Theatre Tulsa’s rendition of the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” has one weekend left of electrifying performances for the community. But those expecting to see a retelling of the 2006 film adaptation will be in for a surprise.
The tantalizing tale of three Black women from Chicago who carve out a name for themselves in a cut-throat music industry originated from a 1981 Broadway play. Receiving 13 Tony Award nominations, the musical follows “the Dreams”, a powerful trio who became music superstars.
In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, actors who play the musical’s principal characters explained the significance of Tulsa presenting a mostly-Black cast during the 100 Year Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. They also revealed their connections to the characters and how their own personal experiences helped bring the story to life.
Actors connect to characters
Effie might just be the most memorable character of the musical. A heavyset, dark skinned woman with a powerful voice and a personality to match, DeVon Douglass said she instantly related to the role. Effie famously sings Jennifer Holliday’s “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going”. The traumatized shero goes from being the leader of the group to being pushed out and abandoned by both her fellow singers and the man she loves.
Years before joining the cast, Douglass served as Tulsa’s Chief Resiliency Officer.
“When Mayor Bynum was elected and I was chosen as Chief Resilience Officer, one of the first things that he said was ‘we wanna work on race relations,’” Douglass said.
“One of my biggest pushbacks was this isn’t something city government can do alone.” She said it would take businesses, churches and organizations around Tulsa to fully commemorate the Massacre, when a deputized White mob burned, looted, and destroyed 35 square blocks of the booming Black Greenwood District in 1921.
Douglass fully immerses herself into the role
Douglass said that her voice as an advocate quickly became “too heavy” for city leaders to accept. Drawing parallels to the musical, Douglass noted a line in which a character says “we need a lighter sound” in regards to Effie. Douglass used her personal experience receiving pushback in her own life to release the emotions needed to illuminate Effie’s struggle.
“It was pretty easy for me to tap into it. The more difficult part was pushing it out. Not sitting with that emotion and letting the audience see it,” Douglass said. Determined to fully immerse herself in the role, Douglass said she only listened to music that her character Effie would’ve heard. Douglass spent weeks listening to songs like that of Ma Rainey and others that were produced before 1974. Notably, as a Tulsan planning to move to Boston, Douglass said her performance is a “goodbye letter” to the city she’s known and loved.
“We’re making history”
Meanwhile, actor Kubbi, who plays Lorrell in the film, flew down from New York City to audition for the role in June. “After seeing the original broadway production” Kubbi said she was amazed at seeing three Black women telling their story. She was even more inspired by the 2006 film adaption of Lorrell’s character arc. Though, she admitted she was nervous to sing such high notes.
“The opportunity to put a spin on this character with a comedic side to it to make it more memorable” was Kubbi’s main goal. She admired the growth in a character who, despite getting married at a young age, is still able to come into her own.
Forty years after the release of the original Broadway production, Kubbi says it feels like making history.
“We’re making history. We might be the only production of ‘Dreamgirls’ in the country right now that’s doing it,” Kubbi told The Black Wall Street Times.
The most predominantly Black cast at Theatre Tulsa since 2017
For her part, Majesty Pearson, who plays Deena, agreed. Listening to the musical and re-watching the film for inspiration, Pearson said Deena’s story in some ways reminded her of her own. More than anything, Pearson said she was excited to represent Black artists in a space that often neglects them.
“Our kids knowing about these opportunities and being able to go for them” is important, she said. “Hopefully this will encourage other arts businesses to follow Theatre Tulsa’s lead and put their money where their mouth is and support us.”
Non-musical Black arts organizations such as Theatre North have held space for Black productions for years, but Theatre Tulsa, a flagship institution in the city’s arts scene, holds a great deal of influence.
“This is the most predominantly Black show that we have produced since ‘Ragtime’ in 2017,” said Jarrod Kopp of Theatre Tulsa. He added that since Theatre North and others “already tell those stories so authentically”, he believes Theatre Tulsa’s role is to “support those productions by sharing our resources wherever we can.”
Director compares ‘Dreamgirls’ to Tulsa Race Massacre
Nevertheless, the significance of showcasing a musical with a predominantly Black cast on the 100 Year Centennial of one of the nation’s worst instances of racial violence isn’t lost on the cast or crew.
Kelli McLoud Schingen is the director of Theatre Tulsa’s ‘Dreamgirls’. She also owns World Stage Theatre Company, a multicultural endeavor.
Schingen was only 12 years old when she first saw a production of ‘Dreamgirls’. She said she knew then she wanted to one day direct the musical herself.
“It was the first time that on the stage I saw so many people who looked like me and talking and communicating and singing in ways that were incredibly familiar to me,” Schingen told The BWSTimes.
For Black people in America, entertainment has historically been one of few routes to success
Schingen said her hope is that people recognize that Black people have historically been excellent entertainers primarily out of necessity. It was often the only route open to a people long ostracized by a White Supremacist nation. She said what’s often lost is the story behind the entertainment. Drawing parallels to the 1921 Massacre and the ‘Dreamgirls’ musical, Schingen said it comes down to the fact that “things can be taken from us very easily by White people.”
“In the case of the 1921 Race Massacre, our lives were taken from us. Our livelihoods were taken from us. Our families were taken from us. In this musical in particular, creative art was taken. So, in many ways, the voice of the artist was taken.”
Noting Elvis’ role in stealing elements of Black artists, Schingen added, “It’s another example of how our cultures and our communities have been picked apart by “vultures” and “race opportunists”.
In a world that has continued to discriminate against Black people, and in a city that successfully muted the Black community for nearly a century, Schingen said ‘Dreamgirls’ is a response to the silencing of Black voices.
Tickets available for final weekend of performances
For its part, the city of Tulsa recently unveiled a proclamation in support of the ‘Dreamgirls’ production that acknowledges the Massacre. The proclamation comes months after the city passed a resolution officially apologizing for the Massacre. However, it fell short of calling for immediate reparations to the last three known living survivors and their descendants.
Still, cast members of ‘Dreamgirls’ say Theatre Tulsa’s decision to showcase the predominantly Black cast represents a step forward that others should emulate.
“We want three little Black girls who are good friends to see us on stage and say, ‘Hey, I wanna do ‘Dreamgirls.’ I wanna be in theatre. I didn’t know Theatre Tulsa did this kind of stuff. I wanna participate the next time this is happening,” Douglass said.
Performances of Theatre Tulsa’s ‘Dreamgirls’ began on October 8 and will continue for one last weekend. Tickets are available for shows on Friday, Oct. 15 and Saturday Oct. 16 at 8 p.m The final performance on Sunday is at 2 p.m.
To purchase tickets, visit tulsapac.com or call 918-596-7111.