This Conversation Just Got Started: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and ONE DROP OF LOVE

Fanshen Cox: One Drop of Love

 

Teacher, performer, writer Fanshen Cox performs her show, ONE DROP OF LOVE, produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Teacher, performer, writer Fanshen Cox performs her show, ONE DROP OF LOVE, produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni.

 

The performing arts have the ability to entertain, but more significantly, they provide a creative medium to challenge barriers and create a voice of civilized resistance to ideas and social systems. The performing arts question, explore, excite new ideas and, in many artists’ hopes, inspire more meaningful dialogue. Participating in the performing arts, either as audience members or as performers, allows society to see itself reflected in the mirror of the stage and, assessing that image, determine whether or not we can and should—or will—change. The performing arts are a simple vehicle to elevate the species if we choose to employ them to help us reach out to one another and express our anger and grief, joy and triumphs.

It is no small feat of courage to put one’s self on display for others, to volunteer to be the mirror, but such people are necessary to keep a society vital and grounded in the practice of emotional honesty, which is very hard to come by and, for some people, even harder to hear or watch. New voices, new ideas and new performers who bring to light troubling realities of race, power dynamics, belief systems and social evolution are often rejected and scorned for showing us what we would rather not confront. Other times, however, their courage is embraced, applauded and encouraged to go forth to more people in more communities spreading, as it were, one drop of love at a time.

This week we welcome teacher, writer and performing artist Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni whose one-woman show, One Drop of Love, tackles themes of racial identity, love, community and attempting conversation despite all obvious awkwardness. It’s funny, it’s real and we asked Fanshen if we could re-post her original blog about how and why she created the show, which is produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni. She agreed, and we reposted her blog below:

 

Fanshen performs multiple roles. Here, as a Census Worker in the 1970s.

 

It is an exciting time to be an actor, when the notion of ‘performance’ is taking on new meanings and has the potential to change the way we view the art form. Traditional definitions of ‘performance’ include the act of staging or presenting a play; a rendering of a dramatic role. Now scholar/activists like Judith Butler are exploring a new definition of performance, or ‘performativity‘–looking at how we use language and behavior to construct identity.

 In my solo show, One Drop of Love, I get to meld these two understandings of performance. I am an actor who portrays several different characters: my Jamaican/Pan-Africanist father, my Blackfeet-Cherokee-Danish mother, candy and fruit vendors from East and West Africa, Census Workers from the 1790s to the present, racist cops from Cambridge, MA and many others. At the same time, in taking on these roles, I explore the construction of ‘racial’ identity, and how these identities are created through speech and acts – as opposed to genetics or physical appearance.

 In 2006 I was going to marry the man of my dreams, and all I had left to do was call my father and ask him to walk me down the aisle. The thought of this call filled me with angst. I hadn’t witnessed my father interact in positive ways with ‘white’ people since my parents’ divorce in 1977.  The man I would eventually marry (much to my own surprise) is European.  After weeks of stewing, I finally convinced myself that this thing called ‘race’ was not going to get in the way of my joy. I made the call. And then my father did not attend our wedding.

One Drop of Love begins here and then journeys through time and space to examine the constructs and behaviors and speech acts that led to this moment. In the end, my father and I reach some sense of reconciliation, but questions about the influence of the one-drop rule, and how it affects our – and society’s – relationship to ‘race’ remain for me, my father, and the audience to continue to ponder. I know how privileged I am to be able to perform (in both senses of the word), and I plan to utilize that privilege to encourage complex conversations about ‘race’ and racism and use my chosen art form to create change.

The Ghost Light

People have asked us why, in theater, we leave a single cage light center stage when everyone goes home for the night. The answer is obvious:  to appease the ghosts, of course.

IMG_0710

The ghost light watches over Morsani Hall after everyone goes home.

 

We all know there’s no business like show business, and the old joke goes that actors don’t retire; they die. However, even death can’t keep some actors off stage, and superstition holds that every theater has its ghosts – some more active than others.

Judy Garland still appears at the Palace Theater on Broadway, for example, by the special entrance the theater constructed for her during her last performance there, and stage workers across the country report opening a theater to find mysteriously rearranged set pieces, things that go missing and reappear in odd places, apparitions, voices, strange laughter.

It is hard to get rid of the theater bug, even for those who should be walking into the light instead of tap dancing underneath it. Thus: the ghost light, a solitary pole light that has a metal cage around its incandescent bulb, placed downstage center when a theater is not in use.

In a business that competes only with sports in its reliance on the practice of superstition, the ghost light stands as a centuries-old tradition that helps illuminate a dark, lonely theater for the ghosts that linger, waiting for their chance to perform. Happy ghost actors are less likely to interfere with a live performance or sabotage an actor by making a sudden appearance before a cue. The last person to leave a theater is responsible for igniting the ghost light; the first person to arrive in the morning extinguishes it. This way, there is never an empty, dark theater, and the specters enjoy another run in the spotlight.

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts has no known ghosts – yet. “We’re not that old,” says Michael Chamoun, director of production services. “No strange occurrences. Unfortunately. But we leave on the ghost light for the same reasons – to appease any ghosts that might be here and give them a chance to perform.”

If a theater is around long enough, eventually tragedy shows its face, usually as a death on stage or the passing of a beloved (or despised) actor or theater worker. In Tampa, the most well-known theater ghost is “Fink,” the former projectionist who remains in the Tampa Theater casting shadows, creeping over new projectionists with the cold chills, or opening doors. “I’ve known a lot of projectionists at Tampa Theater,” Chamoun says, “and they all have the same stories of cold winds and such. We [at the Straz] are only going into our 26th year, so we’re lucky that we don’t have anyone to haunt us.”

Still, the three main stages – Carol Morsani Hall, Ferguson Hall and the Jaeb Theater – all sport ghost lights through the night, for two main reasons. “It’s bad luck if a theater goes dark, so we keep the light on as part of that superstition, but the reality is it’s for safety. People walk where they’re not supposed to, and the light at the end of the stage keeps people from falling off.”

The last reason explains why there is no ghost light in the Shimberg Playhouse or the TECO Theater: these two houses don’t have elevated stages, so there is no threatening precipice. Be certain though, that should the need arise, Chamoun and his electrical staff will supply these theaters with a ghost light if the Straz ever finds itself with a Fink or Casper or Judy Garland of its own.

One suspect legend of the origin of the ghost light states that a burglar stole into a theater at night and fell off the stage into the pit, breaking his leg (there is an acting joke in here somewhere), and later sued the theater—and won—for not providing adequate lighting.  Thus theaters began to leave the ghost light to avoid litigation, although the idea of ghosts holding phantom versions of vaudeville acts at 2 a.m. is more plausible than the Tale of the Litigious Thief.

Another historical speculation about the origin of the ghost light dates to pre-electricity, when theaters were heated with coal-burning gas lamps. The lamps, powered by coal gas generators, would build up gas in the lines and cause them to blow up until someone figured out that burning a lamp during the night prevented gas explosions. However, a live flame in a wood theater overnight did not prevent fire, and hundreds of theaters burned down from 1800 until Edison perfected his electric light bulb.

Somewhere between fact and fiction, fun and function, lies theater. And so it is with the ghost light as well, our solitary beacon through the night promising that, no matter what, and for whom, the show must go on.

Ghost Light A

So far,  our ghost lights seem to be doing all of their jobs. So far.

 

The Lioness Returns

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons’ early career began on stages around the Tampa Bay region, one of which was our Jaeb Theater. She left for New York City the week of Sept. 11, 2001, to audition for Aida, a Disney production. Her audition led to an interest in her for The Lion King, and she and her husband stayed in the city during the chaos of the September 11th crisis. That Monday, Sept. 17, Kissy was cast as Nala in The Lion King, directed by lauded Julie Taymor, and began a decade-long journey with the show on Broadway, in Las Vegas and on the first national tour, which came to Morsani Hall in 2002.

Kissy, short for Kissimmee, a town close to her birthplace of Floral City, FL, returns to the Jaeb Theater Nov. 1, 2014, for a solo show as part of our brand new Cabaret Series. In many ways, she is returning to her roots, and we are happy to welcome her home. Caught in the Act caught up with Kissy by phone in her New York City apartment to talk about identity and place and her upcoming performance in the Jaeb.

CitA: We’ve been hearing rumors that your show is going to be a retrospective/introspective look at your life from the Straz to Broadway and back again. Is this true? And will you talk a little bit about how your upbringing in Florida has shaped your life as a performer?

KS (laughs): My show centers around the Straz, how I got my start, and where life has gone. For me, it all hinges from church. I was just a church girl who wanted to play the organ. I saw our organist in church and I thought “oh my goodness, I want to play the organ!” My talent derived from that environment and was facilitated there—even acting. We did skits and had to deliver Christmas speeches. You know, you don’t think about ‘down the road’ when you’re doing it, but now I look back and see. I look at my daughter (2-year-old Sadie), and I know that experiences like that matter. It makes a difference, at least it did for me. Those are my roots. The Straz … well, that was a really big deal. I had this idea of being a performer, but I didn’t know what that meant, it felt like a fantasy. I didn’t know how I would get there. I would audition at the [Florida] theme parks and couldn’t get a job with them. Luckily, the Straz was there and I was able to do so many cabaret shows. The Straz was a blessing. I even got married there!

We didn’t know that! Do tell.

Yes, by the water. We were in rehearsals for Swing! Swing! Swing! I approached Judy [Lisi, Straz Center President] to do something small, and she was like “oh, honey…” and my little idea turned into a wedding I never could have imagined! It was run like a show with calls and everything.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center's brand new Cabaret Series.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center’s brand new Cabaret Series.

That’s fantastic. So this is a real coming home for you.

I feel no shame in where I’m from. I’m from Floral City, the town with one traffic light. I walk around New York City in my cowboy boots. That’s where I’m from—I’m a small town country girl. You are who you are. For me to come back from being away and experiencing so many cultures, Vegas, New York … it’s refreshing to come home and see how people can ground you. When I go to Winn-Dixie [the grocery store], people say hello. My high school friends who stayed now have their kids at Inverness Middle School. It’s nice to see people I have roots with rooted in their own families. There are so many people to keep me connected, and it’s important for me to come back—but it is just as important for me to give back. You realize people have been rooting for you this whole time, and it’s a two-way street. It’s an opportunity to perform for people who supported me. People give me the strength to be able to do this, and I like to give it back. I’ll always be in and out of Florida even though New York is where we are.

You are an extremely down-to-earth person, with a relatively normal life, long-time marriage, a child … how do you stay humble in the entertainment business and stay out of a lot of the traps of the lifestyle?

I met Anthony [her husband] when we were both running track at USF [the University of South Florida]. I saw him and knew that was what I wanted, and that was that! (laughs) I know entertainment is what it is. I see it as such a blessing and opportunity. I get to do what I love. All jobs are important. All of our jobs no matter what it is are so important, and I view life that way. To blow it or waste it, for me, would be tragic. I know people recover [from addictions] and overcome, which is wonderful. But I just look at it like a huge blessing that I get to participate in. I’m my own worst critic, and in this business, it’s subject to people’s opinions. It’s a judged environment, and that can be hard. I learned humility through church, and maybe if I didn’t know to pray then I would be tempted to do something external to help me out, but I can stay grounded in being grateful for the opportunity. But that’s just my perspective, just the path I have been on.

We are really looking forward to having you to all to ourselves for your cabaret show. Will you give us a little sneak peek of what we can expect?

Let’s just say … expect some familiar tunes! Especially from shows done in the Jaeb. This performance is going to be a great time. Expect lots of fun and fun moments. Stan Collins, my piano player—he’s phenomenal. I wouldn’t do this show with anyone else! It’ll be me, Stan, and bass and drums. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

William Ivey Long’s Designs on Broadway

William Ivey Long’s costume designs are a killer.

William Ivey Long’s costume designs are a killer. [Photo by Paul Kolnick; newcitystage.com]

The ultra-sexy revamped sheer black palette of the Chicago revival. The yellow dress in Contact. The frogs in Frogs. Sally Bowles’ maximum-leg-power mini-dress in Cabaret. The feather-trimmed muu-muu in Hairspray.

Long’s hand-drawn sketch along with the real-life costume shows the evolution from imagination to reality.

Long’s hand-drawn sketch along with the real-life costume shows the evolution from imagination to reality. [(c) Richard Kornberg and Associates and William Ivey Long]

And here, at The Straz, the mind-blowing, magical wardrobe changes in Rodgers+Hammerstien’s Cinderella.

Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. [http://www.williamiveylong.com]

Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. [http://www.williamiveylong.com]

There is one mastermind behind these historic works of theater couture, and that man is the diminutive, Southern-spoken genius Broadway loves named William Ivey Long. As *the* costume designer of the Broadway set, Long’s name brand is sewn into over 70 shows and counting. His designs—spectacular, fabulous works created after intensive, obsessive research—have been known to become as famous as the actors who wore them and, in some cases, lasted as works of art far longer than the show itself.

This bodysuit, designed for Anita Morris in “A Call from the Vatican” for Tommy Tune’s original production of NINE is allegedly the sexiest costume in Broadway history.

This bodysuit, designed for Anita Morris in “A Call from the Vatican” for Tommy Tune’s original production of NINE is allegedly the sexiest costume in Broadway history. [http://imgarcade.com]

One of the most illustrative tales of Long’s creative design genius came from the set of The Producers, where he had created meticulously detailed pearl leotards for the chorus of Pearl Babes. During their number, they sit on a piano, and, as it turned out, sitting on pearls on a piano is terribly uncomfortable. Can you fix this? they asked Long.

Pearl Babes from The Producers.

Pearl Babes from The Producers.

Long thought about it, and he turned that difficulty over in his mind. He did not want to sacrifice his precious pearls shimmying in the back, and he didn’t want any other effect. So, he gathered up the costumes and took them home for a few days. Then he returned, handed each actor her costume and said the problem is solved.

The Pearl Babes put on their costumes and sat down, and, certainly, the pearls gave way beneath them. Long had replaced the hard plastic pearls with fake grapes, the kind found in most Grannys’ bowls of fake plastic fruit, and painted them an opalescent white. Problem solved.

And the audience never knew the difference.

Long’s designs for Dreamgirls exemplify his unique style that blends theatricality and haute couture.

Long’s designs for Dreamgirls exemplify his unique style that blends theatricality and haute couture.

For more on William Ivey Long:

William Ivey Long Keeps His Clothes On By Alex Witchel

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/29/magazine/29long.html?pagewanted=all

“William Ivey Long, Costume Designer, Rodgers+Hammerstein’s Cinderella

William Ivey Long at TEDx Lizard Creek: “The Design Process”

How It Works: Rodgers+Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Big, blockbuster Broadway musicals come with singers, dancers, fabulous costumes … and many trucks. How do those whopping set pieces end up on Carol Morsani stage? The answer is lots of (literal) manpower. We took some after-hours and behind-the-scenes photographs of the “load-in,” which is the usually very quick turn-around time between when the show trucks arrive to when the curtain rises on the opening performance. Here is a look at the shape a Broadway musical is in when it gets to town.

Two trucks arrive at the Straz Center on the first day of load-in for Cinderella.

Two trucks arrive at the Straz Center on the first day of load-in for Cinderella.

The view from the back of the trucks in the loading dock, and onto Carol Morsani stage. The loading dock at the Straz Center is truck-level and stage-level. This allows for easier load-in and load-out of shows.

The view from the back of the trucks in the loading dock, and onto Carol Morsani stage. The loading dock at the Straz Center is truck-level and stage-level. This allows for easier load-in and load-out of shows.

Preparing the stage lights on day one of load-in for Cinderella.

Preparing the stage lights during day one of load-in.

More trucks arrive for day two of load-in for Cinderella.

More trucks arrive for day two of load-in for Cinderella.

Looking into the trucks parked in the loading dock.

Looking into the trucks parked in the loading dock.

The horses arrive in one of the trucks on day two of load-in.

The horses arrive in one of the trucks on day two of load-in.

Close-up of the horses.

Close-up of the horses.

I spy a pumpkin hiding in a pile of props!

I spy a pumpkin hiding in a pile of props!

Putting set pieces and props together for Cinderella.

Putting set pieces and props together for Cinderella.

More Cinderella stuff off the trucks!

More Cinderella stuff off the trucks!

A vegetable cart for the tour of Cinderella.

A vegetable cart for the tour of Cinderella.

Set pieces and props for the tour of Cinderella.

Set pieces and props for the tour of Cinderella.

A look into the orchestra pit on day two of load-in for Cinderella.

A look into the orchestra pit on day two of load-in for Cinderella.

Setting up more scenery for Cinderella on day two of load-in.

Setting up the scenery for Cinderella on day two of load-in.

Dixie’s Dream Tupperware Party

Dixie Longate of Dixe's Tupperware Party.

Dixie Longate, guest blogger.

This week “Caught in the Act” was commandeered by the saucy, red-headed Tupperware wonder Dixie Longate whose show, Dixie’s Tupperware Party, opens in the Jaeb Theater October 15.

I was looking at the Straz Center’s site to see my pretty picture rotate on the screen between other amazing shows and I saw there was a blog on here. I remember my daughter, Wynona, telling me that blogging is the thing that everyone is doing, so I figured I would take this one over for a second and scribble down something. But what should I write about?

Then it hit me like a family-sized vacation pack of Pop Tarts. I am hoping that loads of people attend my Tupperware Party this week, but who would I be all tingly down in my no-no place to see walk in for the party and join y’all?

I would love to have people like Brad and Angelina there because they have so many mouths to feed and would probably buy a ton of Tupperware. And The Rock because I want to see if his big hands can open some of our tiny bowls. George Clooney because he is George Clooney. And Sandra Bullock because I know she is friends with George Clooney and if she comes, he is much more likely to show up. And Steve Martin because he just makes me giggle, and I’m sure he would show me things about Tupperware that I didn’t even know. And definitely Tatiana Maslany who plays all those different clones on Orphan Black because even if she is the only person who came, it would be a full party. And maybe Diana Ross if she isn’t busy because I want to see how she gets her hair through a doorway.

And there wouldn’t be a Tupperware Party if Brownie Wise wasn’t there. She created the Tupperware Party in the first place, so there is no dang doubt that I would want her to be there with me. Nothing would make me happier than to see her sitting at the party seeing how far the fantastic plastic crap has grown.

I would serve them all cocktails and talk about the sheer amazingness of the different items that would make their lives easier. Of course the wine bottle opener would be in the hands of every single guest within the first 10 minutes. I have never seen a corkscrew open a bottle of wine this daily and this quickly. No wonder I have one in the glove box for emergency traffic jams when I am just sitting there in bumper to bumper traffic and feeling parched. I reach into the back seat into my stash of wine and grab me a bottle, whip out my corkscrew and grab the bottle between my thighs. A couple of quick turns on the corkscrew and that bottle is opened and being enjoyed before you can say “cottage cheese jello mold.”  Who’s excited? Every damn person at my party, that’s who. They will all be sitting there with their mouths opened when they experience the fantasticalness of that cork popping out of that wine bottle.

I would show them the rest of my stash and then eagerly swap stories between nibbles of chips from one of my Party bowls. I would ask them all kinds of questions about their amazing and glamorous lives, but let’s all be honest here, they aren’t going to want to talk about themselves at all when they get this close to Tupperware. I mean, who would, really? Once you see it, it really changes your life. True story!

I can’t wait to see y’all at the party and see who you might be sitting next to. If it looks like you are sitting by 518 pounds of hair, it’s Diana Ross.

– Dixie, Your Tupperware Lady

Rumba Cultural: Cuba and Tampa-Ybor City

santiagocompany

By guest blogger, Marlowe Fairbanks

Over the summer I traveled to Cuba for 16 days to study popular and folkloric dance. It was an extraordinary opportunity as an American artist, but especially as a dancer living in Tampa, given the status of dance in Cuba and the deep roots that bind Tampa and the island. Not many people know that the orders to incite the War for Cuban Independence (a.k.a. the Spanish-American War) were rolled into a cigar on Feb. 21, 1895, at a West Tampa cigar factory only 1.8 miles from where the Straz Center is today. That cigar traveled to Havana, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For anyone new to dance or just beginning your appreciation of the language, let me first explain that Cuban dance is el espiritu, a sense of national identity, a force all on its own: dance is life, it means everything — whether that dance is classical ballet or guanguanco (a form of rumba). In other words, a Cuban modern dancer is not interchangeable with an American modern dancer or a European modern dancer. There are technical differences like spinal articulation and a slight forward tilt in the neutral position, but the real difference is in the Cuban dancer’s sense of the music and projection of that power of the spirit outside of herself.

Dance and music are, of course, inextricable in Cuba, where the influences of the Spanish, African slaves, and court dances of Europe intermingled into a distinctly Cuban sound and movement. In Cuba, it’s knowing the steps as well as sensing the movement, expressing the needs of el espiritu moving within the music. Frankly, it’s incredible to experience dance there, as an observer and as a participant, and I found myself in constant company with working Cuban artists whose technical training matched an impeccable standard of pure artistry. “We have nothing,” one dancer said to me, “and yet we can make everything.”

As a Tampan, one of my favorite things to do is head over to Ybor City, where the cigar industry started with Vincente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish-born Cuban, in the mid-1880’s. It’s a short bike ride from The Straz, maybe two miles. I enjoy walking through the old immigrant neighborhoods, now renewed and full of bars, tattoo parlors and boutiques, and imagine what life was like on the corner where Jose Marti gave his famous speeches to the thousands of Cubans and Afro-Cubans in Ybor City who helped support that revolution. There are still a few shops left where Cubans and Afro-Cubans hand roll cigars. I feel the history as very much alive, and I felt it, too, from the other side of the Florida Straits when I toured the streets of Old Havana. Our part of Florida and Cuba belong together — the real Cuban sandwich exists because of Cubans in Ybor City, for goodness sakes — and I gained unexpected, deeper appreciations of our historical connections and of being a dancer because of the time that I spent in Santiago and Havana.

Cuba, culturally, occupies such a special place in artistic history. And so do Tampa and Ybor City. The beauty of a true cultural exchange lies in the appreciation of a culture’s artistic contributions to humanity and our contributions to each other right now. This giving-and-receiving occurs for both artists and audiences, and dance and rhythm are some of our oldest methods for communicating with each other.

Within the realm of the performing arts, we share the intersecting paths of el espiritu and experience that ineffable quality called “the human spirit.” I was distressed in Havana knowing that most Americans would never be able to see Cuban life the way I had, or see Cuba at all. But, we are fortunate to have opportunities to experience great Cuban musicians in our area, and I recently had a delightful conversation with Ivonne Lemus, the ballet mistress for the Patel Conservatory, who is Cuban and is passing along her traditions in classical Cuban ballet to our dancers here. We are all fortunate to have her keeping the legacy alive for the next generation.

Would I go back to Cuba? Yes. Today. Right now. When my longing gets painful enough, I’ll go to Ybor City and visit the marble bust of Jose Marti on the Avenida Republica de Cuba and hope for the sounds of bata drums. Ah, el espiritu.

Marlowe Moore Fairbanks is a writer, dancer, choreographer and naturalist. She is currently working on a full-length dance/film collaboration, Gods of Florida, inspired by her study of sacred Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban dances. She works part-time as the copywriter for the Straz Center. She chronicles her experiences in art and nature on her blog, marlowemoore.wordpress.com.

Photo above: Dance company in Santiago de Cuba. Photo credit: Prakash Math