Duane Richards II is a native Washingtonian who is appearing in Blackberry Daze at MetroStage. Here’s his journey…
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell our readers about your theater and vocal training and where they may have seen you on the stage.
Duane: My name is Duane Richards II, I was born in Washington D.C., and I am a recent graduate of Hampton University (Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications). I’ve been singing and acting for most of my life, but I received my most thorough training in the Theatre Department of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts – including classes in movement, speech, and playwriting. I got a lot of great roles and opportunities at Duke, most notably playing CC in Duke’s highly publicized production of Dreamgirls.
I was also given other opportunities outside of the department, including two different programs at The Kennedy Center. Since my graduation from Duke in 2012, I’ve had many theatrical opportunities at Hampton, where I not only had acting roles (such as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors last fall) but was able to write/direct two successful student run productions and have a screenplay recognized in HU’s inaugural film festival. This is my first “six shows a week” professional acting gig.
Why did you want to be a member of the cast of Blackberry Daze?
This show came to me as a completely unexpected blessing. After graduating from Hampton in May, I worked at Ellington’s musical theatre summer intensive where I co-wrote and performed in Sankofaland, an original musical. While there I met Roz White, who is a mainstay in the Metrostage family, and she recommended me to audition for the show. I wasn’t even particularly looking for a performance job, which made it all the more serendipitous.
What did you perform at your audition and how long did it take before you received the call that you were being offered your role? Where were you when you received the good news?
I sent in a video audition where I performed a monologue from Death of a Salesman and sang a snippet of “I’m Here” from The Color Purple. A couple days later, I met with William Knowles, our musical director, and auditioned for him with one of the numbers from the show. I got the call a day or two after, while I was on the metro on the way to rehearsal at Duke, that I had gotten the part.
Who do you play in the show and how do you relate to your character?
I play two characters in the show. One is Willie, a World War I veteran who has recently returned home and suspects his wife (rightfully so) of cheating on him.
The other is Simon, an aspiring baseball player who is the love interest to Carrie, the show’s main character. I’ve very rarely been cast as angry, aggressive characters in the past so the role of a hothead like Willie was much more challenging for me than Simon and, in certain ways, I’m still learning more about how to do it every day. Like most actors, though, I’m very happy to be taking on two different characters and trying to make them as distinctive as possible. The best compliments I’ve received are from people who thought that the parts were played by two different actors!
What were some of the challenges you faced in rehearsals while learning your role and songs and how did your director Thomas W. Jones II and Musical Director William Knowles help you to resolve these challenges?
The biggest challenge was definitely embodying Willie, because he’s different from me in a lot of ways. I haven’t had to tap too much into my “dark side” in the past, so it was an interesting process. I think Tom’s directing style was perfect for that kind of challenge, because he was there with answers when I asked for them, but otherwise really let me figure it out in my own way. Willie only sings one line in the show (I do most of my singing as Simon) so I didn’t have to talk to Will too much regarding that side of things.
What was some of the best advice Thomas and William gave you?
I found both Tom and Will’s styles very similar in the sense that (at least in my experience with them), they don’t expect anything too specific from an actor. They state what they want from the performers and then give them the freedom to find their own way there. So in that respect, there wasn’t one specific piece of advice but instead an overall feel that there were no right or wrong answers. One great moment, though, was when I was trying to justify some blocking that Tom gave me in the final song and his response was “act”
What is Blackberry Daze about from the point of view of your character?
From Willie’s point of view, I think the story is about proving himself as a man. He’s young, he’s a soldier, and he’s married to an older woman so he feels like a big shot. But Herman Camm’s affair with Pearl (Willie’s wife) drives him crazy in the sense that someone is threatening to ruin his perfect idea of what it means to be a man and be in control. I think Simon’s trajectory is sort of similar. He’s been called to the Negro Leagues and he’s found a potential wife in Carrie but, again, Herman gets in the way of that. Both men have their idealistic “successes” threatened by Herman, and both of them go into questionable territory to rectify that.
What does Blackberry Daze have to say to today’s audiences?
It’s always so interesting to how audiences react to the show, because we get very different reactions each night. There are a couple moments in the show where characters react to issues that we still deal with today (rape, abortion) in a way that’s very specific to the time period, meaning not necessarily understanding of the victim. And then there is a reference to the justice system looking the other way when African-Americans are killed. This moment isn’t forced – it’s an important plot point in the book and its sequel – but it gets a varied reaction from our audiences. So I think the biggest message is that we’ve come along way on certain issues, but there are other issues that we have along way to go.
What do we learn about your character during your solos and duets?
Simon gets one big musical moment, which is close to the end of the show. The song is called “Pilgrim of Sorrow” and it’s basically Simon being torn up about a decision he makes regarding Carrie. It’s a gorgeous song, one that feels very traditional but perfectly describes the moment that we all feel when we’re lost. Later in the song, Carrie joins in and describes her own pain in the moment. A great thing about the song is that it ends with both Simon and Carrie talking about their desire to “make Heaven [their] home”, which adds some much needed optimism to a dark moment.
How would you describe William Knowles’ score?
Is immaculate too ridiculous sounding? This is my first introduction to Will’s music but I was floored from my first audition with him. The songs capture the period effortlessly, but also have that Broadway feel of not having to fit into any specific structure. Many of Pearl’s songs transport you instantly into a period specific nightclub, but then there’s songs like Carrie’s “Palm of God” or – my personal favorite – “Comfort You” (sung by the simply incredible Duyen Washington) which would both immediately become choice audition songs for sopranos if the show traveled beyond MetroStage.
You attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts. How has your training there helped you to prepare for your roles here and elsewhere where you have appeared on the stage?
I will never be able to say enough about Duke. It’s simply an experience like no other. In the theatre department alone, we learned exercises and techniques from all over the world, in addition to learning how to direct, write, produce, and stage manage. But beyond that, we were able to collaborate with other departments and learn even more about singing and dancing and everything else the school had to offer.
For Blackberry, I think the most influential training for me was our movement work in the Theater Department (taught by Dawn Naser). Specifically, we were taught about how everyone leads with a different body part when they walk, and what this says about them before they say a word. In terms of differentiating Simon and Willie, I pay a lot of attention to what my body is doing. Willie is loose and rough in his movement, the kind of person that you could see is always ready for a fight. Simon is much more straight-laced and clean cut, he walks straighter than Willie and controls his energy much better. Vocally, there are tons of vocal warm-ups and exercises that I learned at Duke and do/use before every show.
What advice can you give a student who is considering making music, opera, and/or theater his or her career?
I’m definitely still in the beginning stages of my career, but I think if this experience has taught me anything, it’s to always make your availability known. I was looking for a job and let Ellington know that I was available for their summer program, and then led to me being looked at for this show. And, in general, I would say to let passion drive you. Every artist has moments where they lose it momentarily, but if you feel in your spirit that there is something you should be doing, I believe God will find a way to bring it to you.
What’s next for you on the stage after Blackberry Daze?
I’m currently looking for my next project, so I’m just keeping my eyes and ears open. This experience has made me really hungry to be onstage more often and get to tackle different types of characters, so I’m excited to see where my career takes me next!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.