Ayana Reed is a native Washingtonian who is appearing in Blackberry Daze at MetroStage. Here’s her journey…
Please introduce yourself and tell our readers about your theater and vocal training and where they may have seen you on the stage.
I’m Ayana Reed, a performer from Washington, DC. As of now, my training has been more vocal than theater. I’ve been formally singing since the age of 8. My elementary school music teacher was a classical singer who first taught me “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess and “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit”, a negro spiritual. I never felt intimidated by those older genres because I was raised to listen to and appreciate all kinds of music.
Throughout middle school, I performed with the Youth Gospel Choir of America under the direction of Gerald T. Smith. That experience sharpened my performance skills because choreography was usually added to most of our music. Mr. Smith is a brilliant arranger who would weave classical, negro spiritual, and gospel elements together to create emotional and entertaining concert repertoire for the choir and our audiences to enjoy. For years, we were invited to The Kennedy Center for the Spirit of Kwanzaa music celebration.
I then attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) high school and was placed in the Vocal Technique studio of the late Maestro Edward Jackson, Jr. (former voice teacher of opera singer Denyce Graves when she was a student at DESA). It was here that I learned to sing Italian, German, and French arias and art songs. Under the choral direction of Samuel L.E. Bonds, I auditioned for his selective after school ensemble, the renowned DESA Show Choir. I would say my theater training began here as we would incorporate dialogue and choreography into our classical, jazz, (and even Motown!) repertoire. We performed at venues as prestigious as the White House and Carnegie Hall.
I also have to mention my stage experience through the Friends of Carter Barron Foundation of the Performing Arts, a nonprofit run by Gter school and summer program for inner-cloria J. Hightower. This was an afity high school students that provided the opportunity to put on original musicals. Through that program, I performed on the historic Lincoln Theatre stage several times. I earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance with a minor in African and African American Studies from George Mason University (GMU). Director of Vocal Studies and Distinguished Professor Patricia Miller was my private voice teacher throughout my time at GMU. She helped groom me for an opera debut in Italy as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Having studied various genres of music from opera to jazz, and other contemporary styles, I’m excited to make my MetroStage debut with the talented cast of Blackberry Daze.
Why did you want to be a member of the cast of Blackberry Daze?
I wanted to hone my theater skills. Although music is woven throughout the play, I’ve never had a role this acting intensive and so I was eager for the challenge and opportunity. I was also excited to work with Roz White who plays my mother, Mae Lou. Her reputation precedes her as a Helen Hayes Award winner. I met her through the Friends of Carter Barron Foundation of the Performing Arts when I was in high school. She’s also a fellow Duke Ellington School of the Arts alum!
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 found out about this role days before auditions closed. So I rushed to send in a video submission. I chuckle now at the story of waking my youngest sister up and making her record me in our living room. I sang “That Name” by Yolanda Adams and did a short dramatic monologue from Ace-Your-Audition.com. Two days later, I was at home when I received the news that I got the role.
Who do you play in the show and how do you relate to your character?
I play Carrie, a girl from Jefferson County, VA in 1920 whose world is turned upside down when her father dies unexpectedly and her mother remarries the deceptive Herman Camm played by TC Carson. About a week before the show opened, I found out that my maternal grandmother (who died several years before I was born) was from the same town as Carrie! I have become even more connected to the character as a result. Like Carrie, my grandmother left Jefferson County as a young woman and headed to Washington, DC to get married. I also wonder if the chores that Carrie does in the play, my grandmother also had to do, etc.
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?
Anyone who has worked with Thomas W. Jones II knows of his intricate staging and although Roz tried to warn me, I still wasn’t quite prepared (laughs). I didn’t understand how a wooden bench in one scene could be a horse-drawn carriage in the next, or a bed after that. Tom would sometimes spend his entire break answering questions that I had. He informed me that his stylized staging for Blackberry Daze was a form of African storytelling where inanimate objects imaginatively transform into whatever the actor (or storyteller) needs. So yes, the same bed that I have a baby on ends up being a carriage that I’ll ride away in later! It’s brilliant. And audiences are raving about how cool and abstract it is. I have grown immensely as an actor thanks to Thomas W. Jones II.
Blackberry Daze is a coming-of-age story for Carrie so we see a wide range of emotions from her in the play. During rehearsals, I struggled with finding Carrie’s musical sound. For some reason I didn’t connect the dots that my voice may sound one way in Palm of God towards the end of Act I and then completely different in Pilgrim of Sorrow at the end of Act II. Wil helped me to graduate from simply singing pretty notes to showing the “grit” in my voice when the song and scene called for it.
What was some of the best advice Thomas and William gave you?
I’ll never forget a conversation that I had with Tom after our first rehearsal. He instilled in me the power of remaining authentically in character, particularly when one doesn’t have any lines or may even be in the background of the scene. He told me about how Marlon Brando met critical acclaim for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire in large part to his non-verbal acting skills. Some of my favorite moments on stage are when I’m not saying anything or silently responding to a monologue moment that another character is having. This happens a lot in my scenes with the incredible Duyen Washington who plays my Aunt Ginny (among other roles). It’s a win-win because I get to sit back and marvel at her mastery of monologue while also honing my non-verbal acting skills.
What is Blackberry Daze about from the point of view of your character?
Blackberry Daze is a coming-of-age story for my character. She goes from a playful, care-free child to mourning the loss of a parent, to having her first crush, and by the end becoming a young mother and soon to be wife. It’s a story of redemption that speaks to my heart. Aunt Ginny is my favorite character because although Carrie has the weight of the world on her shoulders, it’s Aunt Ginny who comforts and reminds her that “it’s not the end of the world.” There’s a message of hope and the potential for triumph regardless of circumstance.
Indulge me for a moment…
I would also be remiss if I didn’t add that, in my opinion, a major theme in this play is that of agency over one’s own body as a black woman. This is seen primarily through the character of Pearl played by the sensational Yvette Spears. But also as Carrie shows her (hormonal) excitement toward her budding love interest Simon. Although not mentioned in the play, the novel Blackberry Days of Summer reveals that Carrie is the granddaughter of slaves. Brace yourself because the African American historian in me is coming out (laughs)… It is no secret the sexual exploitation of black women by their slave masters.
For centuries, we were not in control of our own bodies. One of my favorite lines in the play is when Pearl is responding to promiscuous accusations from her mother by saying “These ain’t slavery days, I don’t have to answer to the master. I do as I please.” Pearl remains in control of her body regardless of moral judgement. It’s her body and her decision to make. That decision is robbed from Carrie by Herman Camm and just when you think he took something she could never get back, thus somehow making her less than, Aunt Ginny reminds her that again, “it’s not the end of the world,” and that she can overcome it. Carrie eventually does claim agency over herself and we see a happy ending as a result.
What does Blackberry Daze have to say to today’s audiences?
Although the play takes places nearly 100 years ago, it’s messages ring relevant today. We touch on abortion, rape culture, and even social justice issues.
What do we learn about your character during your solos and duets?
We learn the breadth of emotions Carrie has through her solos and duets. “Palm of Gold” captures her pain and innocence. There’s a small duet between Carrie and Mae Lou that shows the closeness of their relationship, and then there’s even spite that we hear as she addresses betrayal in Pilgrim of Sorrow, a duet with costar Duane Richards II.
How would you describe William Knowles’ score?
Where does one begin when talking about William Knowles. The score is brilliant (that’s the only word that seems fitting for Tom and Wil). I marvel that he was able to compose music to specifically fit the cast voices. Whether ensemble, solo, or duet, I love hearing the audience leave humming his tunes. There are times on stage when I have to catch myself from just sitting back and listening because Wil along with Dave Cole on guitar are master musicians. I also love the way he blended arrangements of spirituals like Pilgrim of Sorrow and traditional songs like “Holy Night” into a blues score of original music!
You both attended. How has your training there helped you to prepare for your roles here and elsewhere where you have appeared on the stage?
I learned early on at Ellington to subdue stage fright by looking over the audience’s heads instead of directly at them (laughs)! I also learned how to work well with others. I love ensemble work. Singing in several choirs at Ellington – small and large – taught me to blend not just vocally but emotionally with others. There are no divas in the cast. We all get along like family. That type of work environment where rehearsals are so long and often that you become more family than friends is something I cherished being introduced to at Ellington. It makes the whole performance experience from start of rehearsal to close of show that much more fulfilling. And it also opens the doors for future opportunities when people see that you’re genuinely easy to work with.
What advice can you give a student who is considering making music, opera, and/or theater his or her career?
Work hard to perfect your craft which comes from practicing DAILY. If your forte is singing then spend most of your time there but also take some dance and acting classes to be well rounded. And vice versa. Another important thing that goes overlooked is the investment of time and money to go see shows that are happening locally or nationally. See what fellow performers are doing, what types of new works are being produced, etc. I would have never guessed that my first professional role would be a world-premiere musical adaption called Blackberry Daze! Much love to Ruth Watson for writing this story and to the team at MetroStage for bringing it to life.
What’s next for you on the stage after Blackberry Daze?
I don’t have anything lined up yet. Auditioning is a lifestyle so there will be plenty of that. I’ll also be taking my own advice. In addition to continuing my daily vocal practice, I’m excited to start some dance/movement classes soon and I’m looking for an acting coach.
Duane Richards II on Playing Willie and Simon in ‘Blackberry Daze’ at MetroStage by Joel Markowitz.
BlackBerry Daze at MetroStage reviewed by William Powell on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.