't play that!" I want to get to a place where I can announce. Here. This is a queer show, or this is a trend show. These people exist in spaces throughout history.
Bell recalls inspiration from the 2008 television special of "A Raisin In The Sun" staring Sean (Puffy) Combs as Walter. "There's a line at the beginning of the movie where Walter is verbally berating his sister. He's going "she", and, "she ", "she." That scene got my gears spinning. What if he is saying "she" on purpose? What if the she is the operative? I started digging in to see beneath it. In doing so, it just questions everything. I want to find places where I can make opportunities trans women. We have an inclusion policy. I don't want people to just audition for the roles that they want to. I think there's an opportunity in all of our shows to have people come into the room, and let them be whoever they identified to be in the script. I am more interested in seeing trans women not only playing trans women. Even opening roles to disabled actors, and seeing what that looks like. I want to celebrate black people of all kinds. We are not just one thing."
DP - Is there a method that you found effective in revealing racial issues to opening peoples eyes?
CB - I think being interrogative in the rehearsal specifically is important. With a character like Pharus for example, who is outwardly queer. I really didn't want an easy note for Pharus to be played stereotypically as a "queen." I think you miss so much of him if you do that. And yes he is very outwardly effeminate, and yes he is very proud of who he is. But I know there's about at least 50 things that are a lot more interesting to me, and how I present him. I try to read between those lines with all the boys. For the bully character Bobby I'm like OK the easy note is to for you just to be a dick. Or we could really dig into why Bobby is so angry. And now it's heartbreaking. I'm not interested in looking up and seeing another angry black man on stage. Especially just being an angry black man for no reason.
DP - It rare for a community theater production to pass a paycheck to its cast and crew. Why is that important to you?
CB - I've done community theater in a couple of cities. As much as I love doing it, I know from a production standpoint how much stuff costs, and I know there's room to do it. But I need to get the best people to do it with.
DP - Are there signs you see in today's climate that say this the right time for what "Choir Boy" has to say?
CB - In the process of the show, we talk a lot about Nigel Shelby; the young kid from Huntsville who killed himself because of bullying. We're talking a lot about him. I think the character Pharus is that kid. Their circumstances do end differently. That really hit home for me. That was extremely sad what happened to Nigel. I felt like there's no going back. I have to do the show. For BBRTC's next production I chose "A Raisin in the Sun" because of what's going on with the city of Birmingham. I haven't decided if it's for the better or for the worse to be quite honest with you. The city looks a lot different today than it was when I was a kid.
DP - What are some things that you hope the audience takes away from your production of "Choir Boy?"
CB - I hope people have fun. I want the audience to walk out of the room to make space for people that don't look like them. To allow those people to take space where they are. I hope people in this community walk out going I can change it up. I can do something different. I hope people are inspired, and not afraid to do to be themselves. And of course I hope they come back and support be BBRT in all the things that we are going to do. Like I said this is just the beginning.
After chatting for over an hour, we finished up our coffee and said goodbyes. Honestly this article is about a third of what we talked about. Making my way home, something Bell said resonated with me. "You have to believe before anybody else would believe in you." That is a very positive mantra most people can happily embrace. Carton Bell's belief has brought an exciting new performing arts commodity to Birmingham with a purpose to share theater that expands understanding and acceptance.
The Birmingham Black Repertory Theatre Company production of "Choir Boy" has a very limited 3 day run ( August 23 -25)
Due to the size of the venue. You should buy your tickets quickly HERE
For more info visit the BBRTC website - www.thebbrtc.com