‘Shaking It Loose With Tom Jones’ at MetroStage

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The genesis of this production says much about the innovative creative process at MetroStage. The idea that a new musical could be developed from Tom Jones’ productions was a spark in the mind of the Producing Artistic Director. She has produced his work over the years, including a reprise of Bessie’s Blues from twenty years ago, and wanted to enjoy the songs and messages in a whole new way  What could have stayed a “What if?” or “Wouldn’t it be Nice?” idea is instead alive and kicking as Shake Loose prepares to open this Saturday – January 30th.

The cast of 'Shake Loose': Anthony Manough, Lori Williams, Rayshun Lamarr, and Roz White. Photo by Chris Banks.
The cast of ‘Shake Loose’: Anthony Manough, Lori Williams, Rayshun Lamarr, and Roz White. Photo by Chris Banks.

What was the creative process that helped make that happen? I sat down with Thomas W. Jones II, director, playwright, and lyricist to find out how he and the designers made that leap from idea to exciting new production.

Debbie Jackson.
Debbie Minter Jackson.

Debbie: It’s interesting that this production follows Uprising, that you directed, that made reference to slavery and shackles and themes of bondage. We are still dealing with the effects of bondage in all kinds of ways. It’s fascinating that people think all that is over and done with, but the effects are still there.

Thomas: Definitely. You can hear and feel it in the music.

And what a compilation you’ve got here for Shake Loose! When you put all the songs and passages that you developed for all your shows on the table to create this new piece, apparently even you were surprised by the amount of material.

That’s exactly right. Each production has it’s own course of development and when it was done and over, I’d go to something else and then something else. When Carolyn (Griffin) suggested we develop a show to showcase songs from all our productions, I jumped at the chance and said, “Sure.” Only when we actually started pulling them all out did I realize that we had over 300 songs from our shows. I was shocked. Sitting there and looking at everything at once helped me appreciate how much was there. It blew me away.

In this beginning of a New Year, we make resolutions but sometimes no matter how hard we try, it’s easy to procrastinate and not get stuff done, especially with such a large project. What was the spark that made you go from an idea, to get to this stage of completion?

Carolyn Griffin and Thomas W. Jones II. Photo courtesy of MetroStage.
Thomas W. Jones II and Carolyn Griffin. Photo courtesy of MetroStage.

Well, once I got over the initial terror of “W.T.F we gonna do with this?!” the team just jumped in and we started seeing where songs naturally fit together. There was some give and take as we talked things through, and moved them around. And some songs even placed themselves where they fit.

Like they knew where they belonged?

Yeah, like – “You put me over there, but I really fit better over here.”

Listening to the material, right?

Absolutely! The work doesn’t lie. Then, we looked up and saw where there was a flow in the material where themes emerged and kind of appeared. Once that happened, I could write out the sections to bring it all together.

How is this different from a compilation of songs?

It’s an entire show using the songs but telling its own story. It flows through time and space with different rhythms and it touches on messages that you’ll see in the themes.

Where do the ideas come from?

When you look at it, it all comes back to the same themes that I approach from different angles and perspectives — the journey of African American people, tied to the land then freed from it, seeking a sense of home, a centered place, finding themselves. If you learn to lean on the ancestors, you can’t help but be influenced by the traditions that have stayed with us.

Younger performers think they’re so unique, I want to tell them—y’all didn’t build this on your own. Every sound and expression is rooted in a previous generation but people don’t appreciate that. We’ve allowed our cultural heritage to be defined for us—we need to claim what’s ours and take ownership so that our heroes are not be dismissed, and memories diminished.

You have a strong social-political consciousness, to serve that purpose.

I’m trying.

One can tell from looking at all the work from so many shows that its more than a job for you, it’s a mission. You’ve even mentioned the healing power of theater. What do you mean by that?

Something happens when you sit there as an audience member. The performers are affected too, of course, by the words, the messages and the music, but the impact goes both ways—from the audience to the performers and back.

Like a relay of energy.

That’s right. You can feel it all through you, if you’re open enough. The ultimate is when you can relate to what’s happening on the stage, can identify – hey, that’s me going through that. I’ve felt that, been there, feeling it now. Scenes can be so personal.

Enough to gasp with recognition.

Yes, like a quickening, taking in a breath.

I’ve seen your movements and have more of an appreciation of your role as a choreographer, in using breath, and the drum, going back to the heartbeat.

Oh yes, I used to choreograph all my own shows for years. Then to get a new perspective for awhile I collaborated with choreographers, but now I find myself going back to doing it myself.

Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesty of Sammy's website.
Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesty of Sammy’s website.

Like the old school performers who did it all. Speaking of which, I’ve noticed that something comes over you when you talk about Sammy Davis Jrwho you based Cool Papa (from Cool Papa’s Party) on– your voice, your expressions kind of melt, he still affects you.

Ahhh, man, he was the ultimate showman, performer from the time he was a youngster tapping in the streets, to Broadway to the movies and beyond. People have no idea the risks that man took to pave the way and what he went through.

I remember reading his autobiography back in the early days – truly inspiring to this day.

That autobiography called Yes, I Can – yes, for real, but that was such a tiny snippet of his life. There was so much more. Never before or since has a brother like that accomplished what he did, with what he had, and made the connections that he did. There are stories, oh, I could tell you the stories…

You had such a connection with his spirit that a special bond connected you to Altovise (his widow)?

Yes, other writers, groups, entities were wrestling all over the place to tell Sammy’s story—it’s so rich, you can imagine everybody grabbing for it.  I was so drawn to him, he touched me and wouldn’t let go. Even though I couldn’t use his name for proprietary reasons, (thus Cool Papa), I checked in with Altovise once or twice and got her blessing…

But that apparently was enough to embed something inside you…

I’m not psychic or anything, my Mom has been known to have the “third eye” connection with the spirits, but all I know is one night I woke right up in the middle of the night— at 2AM – and the lyrics for “Lay Your Body Down” just came. I mean the words just kept coming, one take, natural and easy. I just wrote and wrote, then turned in and went back to bed. The next morning I found out that Altovise had died at that exact same time.

You’re obviously more connected to the spirits and ancestors than you realize. They’re here all around us, if we would be still and listen.

In a recent interview, you described Shake Loose as a “labor of love with themes of love, loss and the redemptive power of music.” The collaboration you’ve had with fellow artists and designers is so special – there is simply nothing like the Jones-Hubbard-Knowles artistic team and there’s all this work to prove it. In the beginning, though, you still have to start with a blank page, an empty sheet to get it started, right?

William Knowles, William Hubbard, and Thomas W. Jones II at the piano. Photo by Chris Banks.
William Knowles, William Hubbard, and Thomas W. Jones II at the piano. Photo by Chris Banks.

In a way, that’s the bottom line. Writing is so solitary, and there’s nothing I like better than a good distraction! “Got to finish this piece? Oh, darn a telephone call. (mimics answering the telephone). “So, you’re willing to sell me how many for what price again??” Yes, it can be like that. The creative process, getting something on paper, working through stuff, getting it out, making sense of it all — its deep digging and diving, at least for me.

It definitely keeps you going through all kinds of periods, ups and downs and everything in-between.

I worked for years in musical theater and yes, there’s been a definite shift in the expression over the decades. The truth is real and unchanging, it’s just that the approach and the expression evolve. Something that was red-hot in the 60s, like survival theater was perfect at the time with expressions of protest and resistance led into black theater in the 1970s that essentially transformed and saved Broadway. Audiences were flocking to hear the new dissident voices and although they didn’t make the mainstream, there were Black theatres all over the place. Everything evolves, we’re all in a different place.

You’ve lived through all that history and it comes out in your work. You said that the through line for your shows is how music opens our lives.

If we listen, we can find in ourselves and all around us ordinary people living lives of epic significance. I keep striving to find that place of expression and we can all be emboldened by it. No matter how polarized things get, and it will get ugly, music helps show our humanity. Somebody who you think is totally different from you, you look up and you’re laughing and crying at the same thing. Believe it or not, we have a common humanity and are more connected, closer than we realize.

Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

Ancestors come in all ages—Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is slowly becoming mine, and I’m thrilled to share this space with you.

Thanks much, Let’s Shake Loose!

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Shake Loose plays from January 30-March 6, 2016 at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in North Old Town Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
In the Moment: An Interview With the Creative Team of MetroStage’s ‘Shake Loose’ by David Siegel on DCMetroTheaterArts.

An Interview with Playwright Gabrielle Fulton on ‘Uprising’ Now Playing at MetroStage by Debbie M. Jackson.