BWW Interview: Storyteller Extraordinaire Patricia McGregor Ruminates on Nat, Sammy, Dominique & Her 3 P's
Director Patricia McGregor returns to The Geffen Playhouse after her successful directorial stint of Dominique Morriseau's SKELETON CREW last year. This time, Patricia directs the west coast premiere of LIGHTS OUT: NAT "KING" COLE (now, already in previews), co-written by herself and Coleman Domingo. Patricia took some time after a long day of rehearsals to chat with me over the phone.
Thank you for taking time out of your rehearsals for this interview, Patricia!
You world premiered LIGHTS OUT: NAT "KING" COLE October 2017 with Dulé Hill as Nat and Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis, Jr. What convergence of cosmic forces enabled you to get the two of them, over a year later, to reprise their roles at the Geffen?
Luckily, we've been working on this together. They are two core cast members of our collaborative team, even before we premiered it. We did a workshop at The Old Globe in San Diego. It was the first time we worked with both of them on this script. Then we took it to New York Stage and Film, and then we went to People's Light. They have been with this since the ground floor. They're very invested in doing - "If I know in advance what the schedule's going to be, I'll work my shooting schedule around it." It's a priority for both of them. They both expressed, that to them the journey that their characters go on (and that the play goes on) is one that's important enough and rare enough for them to make it a priority on their daily schedules - for which I'm very, very grateful for that.
Have you made major changes or minor tweaks from the 2017 production to this one at the Geffen?
There are some significant changes. There's been the addition of a new song. A lot of clarification changes. We may have only changed about 10% of the book. But that 10% yields exponentially in terms of the clarity of the journey. You always say, "Oh, if I had one more week..." Well, we got to have one more production. We're going to be able to advance a lot of things we discovered by opening night. Luckily, the Geffen gave us the next round.
How long was the incubation period with Coleman in the writing of LIGHTS OUT?
Originally commissioned by People's Light, Coleman and I took about two years before the first production. We met and researched. I remember our first official writing day was the day after Trump was elected. And so, there was a very particular fire that burned underneath in response to the world we were, and are living in. A very particular and very raw nerve at the time, and that energy pulls us through the whole show.
Were you able to view any of Nat "King" Cole's variety episodes?
Oh, yes. We have all of them. We recently had a cast party and had them going in the background. Luckily, my associate director Dennis Whitehead Darling was able to track down the entire season of the Nat "King" Cole show. That has been available to us, and the cast to cull inspiration from.
Besides Coleman, Dulé and Daniel, anyone else from your 2017 premiere here in this Geffen production?
We have about half of the cast from Malvern. Not only do we have Dulé and Daniel, we have Zonya Love and Gisela Adisa. Zonya playing Nat's mom, and Gisela who plays both Eartha Kitt and Natalie Cole. And then, we have a host of fabulous Los Angeles actors who we met. One of those actors worked on a workshop with us when we were doing a writing workshop in the fall. We had the actor who played the producer within that workshop, and all other actors were cast just from auditioning. We were very lucky to have incredible finds and new collaborators, new family members to join us at the Geffen.
I just saw a video clip on the Geffen Facebook page of Dulé, Daniel and Jared Grimes tapping. Is this a new tap routine from that of the 2017 production?
There's a base of it from the 2017 production. But we're pushing even from that base. There's a whole additional section that will include tap, that was not included in the 2017 production.
Who knew that funny guy from Psych could tap?
That was his roots. Dulé has been performing since he was very young. He was in THE TAP DANCE KID, started touring in shows when he was thirteen. BRING IN 'DA NOISE, BRING IN 'DA FUNK. I saw him on stage in AFTER MIDNIGHT several years ago on Broadway and put a little seed in my head. Then I saw him at Center Theatre Group at my opening night for my show GRIEF there. I was starting to think about this piece. In our interaction, I remembered he did musical theatre. I had seen him do things. When he came down and did the workshop; he had the voice, had the spirit, had the desire to also explore the fire. I feel very fortunate to have found the right project that he brings so much to; and hopefully, we bring a lot to him, as well.
Yes. Luckily, because I'm co-writer. The nice thing with the collaboration with Coleman is that we work in such synthesis. We have a nice ability to prod each other or question each other if we're trying to solve a moment or figure out what the play most needs. We can challenge each other. But in terms of making decisions together, we're really conscious. We've both had wonderful, and also, very challenging collaborations. So we came to this collaboration eyes wide opened, saying, "What are we going to do? How are we going to do it?" Because we love each other as people, but we want to come out on the other side of this closer. As we know, these collaborations can be tricky. In this one, he will often say, "I defer to you on that." But I will always check in with him before we make a major decision together. So we have a core foundation, an extreme trust and respect and love. That makes the big decisions easier. Whether it's the writing or the casting, we often say we can't really parse back who made the decision, who wrote the line, who had that thing, because we feel like our thoughts and our work and our decisions are in such accord, that it's hard to say which one did what.
Which is your primary passion - writing or directing?
Mine really is storytelling. Sometimes that lends as a storyteller, is as a director and that's what I'm primarily been doing. But when I was young, I grew up primarily performing and writing. It wasn't until much later on that I started directing or devising work. To me, the most important thing is - Am I in the room that the story that I feel is the most vital to be told is being told? And how can I have the sharpest tools to be able to tell that story. So, in recent years that has been predominately with my director's tool bag, but I love that it's opening up more and more to forms I used to play in more, which are writing, devising creating.
What aspect of a script entices you to want to contribute your directing talents?
When a script has poetry, politics, and personal. I call those my 3 P's. Is there somewhere in there, a line or turn of phrase that speaks to my love of poetry and what that reveals? Is there a politics? Do I feel that it matters? Do I feel like it's going to change the minds and hearts of someone in the audience? And then, the personal, which is a particular form all of that poetry and politics is most effectively delivered through a very personal story. Is there a character that I feel very close to? Or is it someone who I feel I don't know, but want to get to know through this? Or an ensemble of people who satisfy that very personal relationship? Because you spend a lot of time with these people in rehearsal. There are times you spend more time with these characters in your plays out of town than you do with your families So I have to really be either intrigued, challenged or a champion for the character.
I loved Dominique Morriseau's SKELETON CREW, that you directed at The Geffen last year...
What of SKELETON CREW spoke to you to get involved?
I love at the center of that play is a very strong woman, who's a union worker and who stands like a shield and a battleaxe to fight for the people that she loves. My mom who was a union worker, as well. To me, in many ways, Dominique's piece was a love letter to my mom, and to all of the people who stand up for what they believe in, whether that's through collective action in union work, or just doing what they think is just and right - even if there's a cost. So I love that about them. At the time when I first read the piece, I was pregnant. I thought about Shanita and her dreaming for a better world for her kids. So I loved that. I love Dez and his idealism and the way in which he reminded me of so many young men I knew who were trying to blaze their own path and not get caught by the traps in their way. I also loved Reggie, and the way in which he was trying to balance two very different and demanding worlds; that he's trying to find a way to hold that rope that holds his two sides of life together. Not only do I love her writing, but I wanted to be in the room with those people trying to figure out what is the next step through, and how to do it with humor, and how to celebrate these survivors and try to do justice to their stories.
That actually happened just last October and that's going to happen again next year at the L.A. Phil. Next up for me is WHAT YOU ARE, which is the premiere of the new JC Lee play at Old Globe in New York. I also just completed my first short film. We're just doing our final touches on audio for that. I'm also excited about venturing into that new field of television and film, and hoping to contribute something in that medium as well.
Tell us the latest about Angela's Pulse, that you founded with your sister choreographer Paloma McGregor.
We're working on a California-based incarnation of BUILDING A BETTER FISH TRAP. It's a piece that Paloma spearheaded, a premiere of it on the Bronx River which was an amazing incarnation. That story has to do with our father and memory and home. We're from St. Croix. We're interested in how do we bring it to California, and how do we bring an incarnation to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. We're just finding the way of taking the next steps on that.
And... I'm so excited to tell you, it's been announced that Paloma was just named Artistic Director at BAX (Brooklyn Arts Exchange).
I can really hear the excitement in your voice. Please send her my congrats.
So, how would you like the Geffen audiences to be leaving after LIGHTS OUT's curtain call? Humming? Singing? Contemplating? Smiling?
I think they should leave with a song in their heart and have them charged for change.
Speaking of humming, what's your favorite song performed in this show?
Oh, gosh! It changes day to day. I think one of my favorite songs is Orange Colored Sky because it feels like such a great writing collaboration between Coleman and I. I was thinking about this book scene, something wasn't working. I called Coleman. He said what if we changed it to a song - Orange Colored Sky. It feels like a tipping point in the show, and an opportunity to use a song of Nat "King" Cole's canon in such a particularly musical theatre way. Depends on what I need that day, that's the song that's going to be my favorite. But, in terms of the piece, I love the back story on Orange Colored Sky.
Is there a song you grew up with?
Oh, gosh, so many of them! Of course, Unforgettable, The Christmas Song, Anything You Can Do. Those were all songs we grew up hearing. I love that there'll be songs you'll be familiar with, and some songs, hopefully will be new. It's been joyful to sit with and to get to know the canon of these songs while writing.
Straighten Up And Fly Right was his first big hit, and I didn't know that much about it. Listening to the lyrics, I made out that they were based on a sermon that his father gave. And to learn that there was actually always politics buried in his tunes; it's interesting. You can often think of the grace of Nat "King" Cole. But one of the things we're exploring is the different places where underneath that, there's also a fire. To really hear the lyrics and to learn that, there was more going on than I had even imagined.
Thank you again, Patricia! I look forward to experiencing the legendary Nat and Sammy and friends.
For ticket availability and show schedule through March
17 24, 2019; log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org