Friday, May 1, 2009

A Crossroads Classic Returns: Sheila's Day Comes Back 20 Years Later

By Alex Guadagno

Sheila’s Day, the South African music and dance celebration which brought the Crossroads Theatre international acclaim, is back—and the timing for celebration at the New Brunswick theater company could not be any better. Plagued by financial woes and a lack of resources near the beginning of the decade, despite winning the 1999 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, Crossroads has recently recouped its position as one of the country’s most eminent African American theater showcases. On April 16, the theater welcomed the return of its triumphant daughter, Sheila’s Day, which was created at the Crossroads by South African writers Duma Ndlovu and Mbongeni Ngema in 1989 and directed by co-founder/Artistic Director Ricardo Khan. The show came back to Crossroads after a highly commended March run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Sheila’s Day features an all-female ensemble of gifted musicians who use buoyant gospel, mournful blues numbers and lively Zulu chants to chronicle the lives of two women living in the southern United States and Johannesburg, South Africa during the respective struggles in each country for civil rights and racial integration.

Sheila’s Day’s proud return to the Crossroads is symbolically weighted in light of the theater’s reclamation of its former prominence.

“Crossroads has always had the capacity to do great work despite financial challenges,” says Crossroads’s Executive Director Marshall Jones III. “There were people who thought the theater was too important to let it go,” Jones said, in spite of Crossroads closing its doors for two seasons in 2000. The small theater had nearly $2 million in debt at the time. According to Jones the prestige was always there, but Crossroads needed better artistic management and found it in Richard Nurse, a former board member who became executive director and helped negotiate down the debt.

“Crossroads is a different institution now,” said Peggy McGlone in a 2005 Star-Ledger article. “It's leaner for having spent five years digging out of a fiscal hole, and though its leaders believe they have weathered the worst of the crisis, they admit there's much still to do.”

Jones maintained a relationship with the Crossroads Theatre since his undergraduate years in the mid 80s at the nearby Rutgers University and joined as Executive Director in 2006. After holding executive positions at several prestigious New York City arts institutions, such as Radio City Music Hall and the Apollo Theater, Jones says his decision to join the Crossroads was inspired by the importance of the theater’s mission to create an honest portrayal of African Americans in theater, as well as the challenges of restoring the theater company back to being one of the country’s most prominent.

The theater’s co-founders Khan and Lee Richardson recognized the lack of representation for people of color in theater of the late 70s. They were each only two years out of graduate school when they decided to found the Crossroads, according to Jones—who, as a board member of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and the American Conference on Diversity, is a major advocate of diversity and inclusion in theater. “Look at the landscape of 1978—there was no cable, no Cosby Show,” he says. “There was Sanford and Son and Good Times, but if you were black and you couldn’t sing or dance you were playing a pimp or a drug addict. Any culture is more than just a stereotype.”

Despite the uplifting underdog theme that resonates throughout the story of Sheila’s Day returning to Crossroads, the theater’s Director of Press and Public Relations Barbara Martalus experienced considerable difficulty in gaining publicity for the show.

“Here we have this African American theater company that has survived despite a huge economic crisis,” says Martalus. “The anticipation was, particularly after the November election and knowing that Obama was going to be our president, that someone [in the press] would pick up on the historical perspective.”

2008 also marked the Crossroads’s 30th anniversary. To commemorate, Crossroads featured the return of several other of its classics. In September, The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe returned, and in November, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues—the show that went from Crossroads to Broadway—also returned to the theater. When Crossroads closed in 2000 it was coming off the high of national recognition for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues and its 1999 Tony for best new musical, according to Martalus, who says she was trying to put together a journalistic picture that they had some newsworthy stories, particularly surrounding Sheila’s Day. “To have made it to 30 years, we assumed this would be the angle. But we did not want to draw the conclusions for them.”

Martalus attributes the press’s neglect of this story to the particularly stressful year journalists have been experiencing. Crossroads is learning to explore other outlets to appeal to new audiences, such as its participation in Theater ROCKS!, a program that offers discount tickets to young professionals interested in experiencing theater.

Sheila’s Day will be running at the Crossroads, located on 7 Livingston Avenue, through May 3rd with both evening and matinee performances.

Alex Guadagno is a junior at Rutgers University. She is majoring in Journalism and Media Studies with a minor in Anthropology.
Photographer: Ruphin Coudyzer

Cast of SHEILA'S DAY ...
Front row - Selloane Nkhela , Mary Twala, Anne Duquesnay
Second row - Thuli Dumakude, Chantal Jean-Pierre, Erin Cherry, Shelley Thomas, Wendy Lynette Fox, Futhi Mhlongo
Rear row - Me'Lisa Sellers, Ashley Bryant

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