TAMPA — Stageworks Theatre is presenting its production of musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Erica Sutherlin, drama teacher at Gibbs High School and professional actor, filmmaker and screenwriter is directing this version of the popular Fats Waller musical.
She has a number of directing credits, notably “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Macbeth,” “A Streetcar named Desire” and “The Wiz.” As an actress she has appeared in productions such as “Steel Magnolias” and “Doubt” (American Stage), “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” (Studio@620) and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (Hotcity Theater Company).
Challenger: On the Stageworks Facebook page this show is referred to as “a love letter to the Harlem Renaissance.” How or why do you feel that is true?
Sutherlin: I guess we would have to explore what love encompasses. Love is all of those beautiful things we write novels, plays and films about but to me love is all of those other things, the ones we don’t care to reveal or discuss. No one wants to admit to being “played” by love. As much as love is beautiful, tender or funny, it is rough, hard and ugly. It can be lonely or suffering; it can suffocate and liberate; it can be sexy and provocative. And I feel that’s where you find the true essence of love, in the “nitty gritty,” so to speak. So, yes this musical is a love letter.
Challenger: What are some specific things about this musical that endears it to you?
Sutherlin: Funny thing, when I was asked by the artistic producer to select the shows I was interested in for the season, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was my second choice. I remember seeing this show twice when I was younger and I wasn’t drawn to it at all. So, the artistic producer said, “Okay, I want you to do ‘Ain’t Misbehavin.’” I said to myself, “Dang, I hate this show.”
So, as an artist, I aimed to figure out how to create through my obstacle. I made myself sit down with the music and listen; you know, really listen to words then listen to the composition over and over again. I’m pretty sure my neighbors were over it. Then I watched the Broadway version and something happened on the inside, I began to fall in love with it…everything about it! How could I not?
The music is so beautiful, the story, yes, the story is fun and sad…joyous and painful. The song “Mean to Me”— we have all experienced love on that level. “Honeysuckle Rose”— it became an emotional journey through love, life and relationship for me. And I hope others will have that same experience.
Also, I fell in love with possible settings/location of this production…we could have kept it traditional…flashy Art Deco feel, or very revue cabaret style, but I saw and felt the earthy feelings underneath this dark juke joint hole- in-the-wall-club.
I know everyone is expecting the Cotton Club, but when I spoke to the scenic designer, Frank Chavez, we were on the same page. And that is always amazing! So I’m in love with the set and costumes (he is also the costume designer)…it’s the vision.
This is not as much about the musical as it is about my team, my camp. Working with friends can be successful or detrimental to any experience but I have fabulous friends. My design team, light designer Megan Byrne (who is the producing director at St. Petersburg City Theatre), technical director Erik Haak, choreographer Rodney Hamilton, assistant director Jared O’Roark (Executive Producer 2106 Main), sound design Karla Hartley (artistic producer Stageworks Theatre) and my new friends Musical Director David Estevez. Having them by my side through this journey means everything to me, and it made this musical more important because I got to create with my friends that are brilliant at their craft.
Challenger: How do you find directing a musical different from directing a conventional dialogue-driven play?
Sutherlin: It’s very different. First off, there are more components to putting together a musical than a straight play. Think about it, in a straight play you have the actors plus the blocking, and of course, character development (but that’s for any performance). You have sound cues, light cues, maybe some special effects.
However, in a musical you have all of that plus dance choreography, the musical composition, songs and all of this is happening simultaneously. Craziness! Let’s not forget as the director you are juggling all of these components and personalities at one time, trying to keep everyone on the ship even when they threaten to jump off, all while you cultivate creativity and birth creation—a production.
Challenger: Do you have previous experience directing musicals?
Sutherlin: I’ve been directing musicals for the past seven years, mostly in the Caribbean, so this is my first time here in St. Petersburg. So you know, I’m excited and nervous. I always feel like there is this pressure for success. It’s because I always set the bar high in anything I do or any project I work on.
People want me to be successful and they support me. I am humbled by their support and love. Therefore, I have a duty to put my best creative foot forward. I want them to be satisfied. It’s my thank you, you know.
Challenger: Why do you believe this show has held up so well over the years?
Sutherlin: Because it’s a revue type show, meaning it’s all singing—no script. However, there’s this great story, these characters interact and have relationships, numerous love triangles’ it’s funny and lovable.
Challenger: Why do you think this particular production is well suited for such an independent venue as Stageworks?
Sutherlin: Stageworks is intimate; there’s no escaping, no drifting off. You have to be all in because everything is so up-close and personal. They have performed cabaret pieces but never a full produced musical and for them to have selected “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” with its all African-American cast, speaks volumes to their desires to create diverse art.
Challenger: The cast includes Latoya McCormick, Tia Jemsion, Naomy Ambroise, Frank Edmondson III and Tron Montgomery.
Sutherlin: There is much to say about this young cast, who are at different stages of their creative journeys and have come together to learn 24 songs, seven dances plus blocking and character development in 15 days, four hours per day to be ready for a technical rehearsal—which is truly commendable and should be recognized. And I am honored and blessed to have participated and created with this wonderful cast and crew.