Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit
If you appreciate really good acting then a name you should know is Yolonda Ross. Her face may be familiar but her name likely isn’t. She doesn’t get the high visibility film and television parts that another Omaha native actress of color , Gabrielle Union, gets but it’s not for lack of talent. It certainly isn’t for a lack of looks either. No, it’s hard to say why she hasn’t had the major breakthrough that other actresses have but it’s not as though her career is wanting either. She’s done lots of good work on the big and and small screens and three new movie projects are sure to bring her more attention than she usually gets. She appears in new movies by noted filmmakers David Mamet and John Sayles and her own writing-directing debut, the short Breaking Night, which she also stars in is making the festival rounds. Indeed, her dramtatic narrative short is screening at the Omaha Film Festival on March 8. She’ll be there for that screening and she’ll also participate in an acting panel on March 9. I’ve been following her career for several years now and you’ll find my earlier stories about her and her work on this blog. I’m hoping she finally gets the due she deserves.
Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
You may not know the name but for more than a decade now Omaha native Yolonda Ross has been a stalwart actress in American independent cinema and quality television movies and episodic dramas.
Before recently working with a pair of star indie writer-directors – David Mamet, on the new HBO movie Phil Spector, and John Sayles on the coming feature Go for Sisters – she’d previously been directed by Woody Allen (Celebrity), Cheryl Dunye (Stranger Inside), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) and Todd Haynes (I’m Not There).
Ross played the recurring role of documentary filmmaker Dana Lyndsey in season two of the acclaimed HBO series Treme. She’s guested on such prestigious network shows as Third Watch, 24, Law & Order and New York Undercover.
Spector and Sisters come on the heels of her turn as a mother and wife in the well-received 2012 indie feature, Yelling to the Sky, that deals with issues of race, violence, bullying and relationships. It was shot in Queens, NY.
A measure of the esteem Ross enjoys is that both Mamet and Sayles wrote parts for her in their new films. Though she’s only in one scene in the Spector biopic, which premieres Mar. 24, it’s with the great Helen Mirren. Her co-lead role, opposite LisaGay Hamilton, in the Sayles cross-cultural suspenser Sisters marks her first lead in a prestige feature.
2013 also marks Yolonda’s writing-directing debut with the short drama Breaking Night, an official selection of the Mar. 6-10 Omaha Film Festival unreeling at the Regal Stadium 16, 7440 Crown Point Avenue. Her dramatic narrative short screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. The coming-of-age story stars Ross as a young woman riding the throes of first love to escape a harsh home life. The film was selected for the New Voices in Black Cinema series in Brooklyn, NY.
Ross is a veteran of workshops at the Sundance Institute‘s screenwriters and directors labs, where she’s worked with her “dear friend” screenwriter-director Joan Tewksberry (who scripted Nashville). The actress filmed her short last summer in St. Charles Parish, New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, whose spell she’d already fallen under from her work on Treme, the post-Katrina Big Easy-set drama. She recruited some of her crew from the show.
Fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne served as a Breaking Night producer.
A longtime New York City resident, Ross will be at the OFF screening, where Omaha friends and family will lend support.
Though she hopes Sisters leads to acting offers and Breaking Night establishes her directing cred, she’s taking matters in her own hands by writing new scripts for her to direct and/or star in. She’s currently penning a feature family drama she plans to direct in Houston, Texas next year. She’s also writing a spec pilot. She has more short scripts she’d like to develop.
She clearly views Breaking Night as the start of her career as filmmaker.
“It’s like one down and many to go. Once I got it finished it was just onto the next one. It doesn’t stop at one,” she says.
The many faces of Yolonda Ross:
Ross, a Burke High graduate who left Omaha in the mid-1990s to work in fashion, also sings (jazz, R&B) and paints (acrylic abstracts) and thus she views writing-directing as simply two more expressions of her creativity.
“I can do a lot of things. I happen to be one of those people that’s gifted in a lot of ways creatively. I mean, that’s just how I function. To not be utilizing all the parts of yourself sort of feels like you’re wasting yourself .”
Her writing’s evolved to where she’s confident she can craft her own vehicles.
“I feel as time has gone on my writing has gotten more defined. I know what my voice is, I know I have a unique point of view, I know I see things in a way that I feel are not being seen. Also, so many things are from a male point of view. I find it refreshing to see somebody else’s point of view, and you know I’m a black woman and one that I don’t feel is stereotypical,” says Ross, who’s worked with several women directors.
“I can tell a story and my writing has been really going places.
Breaking Night realizes a long-held goal to put her ideas on screen.
“I wanted to get the visions out of my head and see if I can do it, see what I can make, see what comes out of me. I actually had something else written but I didn’t feel like doing that so the story of Breaking Night just kind of came about. I had just been up at the Sundance film labs the summer before working on a project and it just made me want to have my own project to work on and to see what came of it with a collective group of people.”
Helming her own film proved to be everything she thought it would be.
“It was like an amazing, magical event. Little by little it all came together. It was a four-day shoot. Our last day of shooting was a night shoot that went into morning and the sun came up and we watched the sun rising. We all broke night together and nobody wrecked anybody’s nerves. We all worked together, there were no like attitudes, it was just beautiful.”
She says the film’s story is “a universal one with a different face on it.” Her inspiration was the classic ’70s rock song “Blinded by the Light,” a personal favorite that always conjured romantic and rebellious images for her. She set the story, which all takes place in the space of 24 hours, in the same decade to stay true to the song’s roots.
“I tell a universal story of a young person going through problems at home who doesn’t have support and leaves home. That’s every race, every generation.”
In her script the song becomes an anthem for breaking free of shackles that define or limit us. Her choice to infuse an interracial love relationship into the mix was about overturning stereotypes but in the end her film’s less about that than it is about finding one’s identity and following one’s destiny.
“There are definitely images that would always come to mind when I would listen to the song, knowing the time period it comes from, knowing which stations it would be played on and who the audiences would be for it. But in my thoughts it’s universal because everybody I know loves that song and rocks that song and I wanted to put a different face on who the characters were in it.
“If a film from the song was made in the ’70s when it came out I’m sure those characters would all be white. In TV and film then most times you would see black people either in the city on drugs or selling drugs or trying to get out of the ghetto or in the South trying to flee the South. In this case I wanted to put certain constraints on myself to fit the story and these elements into this seven minute song and tell this story.”
She’s satisfied she delivered a tale of youthful angst and longing that transcends cultures.
“I feel I’ve succeeded because race is not the issue at all in it. The story happens to have a black family. What I used as reference were movies like Silkwood and Norma Rae. It’s a rural home where the mom, even though it’s not said, has like a factory job and she’s got a dude she shouldn’t be with. He’s not a dad, he’s kind of living off them and taking advantage.
“The boy the girl is in love with is her escape. He’s the only one that understands her. At that age you have that person and he’s that person. They both run away. She’s got him as protection. That’s a young romance, so who knows what’s going to happen to it when she gets to wherever she’s going.”
Ross has the girl she plays cross paths with a posh black couple out on the town getting their disco down. The couple represent to the girl a sophistication and life far removed from her own.
“It’s like they symbolize to the girl that she can become that. So then she does take her life and her future into her hands and makes a decision. She’s not going to be a person who gets run over and taken advantage of, she’s not going to allow herself to be in the same kind of situation as her mom.”
An actress who never looks the same from part to part, Ross deftly plays both the ingenue and the ethereal disco mama.
Ross shot and edited the encounter to indicate the disco couple also see in the girl the possibility of something she’d never seen in herself. The girl becomes empowered by accepting a knowing look from the woman and a kiss and a business card from the man. All affirmation of her worth and emancipation – that her time has come, that her path will be different.
“It’s like, ‘This fabulous couple sees something in me? OK, I’m out of here.’ The kids don’t know where they’re going, they’re just running away, but now she’s going wherever the disco man’s card says he from. It’s that kind of feeling.”
Ross went after a late ’70s-early ’80s Pop style look for the film, which plays like a good music video. She doesn’t mind the music video comparison but is adamant the story stands on its own.
“It has the aspects of a music video to it but it really is a short film because without the music the story is still there. I would like people to understand that there’s a lot actually happening there. All those frames in it have meaning.”
The visual palette changes as the drama plays out.
“It’s got three parts to it. It starts off light and kind of generic but once you get into the home it gets dark, it gets more real because it’s a messed up situation that happens. Once she’s out of the home that night it goes through a kind of surreal take. It leaves you wondering did this really happen or did she dream it.”
In one shot the two young lovers have a kind of out-of-body experience while making out and to convey that feeling Ross wanted a visual effect she recalled seeing from that era. But she couldn’t find an example and she didn’t know what to call it.
“That was like the hardest thing,” she says. “In describing seeing that thing on TV or in videos in the early ’80s I could not find anybody who knew what that thing was. I finally found somebody to actually do it for me. It’s called a trail.”
The ending unfolds in an other-worldly rural idyll flush with Spanish Moss trees. There’s a sumptuous quality to the imagery throughout, even the gritty parts, that she credits her director of photography, Justin Zweifach, with.
“My DP was amazing. He literally came on a week before us shooting because my original DP dropped out and it was a blessing because he understood everything that was going on in my head. I made storyboards and there’s a full script but him asking me certain questions about the feel of things, the feel of characters, how I saw things, that was way more helpful in him capturing how it looks. It’s above and beyond what I expected. I mean, he shot it beautifully.”
She says crew embraced the project because with its minimal dialogue and luscious images their work can be readily seen on the screen.
Others who helped ease her through the first-time filmmaking process were executive producer Tim Mather and associate producer Sasha Solodukhina.
About Mather, she says, “When you’ve got somebody who’s got your back and understands the whole production part of it to guide you through it’s a lifesaver because there are so many little things. I come from acting, so I know about emotions, I know about all that kind of stuff. Before I did this i really didn’t even know the difference between a gaffer and a grip. I hate to say this but I didn’t know what the jobs were, but now I know. I know in front of, I know behind, I know these things now.
“And Tim is great dealing with people and places you need to have connections to to get better deals and to get things done.”
She says Solodukhina was “like wonder woman because she got me so many people. She knows everybody.”
As for having Payne’s imprimatur on the film, she notes, “What can you say? How can that hurt? I’m glad that our friendship made him come on and contribute. I still have to show him the film though.”
With the likes of Payne, Mamet and Sayles in her corner, she knows her work is getting noticed by the right people.
“It’s like how I feel most of my career has been, you just do your work and a lot of times you don’t feel anybody’s paying attention or whatever but then you get these offers from these great directors, so it’s amazing who watches and who does think of you.”
The offer from Sayles came while she location scouted for her short. She knew him from auditioning for his Honeydripper, losing a part in it to her Go for Sisters co-star, LisaGay Hamilton.
Sisters is the fictional story of childhood best friends whose different life paths have separated them for 20 years until events reunite them as adults. Ross is the newly released from prison Fontaine, who finds her old friend Bernice (Hamilton) assigned as her parole officer. The street wise ex-con becomes a lifeline when Bernice’s son is captured and held for ransom by drug dealers in Mexican border towns. Edward James Olmos becomes the third amigo in this search party that courts danger at every turn.
Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross in Go for Sisters
Olmos, Hamlton, Ross in Go for Sisters
The low-budget, guerrilla-style shoot in Mexicali, Calixico and Tijuana required a huge number of locations in a short number of days, which kept cast and crew hopping.
“It was fun but just different logistically for me,” says Ross. “It was sort of like you wake up and you just go. You don’t even look around. You’re like, OK, who am I? What are we doing? It’s almost a road movie because we’re on the move so much. The story takes you on a nice trip. There’s lots of familiar faces in cameos and it’s fun to see who you come across next.”
About the enigmatic Sayles, she says, “Pretty much he gives you the blueprint and you do it. He has said, and now I see it, that his directing is choosing the right actors,. He lets us do our work.” By contrast, she says Mamet “is more verbal than John. I think he’s really funny, I really like him a lot. The one way they are alike is they both tell stories while working and they both have people around them they’ve worked with before, so there’s a level of comfort with the crew.”
She’s excited to see who next notices her work. though she says she’s been around long enough to know that some filmmakers “go after the same people or who they think are hot or whatever,” adding, “You can be talented all day but that has nothing to do with them hiring you.” She says if box office performance is the arbiter then she’ll always be at a disadvantage because the small indie work she does rarely makes much of a splash or a profit.
“It’s unfortunate. The rest is just all crazy business stuff, which makes no sense. That’s why I’m writing.”
Ross is also part of a March 9 panel, Actors on Acting, at 3:15 p.m.
The Omaha Film Festival is a curated assemblage of narrative feature films, documentaries, live action and animated shorts as well as workshops and panels. Now in its eighth year, the fest has a strong track record of bringing film artists with and without Nebraska ties to discuss their work.
For schedule and ticket details, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
- John Sayles – An American Classic (mrmovietimes.com)
- Phil Spector Biopic Trailer Released By HBO (noise11.com)
- Interview with Victoria Mahoney on ‘Yelling to the Sky’ starring Zoe Kravitz, Gabourey Sidibe and Black Thought (ifelicious.com)
Michael Beasley Follows His Pops John Beasley as a TV-Film Actor, Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small and Big Screen Projects, including ‘Steel Magnolias’
Actor John Beasley is by now a fixture in television, film, and theater. What you may not know is that his son Michael Beasley is charting a career path that may soon surpass his father’s, at least on the small and big screens. I’ve been reporting and writing about the father for many years and now I see I’ll be doing the same with the son. There’s another son, Tyrone Beasley, who’s also an immensely talented actor. You can find my previous stories on John, his theater, and his family on this blog.
Michael Beasley Follows his Father John Beasley in Becomng a TV-Film Actor, The Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small Screen and Big Screen Projects
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Don’t look now but Michael Beasley is carving out a film-television career rivaling that of his powerhouse father John Beasley (Rudy, The Apostle).
The nearly 20 feature and made-for-TV pics he’s booked the last few years have him on the verge of being one of the industry’s next breakout character actors.
He’s doing it all too from his adopted home of Atlanta, Ga. and surrounding region, together known as Hollywood South for all the productions shooting there.
“It’s really happening here. A lot of work is moving down here,” he says. “I’ve just been blessed to be kind of the big fish in a small pond at the time when it’s starting to rise.
Papa John says, “He’s been doing quite well. I’m very proud of him.
Many of Beasley’s supporting roles have been in major Hollywood projects, including, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Contraband, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I Love You Phillip B. Morris and The Great Debaters.
Smaller scale projects have included Mississippi Damned, American Violet, American Reunion and Hero.
Two of his biggest films, both helmed by name directors, have yet to be released. Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, is due out in November. The Bay, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Kristen Connolly, is slated for an early 2013 release. Then there’s Arthur Newman, Golf Pro .
He has the lead in a new indie film, Mystic Rising, still in post-production..
He’s also guest starred in episodic TV, most recently in USA Network’s Necessary Roughness. He has a recurring role in the Starz Channel’s series Magic City.
Sunday, October 7 is the world premiere of a much anticipated Lifetime movie he’s in, the all-black version of Steel Magnolias. The super cast includes Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. He plays Spud, the husband of Scott’s character Truvy. He and Scott have some scenes together. He’s also a presence in ensemble scenes. At 6-foot-5, he’s hard to miss.
“It was an amazing experience working with all these legends,” he says. “The energy on the set was awesome. I feel we made another classic.”
Trading lines with big names is nothing new for Beasley, who’s worked twice with both Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg and shared screen time with Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Colin Firth, Jennifer Garner, et cetera.
“Being able to work with these actors and hold my own with them has given me total confidence I can do it in any setting. I know i can because I’m putting in the work to do what it takes to be prepared for whatever the role is.”
Beasley, who came to acting after a pro basketball career overseas, looks at every set he’s on, whether a commercial (he’s done one with Shaquille O’Neal, TV show or feature, as “a learning experience.” He’s learned the truth behind the adage there’s no such thing as a small part. Every line, gesture, expression counts.
“It’s exciting to me to get on the set. It’s not like a, Oh-here-we-go-again type of thing. It’s basically a feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m getting paid to do this?’ I think every set is important because I’m learning and building relationships, and so every chance I can be on the set helps me hone my craft.”
Sometimes he talks shop, as he did with Michael Caine and Luis Guzman on Journey 2. Then there’s the fountain of experience he draws from his father, whose extensive film-TV credits are two decades long.
“I’ve always got my father to fall back on and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and with his wealth of knowledge he helps. I was able to see my father’s career and whatever he did, good or bad, and say, ‘I can do this and do it different.’”
Father-son have worked together a few times, mostly at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in South Omaha, where Michael’s brother, Tyrone, is artistic director.
Michael’s smart enough to know that when surrounded by serious, veteran talent it’s best to be a sponge.
“Yeah, it’s a blessing and I look at it as basically on-the-job training. As soon as I shoot my scenes I run to the monitor to see what these guys are doing. John Goodman is amazing. I mean, I knew his acting was amazing but when you see him do stuff in person, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s stuff you can’t really get in a classroom setting, I don’t think. These guys are actually doing it for real and it works for them.
“It’s seeing what their process is and how they pay attention to detail. They really bring a lot more to just the words on the page. Even working with my father it’s the same way. Unfortunately, I’m down here and he’s up in Omaha. We haven’t been on a set together as far as a movie (though that’s a goal of each).
Even when he’s not “working,” Beasley’s still working it.
“I’m always studying my craft. Even when I’m out in public I’m watching what people do and trying to take from that. I’ve always been like a student of the game.”
Steel Magnolias marked his second time acting with Woodard after American Violet, and his first with director Kenny Leon, who’s directed his father on stage in several August Wilson productions.
Leon says, “Michael’s a very talented young man, I guess it’s in the blood. He really delivered for me in the film. It’s a really honest portrayal. Everybody wants to know, ‘Who’s that guy? Where’d he come from?’” Leon says the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “Both John and Michael are authentic. They both bring it from an organic place. They’re just being. There’s no tricks. They find a simplicity to the life of the people they portray. It’s honest, it’s real, and you can’t teach that.”
He sees big things ahead for the son. “Michael can do anything he wants.”
Every new relationship Beasley cultivates and every new credit he adds to his IMDB page only reinforces his reputation as the hardest working actor around. It’s been one project after another.
“That’s how it’s been. It’s been just like a major ride,” he says.
His goal’s to become a familiar face and name to TV-film viewers and an in-demand talent producers and directors seek out.
“I think I am on the radar. It only takes one movie for you to become famous.”
In no sense does he feel he’s arrived yet.
“Every year I’m like, OK, what can I do that I haven’t done to get me closer to my goal? Every day I try to figure out something I can do, even if I only have an hour to do it. I can read this book or I can workout to enhance my look or I can work on an accent. Whatever I need to I just find a way to do it.”
He hopes to inspire other others to follow their dreams.
“I want people to know it’s a matter of deciding, whatever your dream is, to just go after it and don’t be afraid of failure. That’s what I’m doing, I’m going after my dream, I’m not changing, and I’m going to get it.
“I just have this drive. Whatever it is I do I try to be the best at it. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time in my opinion.”
- 1989′s Steel Magnolia Remake (celebamnesia.wordpress.com)
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
Gabrielle Union. She’s hard to ignore because of her beauty, intelligence, confidence, grit, and good heart. All those qualities and more are on display in a new PBS documentary event, Half the Sky, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 that features her as one of six celebrity advocates who travel to different corners of the world to explore women and girls overcoming oppression. Those traits are reportedly also on display in her title role performance in the new BET movie, Being Mary Jane, that’s set to premiere early next year before developing into a series. My cover story on Union below is the latest among three cover stories I’ve done on the actress over the years. You can find the previous stories on this blog as well. I expect I’ll file more Gabby stories in the future as well.
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.
“Probably since 2006 I’ve been concentrating on making sure I’m happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest,” says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. “I’ve got a peace of mind I’ve never had and I’m just really happy.”
It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She’s still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She’s the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network’s first original dramatic series.
The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.
Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.
It might as well be describing Union’s real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane’s another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, “I don’t mind creating positive images for women of color.” She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.
Gabby’s no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they’ve become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.
But it’s a project that didn’t require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She’s one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.
The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.
Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don’t.
Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter’s work.
Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.
“Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter,” says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. “He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist’s trip with him and he’s also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he’s often said about that is he wants to ‘bring fresh eyes.’”
In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam‘s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.
Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project’s ambitious aim as “turning oppression into opportunity” through programs and efforts that “seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action.”
Union says the experience opened her eyes to the “very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam.” She says she went “open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war.” She adds she was most surprised by how “for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans.”
Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities
“But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues.”
At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as “a bridge between the audience and the experience.”
“We knew we didn’t want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They’re not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union’s done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States.”
Union’s heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she’s spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.
When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.
“I just couldn’t say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I’m on the President’s Committee to stop violence against women.
“I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression.”
The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry’s Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.
While not apparent at first there’s a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she’s doing because they’re all projects that matter to her.
Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They’ve also collaborated on the network’s Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.
Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she’s gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she’s lately assumed.
She says she’s long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it’s the best TV pilot script she’s read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn’t land (Kerry Washington got the lead).
Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.
Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.
“Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different).”
Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn’t necessarily need her friend’s counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).
“I asked Sanna about it and she said, ‘Baby, if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t do it.’ And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I’ve tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s no way in hell I’ll get that,’ and most often I don’t but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good.”
Union’s embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.
On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, “one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor.” Thus, it exposed her. “Yeah, it’s scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me.”
“And if you’re going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters,” says Union. “She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class.”
Union says, “It reminded me so much of my mother’s story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could.”
The star’s parents divorced years ago.
Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a script. she wasn’t asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.
Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.
“I love her, she’s a great girl.”
Dueyn’s family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.
As Kristof shares in a voice-over, “Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who’s so bright and so capable but she’s a long way from any school…and that is far from unique in the developing world.”
Union explains in her own voice-over, “I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she’s just rolling by herself. I asked, ‘Does anyone ever bug you as you’re riding home?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.’”
Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.
Sometimes the abuser’s right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn’t sell her entire allotment.
“It’s probably a lot worse than even what she’s shared because she can’t control it,” Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. “With Nhi everything she’s feeling you can see. She’s trained by her father you don’t tell the neighbors what’s going on, you don’t tell your teachers, you don’t tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.
“For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education’s a safe haven. (School’s) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it’s a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening.”
“That’s a story that was very, very close to Gabby’s heart because Nhi was really working and struggling,” says Chermayeff.
As Union tells the facilitator, “When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you’re raped it’s the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing.”
The actress says she came away from Vietnam inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.” She says Nhi’s situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.
Union’s helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children’s biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.
“It’s like we’re starting over,” Union says . “I’m coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we-are-our-brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down.”
For more on the documentary, visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org.
- Girls Gone Global (thedailybeast.com)
- Will You Join the Half the Sky Movement? (blog-aauw.org)
- Join Six Amazing Actresses for an Inspiring Television Event | Independent Lens | PBS – Trailer (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)
John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’
Film-television-stage actor John Beasley is someone I’ve been writing about for the better part of a decade or more, and I expect I’ll be writing about him some more as time goes by. You may not know the name but you should definitely recognize his face and voice from films like Rudy and The Apostle and from dozens of episodic television guest star bits. His already high profile is about to be enhanced because of his recurring role in the new Cedric the Entertainer sit-com, The Soul Man, for TVLand. The show premieres June 20. The following story, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), has him talking about this project with the kind of enthusiasm that whets one’s appetite for the show. It’s one of several irons in the fire he has at an age – almost 70 – when many actors are slowing down. In addition to the series he has a feature film in development that he’s producing, a new theater he plans opening in North Omaha, and the possibility of making his New York stage debut in a new Athol Fugard play. On this blog you’ll find several stories I’ve written over the years about the actor and his current theater in Omaha, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop.
John Beasley has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
But in the new TVLand series The Soul Man (formerly Have Faith) he has his biggest featured role to date, and in a comedy no less starring Cedric the Entertainer. The original show from the producers of Hot in Cleveland and Grimm premieres June 20 at 9 p.m.
“I’m third on the cast list and I’m getting a lot of work on the series, so I’m definitely happy about that,” Beasley says. “It’s a quality show. It’s very funny. The writing is really very good. We have the writers from Hot in Cleveland, one of the hottest shows on cable. Phoef Sutton is the show runner. He won two Emmys with Cheers. Plus, Cedric has got a really good sense of comedic timing. What he brings to the table is tremendous.
“And then Stan Lathan, the director, has worked on a lot of the great four-camera shows, as far back as the Red Foxx show Sanford and Son. A very good director.
“So we’re in very good hands.”
This native son, who’s continued making Omaha home as a busy film-TV character actor, has his career in high gear pushing 70. Besides the show there’s his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film, plans for a North Omaha theater and the possibility of making his New York theater debut.
Beasley, who raised a family and worked at everything from gypsy cab driver to longshoreman, before pursuing acting, plays another in a long line of authority figures as retired minister Barton Ballentine. After years leading the flock at his St. Louis church he’s stepped aside for the return of his prodigal son, Rev. Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine (Cedric). Boyce is a former R&B star turned Las Vegas entertainer who, heeding the call to preach, has quit show biz to minister to his father’s church. He returns to the fold with his wife Lolli (Niecy Nash) and daughter Lyric (Jazz Raycole), who’ve reluctantly left the glitter for a humble lifestyle.
As Barton, Beasley’s an “old school” man of God who disapproved of his son’s former high life and racy lyrics and now holding Boyce’s inflated ego in check with fatherly prodding and criticism.
Speaking to The Reader by phone from L.A. where he’s in production on the series through mid-summer at Studio City, Beasley says Cedric’s character “can never live up to his father’s expectations – the father is always going to put him down no matter what he does, but he’s got a hustler brother who’s even worse.” Beasley adds, “In the pilot episode the parishioners are filing out after church, telling Boyce, ‘Great service, nice sermon,’ and then I come up to him and say, ‘I would have given it a C-minus. The bit near the end was decent but I would have approached it more from the Old Testament. But that’s just me. God’s way is the right way.’ That’s my character and that’s his relationship with his son.”
Praised by other actors for his ability to play the truth, Beasley says, “What I bring to the table is I kind of ground the show in reality. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from Gem of the Ocean.
“I was doing Gem of the Ocean at the theater (his John Beasley Theater in Omaha) when I got the call for this. Generally Tyrone (his son) and I will put my audition on tape and send it out to L.A. A lot of times it will take us five-six takes to get really what I want but with this character it was like one take and we both agreed that was it. We did another one for safety and sent it out, and the next day I got the call…”
A chemistry reading in L.A. sealed the deal.
For Beasley, who’s worked with Oprah Winfrey (Brewster Place), James Cromwell (Sum of All Fears), Kathy Bates (Harry’s Law) and Robert Duvall (The Apostle), working with Cedric marks another milestone.
“We play off each other so well. The chemistry between us is really good. I’m seeing it in the writing. I’m getting a lot of stuff written for me. Cedric has a lot to do with the show and he’ll say, ‘John’s character needs this,’ or ‘We should give him this,’ so he’s really very giving and a great person to work with. As is Niecy Nash.
“We’ve only got five members in the cast and it just feels like family. I don’t think theres a weak link.”
Season one guest stars include Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Kim Coles, Tamar and Trina Braxton, Phelo and Sherri Shepherd.
Beasley’s adjusted well to the four-camera, live audience, sit-com format.
“Having a good theater background has prepared me for this because the camera is almost like a proscenium -–you gotta play to the cameras, you’ve got to know where you’re camera is so that you can open up to it. But you also have the feedback from the audience. For instance, in the first episode we did I appeared and Cedric and I just stopped and looked at each other because of the situation and the audience went on and on, so we had to wait for the audience to finish. That kind of thing happens.
“Sometimes Cedric or somebody forgets their lines or he ad-libs and the audience is with you all the way. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really like doing stage and I’m having a great time with it.”
Beasley’s invigorated, too, by how the writers keep tweaking things.
“The writers continue to write right up until taping and if something doesn’t work then they huddle up and they come back with something else and by the time we finish with it it’s working.”
It’s his fondest desire Soul Man gets picked up for a second season but Beasley has something more pressing on his mind now and, ironically, the show may prove an obstacle. On March 23 at the University of North Carolina Beasley and Everwood star Treat Williams did a staged reading of famed South African playwright Athol Fugard‘s new drama, The Train Driver. Fugard was there and Beasley says the writer made it clear he wants them for the play’s August 14-Sept. 23 run at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, part of the fabled Signature Theatre, in New York.
Trouble is, Soul Man doesn’t wrap till July 29. “I told the play’s producers, ‘Listen, nobody can do this better than I can. I want to do this. And so whatever we can do to work it out let’s do that.’ That’s where we left it,” says Beasley.
Whether it happens or not, he’s convinced Soul Man is a career-changer.
“I really feel this is going to be a difference-maker just as The Apostle was because people aren’t used to seeing me do comedy, so it’ll give them a different look at me as a performer and that’s really all I can ask.”
“It’s been quite a journey” to come from Omaha and find the success he has and still be able to reside here. And the best may yet be ahead.
- Cedric the Entertainer Stars In The New TV Land Sitcom ‘The Soul Man’ Premieres June 2012 (video) (harlemworldmag.com)
- Cedric The Entertainer Talks New Sitcom, “The Soul Man” With Super Snake (1015jamz.cbslocal.com)
- TV Land Summer Line-Up Includes Original Programming, Shirley MacLaine Special and Launch of ‘That ’70s Show’ (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- Niecy Nash sees the light (mnn.com)
This is yet another story, the third by the way, that I wrote after my recent encounters with comedy legend Bill Cosby. Here, he tells it like he sees it about the state of education in America. Like many of us he has strong views on the topic and he isn’t afraid he will step on somebody’s toes from the weight of his celebrity when it comes to saying what he believes. Like what he says or not, he has a consistent message on the topic and has the courage of his convictions to keep right on talking even when there’s strong push-back from various quarters to some of what he states about schools, teachers, and parents. Most of the quotes from Cosby came out of phone interviews I did with him. The photos below came from a visit to his dressing room before his May 6 show in Omaha, where some visitors from Boys Town gave him another chance to sound-off on education and for me to record his comments and interaction with his guests. It was a privileged opportunity to glimpse an intimate, off-the-cuff Cosby speaking his heart and his mind on things he cares deeply about.
Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.
The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took “a rude awakening” for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A “kickoff” moment convinced him “yes, you can do.”
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, “I was on track with what I wanted to do.” He famously returned to complete his bachelor’s degree and to earn his master’s and Ed.D in education.
He became “a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher.” No wonder then he’s made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don’t make him an expert. He doesn’t claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going off on a rail.
Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he’s equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.
To some, he’s a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it’s clear he’s concerned about education. His words carry weight because he’s fixed in the collective conscience as America’s father from The Cosby Show (1986-1994) and all the family routines he’s done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.
So when Cosby proclaims, as he did to The Reader, “In education, things are broken,” you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. “However,” he adds, “there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don’t cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent.”
“And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn,” he says. “These people who can teach – and I don’t mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what’s in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, ‘If the student fails, then we fail.’
“In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don’t care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that’s an embarrassment.”
Cosby was just getting started.
“Some people can’t teach and don’t know how, they don’t have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won’t embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.
“But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can’t forever get away with this.
“I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don’t understand how they’re ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach.”
Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.
“Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don’t have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in.”
A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.
“It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, ‘We want better education, we demand better education for our children’” to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.
He admits he doesn’t have “remedies.” He does call for “activism” by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.
Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. “You live with them?” asked Cosby. “Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”
“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” Simone said.
“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” he pressed.
Tony said, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”
“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself…and that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you.”
Noting “the hard knock life” these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.
“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”
Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.
“The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”
Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”
“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” Simone told him.
Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher’s encouragement can make.
Before seeing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, “He pulled us aside and told us, ‘You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can’t let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.’ We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom.”
Meeting the legend, she says, “was a remarkable experience,” adding, “He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that’s magical that they’ll hold with them for the rest of their lives.”
- Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bill Cosby Coming to Omaha to Perform Comedy Concert May 6 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni Immerses Herself in Community Affairs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)