Filmmaker Spike Lee’s ongoing love affair with New York continues with the engrossing independent film, “Red Hook Summer,” open in theaters today.
It’s summertime in Brooklyn, and Silas “Flik” Royale (Jules Brown), a sullen young boy from middle-class Atlanta, is in a car with his mother Colleen (De’Adre Aziza). They are en route to the Red Hook housing projects, where Flik is being forced to spend the summer with his highly religious grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), whom he will be meeting for the very first time, and the boy clearly is not happy about it.
As the car pulls into the projects, it also becomes evident that Colleen is very uncomfortable in that environment. Telling the driver to wait, she hustles her son up to her father’s unit, where she has a brief, awkward exchange with the Bishop. She then hands Flik a wad of cash, kisses him and runs back to the waiting car as if her hair were on fire. Now resigned to his fate, Flik, clutching his ever-present iPad, enters the apartment with his grandfather.
The bishop, a pillar of the community, is happy to have his grandson with him, and proudly introduces him to all of the colorful characters at Red Hook, most of whom are members of his congregation. There’s Sister Sweet (Kimberly Hebert-Gregory), Mother Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the off-the-wall Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who appears to be suffering from shell shock, or something.
Then there’s the more unsavory element of Red Hook — a shiftless gang led by Box (Nate Parker), a cocky young man who talks a good game, but appears to be relatively harmless. Nonetheless, Bishop tells Flik not to go around flashing that iPad in front of them.
He is then introduced to Sister Sharon Morningstar (Heather Alicia Simms), and it’s when he meets her daughter Chazz (Toni Lysaith), an annoying and feisty female about his age, that he realizes that summer at Red Hook may not be so bad after all. Under Deacon Zee’s “supervision,” the kids spend their days working at the church, bickering about nothing and getting into minor mischief, while Flik documents life at Red Hook with his precious iPad. Between lively Sunday morning services at Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook, he also begins to form an uneasy alliance with his grandfather — but eventually discovers that things aren’t quite what they seem.
Clarke Peters is fascinating as the high and holy bishop, who is determined to set his grandson’s feet on the path of righteousness, even though his estrangement from his daughter hangs like a dark cloud over his head. What drives this intimate film, however, is the captivating chemistry between the kids, with Chazz being the bossy tattletale and Flik doing silly things that boys do — like chasing her with a huge dead rat. Even so, they spend the summer learning from each other, and each does a considerable amount of growing up. Both Brown and Lysaith give charming performances with an urban edge, yet are devoid of the smart-ass attitudes that are so common in today’s teenaged portrayals.
Lee’s strength as a filmmaker has always been his storytelling, although I do question one or two aspects of this particular screenplay, written in tandem with James McBride. However, Lee’s ability to create and develop interesting and offbeat characters keep you engaged throughout the film, and he throws a curveball at the end that you absolutely will not see coming.
While it’s not perfect, “Red Hook Summer,” the latest “Spike Lee Joint,” is a small, quiet picture that packs an emotional punch.
On Tuesday Sept. 18 at 8 p.m., BET Networks will premiere “BET Presents: BAD25 — The Short Films of Michael Jackson,” a two-hour tribute to the “industry-redefining short films” emanating from the landmark Michael Jackson album, “Bad,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The TV special airs the same day as the release of “Bad25,” available in multiple formats, which will include CDs of the original album plus rare and previously unreleased audio as well as the first ever authorized DVD and CD release of a concert from the record breaking Bad World Tour.
The network states that it partnered with Sony Music and The Estate of Michael Jackson to create “a unique and spectacular televised tribute to the short films from Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad.’” Through photos, visuals and interviews with celebrity fans, cultural critics and contemporary artists who have been influenced by Jackson, the special will take viewers on a fascinating journey celebrating the everlasting influence on the music video art form by “one of the most historically significant works of modern music.” The special will include interviews with Ne-Yo, Ashanti, Michael Eric Dyson, A$AP Rocky, Beverly Johnson, Affion Crockett, Al Sharpton, MC Lyte and others.
“Bad” is not only a multi-platinum album; it is a cultural phenomenon. The album was number one around the world, made history with five consecutive number one singles on the Billboard chart, produced nine chart-topping singles, and nine groundbreaking and iconic short films, including “Smooth Criminal,” “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Bad.” To date, the “Bad” album has generated over 45 million units in sales. The “BAD World Tour” was Jackson’s first concert tour as a solo artist, and his only North American tour, and included 123 concerts attended by more than 4.4 million fans over 16 months. When it concluded, the tour had shattered all previous touring records for attendance and local gross revenue.
Even so, Jackson reportedly felt some anxiety over the project, which followed “Thriller,” a masterpiece that remains the bestselling album of all time.
“He wanted to top himself every time he came out,” said filmmaker Spike Lee, who directed the video for Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” At the 69th Annual Venice Film Festival, Lee premiered “Bad 25,” his documentary commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album being released on Aug. 31, 1987. The film will makes its broadcast debut this Thanksgiving on ABC.
As the world awaits the next George Lucas blockbuster or lines up for the next sure shot romantic comedy, “Pariah,” a small but engrossing film open in theaters today, is definitely worthy of attention.
Written and directed by Dee Rees and executive produced by Spike Lee, “Pariah,” originally a short film, was a finalist for the 2009 Sundance/NHK International Award. The expanded feature film had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and was honored with the Festival’s (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Excellence in Cinematography Award (Bradford Young).
“Pariah” is the provocative coming of age story of 17-year-old Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a sweet, sensitive girl who does well in school and writes insightful, heartfelt poetry. Alike lives with her parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell) and her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. While she adores her father, Alike’s mother, who calls her “Lee,” sees her older daughter as an incorrigible “tomboy,” and works overtime at turning her into a “girly-girl.”
Meanwhile, Alike is living a double life, having discovered and embraced her identity as a lesbian. While she dresses in men’s clothing (often changing clothes on the bus) and secretly frequents gay clubs with her best friend, “out” lesbian Laura (whom her mother can’t stand), Alike is still not quite comfortable in her own skin. The more she struggles to claim her identity, the more confused she becomes, and Audrey unwittingly complicates the issue even further when she encourages (forces) Alike’s friendship with Bina (Aasha Davis) the daughter of a co-worker. While Sharonda is aware of her big sister’s sexuality and is totally cool with it, Alike is constantly wrestling with the prospect of telling her parents — although on a certain level they are both aware that she is gay but are in denial about it.
“Pariah” is inspired by Rees’ personal experience, and she does an excellent job of handling this sensitive subject matter, particularly with a main character that is so young. This film could have become a pornographic spectacle, but in Rees’ hands it is the riveting personal journey of a girl who has made a life-changing discovery, but has no idea what to do with the information.
The talented Adepero Oduye delivers a brilliant portrayal of the confused Alike, who is sincerely looking for love, but simply doesn’t know whom to trust. Although Oduye is in her 30s, she is completely convincing as a 17-year-old high school student.
Kim Wayans, who is best known for her outrageous comedic escapades, was so deeply immersed in the role of angst-ridden Audrey that the film was almost at the half over before I recognized her.
While this fascinating film brings to light a sub-culture that may be unfamiliar to some, “Pariah” is basically a story of friendship, family and acceptance. (Rated “R”)
“Riverdance” proudly returns to Philadelphia and the Merriam Theater for two days only, May 11-13, marking the end of an era.
After some 1,500 dancers, 15,000 hours of rehearsal, 14,000 dance shoes, and 16 years later, the worldwide phenomenon that branded Irish step dancing is finally coming to a close in the United States — although it will continue on in other countries.
“Riverdance” producer Moya Doherty acknowledges that no one ever thought that a show like this would still be running all these years later. “Three years ago we embarked on our farewell tour, saying good-bye to every city in North America we have ever played in over the years. And now our troupe will say goodbye forever to the U.S.
“It has been a source of immense pride for me as producer that America took ‘Riverdance’ to its heart to such an amazing extent,“ she continues, “and I would like to pay tribute to every dancer, musician, singer, and all the crew and staff who served ‘Riverdance’ so well over the years.”
One of those dancers is Jason E. Bernard, who has tap danced his way into the hearts of audiences everywhere. A native of the Bronx, New York, Bernard has been with “Riverdance” on an off over the past decade.
For those who have never seen the show — and surely there can‘t be many —“Riverdance” includes several different types of dance, including Russian ballet, Flamenco, and tap dancing.
“I started with the show in 2001 when I was 20,” says tap dancer Bernard. “I’m now 31 and I’ve been in and out of the company all these years. I spent most of my 20s traveling and performing with them, so the thought of it coming to an end is a sad thing to imagine.”
Bernard was just six years old when he started taking dance lessons. He remembers, “My sister danced first, so my mother and I used to sit around all day Saturday waiting for her to finish. I used to listen to the sounds of the dance, and being around all that energy and seeing how people reacted to it, made me want to do it too.”
And so he did, winning an audition and eventually a scholarship to the Dance Company of Harlem. And by the time he was 17, he made his Broadway debut in the Tony-Award winning musical “Bring in ‘da Noise Bring in ‘da Funk.”
Bernard next made his feature film debut in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” Bernard was a featured performer in CoisCeim Dance Theatre in the world premiere of “Dodgems” and was also featured and toured in Ireland in the revival of “Boxes.”
In “Riverdance,” the Irish step dancers and the tap dancers fight a sort of dance duel that is filled with unbelievable energy. “About 85 percent of the dance is choreographed, and the rest is improvised,” Bernard says. “We are able to react off each other, and be challenged and energized by the power of the dance.”
And that power reaches all the audience throughout the show, Bernard emphasizes, which is why, in his opinion, the show has lasted so long. “This show is all about the music that people can so identify with. Everyone who has ever seen it is totally affected by it. When the show starts, when the dancers come out on stage, it’s like you’re on a train ride that doesn’t stop until it gets to the end. And I think people keep coming back just for that because there’s never been anything like ‘Riverdance’ and I don’t think there ever will be again.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 731-3333.
After you've eaten too much turkey, watched too much football and taken a nap, bring your Thanksgiving Day to a satisfying conclusion by tuning in to "Michael Jackson: BAD25," the documentary film by award-winning director Spike Lee, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's landmark "BAD" album and tour. The 90-minute special premieres at 9:30 p.m., Nov. 22 on ABC.
In a wise decision to show this family-oriented documentary on network television rather than in theaters, ABC promises "The music you know, the story you don't." With "never before seen footage," "BAD25" is a "Who's Who" in the world of entertainment, featuring interviews with Jackson, Justin Bieber, Ruben Blades, Chris Brown, Mariah Carey, Andrae Crouch, Jeffrey Daniel, Siedah Garrett, Nelson George, CeeLo Green, Jermaine Jackson, Quincy Jones, Greg Phillinganes, Usher, Martin Scorsese, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, Kanye West and Stevie Wonder.
"Whenever he made that connection with people, the molecules changed," said rocker Sheryl Crow.
The special also showcases Jackson's groundbreaking long form videos, analyzing in particular, the gravity-defying "lean" featured in "Smooth Criminal." "A lot of people, they're used to seeing the outcome. It's so much work!" Jackson said in an archival interview.
"Bad" is not only a multi-platinum album; it is a cultural phenomenon. The album was number one around the world, made history with five consecutive number one singles on the Billboard chart, produced nine chart-topping singles, and nine groundbreaking and iconic short films, including "Smooth Criminal," "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Bad." To date, the "Bad" album has generated over 45 million units in sales. The "BAD World Tour" was Jackson's first concert tour as a solo artist, and his only North American tour, and included 123 concerts attended by more than 4.4 million fans over 16 months. When it concluded, the tour had shattered all previous touring records for attendance and local gross revenue.
Even so, Jackson reportedly felt some anxiety over the project, which followed "Thriller," a masterpiece that remains the bestselling album of all time.
Describing the self-proclaimed King of Pop as "a workaholic, very quiet, very well-mannered," filmmaker Spike Lee, who directed the video for Jackson's "They Don't Really Care About Us," recalled, "He wanted to top himself every time he came out." At the 69th annual Venice Film Festival, Lee premiered "Bad 25," his documentary commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album being released on Aug. 31, 1987.
NEW YORK — Pounding out the details of his personal life on a Broadway stage doesn’t seem to faze Mike Tyson. The former heavyweight champ said that’s what he’s used to doing, “and at least now I don’t have to go to hospital every time.”
The 46-year-old Tyson is appearing in the one-man show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.” Directed by Spike Lee, the nearly two-hour show chronicles Tyson’s life from childhood and his early boxing career to his public divorce from Robin Givens and his time spent in prison. He even talks about an incident with Brad Pitt.
“I’m just joking and stuff. I’m not mad at anyone. I hope he gives me a damn job,” Tyson said when asked about the incident. The boxer spoke to The Associated Press Thursday, the same day as the show’s opening.
Lee chimed in: “He asked for a job.”
Lee, famous for chronicling stories about Brooklyn in such films as “Crooklyn,” “She’s Gotta Have It” and the upcoming “Red Hook Summer,” feels this work adds nicely to collection.
“You can’t get more Brooklyn than Mike Tyson. And if you remember the film, ‘Do the Right Thing,’ the great Robin Harris (playing Sweet Dick Willie) had many references to Mike. And on the side of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria we painted a mural, Brooklyn’s Finest: Mike Tyson, so this is history,” Lee said.
While Tyson’s life has been tumultuous at times, the boxer says he can deal with telling intimate details to a room full of strangers simply because “it’s a job to be done.”
“Even though it’s real, it’s not real. It’s an illusion,” Tyson said. — (AP)
Are you captivated or frustrated by ABC's hit drama "Scandal?" Does the buzz and hearsay surrounding "Django" have you ready to join Spike Lee in his latest tirade?
These and other issues will be addressed when the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) presents "Monitoring Hollywood 2013: Black Actors Unchained? From the Silver Screen to Television, Have We Come Far or Gone Backwards?," a panel discussion taking place on Feb. 20, 7-9 p.m. The annual event, which is free and open to the public, will be held at Community College of Philadelphia's Center for Business & Industry located at 18th & Callowhill Sts, lecture Hall, second floor. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
" 'Django' really got people talking, for better or for worse, and of course you know Spike Lee was very upset about it," said PABJ Vice-President Monica Peters. "It was a discussion that needed to be had, but also, I just noticed that whenever there was a discussion about 'Django,' there wasn't someone who could put a proper historical analysis to it to verify if what happened in that film - was it factual, or was it fiction? I kind of felt that that was missing from the dialogue.
"And of course we're going to be talking about 'Scandal,' Peters continued. "The reason why we're going to be talking about 'Scandal' is mainly because the controversy has been, 'Is this a groundbreaking role for Kerry Washington?' in that I think she's the second Black woman in television history to have a show that a Black woman is the lead character. Or is the character that she plays, does it portray Black women in a bad light?
Topics will also include "reality" television and the "housewives" franchises, as well as the "color casting" controversy surrounding the upcoming Nina Simone biopic. The event, co-sponsored by the Community College of Philadelphia, will be moderated by Al Butler, host of "Midday with Al Butler," WURD 900 AM. Panelists include:
• Charing Ball: Journalist (Madame Noire, The Atlanta Post, The Grio, The Root, Clutch Magazine)
• Michael Coard: Activist/Attorney: Radio show host, Court Radio on WURD 900AM, Philadelphia Magazine/Philly Post contributor
• Nikia Dillard - Actor: ("Night Catches Us," starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie; "Law Abiding Citizen" with Jamie Foxx)
• Q-Deezy: Radio personality, host of "The Q Deezy Show" on Hot 107.9 FM Philly.
• Rakia Reynolds; President of Philadelphia Chapter, Women in Film & Television, contributor Uptown Magazine, owner of Skai Blue Media.
• Kimberly C. Roberts: Arts & Entertainment Reporter, Philadelphia Tribune.
RSVP is encouraged at http://www.eventbrite.com/org/3243406020
Director Spike Lee’s most recent feature films have been larger studio releases, including “Miracle at St. Anna” with Derek Luke and Michael Ealy and “Inside Man,” starring Denzel Washington. With the release of “Red Hook Summer,’ now open in theaters, he returns to the smaller, more intimate style that made such an impact in the ’80s, when he introduced “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.”
“Red Hook Summer,” co-written by Lee and James McBride, is the story of Flik Royale, a young boy from middle class Atlanta, who comes to meet his maternal grandfather for the first time, and spend the summer with him in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing project. Although he initially is not happy about it, Flik has fun in spite of himself, learns some serious life lessons, and realizes that there is a whole world outside of Atlanta.
Lee was recently in Philadelphia to promote “Red Hook Summer,” and I sat down with him at Ms. Tootsie’s, the popular soul food restaurant on South Street, to discuss his latest project. I’ve interviewed Lee on several occasions, and as always, he was in a “New York state of mind.”
“It’s going back to my ongoing chronicles of Brooklyn, New York,” Lee said of “Red Hook Summer,” which he financed completely on his own. “It started with the first one, ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ in 1989, ‘Do the Right Thing,’ 1989, then ‘Crooklyn,’ then ‘Clockers,’ ‘He Got Game,’ and now ‘Red Hook Summer,’ so that’s six films.”
When asked why he chose Red Hook in particular as the setting for his film, Lee responded. “Many different reasons. It’s a very strange, peculiar, cut-off neighborhood from the rest of Brooklyn. James McBride grew up in Red Hook. (NBA star) Carmello Anthony is from Red Hook.”
The story is told through three outstanding young actors including Jules Brown as Flik, Toni Lysaith as Chazz Morningstar and Sincere Peters as 12-year-old Blessing Rowe. “They all went to my old junior high school,” Lee said. “There was a drama teacher there — Mr. Evan Robinson. He’s a great teacher, and once James and I wrote the script, I knew that I could go just sit in the back of his class and find [good young actors]. I said, ‘There goes Flik. There goes Chazz. There goes Blessing.’”
While “Red Hook Summer” has an overall atmosphere of innocence, it does ultimately deal with some adult issues, and I asked Lee why he chose to tell this story through the eyes of young people.
“James McBride and I both have teenagers, Lee said. “We had breakfast one morning and said, ‘How come we don’t see kids like our teenagers in films?’ That’s where it started.”
Lee also enlists the services of the talented Nate Parker, who has appeared in “The Great Debaters,” “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Red Tails,” playing noble, upstanding characters or an individual who ultimately finds redemption. However, in “Red Hook Summer,” he plays Box, a gang leader who appears to be torn between good and evil.
“I didn’t want to do another stereotypical portrayal of a gang member,” Lee explained. “You need great actors to elevate your material, or it’s just going to be the same thing again and again and again.”
While summer blockbusters have their place, I was happy to see Lee revisit the provocative storytelling that indeed is his strength. “This is no big studio film, so you will not see any TV ads for it,” he said. “This is all grassroots. Beginning with people like yourself, we’re going to get the word out,” Lee said. “Radio stations, TV stuff, social media — all that’s being done.”
So as the latest “Spike Lee Joint” faces its opening weekend, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker said in parting, “Just come out and see it, and make up your own mind.”
“If I can see it, then I can do it.
If I just believe it, there's nothing to it.
I Believe I Can Fly"
— R. Kelly
Apparently Ava DuVernay, a Hollywood publicist-turned filmmaker, took these words to heart. After spending years on film sets watching iconic directors such as Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Bill Condon making movie magic, DuVernay believed that she could do the same. In 2011, she released "I Will Follow," which "quadrupled its production value." at the box office.
Earlier this year, DuVernay shocked the world — and herself — when her second feature, "Middle of Nowhere," earned the Directing Award (U.S. Dramaitic) at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, making her the first African -American woman to receive the honor.
"I was over at the table having some food. I didn't think I was in the running!" DuVernay said during a recent visit to Philadelphia with the film's star, Emayatzy Corineald, to promote "Middle of Nowhere." "Our film was very much under the radar. We had a lovely time there, but there were definitely some films that had higher profiles, bigger names and a lot of attention, and so I really wasn't even thinking of the possibility. It was a total shock! I was about to take a bite, and they said my name!
"I went up on stage, it was a huge room - the last day of Sundance. I went up, I was stunned. I said something and they handed me the crystal trophy. Then, as I was walking off they said, 'By the way, we think you're the first Black woman to win this!' I went, 'Huh?' That was when I found out."
So how does a Hollywood publicist go from talking up 120 film and television campaigns for others, to taking the top prize at one of the world's premiere film festivals for a project of her own?
"I was making them secretly while I was working in publicity — for the last maybe three years of my agency," said DuVernay, a UCLA grad who formed DVA Media + Marketing in 1999. "I made a short [film] and then a documentary for BET called 'My Mic Sounds Nice,' I was shooting Essence Music Fest — I did a lot of music documentary stuff, but I still had the agency open. The agency was open until last summer. The last thing we worked on was 'The Help.' So we made the transition from working on other people's films and promoting outside clients to working on my films and promoting AaFFRM [African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement]. Finally, with this film, this is the first year I've been a fulltime filmmaker and it's a different feeling."
DuVernay's accomplishments are even more remarkable when you consider the fact that she's had no formal training in filmmaking.
"I'm a publicist!" she said emphatically. "I have a full crew. I had a cinematographer and a gaffer and a lighting guy, but I was definitely studying on the side. I didn't have formal film school training, but I was reading. I was on a lot of film sets for years and years. I was a publicist for film, so I was on Steven Spielberg's set and Michael Mann's set asking questions about "this camera" and "this lens" — being able to soak it in."
As expected, DuVernay's surprising Sundance victory has been a major game-changer.
"I don't think my life has changed, but my film, 'Middle of Nowhere' has changed from a small, very grassroots-driven film that we were going to release through AaFFRM to something that's been getting attention from people in other corners," she said. "So I think for everyone involved, including Emayatzy, it really just ensures that the film will be seen and regarded in the same way. People should see their performance. People should see David's performance - the photographer, the two producers — everyone did so much work."
The rapidly rising filmmaker intends to pursue her career with the same sense of purpose and said, "The goal is to make a film a year and to really just keep momentum. Spike [Lee] made 20 films in 20 years, and I think that Canon is one I really respect. He does documentaries, he does narratives, and that's something that I definitely aspire to."
As she anxiously awaits the opening of her second film, DuVernay had a message for other African-American women with a vision.
"I'd like people to know that 'Middle of Nowhere' is for them," she said. "That there is a Black woman filmmaker that is making stories about the interior of our lives — our emotions, the nuances of who we are, as opposed to caricatures. So often we are given these films by the studio system that are not for us - to nourish us, and that's why I made it for us to be proud of the film — in a way that when people come, give it a chance - they'll find themselves in it."
NEW YORK — Mekhi Phifer is not used to being shouted at, but it’s part of his Broadway debut.
The 37-year-old actor, best known for the TV series “ER” and the film “8 Mile,” is discovering that audiences aren’t silent while watching him in “Stick Fly,” Lydia R. Diamond’s complex drama about a Black family.
“People are spirited when they see this play,” he says, laughing.
Both white and Black audience members in the Cort Theatre are known to burst out with spontaneous advice for the actors or to otherwise clearly telegraph their reaction to dramatic situations. “I had to get used to that,” he says. “It’s not very typical for Broadway — at least the Broadway plays that I’ve seen.”
Phifer plays Flip LeVay, a successful plastic surgeon and ladies’ man who attended Exeter and Harvard. Sparks fly when he and his younger brother bring their respective girlfriends — one Black, one white — to meet their parents at their lavish summer getaway on Martha’s Vineyard.
Phifer, whose acting career began when he won the lead in director Spike Lee’s “Clockers,” is not what you’d call a stage veteran. In fact, “Stick Fly” marks his professional stage debut. But Phifer is hardly intimidated.
“Just being there live in front of an audience has been a very exhilarating feeling,” he says. “It’s definitely a different machine but I’m having a lot of fun because there are new things I learn every night.”
Produced by musician Alicia Keys, the play offers the New York-raised Phifer a great way to get his theater feet wet. He’s close to his roots, can learn from the ensemble and doesn’t have to dance. “This was actually the perfect piece. It just had the right amount of energy, the right amount of intrigue, the right amount of edginess,” he says. “It didn’t feel like a typical Broadway play.”
That’s because Phifer, who has played his share of streetwise tough guys, gets to play an educated rich man whose secrets unspool slowly over the course of the performance. He says he likes the opportunity to move past race and explore humanity.
“There’s no question that I’m African-American. OK? I’m a Black man. We’re not going to escape that. But I love being able to get past that and, as the play goes on, you’re just watching people,” he says. “That’s one of the main things that drew me towards this role and this play — it could be anyone.”
Phifer is the theater newbie in an accomplished cast that includes Emmy Award nominee Dule Hill (“Psych,” “The West Wing”), Tracie Thoms (“Rent”), Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Lackawanna Blues”), Rosie Benton (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) and Condola Rashad (“Ruined”).
So tight is the cast that they’ve come up with their own lyrics to the original music Keys has written for spots between the play’s scenes. The rest of the time, they warm up together, eat communally and go out for drinks as a group afterward.
“It’s always a pleasure when you get to work with people that you actually really like,” Phifer says. “We hang out when we’re at the theater. We sit in the hallways or sit on the steps and yap it up.”
He hopes the good feeling bleeds into the audience, which has been known to become so boisterous that lines get drowned out. (His advice if that happens: “You might have to see it twice.”) He wants the audience to be intrigued, provoked and later discuss all of it.
“When you leave the play, you feel good. You want to go out and have a drink. You want to talk about it. You want to get something to eat. You don’t want the night to be over. And I think that’s what the Broadway experience should be about,” he says. “Our play lends itself to that energy and that attitude.”
Director Kenny Leon has been hoping to help Phifer make his Broadway debut ever since the two were slated to work together on an ill-fated attempt a few years ago to mount a production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to work with Mekhi,” Leon says. “He has presence. He has charisma. He has everything that all great actors have, except he had never done a play before.”
When that time finally happened, Leon was impressed by how humble the young actor was when he walked into the rehearsal room. “I can’t believe how much he’s learned in such a short amount of time,” Leon says. “The ease in terms of the transition from film to stage — I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen like this. I couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s doing on that stage.”
Phifer was born in Harlem and raised by his mother, Rhoda, a choreographer and schoolteacher who always encouraged her son to be creative. After beating out hundreds for a spot in “Clockers” on a whim — he got his headshot at a Woolworths near the audition site — Phifer has had a varied career, one that has taken him from “Honey” with Jessica Alba and “Soul Food” with Vanessa Williams to “Dawn of the Dead,” music videos like Brandy and Monica’s “This Boy Is Mine” and the 2007 romantic comedy “This Christmas.”
“I do love being onstage. Even as a kid, I was (a) performer. Local talent shows, local this and that. When break dancing was out, I break danced. When rapping was the thing, I freestyled rap on the street and battled and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “I’m a student of the game. I’m never not learning.”
His TV appearances include “New York Undercover,” Fox’s “Lie to Me,” HBO’s “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Tuskegee Airmen,” and the ABC television special “Brian’s Song.” He is particularly proud that he landed a part in the Starz series “Torchwood: Miracle Day” as a CIA agent after producers were unable to find a white actor. So hitting the stage for the first time is just a logical extension of a man wanting to learn.
“I’ve got to be quite honest: I caught the theater bug and I’m all about Broadway right now,” he says. “It can be scary but you have to have a certain strength and fortitude about yourself.” — (AP)