BWW Interview: Donnell E. Smith and TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET at GSP from 4/23 to 5/19
The critically acclaimed drama Too Heavy for Your Pocket, winner of the prestigious 2017 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, will open at George Street Playhouse on April 23 and close the Playhouse's 2018-19 season as it prepares to move to its permanent new home at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center this fall.
George Street's production takes the stage under the direction of LA Williams and will star Donnell E. Smith as Bowzie. He appears opposite Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Sally; Felicia Boswell as Evelyn; and Landon Woodson as Tony.
Jiréh Breon Holder's Too Heavy for Your Pocket takes audiences back to Nashville in the summer of 1961. The Freedom Riders are embarking on a courageous journey into the Deep South. When 20-year-old Bowzie Brandon gives up a life-changing college scholarship to join the movement, he'll have to convince his loved ones-and himself-that shaping the country's future might be worth jeopardizing his own.
Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Donnell E. Smith about his career and the upcoming show at GSP.
Donnell is making George Street Playhouse debut with Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Off-Broadway: The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll'd (Playwrights Realm). Regional: The People Before the Park (u/s, Premiere Stages), A Raisin in the Sun (Westport Country Playhouse). Other: Kill Move Paradise (World Premiere, National Black Theatre), Much Ado About Nothing (The Fools & Kings Project). TV: title role, TIME: The Kalief Browder Story (Netflix; Peabody Award), Snug's House (NBC Universal Kids; two-time Daytime Emmy nominated). Select Film: F.A.W.K., How the Light Gets In, The Grand Heist. Donnell is dedicated to those grounded in their Truth and those searching for their Light.
Your background reveals a real love of the performing arts. What was your earliest memory of performing before an audience?
Wow, honestly, I can think back to when I used to be the first one on the dance floor at family weddings and reunions. I think that is where this love of performance really started, before I even realized it. But my earliest memory of a full-on performance, before an audience, was in my Senior year of high school. I was in a Michael Jackson dance troupe and we did his whole 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance, as part of the lineup for the school's fashion show. It was one of the first times I really felt so electric. It was other-worldly. To this day, I am waiting for someone to call me up and let me know that they found the recording of it.
Are there any people, in particular, who have inspired your career?
When I first started acting - which came later in life for me - I looked up to Don Cheadle, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angela Bassett...these were people who had the likeness of range and careers I believed I was able to attain, myself. Today, more than anything now, I am truly, truly inspired by my very own peers; ones I've gotten to know and work with, during my time in New York, who are all steadily claiming their victories. Friends like Amanda Stephen-Brown, who's been on "Orange is the New Black," Toccarra Cash just closed with "The Play That Goes Wrong," Nedra McClyde is doing "Book of Mormons," Doron JePaul Mitchell. is in "To Kill A Mockingbird," and Ryan Jamaal Swain in FX's "Pose." I'm so proud of and inspired by him, because when we worked on "Kill Move Paradise" (National Black Theatre), back in 2017, that was his first NY show; and he is doing it. We are all doing it.
We know you are currently a New Yorker. How do you like working in NJ at GSP?
You know, I've never felt so peaceful being on a train, as I do when I'm on the NJ transit to work, every morning. It's where I've been doing my journaling, and working on my script, during the rehearsal process. As far as working at George Street Playhouse, I will admit that it was a bit jarring (at first) when I saw that we were literally rehearsing on a farm, in a barn-turned-theatre. But now, everyday I find it pretty awesome because I'm always looking forward to seeing and visiting the animals. The staff at GSP are so gracious and supportive of the production. It feels so good to have that, and to feel that when I walk in to work everyday.
We'd love to know a little bit about your fellow cast members and the creative team for "Too Heavy for Your Pocket."
Aww, these folks are nothing short of AMAZING! I really have to emphasize that! We have Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Sally), who is so insightful and hilarious; Felicia Boswell (Evelyn), literally a walking Light and pure joy; Landon G. Woodson (Tony), immensely passionate and giving. I really got lucky to work with these Masters of the Craft, because they are so committed and driven. I'm deeply honored and humbled to share space with them. Our visionary of a Director, LA Williams who pours himself into this production. Nicole Kuker (Stage Manager) and Brandon Allmon-Jackson (Assistant Stage Manger) are so phenomenal to work with. The way they have our backs is so refreshing. We have Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), Asa Benally (Costume Design), Jason Lyons and Catherine Clark (Lighting Design), Chris Lane and Jeremiah Davison (Sound Design), Nathan C. Crocker (Dialect Coach), Nat Adderley Jr. (Vocal Coach/Musical Director) and Michael Jerome Johnson (Fight Director); all of whom are really showing up and showing out in their areas of expertise. This really is a brilliant dynamic.
Tell us about the challenges of developing the character of Bowzie.
Bowzie is a really complex man. One could be deceived by mistaking him as just an intelligent country man, on the surface. He is so calculated, yet so earnest. The challenge is in navigating the balances between his seemingly far-fetched ambitions and his love for his wife and friends. Bowzie lives so much in the gray that it seems black and white, and that is what I am constantly discovering and reminding myself of, as I walk in his shoes. Then, we are alike in a lot of ways.
Why do you think that "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is an important show for our times?
"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is a timeless reminder of what happens when you bury feelings, suppress aspirations and try to carry the world on your shoulders alone. It's an important piece of theatre because it allows audience to see the true essence of community and love between Black people that we don't get to see enough of; especially on stage. This play shows us that it really does take a village to raise a child, even when the child is figuratively an idea, a dream, or a mission. It's important because we get to see what happens when we follow our hearts, and that even with the best of intentions, plans don't always work out the way we want, or think they should. We get to understand what it really means to support one another during hard times, and to really have each others backs and best interests at heart.
What would you like audiences to know about the show?
I would love audiences to know that while you will find fulfillment in what you see and hear in this show, it is what isn't said and what goes unseen that really pulls the heartstrings and challenges us to think about where we are as a society.
Can you share with our readers any of your future plans?
Haha, well I am currently in pre-production with the Pilot of a television series I have been writing and developing over the past few years, with an aim to start shopping it to networks in 2020. That's all I can divulge, for now. But it is an exciting process and I cannot wait to share more, when the time comes.
Anything else, absolutely anything you want BWW readers to know.
I just really want to see more of the kind of people we are playing on the stage to fill in more of the seats in the Theatre. This immensely sacred gift of Storytelling, that we as Creatives are blessed with, comes with the responsibility of ensuring that our communities are included fully, not just imitated and reimagined. It is a personal goal of mine - and a challenge to my peers and anyone reading this - to uphold that responsibility. It is a big part of why I do the work that I do. It's bigger than me. So please, bring a friend who has never been to a play before. Sponsor someone who might not be able to afford a ticket.
Regular tickets for Too Heavy for Your Pocket begin as low as $25. Audiences are encouraged to buy now to secure their seats. 2019-20 subscription packages are also now available. To find tickets or for more information, visit the George Street Playhouse website at www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org, or call the box office at 732-246-7717.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Donnell E. Smith