Baltimore is the city for up-and-coming new theatre. Be it newly inspired personal works, new musicals, or new companies, Charm City has it all. Featuring a tried and true performance company— J.C. Productions— area actor Marquise Dre White debuts the world premier of a brand new musical play that he has written. I’ve taken just a moment to sit down with this aspiring young artist to discuss the musical—which started as a straight drama—and find out just what it’s all about.
Welcome, Marquise, and thank you for taking a moment out of your busy tech week to tell us about the production, I know a few of the DCMTA readers might recognize you from work you’ve done in the area, can you tell us a little about who you are and what you’ve done around here recently?
Marquise: My name is Marquise Dre White and I am a 2012 graduate of the University of the Arts. I’m an area actor. I’ve done several productions with Toby’s Dinner Theatre both in Baltimore and in Columbia. I did The Wiz and Smokey Joe’s Café. I played the Tin Man in The Wiz and that was at the Baltimore location. Actually so was Smokey Joe’s. That’s it. Wait…no wait! I was Benny in the regional premier of In The Heights last year at Toby’s of Columbia. And between Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC I’ve portrayed Tom Collins in Rent I’ve been Coalhouse in Ragtime and I’ve done a bunch of other stuff over the years, but I guess most notably and recently it’s been Benny from In The Heights.
So you are launching a new project on your own, outside of Toby’s, outside of other known theatre companies. Is this a new company you’re starting?
This theatre company actually started in 1998. It’s called J.C. Productions. It’s owned in part by my aunt, her name is Evangelist Mary Crowner. She started an inspirational theatrical company and she does a lot of original works that she puts together herself. She came to me this year and said she wanted to be on stage again. And I said to her that I was back in the area, working full- time during the day and performing at night, so I figured I could help her out. It went from me helping her out with this idea of getting her back on the stage to me pretty much doing everything. I have written this show, am directing, producing and starring in it. We all know how that goes when relatives are involved, don’t get me wrong, I love my aunt and everything but one minute I’m helping her out and the next minute it’s a production.
The company is based locally and you’re getting ready to mount this new project where?
The company itself is based out of Baltimore. The current production is going to be in the LeClerc Auditorium at Notre Dame of Maryland University -4701 North Charles Street right up in Baltimore.
We’ve got all the particulars now— tell us about this show!
Well, it’s an original work that I’ve written. It’s called My Choice to Change. It’s an inspirational tale based on the parable ‘The Prodigal Son.’ It deals with a young man who decides that he is not happy with his life, with his family, with everything that he has known his entire life. So he pretty much leaves home and goes through all kinds of trials and tribulations on his travels throughout the world. He discovers the true meaning of life and happiness along the way. Eventually he finds his way back home. It’s a very emotional story about finding yourself through life. It has a very powerful message of love and of family. It helps you realize who’s there for you, who’s not there for you.
We’re actually running over father’s day weekend so it’s fitting that the story deals with a father and his family. The father has made mistakes with his family and these mistakes are starting to unfold, and all of that comes into play. The show has everything. It’s a drama, it has comedy, it’s a musical now— it’s not just a play anymore, it’s a musical. 14 songs…
I can see as you are saying that the expression on your face says there is a story behind that. Generally straight plays do not just become musicals overnight but the look you’re giving me right now says otherwise. How did this suddenly become a 14- song musical?
Haha! It did start out as just a straight play. But then 14 songs later it became a musical. I started getting really, really happy with the finished script one day and just decided to write 14 songs for it. I wrote 14 original songs. Because it is an inspirational play I didn’t want it to be stuck in that box of “gospel music.” So there are all different styles of songs included. I’ve got everything: jazz, R&B, musical theatre numbers, everything. I had no idea I was a playwright until this year and had no idea I was a song writer until a few weeks ago. I hope both the play and the songs are good, we’ll find out soon enough!
I honestly felt like it was missing something. My first passion is musical theatre. I feel like music is universal and everyone can be pulled in through it. I feel like even though the story is relatable for everyone, music would just top that all off. Everyone can relate when there’s a song linking what’s happening with the message of the show.
I’m pretty sure you’re about to ask me if I’ve ever written songs before, so I’m going to tell you that I think I wrote some songs way back in college for some type of project? I don’t know. Some sort of recital or something. But nothing as ambitious as sitting down one night and writing 14 songs for this show. Okay, well it wasn’t over night. But those 14 songs came together in under a month. I set my mind to making it a musical and I’ve learned that when you put your mind to it, you just do it and it happens.
Is this your first play you’ve written?
Technically? I mean, I guess it would be the first play that I have written on the professional level. I’ve done several play-like things in college. You write stuff up, you put it on the stage, you get a grade, it goes away. This is the first time that I’ve had professionally produced work that I’ve actually done for the sake of wanting to tell a story and get my work out there. It’s my first work mounted in a venue and we have everything. We have professional lights, sets, costumes, everything.
It’s an exciting and terrifying experience. It’s my first show out there, involved in a family-based theatre company that I’m directing, and starring in, and I’ve turned into a musical. It’s crazy but I love it. You know the caliber expected out of you when working in a professional setting is that much higher than when you’re just doing things in college. When you’re doing it yourself, at least in my experience I have found that I expect so much more out of myself. I won’t settle. And it makes you crazy. All the things you don’t think about when you’re in college, like whether you can afford to do the production the way you want to, whether you can get the audiences to come and support you because you’re not a theatre company that’s been open and making a name for itself in the area for over 30 years, whether or not you can get people to come and audition for you. All of those things make the process that much more intense, but that much more rewarding when it all comes together.
And everything is coming together. The doors are opening. Things are happening. Things are happening that I didn’t even expect to happen. I have a wonderful musical director, his name is Stephen Rogers, and he’s a Morgan State University graduate with very similar musical styles to Cedric Lyles. Actually Cedric Lyles is also helping me with the music. I have 17 very, very talented actors that populate my cast. You’ll have to see the show to see all the amazing things that are happening for it.
Tell us a little bit more about the show itself, where does it take place?
It takes place in present day in a general location. It can be anywhere in any city or town. If people would like to say it takes place in Baltimore they can do that because it really is an ‘every city’ location. Everything is very modern and very relatable. Anybody of any color, of any race, from any religion of any age that has a family can relate to this show. They will be able to grab something from this show. We’ve made it so that everyone can sit through the entire show and say, “Wow, let me think about my life and my family and let me go home and love the people in my life.” Everybody can take something away from this.
What was the inspiration for you to write this?
One of the things that I have learned from this is— and this might be a sidebar point so if I wander bring me back around— but I’m also starring in the play. I am the main character. Written, directed, produced by, starring in, I might be the next Seth MacFarlane. But the big thing I’ve taken away from this experience is that it is hard to be both on and off the stage at the same time. It is very, very hard; very, very difficult. I had no idea it was going to be that hard to take myself out of the director’s chair and throw myself into the scene on the stage. I don’t know how those guys at Toby’s do it, mad respect to them because it might be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
So pretty much what inspired me was having a challenge like that to tackle while bringing my life story into something that could be told and others benefit from it. There have been times in my personal life where I have felt that I was not happy with the way I was raised and I needed to go out and experience the world. I feel like a lot of young people, or people around my age bracket are going through that. We see what’s on TV, we see what’s on the internet, we see what’s put around us and we have this need to want to experience that. And we question— why can’t we experience that? That usually leads into the rebellious age of the teenage years and early 20s. I feel like even if you’re 60 years-old you did that at some point in your life, you might still be doing. It’s a lot of personal experience in there.
There are a lot of things in this show that I’ve seen or been a part of. It deals with unsafe sex practices, violence in our communities. It deals with prostitution; it just deals with so many different things. It deals with prostitution. The show deals with drug use, corruption in the church, corruption in the home, it just— there are so many things covered in this show that you just have to come see it to understand it all.
What was casting a show that is very close and personal to you like as a new director and playwright?
Because my aunt has been running these types of shows since 1998, she did have some general interest from people she had worked with in the past who said they wanted to be part of this new project. I brought in a lot of actors that I have worked with over the years— Bryan Daniels, who I worked with in The Wiz, he played the Scarecrow, he’s in this show. I’ve asked people that I know and that I trust and who trust me to come do this with me. All of these people that I have brought along, despite not knowing my writing style, trust me. It’s an amazing thing to have at my age especially since this is my first just about everything. I don’t have years of experience under my belt or 20-some professional productions to my name, but they all trust me and they’re going with it. They have faith.
Having faith for an inspiration-based piece is a great thing to have. Of course you still go through the typical times where you just want to strangle everybody involved, or maybe they want to strangle you. Those times still happen. And it’s even harder when it’s your friends and your family. It’s really hard to separate the personal side of it from that professional and business side of it. Slowly but surely we are finding that balance and nobody has actually strangled anybody yet, so I’m thinking that’s a good sign. As we get closer to opening it’s ringing in our heads “this is real, we’re opening soon.” We typically start our rehearsals with prayer and we try to end them with prayer. That helps put us all on the same page.
Why mount this show in Baltimore?
I don’t feel like the theatrical community in Baltimore is as great as it could be. I feel like there are so many people out there who have the dream of putting their own work out there. Instead of just producing works that have been popularized why not start putting your own work out there, put your own ideas out there and see what comes to the table when you do. I feel like Baltimore has so much talent here and it’s not showcased nearly enough. I really feel like this play will show people that there is talent right here in the city. And this play will show people that there is more than just Broadway musicals, or whatever it is Tyler Perry is writing these days as far as theatre goes. There is talent everywhere; performing talent, written talent, and we just need to put it out there for everyone to see!
Please come and see My Choice to Change, I think people can learn a lot from it, I think people will find a lot of family values in it; and I really think it will make you think about your families and your own lives; I hope it’s going to be a great piece of theatre that will stick with people and they’ll be thinking about it long after it closes. Oh— before I forget— there’s a hash-tag for the show! #itsmylifewhynothowfarwouldyougoforyourhappiness
I know that’s a heck of a long hashtag, but tweet about the show if you can!
My Choice to Change plays for 4 performances tomorrow June 13th through this Sunday -June 15 2014 in the LeClerc Auditorium at Notre Dame of Maryland University— 4701 North Charles Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or online.