By Milan Paurich
The Youngstown Playhouse production opens Friday.
Despite being nominated for 13 NAACP awards in 2001, David Talbert’s inspirational musical “The Fabric of a Man” is still a mostly unknown commodity outside of big-city urban communities. The Youngstown Playhouse production that opens Friday for two weekends marks the show’s local premiere.
Directing “Fabric of a Man” is Johnny R. Herbert, hot off the heels of his Marquee-winning performance as Hoke in last spring’s Oakland Center for the Arts’ production of “Driving Miss Daisy.”
In a recent interview, Herbert discussed the play, why he was personally drawn to it and what type of audience response he’s hoping for.
Q. Why did you decide to direct again for the first time since the 2008 Oakland production of “The Colored Museum”?
A. I was so touched by the storyline of “Fabric of a Man” that I felt it was a show I had to do. So often you see men and woman in relationships for all the wrong reasons, and this play shows what can happen when you make the wrong choice in the pursuit of love.
Q. “Fabric of a Man” isn’t a particularly well-known musical in these parts. How/where did you discover the show, and could you tell us a little about its background?
A. I first saw it on DVD at my mother’s house, and I was hooked right from the start. The beautiful songs, the gospel feeling, the wonderful actors. And the fact that David Talbert dedicated the play to his mother really made me want to direct his show. If parents have done the job of raising their children to be the best person they can be, then they’ve really done their homework. When Talbert thanks his mom at the end of the performance for helping shape “The Fabric of a Man,” it got me thinking about my own mother and everything she’s done and sacrificed for me. So, after two years of phone calls and e-mails, I was finally able to contact Talbert and get his permission to direct the play.
Q. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the show, could you give us a thumbnail summary of the plot?
A. It’s kind of a play within a play. First, it’s the story of Dominique Majors and Joshua King. Dominique is a fashion designer who’s been invited to the pret-a-porter in Paris. Unfortunately, when we first meet her, she’s dating Blair Godfrey, the most self-centered, egotistical man on the planet. She eventually meets Joshua King, an up-and- coming fashion designer, and has to make the choice of either staying with Blair for financial reasons or going off with Joshua for purely romantic ones. The second story is about Ernestine and Ray-Ray, and it’s a bit more complicated. It’s about being able to live with, and love, the person on the inside, not just the outside.
Q. Who’s appearing in the show? How large a cast does it have?
A. Casting the show was difficult, but I was blessed with eight extremely gifted performers, many of whom are making their Playhouse debuts. Our first-timers are Jere Beulah, who plays Joshua; singer-songwriter Karen Fears (Ernestine); Bryon Armour (Ray-Ray); Keith Brown; and Mychael Abanathey as Dominique’s wacky assistant Orlando. Alene Harris from “Wing 9 Entertainment” plays Dominique: she’s the daughter of late, great R&B singer Al Wilson. Rounding out the cast are Kim Akins and the Reverend Lew Macklin who plays the detestable Blair. While those names might not be all that familiar to area theatergoers, their phenomenal voices and wonderful acting deserve to make them extremely well-known in the future!
Q. How would you describe the music in the play? Gospel, R&B, standard Broadway-type fare?
A. If you’re a fan of gospel music, then you’re probably familiar with Brent Jones and his group, Brent Jones and the T.P. (Total Praise) Mobb. He brings a unique gospel sound to his music that consists of a rich blend of harmonic R&B, jazz, and hip-hop. Keep in mind that “Fabric of a Man” is more of a stage play with music than a “musical” per se. The songs are light-hearted and have a clear inspirational message. Jones combines good- natured comedy and life-affirming drama. We’re going to have a trio of musicians under the direction of Curtis Jones, and I’m very excited to see — and hear — how it all comes out.
Q. Like Tyler Perry’s wildly successful movies and touring plays, “The Fabric of a Man” has been described as an “urban” show. How accessible are the story and characters to non-African American audiences? Was that ever a concern when you picked the show?
A. Not really. Granted it’s an entirely African-American cast, but anyone — black, white, straight, gay, young, old — can relate to the storyline because love is universal and it knows no color. That’s what’s so wonderful about David Talbert’s play.
Q. How difficult is it for a multi-hyphenate African-American talent like yourself to find suitable/worthwhile material/opportunities on the predominantly caucasian Youngstown theater scene?
A. It is tough at times. Sometimes it all depends on the play, the characters, the cast list, the playwright or even who’s directing. Sometimes you need a character from a specific ethnic background because that’s what the playwright intended. But other times you can take a non-tradtional casting approach, which is entirely up to the director. The “Fabric of a Man” cast IS African-American, but I didn’t select the show for that reason alone. The story is what hooked me, and I’m looking forward to performing in — and directing — plays that reach a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. It’s all here in Youngstown — we just need to be given a chance.