THE ENSEMBLE THEATRE
Written by Tazewell Thompson
Directed by Ron Jones
MARCH 19 - APRIL 12, 2009
IDA B. WELLS. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com
With special performances at Lone Star College - Cy Fair April 16 - 19, 2009
SETTING: A Story-Telling Space. The office of the Free Speech, Memphis, Tennessee
TIME: 1863 - 1931
CONSTANT STAR, the powerful Bio Drama of Ida B. Wells
Interview with the Director for Constant Star RON JONES
Professor and Director of Theatre at Lone Star College - Cy Fair
By Theresa Pisula
March 21, 2009
On July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi a Constant Star is born. Her name is Ida B. Wells, a daughter of freed slaves and a strong willed woman who refused to stand by and accept the injustices among her fellow humankind. Almost 150 years later in Houston, Texas Ensemble Theatre tells the story of this great and amazing woman with poetic grace, wit, musical dance and song. Written by Tazewell Thompson CONSTANT STAR (as Mr. Thompson describes it) is “based on actual events but is a fictional account, in my own words, inspired by the life of the historical figure Ida B. Wells.”
I interviewed the Director Ron Jones for the show and asked Mr. Jones questions about the play CONSTANT STAR which is described as Drama with Music and about the astounding and uncompromising subject Ida Wells-Barnett. 23-year old Assistant Director Andy Crum who is also a student of Lone Star College joined us for the interview as well. I initially met Director Ron Jones more than 11 years ago when he was one of the first people I interviewed for HoustonTheatre.com.
Theresa: I’ve interviewed you before at Main Street Theater and New Heights Theatre.
Ron: I’ve been active in local theatre for 38 years (laughs).
Theresa: Tell us about what you do and how CONSTANT STAR came about….
Ron: It’s a co-production with Ensemble Theatre and Lone Star College Cy-Fair where I am the professor of theatre and director of theatre. I’ve been at Lone Star College for 6 years prior to that I was at Kingwood College for 8 years.
Theresa: How did you become a part of this play?
Ron: It was interesting the way that it happened. I do a lot of research about plays simply because they interest me. I’ve probably haven’t read a novel for 10 years but I read plays voraciously. I had seen on the internet some reviews of this play and the concept sounded very interesting to me. So I did some sleuthing and I actually got a copy of the play and read it. And I really liked the play.
I like the way that it was written and the idea that it had music that was an integral part of the play. I contacted the playwright’s agent and for awhile we negotiated because I wanted to bring it to the college. And finally they said “Well we want a Houston production but we’d like for our first production there to be a professional one.” So I said, “Great, that’s great. I just want you to know that I will be directing it wherever it happens.”
EILEEN J. MORRIS, Artistic Director of The Ensemble Theatre
Ron: So I took the show to Eileen (Eileen Morris is the Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre). And Eileen knew it because she had seen a production of it and she thought it would be a great idea for us to do it as collaboration.
Theresa: And this was how long ago?
Ron: This was about oh…18 months ago.
Theresa: Before she was making a decision for…..
Ron: Her upcoming season, right. And she said, “Why don’t we put it in our season as our collaboration and you can direct it?” And I said that’s perfect (laughs). This is actually the Southwest premiere of the show.
Theresa: The first in Texas?
Ron: Oh yes, the first in Texas.
Theresa: No way, really? How exciting, because I’m going to be a part of it tonight. How did you know Eileen Morris?
Ron: How did I know Eileen? (Smiles as he tries to recall). I know Eileen because I worked at the Ensemble Theatre in the early years when it was a tiny, tiny space on Clear Adam Street. I directed a play there called Joanne with a cast of 16 people. The theatre was so small and there was no backstage area, no dressing room area that they had to line up backstage before making their entrances.
I believe, at that point Eileen was the assistant to George Hawkins who was the Artistic Director and Founder of the Ensemble Theatre. And we lost someone in the cast and Eileen took over that role. So I think I directed Eileen in one of her first plays. Of course, she went on to become the Artistic Director when George Hawkins passed away. And she’s pretty much solely responsible for what Ensemble is today because she has built it into a world-class theatre, and one that’s very well respected.
Theresa: How is CONSTANT STAR the story of Ida B. Wells significant today especially now that Barack Obama is the President of the United States?
Ron: I think that it’s significant for many aspects. First of all, it’s the celebration of a remarkable life. I think it’s so interesting to see how people get from one place to another, how they get to realize their dreams or accomplish the things that they want to accomplish in their lives. And I’m sure that Barack Obama’s journey has been a prolific one but also a very interesting one as well. So probably some day there will be a play about his life.
Ron: But I think that in looking at this as a celebration of a remarkable life it’s certainly applicable to tell this story today because a lot of people have heard about Ida B. Wells, the name is familiar to them. But they didn’t really know what she stood for or the ideals that she represented. And I think that to do a play like this now and flesh this story out for people is very important. But beyond that, there are so many young people who don’t know who she is at all, you know? She may have one line or one sentence in their history books. It’s a life that is worthy of much more attention.
Theresa: Oh sure! As I started researching about this amazing, amazing woman I found that she is one of the founders of NAACP. She was an editor and publisher….
Ron: And she was a suffragette, one who helped to get the vote for women. She was almost single-handedly the leader of the campaign to get anti-lynching legislation passed in Congress.
(L-R) Detria Marie Ward, Shaunyce Omar, Cynthia Brown, Roenia Thompson and Jo Anne Davis-Jones. Photo courtesy of Ensemble Theatre.
Theresa: Are we gonna see all that? I can’t wait to see the show. This is what I love about theatre, as you said earlier to be able to “flesh it out”, to be able to see and know Ida B. Wells in the flesh. To be able to see her alive onstage is utterly rewarding. And for her life to be presented with music and dance, that’s like a total bonus. I am so excited.
Ron: I think there’s something interesting though about the NAACP. Because of a scene when you see the show tonight that, even though she was a co-founder of that organization, she was not fond of it (laughs).
Theresa: Why is that so?
Ron: Because she felt that it was more of a social organization than a revolutionary organization for Black Americans. And she was very outspoken later on about that organization.
Theresa: Wow! That is amazing.
Ron: I think that’s one of the very interesting things about her, she was outspoken. And she had a rivalry with Booker T. Washington who of course is another great African-American man. She had a rivalry with him and it was essentially based on the fact that he was very complacent. And he didn’t really want to be very revolutionary.
Theresa: He didn’t push.
Ron: That’s right. But she was just the opposite. One of the lines that she has in this play I think is a prophetic line for her “I can’t even imagine what the word COMPROMISE would taste like.” You know? She doesn’t even know how it would taste in her mouth. That says a lot about her.
Theresa: She just doesn’t back down (laughs).
Ron: And it’s very interesting the rivalry that she has with Booker T. Washington because he was very different.
Theresa: He wasn’t like her.
Ron: No he wasn’t. He wasn’t adversarial, he wasn’t confrontational.
Theresa: Wonderful. I cannot wait to see it. Is there gonna be the bus scene?
Ron: (Laughs). Yes, where she gets thrown off the train, that is.
Theresa: Oh, the train because they didn’t have buses back then. Awesome! I’m truly looking forward to that particular scene because it was 71 years before the Rosa Parks incident. Unbelievable!!!
Ron: Right. Of course she was before the time of the Civil Rights Movement but I think that she was certainly a forerunner of that movement. Because she was so outspoken for the rights of African-Americans, you know? And being a woman in that time period and being outspoken about such things was essentially unheard of. There were not a lot of women who led those kinds of movements, these were left to men. I think that is an attribute to her tenacity, her sheer force as an individual, as a person. She was proud of being a woman and she was proud of being an African-American and she was proud of being an American. She wanted to combine all those 3 things and work for all those factions and that’s what she did.
Theresa: Amazing, she is just amazing. Because regular women would just be satisfied with being a social butterfly, just to attend social events for the NAACP.
Theresa: She just didn’t waste her time being sociable even though she was one of the founders of the organization. She considered her time more valuable.
Ron: She was not that kind of person at all. The other interesting thing about her is that she had a family. She had four children! She raised four children - you know doing all of this. And she says to her husband in the play, “While they are babies I will have my children at my breast. They will go with me wherever I go. But once they get old enough to walk then they’re yours.” (Laughs) You take care of them and I will go do my work because my work is very important to me.
IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT and family in 1909: Charles (14), Herman (12), Ida (8) and Alfreda (5). Photo courtesy of www.freepedia.co.uk
Theresa: (Laughs) Right. Do you think she knew the path of what she will accomplish before they happened? Or was she just driven out of necessity?
Ron: She always had a vision. She always had a vision of what she wanted to accomplish and what she wanted to do. And one of the revealing things about the play is she tells a story in the play about some very dear friends of hers and what happened to them. And I think that was motivational because these people were very close to her and something like this happened to them and that became a personal cause.
Theresa: I’m sure you’re referring to the lynching and it’s such an injustice.
Ron: Absolutely. And interestingly enough, her parents were slaves and then of course the slaves were freed. I made this point to my cast and we had several talk balks during previews with the audience. How can you be free if you can be lynched and hung for looking at a Caucasian woman? How can you be free if you can be lynched for beating a white man in a game of checkers? That is not freedom.
Theresa: That’s what she fought for.
Ron: That’s right. And that’s what she fought for. She fought for real freedom and recognition for the race.
(L-R) Cynthia Brown, Jo Anne Davis-Jones, Detria Marie Ward, Shaunyce Omar and Roenia Thompson. Photo courtesy of Ensemble Theatre.
Ida B. Wells # 1…………………………………….Roenia Thompson
Ida B. Wells # 2…………………….…………………….Detria Ward
Ida B. Wells # 3……………………………………….Cynthia Brown
Ida B. Wells # 4………………………...…………….Shaunyce Omar
Ida B. Wells # 5……………………..………….Jo Anne Davis-Jones
Ida B. Wells (Understudy)……………..……………Andrea Boronell
Theresa: What are the challenges in putting this play together?
Andy: Aside from this play being geared towards such a sensitive subject, a lot of the challenges arose with implementing the music and feeling the emotion when singing the songs. A lot of the songs were acapella.
Theresa: No, really? You don’t have any instruments? Oh how awesome!
Ron: One of the difficulties about this show was getting started in the right key. If you don’t use accompaniments, you don’t have a note and so you don’t know how to start the song. So the Musical Director DuWayne Davis who was just incredible, he worked with them on how to start off those pitches so that the song will be in tune. And he also taught them that if for some reason they started off in the wrong pitch that they had to really kind of adjust the song so that everybody could sing in harmony because they sing 5-part harmony.
If they started off in the wrong key, they would have to take it up an octave or whatever and then they would have to adjust and sing in harmony that way. I don’t think they ever do start off in the wrong key. They were able to accomplish the singing and starting off on the right key. But that was one of the issues. One of the other issues was the structure of the play. It’s told in a story telling form and because there’s only one character in the play Ida B. Wells with 5 women playing that one character. There’s not a great deal of dialogue of people talking to each other. It’s more sort of representative and the actresses talk to the audience to tell that story.
Andy: And in all the scenes, no one goes off stage. They’re all onstage in the entire act. It’s constantly just one after another. They have to change the emotion, to change with the song, to change with the feeling, to show that there is another scene or there’s another environment.
Ron: Or change of location.
Theresa: Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it.
Ron: It’s a very interesting play and that was one of the challenges that interested me about this play. As Andy said, the actresses never leave the stage. So one of the things that I wanted to do was that I wanted to make sure that everything they needed in the play was on the set so they didn’t have to go off stage and get anything. So, you’ll see some of the things that we did tonight that actually allowed us to incorporate items that probably would not have been in a printing press office or some of the locations onto the set so that they could be used functionally at other times.
Theresa: Of course you were already thinking about this as you were reading the play for the first time.
Ron: I was, yeah. Because I’ve directed for so long and I’ve directed so many plays that whenever I read a play for the first time I think about how it could be staged.
Theresa: But you’ve never seen this play before you directed it.
Ron: No I’ve never seen it.
Theresa: How amazing.
Ron: I only read it.
Theresa: So not only did you have to cast actresses, you had to cast singers.
Ron: And dancers, because they also dance in the show.
Theresa: They’re all triple threats.
Ron: Yeah, they won’t all admit to that. Some of them think they can’t sing but they can (laughs). But in this show they have to act, sing and dance.
Theresa: Wow (laughs).
Andy: The term triple-threat now is….well everybody has to be a triple-threat.
Theresa: So, how were you able to cast the show? Were you able to find the actresses right away or?
Ron: No…no…it’s interesting the way it happened. The Ensemble casts its season in July so last July 2008 we had general auditions and they cast all the plays for the season. And we cast the five actresses in CONSTANT STAR. Well by the time we began rehearsal in February 2009 I had lost 4 of those actors. Because they’ve got other gigs or one of them was performing on a cruise ship and her contract was extended, for various reasons. So I had to recast. And I recast from people who did not audition the first time. So these were people I’ve worked with before or that Eileen knew. So they all came in, they all auditioned, they all sang and we were able to recast it.
I want to tell you something very interesting. One of the actors who had originally been cast in the show and had to drop out because of illness was at the performance last night. When the show started, she took my hand, she’s a very good friend of mine I’ve directed her many times. She said “I’m supposed to be in places right now.” And she was a little sad about that. And then after the first song she said, “This is the cast you were meant to have. These are the people you were meant to have in this show. They’re all wonderful and it worked out the way it was meant to work out.”
And I think that’s true, I think that’s what happened. One of the things that get me through life is that everything happens for a reason no matter how tragic it may be at the time. No matter how tragic it may seem at the time it teaches you something about life with that experience. And so I think she was right, I think this is the right cast.
Theresa: It was meant to be. I know what you mean. The first time I met you was more than 11 years ago as Artistic Director for New Heights Theatre:
Main Street Theater Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden and Director Ron Jones (1998)
1998 Interview with Director Ron Jones for New Heights Theatre
Ron: I didn’t really get into theatre until I had graduated from college. But when I went back to get my Masters Degree I took some classes with some wonderful professors who mentored me. I taught at HISD for 7 years before I started teaching theatre. My second degree was at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI. I went there because one of my favorite directors is Adrian Hall and he was the Artistic Director at Trinity Repertory Theatre. And Trinity Rep has a conservatory. And you can attend classes at the conservatory and then through Rhode Island College get an MFA in Theatre which is what I did. So I had an opportunity to work with Adrian Hall, be directed by Adrian Hall which was a wonderful thing.
He’s a fascinating person and one of the interesting things about him is that he was also the Artistic Director at Dallas Theatre Center at the same he was Artistic Director in Providence. So he was bicoastal and he was going back and forth running two major theatres at the same. So he’s a really incredible, talented man and I learned so much from him.
And then I came back to Houston. I worked at a lot of the smaller professional theatres in town like Main Street Theatre, Theatre Lab Houston, Stages, Mildred’s Umbrella – I just did a show with them which was a delightful experience. They’re a small theatre company that’s been around 6 years. They perform at the Midtown Arts Center.
Actress Sue Mortenson and Director Ron Jones (1998)
1998 Main Street Theatre Play Directed by Ron Jones
Theresa: You’re very much involved in the Houston theatre scene as well as being a college professor.
Ron: I’ve often said that God has blessed me because he has allowed me to do the things that I love most in life: to teach theatre, which is an added bonus and to act and to direct. I started off as an actor and that’s really my greatest passion. I’d really rather be an actor than a director because directing is a huge responsibility. You’re responsible for everything. As I get older, I prefer having fewer responsibilities (laughs). I’m thinking now of trying to direct less and act more.
Theresa: (Laughs) I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Ron: (Laughs) we’ll see…
Theresa: (Laughs) you’re doing more actually, not less.
Ron: (Laughs) I am doing more but there’s something wrong with that picture.
Theresa: (Laughs) it doesn’t look like you’re going to retire any time soon.
Ron: (Laughs) we’ll see, I don’t know.
Theresa: In our last interview you mentioned that your greatest influence was Mr. Cecil Pickett who got you interested in Theatre….
Ron: He was legendary as the director of theatre at the University of Houston. I actually met him interestingly enough when I was in High School because he was teaching at Bellaire High School at the time. He established a theatre program there that was just really amazing. He would compete in UIL competition with his school and even though I was shy, I attended the plays because they interested me. I saw him accept many awards before I ever met him.
He encouraged me to do things that I didn’t think that I could do. Because as I said to you I was very, very shy in high school and in college, I had very little self-confidence. I took his acting class and he asked me to come and audition for a play. And I said, “I’m not sure that I can do that Mr. Pickett.” And he says, “Well you have to do it. It’s something you have to do for yourself.”
So that’s what I did and he cast me in a very nice role. And I overcame the fear that I had of performing onstage because I’d never done it before, although I wanted to do it more than anything in the world. The role he cast me in required that I climb up on the scaffolding and I was 30 feet above the stage. And I’m afraid of heights. So I had to overcome that second fear in order to do that show. But I did.
Theresa: (Laughs) you did? You did it for more than one night?
Ron: Oh yes, for a two-weekend run. So I learned a lot about theatre from Cecil Pickett not only in his class but in everything else.
Theresa: Now Mr. Andy Crum let’s talk about the role of the Assistant Director for CONSTANT STAR. Tell us about yourself……
Andy: I was born in Portland, Texas. I moved to Louisiana, have been all around and then I went to Junior High and High School here in Houston. I’m pretty much a Houstonian. I actually got a late start in college but I was involved in a theater production in Junior High. When I got into high school I took on sports so I never had an opportunity to be in plays even though I’ve always wanted to. I have friends that were involved in theatre but I just never had time. So then when I started Lone Star College Cy Fair I took some acting classes.
The first show I auditioned for was the Laramie Project and I said you know what? I wanted to part of it and then I talked to my mom about it. From there I was in my first show. I think it was really memorable. I mean I would say I was in a show in Junior High but that didn’t even matter. So that was really my first show. And ever since then it’s been a great amazing learning experience.
Theresa: Is this your first directing job?
Andy: Professional, yes.
Ron: Actually you were assistant director for Complete Female Stage Beauty.
Andy: I was an assistant director for Mildred’s Umbrella at the Midtown Arts Center but I consider this one primarily because of the reputation of this theatre.
Theresa: Right, Ensemble Theatre is an amazing theatre. Who do you admire that you think have influenced you so far?
Andy: So far, Ron Jones
Andy: (Laughs) No really Ron Jones definitely. I mean I have favorite actors and actresses of course. I like Meryl Streep she is amazing. As far as actors go I’ve always liked Jack Nicholson because he’s kinda crazy.
Theresa: What would you like to say to the Houston-theatre going audience?
Ron: I would like for them to see this production because it is really an amazing play about an amazing woman. It’s a very moving play and it’s also very entertaining. There is singing and dancing. There is a remarkable story told and I think that every play that I do is a celebration of a life. And I believe that this play is a real celebration of a life that is remarkable. If you don’t know the story of Ida B. Wells then you should really come and see the show and experience the life of a woman who was a pioneer and who was way ahead of her time. She is responsible for many, many important things in our history.
There’s a line at the end of the play where she is about to go to heaven. And she talks to God and He says to her, “The only reason you were never lynched or horse-whipped is through my intervention.” And I believe that about Ida B. Wells. I believe that she was a vessel of God. And God put her on this earth to do these things because she traveled alone, she did not have a body guard. She spoke her mind, she always spoke her mind. She never held back. And she said very frank and honest things about people but she was never harmed. So I think it was through the Grace of God that that happened.
Theresa: You know what, when I see it, after I see it I will start to feel like I have done nothing in my life. Compared to this amazing woman, I haven’t accomplished anything in my life that’s worthwhile. I will feel like I have so much more to do.
Ron: I still feel that way. I still feel that I have so much more to do. Constant Star and the story of Ida B. Wells will give you that sense of urgency.
Theresa: I cannot wait. I am so excited.
Ron: Good. I hope you enjoy it.
Theresa: I don’t think anybody else would have done this piece, this masterpiece justice except for Ron Jones (laughs).
Ron: Oh you’re very kind. It’s a show that I had a lot of passion for and Eileen Morris shared that passion and I think a lot of the thanks have to go to her because she did choose this play and it’s not an easy play to stage. It really isn’t for many, many reasons and Eileen had the vision of doing that.
Theresa: And from here at Ensemble Theatre it’s going to…..
Ron: It will go to Lone Star College April 16-19, 2009.
Theresa: And people will be able to see it from Lone Star College.
Ron: Absolutely. We have a beautiful facility there. We have a gorgeous 450 seat theater it will be performed on.
After the show, I was totally blown away by this outspoken lady Ida B. Wells and the outstanding production of CONSTANT STAR by Ensemble Theatre. The extremely talented cast was singing their hearts out and the musical and dance choreography were thoroughly entertaining. Of course, the much-anticipated train scene did not disappoint me because I found out that since she refused to move out of the seat they literally took the seat off its hinges and threw her out of the train car. What a woman!
The words of Tazewell Thompson gave poetic justice to the story as he quotes the great literary artistry of Ida B. Wells, William Shakespeare and the historical headlines of the times. The emotional descriptions of the lynching was what got me all choked up. Mr. Thompson described in explicit detail the people who were lynched and the careless and casual reasons why they had to endure such a cruel, horrible and inhumane death. And how these so-called punishments were exalted and celebrated by the punishers as momentous and glorified events. Ida B. Wells had to go to our cousins in Europe to spotlight the shame on this on-going practice because (guess what?) no one in the United States of America was going to do anything about it. This woman is something else.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett truly is the catalyst for change. At the time her BFF, fellow reformer and suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony worked on the platforms for women’s rights. Ida’s role as a newspaper editor and publisher with her fierce nature and publications were fearless and shocking as she battled in competing headlines. But considering the reality of the injustices of the society of her time mere words on paper were sort of simple amusement to her. She had bigger fish to fry. And as Ron Jones pointed out she also had her family of 6 to nurture and feed.
For these reasons CONSTANT STAR the powerful bio drama of Ida B. Wells is definitely not to be missed. Showing at the Ensemble Theatre through April, 2009 with additional performances at Lone Star College being a part of this unforgettable, historical and musical drama is something you will never regret.
(L-R) Jo Anne Davis-Jones, Detria Marie Ward, Roenia Thompson, Shaunyce Omar and Cynthia Brown. Photo courtesy of Ensemble Theatre.