Helena Has The Wright To Sing Whatever She Wants!!!

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Broadway, Cabaret, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized, Webisodes
Entertainment personality Helena Joyce-Wright is one of those performers who come along every so often, so revered by their peers as to be considered legendary and yet still sorely lacking the name recognition they so rightfully deserve. After making a tremendous Broadway debut in Amen Corner over twenty-five years ago, years of starring in national tours and regional companies both musical and dramatic have followed ever since, as well as numerous appearances as Billie Holiday on stages far and wide, but other than a more-than-memorable experience understudying Leslie Uggams in Jerry’s Girls, true stardom has managed to elude the lady. That, however, may finally be about to change; on the evening of Sunday, August 28th at 7 PM, Wright brings her long-awaited one-woman opus, All The Parts I Every Wanted To Sing But Couldn’t ‘Cause I ‘Wuz’ Black, to the Abingdon Theatre, 312 West 36th Street as part of Works-In-Progress Productions. Directed by Dwight R.B. Cook with musical direction by Andrew Smithson and choreography by Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, the show proves rather to be one part Ntozake Shange at her most dramatic, one part Elaine Stritch at her most liberated, and never anything less than the most singularly-unique package she could possibly offer. (Tickets are available by calling 212-868-2055). While the show waits for a longer theatrical run which is most certainly in its future, Wright will continue to champion the mega-hit Web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, developed by and starring Issa Rae and hoping for a jump to full presentation on cable television, in which she’s creating the recurring role of J’s Mother. With so much going on, it’s a joy for The Andrew Martin Report to grab a quick interview with Wright just a few days away from what could well be the second chance of a lifetime.
ANDREW MARTIN:  I understand that you come from a rather large family, and that talent runs through the bloodline. When was the first time you realized that your family had special abilities for the stage and other forms of entertainment?
HELENA-JOYCE WRIGHT: I actually come from a rather small family. Interestingly, I had seven great-aunts, all of whom married, but only one, my grandmother, had any children. The others traveled with their husbands and sorta spoiled me rotten…except of course for my grandmother. My mother was considered ‘prolific’ because she had four children. As for the stage, that is, it would seem, in my blood (much to my mother’s horror). My aunt, Robin Braxton, is part of theatre royalty as part of the early members of Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). Watching them as a child seared things into my consciousness, like, all things are possible. They took a play from a church basement to a Tony Award, and I got to see this process.  I started out as a dance student but I was never encouraged to do ‘fluff stuff,’ because I had gotten so much attention for my academics, and specifically, writing. My mom was devastated when I turned down a full scholarship to Harvard in journalism to study musical theatre instead, but the joke is, she had only put me in ballet because she knew I’d be tall and worried about my posture and decorum. I was a ‘closet singer,’ and had to go all the way to California to ‘come out,” if you will.
AM: What was your first time on a stage, what was it like, and did you know right then and there that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
HJW: This is what’s strange. My elementary school was doing the play Peter Pan, and I went to audition for Tinkerbell. My music teacher, Ms. Guillermo (who I’ve been trying to find for so many years), broke the news to me that Tinkerbell was only a follow spot. I was crushed, but she asked me to sing anyway. I did, I sang “Moon River,” and she cast me as Peter Pan. It was great, and I got to fly around the auditorium! But then I didn’t go back on stage, except dance recitals, until I left home for college.
AM: I know that you switched colleges in a rather drastic change of events. Please explain that, and the remainder of your college life until graduation.
HJW: It was indeed! I was sort of a hot property, having won some writing awards, etc. I was heavily recruited coming out of high school, and I had committed to going to Harvard, after my visits to a number of other schools. But I changed my mind at the eleventh hour, and went to Howard instead. No sooner was I there than I was transferring; my mom said all I really wanted to be was a professional student. I ended up studying musical theatre under John Blankenship and John Houseman at USC, and did my graduate studies at University of Houston, where Ntozake Shange and Loretta Devine both loomed large, and which is also where I met and fell in love with Billy Stritch. Oh, and besides all this,  I actually graduated with honors from Spelman College.
AM: What ultimately brought you to New York, and what were your earliest jobs, both on the stage and off?
HJW: I was very fortunate. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis saw me in a production of their play Purlie Victorious, and ended up bringing to New York to co-star with them in Zora Is My Name. That was where I met Woodie King, Jr. And Philip Rose, the man who would be my lifelong friend, mentor, protector and fan. I miss him more than I can say. But, I still had to take LOTS of offstage jobs to pay for my decision to study theatre; it was not something supported by my mom. She just did not ever want to see me struggle.
AM: What were the events leading up to you being cast in Amen Corner? Was your Broadway debut everything you thought it would be? Why or why not?
HJW: No, it was not. With the exception of Chuck Cooper, it took a while for the cast and I to warm up to each other. I was this new kid, who was sort of the teacher’s pet. They didn’t know where I came from or how I got here, and I hadn’t ‘proven’ myself. Of course, my own arrogance didn’t help. I remember thinking, “Now what?” once it was over, because it came too easy and I didn’t have a full appreciation of what it was. Of course now, with a thirty-year perspective, it all makes perfect sense. If had not done that show then and gone through the experience, I wouldn’t possibly be able to do what I’m doing now. This time I am fully present, and grateful for a second chance. I really take a lot of comfort in knowing that if God didn’t want it to happen, I would be in a wheelchair unable to sing, so that takes a lot of the pressure off me!
AM: What were some of your favorite jobs in between Amen Corner and Jerry’s Girls?
HJW: I enjoyed working with Rosetta LeNoire at AMAS; that stands out. I also learned that I was a pretty good teacher. A little unorthodox, but some of my former students are on Facebook and I love them to life! Most of the jobs actually came after Jerry’s Girls, because I was wiped out during that tour. It was pretty devastating.
AM: Tell us about the night you went on for Uggams.
HJW: Well, you’ll have to come to the play to hear that story, but I’ll excerpt you a bit . Can you say, ‘caught with your drawers down?’ Oh my. I had been partying all night, staggered back to the hotel at 3am  in the Nob Hill section of San Fran, and I get “the” call!  Ms. Uggams’ mom had passed, and I was on!  Oh, no. Oh, no! PANIC!  I never had one understudy rehearsal, because neither Leslie nor Carol every missed a show. It was all very crazy; my understudy was preparing to go on for me, while I was preparing to go on for Leslie. There was lots to maneuver, tons of blocking, and musical numbers up the wah-zoo,  and then there was that entrance from waaaaay at the top of the glass staircase, which I had to walk down as though it wasn’t two stories high, in a Bob Mackie original and three-inch heels, all the while singing and emoting and never letting them see me sweat!
AM: Tell us the circumstances of trying to be a working mother.
HJW: That proved impossible. Especially after losing his father. HORROR! My son demanded my attention, and while you can divorce all the husbands you want, those same rules DO NOT apply to children! For a while, I was artistic director of a LORT house in California; I loved the job, and knew I had the vision to make things happen, but it was a struggle because when I got there, the theatre was already in complete disrepair and I was viewed as an outsider, so there was a lot of pushback. People thought the theatre had money, which it did not. I financed most things personally (not a good formula), and the very month I learned my little theatre had been awarded one of the top grants, two million dollars sustaining, I also learned that my mother’s cancer had returned and I had to make a decision. All this plus trying to raise my son and be a great mom. So it was a no-brainer. But of course, I would have liked to see what I would have produced if given the resources. There are some pretty incredible things floating around in this head of mine. And I’m sure God will give me another chance to make them happen. And it’s not just about me, I dream about blessing other people in a major way, all the time. I think of ideas for shows, like some people think of, whatever they think of. I get ideas like The Maestros and Their Muses, sorta just what the title implies. And The Big Bounceback, a show about three or four resurrected ‘Dark Divas’ converging to do their own Follies of sorts. And one of my very favorites is inspired by my relationship with Andre DeShields, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with him about it yet. But I think he’s going to love it.
AM: What about your close brush with starring in the original cast of The Lion King?
HJW: Again, you have to see the show to hear my take in detail. Suffice it to say that in the end, that beat saying, “No matter what I ever accomplish in theatre, Tony Awards notwithstanding, to my son I will always be that woman who turned down the chance to be Rafiki in The Lion King.” My spin was different. “A monkey?? Why in the world would they think I would be perfect for a MONKEY??”  Sad, but true. And, I’ve been trying to be seen again by them ever since.
AM: In the show, you also touch briefly on being a cancer survivor. Besides those things you discuss, what do you not talk about in the show that you think is important to share about the experience?
HJW: I had such a struggle coming into an understanding of certain things. I really thirst for answers and knowledge and I searched everywhere from Ashram to Islam. I just kept looking and looking and looking, I knew there was something more, but I couldn’t figure it out. And I completely rejected the whole notion of my family worshiping someone with blond hair and blue eyes. That made absolutely no sense to me. I never just accepted things at face value; I always looked deeper. I wanted answers! You would think that someone who loves so many abstract forms of art wouldn’t have such an impossible time believing in something like God, but I was stumped during that time. I used to make some of the craziest demands like, “If you’re real. just put an HJ in the sky.” I mean stuff straight out King Herod’s song. I really don’t want to get on a soapbox, because that’s not my style, but I have to say that after the cancer, losing my mom, husband, brother and dad, I was sad, sad, sad and angry, angry, angry at Him, and right about then He made Himself very clear, and I was very grateful. It was like finding that one friggin’ missing piece to the puzzle and really everything started to make sense, even the cancer, why I had it and why I don’t now. I still don’t understand stuff like Heaven. Or, how will I see my mom and dad, how exactly does it work, will they look the same, will they just be spirits, and will that scare me? Again, I like exact answers, and I like details. But in my relationship with God after all that happened, He delights in my humor and I delight in His.
AM: How did you come to get involved with Issa Rae and Awkward Black Girl?
HJW: Oh, here we go. Basically, almost two years ago, when I first began putting together Amen Corner: The Musical, Issa was here working in New York at New Federal, where I was calling and harassing Woodie King, my mentor who I mentioned earlier. Issa was a sweetheart who helped me, sight unseen, to not only navigate Woodie and budgets, but she was also giving me Facebook pointers. I asked so many ridiculous questions back then (not to be confused with the ridiculous questions I ask now) that it’s a wonder she speaks to me at all. But we’ve just had a connection ever since. When ABG was introduced, I got so excited and started advocating, because the show is so good; I wanted to make sure my few little networks knew about it . Which elicited the response from the producers of my show, “We wish you would network your OWN show like that!” Somewhere in all this, I was having really bad withdrawals because the show only airs once a month, and I was reduced to watching outtakes and then her other series, Fly Guys. Anyway, I woke up one night with the character of her mother in my mind. Not being a screenwriter, I hesitated sending it to her, but I finally did and she loved it, and we started talking about my playing her mom. When my showdate was pushed back, I had to turn down the commercial I was going to Los Angeles to do, which of course affected her plans to introduce the ABG Mom character. At the same time, things started to really blow up for ABG (a hundred thousand hits for Episode Six), along with all the other great things that are happening with it; Dennis Dortch directed the last episode, they surpassed their Kickstarter goal, Issa’s been signed by Tina Fey’s agent, etc. I’ve watched with an incredible and overhwelming sense of pride and excitement, and it’s just a vicarious thrill watching this all unfold. So the long and short is, I adore her and have from the start. The only downside is that now I have to find someone to answer all my silly Facebook questions.
AM: Can we talk about your recent experience with the MetroStar competition at the Metropolitan Room and why you entered, as well as your thoughts on the outcome?
HJW: What a trip! Andrew, I never thought of myself as a singer, I’m a musical theatre character. I’ve always found comfort hiding behind a character. Although, playing Billie Holiday forced me out of that. Anyway, I was tickled pink (or purple) for the chance to compete; I love being taken seriously in that very particular market. It was very validating. And the week I really thought I sucked and left thinking I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, one of the judges told me later that I nailed it. The next week when I thought, “Hey, I did OK,” considering the abrupt departure of my musical director due to a personal crisis, that same judge, Sherry Eaker, asked me, “What happened?” I liked her instantly. Anyway, if I had it to do again, I would have taken the advice of the accompanist who said he was terrified to sight-read Sondheim and gone with a simple Billie Holiday number. But I thought he did a great job.
AM: What are your personal hopes for ‘Cause I Wuz Black after it plays on the 28th?
HJW: That this show will get picked up, that it hits a pulse, gets developed, moves to Broadway, and everyone’s hard work and belief in me and this project will be rewarded with a sweep at the Tonys, and I am finally able to hire the people that I want and fire the ones I don’t. Tee hee! Then I can produce other stuff in the Works-In-Progress Productions arsenal.
AM: If you could have had it all to do over again, what would you have done with your life?
HJW: I would have handled my losses differently. I really wasn’t at my best at fifty percent, and my son deserved better. It was the best I had, but it wasn’t enough. So I guess I wouldn’t have stayed stuck so long. And I was engaged three times to three wonderful men, but I had horrific commitment issues. It would’ve have been good to work some of that out BEFORE I got married, but I think I’ll be a better wife the next time. After all, I hear the third time’s a charm.
AM: What is the one philosophy of life you’d like to share?
HJW: Actually, I have two. The first is, never argue with an idiot, because he’ll only bring you down to size and beat you with experience. The other is, I am the miracle I had been waiting for.
A miracle most assuredly. Whether or not All The Parts I Every Wanted To Sing But Couldn’t ‘Cause I ‘Wuz’ Black becomes a life-changing event for Helena-Joyce Wright and the fans so eager to crowd the Abingdon on the evening of the 28th remains to be seen, but it doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme; her life has already changed for the better more times than most would ever have been blessed. The rest is merely sweet and blissful icing on the cake of life.
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