Producers Brian Moreland and Ron Simons with Devario Simmons, costume designer, and Robert Brill, scenic designer, at the table read on the first day of rehearsals for the world premiere of Thoughts of a Colored Man at Syracuse Stage. Photos: Michael Davis.

Thoughts of a Colored Man:
An Important Step on the Road to Broadway 

“As to material, we can tell nothing till an audience sees it...” (Richard Rodgers to Dorothy Rodgers, during the Boston tryout of On Your Toes.)

In this fragment from a 1936 letter, the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers identifies the singular importance of what once was (and still is) called the out-of-town tryout.  Though less common and more costly these days, the out-of-town tryout was a routine part of bringing a new play or musical to Broadway by previewing it in cities other than New York. Ostensibly, the purpose of an out-of-town tryout was to fine tune a show prior to opening on Broadway by removing the glitches and smoothing the rough spots. Sometimes the changes were more extreme. For example, Oklahoma! got a new title and title song out of town.

The key to an out-of-town tryout was the chance to play before an audience. Even so seasoned a theatrical professional as Richard Rodgers could tell only so much in the rehearsal hall. The audience knows right away what works and what doesn’t. Fixing what’s wrong is where the fun starts: think of frazzled playwrights and frantic producers struggling through all-nighters in hotel rooms in Boston, New Haven, or Philadelphia. Cue the coffee pot.


Playwright Keenan Scott II

Nowadays, regional not-for-profit theatres like Syracuse Stage play an increasingly important role in the process of preparing a new play or musical for Broadway. The 2019/2020 season opener Thoughts of a Colored Man (September 4 – 22) provides a case in point. The play will open at Syracuse Stage, transfer to Baltimore Center Stage, then, the plan of commercial producers Brian Moreland and Ron Simons is to open in New York, preferably on Broadway. This gives Syracuse Stage audiences a great opportunity to participate in the play’s development. It will be like joining in a grand old theatrical tradition in an exciting new context.
 
Moreland elaborates: “As a producer, I needed to find partners that share a hunger for new work with a willingness to be bold and daring. Coming to Syracuse Stage provides just that bold and daring opportunity for a new play to succeed. It is exciting because Syracuse Stage patrons get a rare opportunity to see a show being developed for Broadway and an opportunity to play an active part in a new show’s life.”

Moreland knows whereof he speaks. His Broadway credits include last season’s The Lifespan of a Fact (which starred Daniel Radcliffe and Cherry Jones) and the current production of Sea Wall/A Life, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge. Moreland believes he has found a new and important voice in Thoughts of a Colored Man playwright Keenan Scott II.


Brandon Dion Gregory (Passion), Jody Reynard (Happiness), Ryan Jamaal Swain (Love), and Jerome Preston Bates (Wisdom)


“Keenan Scott II is a young man with an old soul and giant vision,” Moreland says. “He writes for our present day experiences. A playwright who writes from the view point of ‘now’ and who has an uncanny way of creating dialogue that allows me to ask hard questions and explore cultures in an open way. I was immediately drawn to Thoughts of a Colored Man because the show gave me an experience and understanding of human beings I have grown up with. Never having seen these humans on a stage sharing their lives, I was drawn and compelled to share it.”

Thoughts of a Colored Man is set in contemporary Brooklyn and unfolds on one “ordinary” day, as seven characters—all Black men of varying ages and experience—intersect and interact with each other. Their overlapping narratives are accompanied and accented by music from DJ Chesney Snow and choreography by Millicent Marie Johnnie performed by two women dancers. The characters are not named. They are identified as Passion, Lust, Love, Happiness, Anger, Depression, and Wisdom. Scott employs hip-hop inflected and slam poetry combined with traditional dialogue to illuminate the hopes, dreams, fears, and sensitivities of these seven men.
 
Veteran director Steve H. Broadnax III will guide the production. Broadnax’s recent credits include two plays by Dominique Morrisseau, Pipeline at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Blood at the Root at National Black Theatre. He is slated to direct the world premiere of The Hot Wing King by Katori Hall at New York’s Signature Theatre in early 2020.



Reynaldo Piniella (Lust), Forrest McClendon (Depression), and Ashley Pierre-Louis (Dancer)

Syracuse Stage is presenting Thoughts of a Colored Man under the artistic umbrella of Cold Read, the term designating new work at the theatre, as in the Cold Read Festival of New Plays, now in its third year, and last season’s production of Possessing Harriet.  For artistic director Bob Hupp and associate artistic director Kyle Bass, the ability to present new plays is essential to the artistic vitality of Syracuse Stage.

“Our mission is to bring engaging and diverse stories to life on stage for our Central New York audience,” says Hupp. “The exciting and accomplished team of actors and creative artists assembled for this premiere embody Stage’s commitment to artistic excellence. Following last season’s much lauded premiere of Possessing Harriet, I’m thrilled to include a new play in our 47th season. New plays are the lifeblood of our craft, and Thoughts of a Colored Man is the perfect complement to a season that includes classics, crowd pleasers and appealing contemporary works.”

Moreover, presenting Thoughts of a Colored Man allows Syracuse Stage to foster partnerships with community organizations. Centerstate CEO/Generation Next, 100 Black Men of Syracuse, and Hillside Work Scholarship Connection will participate in events related to the production.

“Playwrights require a couple of things to thrive,” Moreland explains. “Space to allow ideas to flow, sensitive and smart actors to explore their words, and producers to believe in their vision.”

And, in order to succeed, plays need audiences. Syracuse Stage audiences will be the first to see this exciting new work as it takes an important step on its journey to Broadway.
 

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