New Federal Theatre Presents LOOKING FOR LEROY by Larry Muhammad
What is Black theater? How is it defined and by whom? What is the relationship between the Black dramatist, their creation and the Black community at large? "Looking for Leroy" by Larry Muhammad explores these questions through the legacy of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, who was one of the most important dramatists the 20th century and who defined the role of the Black playwright for our age. This two-character play imagines five encounters between Baraka, a literary lion now in his 60s, and an intern in his 20s who idolizes him, challenges him and aims to be like him. Woodie King, Jr.'s New Federal Theatre will present the world premiere of the piece February 28 to March 31 at Castillo Theater, 543 West 42nd Street. Petronia Paley directs.
A poet, novelist, essayist and music critic probably best known for his plays, Baraka developed intellectually from beatnik to Black nationalist to Marxist and this was reflected in his art. In Larry Muhammad's two-character play, a young theater intern struggles to comprehend the artistic metamorphosis of the man who was a guiding light to so many Black playwrights. While the young man assists his mentor with play development, his casual observations infuriate him and the two heatedly debate theater fundamentals. They examine the nature of aesthetics, questioning whether artistic expression is ever non-ideological and weighing the added responsibility of artists of color. Tyler Fauntleroy plays the intern, named Taj, and Kim Sullivan plays Baraka.
Playwright Larry Muhammad's artistic and intellectual debt to Baraka was the inspiration for his play. Muhammad was the first in his family to attend high school and college and when he answered the literary calling, Baraka was his idol. Ironically, they wound up related by marriage (Muhammad married into the South Carolina branch of Baraka's family), but young Larry had very little first-hand contact with his hero. Their contact was limited to an awkward exchange once at a press conference and a timid occasional word at family gatherings. Muhammad began as a journalist, writing for alternative newspapers and later for mainstream media, then studied playwriting at Sarah Lawrence. Throughout his varied career, he sought to be like Baraka. Trouble was, Baraka's literary, aesthetic and philosophical directions were constantly shifting. Only one thing remained constant: Baraka regarded himself as the sole judge and arbiter of what it meant to be Black and he judged any Black play on whether it served the cause of Black Liberation.
So in "Looking for Leroy," a young writer struggles to resolve the identity baggage that goes with his artistic debt to a difficult mentor. We watch the unfolding relationship of the two writers, one at the height of his career and the other at the outset. They talk shop super-passionately and test each other's vulnerabilities, exploring why a student needs an exemplar and how a master needs validation from his apprentices. Occasional real-life events are referenced in the play, as when Muhammad met Baraka at the Million Man March and introduced his son. But mostly, it is made-up.
This play was chosen for production after a reading in New Federal Theatre's Ntozake Shange Reading Series last November. It is the New York debut of its Kentucky-based author, Larry Mohammad, whose works have been produced around town in Louisville: at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky Center and Muhammad Ali Center by Kentucky Black Repertory Theatre, where he is Producing Director.
Nearly all Larry Muhammad's plays are socially conscious and written with a historian's eye. They include "Derby Mine 4," a reflective drama about Kentucky miners trapped underground, testing the authority of their African-American team leader; "Godforsaken," about a televangelist; "Jockey Jim," about Jimmy Winkfield, who was thoroughbred racing's greatest Black rider in the period before WWI; and "Double V," about crusading newsman Frank Stanley, who helped persuade President Truman to desegregate the U.S. military. Muhammad has written two musicals: "Buster," about quixotic minister who brings social justice to a conservative southern town, and "Sweet Evening Breeze," about a drag queen who goes undercover to trap a predator. Both are based on the lives of legendary figures of Kentucky. "Looking for Leroy" is Muhammad's New York debut.
Director Petronia Paley has staged both classical and contemporary plays. She helmed "Kernel of Sanity" for New Federal Theatre and an Audelco-nominated production of "Antony and Cleopatra" for The Poet's Den Theater. She has also directed at EST, Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, Cherry Lane Theater and National Black Theatre Festival. An award-winning actress, she does both classical and modern parts. In 2015, she played Shirley Graham Dubois in NFT's production of "The Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois)," the final play by Amiri Baraka. It was the culminating production of NFT's 46th season, which was dedicated to Baraka. Other recent contemporary plays include "Relativity" for EST and "The Horse that Will Not Stand," a co-production of Berkeley Rep and Yale Rep. In classics, she has appeared in "Macbeth" and "The Oedipus Plays" for Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, "King Lear" for Yale Rep, "The Cherry Orchard" and "Electra" (AUDELCO Award) for Classical Theatre of Harlem, and "Hamlet" for Take Wing and Soar Productions at the Workshop Theatre. Her one person show, "The Way to Timbuktu," won an AUDELCO Award. Her TV series include "Billions," "Damages" and "Blue Bloods" and she performed long-running characters on "The Guiding Light" and "Another World." She is author of three plays, a book of monologues and a children's book. She is a member of The Actors Studio.
Tyler Fauntleroy (Taj) has appeared in "Next to Normal" at Syracuse Stage and "Romeo and Juliet" at Westport County Playhouse, among others. He has a recurring role in Sony Crackle TV's "The Oath." He has performed in concert at Feinstein's/54 Below, NYMF, Cipriani and Joe's Pub. He earned a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kim Sullivan (Baraka) has appeared Off-Broadway at Ensemble Studio Theater. Classical Theatre of Harlem, The American Place Theatre, New Perspectives Theatre and B.A.R T. Theatre. In regional theater, he has appeared at Actor's Theatre of Louisville, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Cleveland Playhouse and Long Wharf Theatre, among many others. He played the mailman in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." He performed in ten plays of August Wilson's American Century Cycle at American Stage Theatre Company.
Set design is by Chris Cumberbatch. Lighting design is by Antoinette Tynes. Costume design is by Kathy Roberson. Sound design is by Bill Tolles. Stage manager is Bayo.