Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway debut of August Wilson’s Jitney, directed by Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson (The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Gem of the Ocean), begins previews Wednesday, December 28th ahead of a Thursday, January 19th opening night at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street).
This week, I was treated to a behind the scenes look of bringing Jitney to Broadway in the MTC Rehearsal Studios in New York City.
Award-winning journalist Katti Gray moderated a panel featuring Jitney director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and cast members Harvy Blanks (Jitney in WNYC’s Greene Space American Century Cycle recording, Two Trains Running at Two River Theater Company) as “Shealy;” Tony Award nominee Anthony Chisholm (Radio Golf, Gem of the Ocean, Two Trains Running, Jitney at Second Stage) as “Fielding,” Obie and Theatre World Award winner Brandon Dirden (The Piano Lesson, Clybourne Park, “The Americans”) as “Booster;” André Holland (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Moonlight,”American Horror Story”) as “Youngblood;” Carra Patterson (Significant Other, Wit, Straight Outta Compton) as “Rena,” Ray Anthony Thomas (Jitney and Fences in WNYC’s Greene Space American Century Cycle recordings, Between Riverside and Crazy) as “Philmore;” and Drama Desk Award winner John Douglas Thompson (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum, Satchmo at the Waldorf) as “Becker.”
Michael Potts (The Book of Mormon, Aubergine) who plays “Turnbo”, and Keith Randolph Smith (Fences, King Hedley II), who plays “Doub”, were not available for the evening.
Only one of the ten plays in two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s masterful The American Century Cycle has never been seen on Broadway – until now. Set in the early 1970s, this richly textured piece follows a group of men trying to eke out a living by driving unlicensed cabs, or Jitneys. When the city threatens to board up the business and the boss’ son returns from prison, tempers flare, potent secrets are revealed and the fragile threads binding these people together may come undone at last. MTC has a long history of co-producing works by this legendary playwright (King Hedley II, Seven Guitars and Piano Lesson) and is proud to produce this Broadway debut.
Below is an edited transcription of the night.
Katti Gray: At what point and why did you decide you had to do this work?
RSH: First of all, I decided that I had to be with August and Lloyd when they were doing what they were doing, when I first saw Ma Rainey. This particular work became a battle cry when August was ill and I wanted to complete the cycle as far as all the plays being on Broadway. That was my motivation, so August could have something that no other playwright in American history has done – write ten plays and have them all go to Broadway. I always felt why not us? Why not black folks? Why not an African American playwright? Why doesn’t he have that distinct honor? So I tried to do everything possible that I could do to make it happen. It’s never been my goal to just be a Broadway director. I just wanted to be a director to tell our stories. I’m only one and I can only tell so many stories. I hitched my wagon to August at this time and now this is complete. I can kind of relax a little bit.
KG: When did you start this?
RSH: 11 years. 11 years is when August passed, and it was two weeks before he passed that I told him that Jitney would be my goal. He wanted me to do How I Learned What I Learned. That’s why he was calling me. In that conversation, I said I would love to complete Jitney as the final play on Broadway of all your ten. He said, “Do it, do it. You can do it. But do How I Learned first and let everybody see it can be done without me. Then others actors can do it. But do Jitney also.” I promised him and then two weeks he had gone. Then I got on this quest. I found out it was tougher for me. I thought if I told everybody I wanted to do this and people believed in me, they would get behind me. But it backfired. I told everybody I wanted to do it and everybody blocked me. That’s just the reality of it. The best thing that I did was shut up. So I shut up for one minute and I left it up to the powers that be. And it came to fruition.
KG:So this question is for the cast. Introduce yourself and the character you play. What is that character’s job and function in this work? What is the challenge of meeting that?
John Douglas Thompson: I play the character of Becker. Without giving too much away, I run or own the jitney station. That’s my place. All the people that are there work with me. I’m a father, and I have a son who has been in prison for 20 years. I haven’t ventured to go visit him, spoken to him, seen him. During the course of the play, we meet, father and son. That’s the challenge. Encountering that mountain.
There’s also urban renewal that’s happening, which is also threatening the livelihood of the jitney station, and those people that work there. It’s also something that I’m encountering.
Ray Anthony Thomas: I play Philmore. I’m one of those cats in the community, the one you actually see that comes to use the jitney drivers to get home. I think my biggest challenge, with as little time as possible, create a whole life of this person and what this place means to him in his life. I don’t have too many lines to do it in so that’s really the challenge.
Brandon Dirden: Thank you all for coming tonight and thank you in advance for all the people you’re bringing with you to come see this show. I play Booster, the son of Becker. As he said, I’ve been away for the last 20 years. The challenge is where to begin with this new life, this new reality. What is there between my father and I, given that he hasn’t come to see me in the last 20 years, when I was just a few miles down the road at Western Penn. It’s the process of reconciliation. How do you forgive when you’re the only one trying to forgive? What is love? How strong is it? How fragile is it? Trying to piece together so that you can move on and not get stuck in the past where the most pain lives.
André Holland: I play Youngblood who is this young guy in the community who has been sent away. He’s been at war, the Vietnam War. Along with the love of his life is trying to start a new chapter. He works with the fellows at the jitney station, so when the urban renewal proposal comes along, the little bit that he’s been able to gather for himself is suddenly threatened. So he’s scrambling, like many of us to try and put it together. The biggest challenge is obviously, for myself, trying to keep up with these incredibly talented people. There are some bad people in this cast.
Anthony Chisholm: I play a character named Fielding. He’s one of the drivers at the station. We’re all drivers except for a couple of people. It’s the life of these drivers in this storefront cab station. Someone one tried to figure out the mystery of Jitney. We played it in so many cities- Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore- and broken house records, literally, all time house records. Someone was trying to figure out- why is that? It is the humanity of the play. It’s guys bearing their souls in the jitney station. There are a lot of stories going on. There is no one star. This is a true ensemble piece. The more it becomes an ensemble; the more it becomes this one character of what this whole story is about. I play an alcoholic. He’s an alcoholic driver, not a drunk. An alcoholic is someone who is addicted to the alcohol. And yet it can function. So he drives a cab and he drinks. He had an illustrious past where he was a master tailor for celebrities and musicians. He was married to a lady that he has been separated from for over 20 years. He still thinks she loves him.
Harvy Blanks: I play Shealy. When Anthony mentioned humanity, there’s so much that ran through my mind because in casting, our brilliant director, casted from an authentic, ethnic angle, which means that every black folks you’ve ever grown up with, been with, and know about is in this. And that includes Shealy who basically is from Mississippi. He brings a sort of accent, a sort of flavor that we all know in our brothers and sisters, grandmamas, granddaddies, that sort of thing. He likes to talk like folks we hear. I’m a bookie. I go and take numbers. I bring a sort of flavor that I think you’ll enjoy.
RSH: He’s also a deacon at the church on Sunday.
KG: Carra, the added question for you being the only woman in this piece. Why do you think Wilson opted to only have one woman in the play?
Carra Patterson: I play Rena. Rena is a young mother. I have a son with Youngblood. I want to raise my son and give him a better life. I’m trying my best to give him a stable home and make sure that he has opportunities that I didn’t have and that Youngblood didn’t have. The obstacle to that is that we have a past. Some things that we’ve been through that we’re trying to overcome. In the present, he’s not telling me what he’s doing. I’m trying to be on the same page with him.
Being the only woman in the cast, hearing it, and you’ll see, women are very present in their lives. You’ll see their connection is. They either have very strong connections to their wives or their mothers. But Reena is the only one that interrupts the space. I don’t care what y’all have going on, I need to be heard. I think women still are in the story. It’s great. It’s fun. It’s a man’s world, but as soon as a woman steps into the space, it changes.
RSH: My goal was simple. I wanted to put together a collection of the finest theater actors that I possible could put in a room. This is what you have. We’re in New York City. There are twenty actors for every role here. So the thing is this, everybody always is, “I want to work with Ruben.” They’ll tell you working with Ruben ain’t a walk in the park. Ruben is very meticulous, Ruben is very studious, Ruben is very, very intense, very passionate. I’ve been directed by directors who have fallen asleep, in the room. But that ain’t me. So when you come in my room, you better be on, because I’m on. And I’m going to be on until I fall asleep tonight when I get to my bed. I wake up at six o’clock in the morning, my script is out. I’m taking notes. I come in; we have a moment of wisdom every day where I drop some knowledge, a quote, some history.
Y’all can see on the wall, we’re about who we are. We’re not about pretending. We’re about living a moment, sharing something that we are very familiar with. It’s an introduction to people who don’t know us. But if you do know us, that’s what you see in all its authenticity. I’m about cultural specificity. What is appropriate and how we do things. So no matter, that it is a man’s world, when that woman does come in, people give space. When she says, “I wanna talk to you.” to her man, you see people like we bowin’ out. Because that’s how it is. We want to magnify not just what’s bad or different about us in a way that people don’t understand, but the beauty of us. As a collective, I wanted to make sure that each actor was as intense as I was, as meticulous as I was about the work and it meant as much to them as it does to me. So I assembled this group. There’s only a couple people I haven’t worked with on the stage. I think Carra and JDT. Other than that, the people here, they know what I’m expecting. I’m not cruel by any means at all because I’m like them; I’m an actor too. So I will never do anything to them that I don’t want done to me. And I allow them their space and encourage them to reach higher goals. To push further.
KG: So your iteration of this- how is it the same and different from other casts of Jitney that you’ve seen?
RSH: The only thing that is the same is the cultural specificity. Everything else is different. It’s completely different. Chis just talked about the play like he did it in Los Angeles and Chicago. I don’t want Los Angeles and Chicago. I’m looking for today. I’m looking for right now. He gets in habits that he’s done before and I call him on it. I say that worked before, that doesn’t work for me. Chis jumped right to it and did something different. Chis is one of the finest character actors in the country. He’ll do something that they teach us in school for like 5 years, like leaving your endings up, keeping the ball, staying on top of things. He does things that they teach you. He probably has the least formal acting training of all of us, and the most life training. He’s just incredible.
KG: How do you prepare to be in an August Wilson play?
BD: I want to talk about working for this man. When he talks about his passion, it’s not easy. I want to make a distinction. It’s not easy not because Ruben is a tyrant or a dictator in the room, cracking the whip. That’s not what makes it difficult working for Ruben Santiago-Hudson. I might be the person on this stage that’s worked with him the most. This is our sixth or seventh show. The thing that keeps me coming back to work with Ruben and say yes to him, when I say no to many other people, the thing that keeps me saying yes to him is because what he’s asking is for you to be your best you. And then he’s asking you to be better than that. Every time. There’s not a single time that I have ever worked with this man where I have not come out a better person, a better husband, a better father, a better brother, a better son, and least of all, a better actor. This is no exception. Whether you like this process or you hate this process, you cannot say that you’re not a better person or a better artist because you were in this man’s room.
So how do you work on an August Wilson play? That’s what you need. You need to come in knowing that I’m not enough yet. I’m enough to start, but I’m not enough yet to go where we got to get to. You got to be open, you got to be vulnerable. You have to realize that yes, it’s in here. Everything that you are, August needs. Everything that you’re grandmother and grandfather were. Everything that your ancestors put in your DNA that’s welcome in this room. And that’s necessary in this room. But see, as actors we aren’t always allowed that freedom. They don’t even want all that. But the play, any August Wilson script, demands that you bring that. I will accept nothing less than that. That’s what it takes to work on an August Wilson play, your best and then some.
HB: I’ve done all ten of August’s pieces and I worked with one of the foremost directors, both mentor to August and Lloyd Richards, the late Israel Hicks. He was a tremendous director but I think that Ruben Santiago-Hudson is the best director in the country. That’s my opinion. I’m also biased. You can’t get any finer than Ruben. Ruben can see humanity especially in black folks that other people can’t and won’t. He won’t accept anything less than that. Partially that’s why I think I have the role I have. The way I play this character, only black people, you know the English, they have cockney? The cockney, we go see them play, you come out saying, “What did he say?” White folks might come out saying, “What did he say?” Because it’s the way we’ve expressed ourselves from being here. That first slave that was in the cotton field, that became an African American when he rose up and said, “Oh Lord, what am I doing here?” That’s what is here. It goes way back. It’s purely and certainly African American.
KG: Let’s talk about process. What did you say when you came to rehearsal?
RSH: It’s usually something off the top of my head. I told Carra that to be in love is “to have heart as a swinging door”. That means it goes both ways. You give just as much as you take.
The other thing that I said to them, “Just in the moment when I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” It’s just something I heard old folks saying in Lackawanna.
That’s the process of art. Any artist gets to that point where you hit a wall, it’s like where am I going? From my experience and the artists that I know. Then all of a sudden something shakes and you’re free. You know you’re free. It happens in acting all the time. We talk about what’s happening in the world. We talk about things that happen in the walk of our life and being people of color and how we persevere.
I’ve never been more in awe of these actors. This is the most important moment in my career. And I don’t take that for granted. We had an hour and a half of rehearsal and I have to back them off. Y’all are going too far, too fast. Don’t get bored. They never get bored. We cry every day. We laugh every day. You can’t help it.
CP: This is my first August Wilson play, but it is just a full circle God moment for me. I remember looking for monologues when I was 18 and auditioning for colleges. I wasn’t raised in the theater. I didn’t know plays, but I heard if you want to get into college as a drama student, you have to have a Shakespeare and an August Wilson monologue. So I literally did not have time to ready any full plays. I flipped through and picked one. And I came across Rena. And it was her house monologue. I was able to relate to it immediately because Rena is one of the younger of August Wilson’s women, and so it was easy for me to jump into what she was talking about. I’ve been doing this monologue and working these scenes since I was 18 only in scene study classes. I’ve never been in a full production.
KG: So the rest of you, this process, this work, when the rest of you come in and Ruben says whatever he’s going to say for the day. How does that affect your work?
AH: For me, it gives me permission. A lot of times, especially the things that I’ve done, I’ve always felt like you’re on a proving ground. You first have to prove that you have the right to be there. You’re constantly trying to modulate what you say and how you say it. Is now the time for me to fully express who I am? Or express this thing in the way that I would naturally express it. But from the very beginning, he sets the tone. We’re going to play all of our notes today here. Not only are you allowed to, but you are actually compelled to. You’re required to bring all of you to it. So for me, it’s freeing. Actors would probably understand what I am talking about because it is difficult to explain just how wonderful that feels to know that all of you is welcome.
CP: For me, coming in every day and hearing his wisdom, also just his style, I don’t think it’s too hard. It reminds me of – it feels like home to me. I feel like I have to bring my best. I have to do my best. And nothing less is acceptable. It reminds me of how my grandmother used to speak to me. This is the best experience I’ve had.
AH: And you know, grandmama and granddaddy got your best interest at heart. They’re not going to let you embarrass yourself or hurt yourself. It’s the same thing. You take the direction. If it is harsh, it’s harsh. You know it’s for the right reasons.
KG: Is there a part of this, a line in this, a silence in this, a scene of this that parallels your personal biography, and resonates for you in a particular way? What is that?
RAT: Philmore: “Mama don’t like to see you coming; but she’ll take you in.” Every time I do an August Wilson, it reminds me of my grandmother, my parents. Every summer in Louisiana, just being there. Don’t make me cry. I think August demands that of you. That you give everything you have. I never felt like I shorted him on the attempt. I don’t know if I reached it all the time, but I tried so hard. There’s been times when I finished a show, I didn’t feel like acting no more ‘cause it took everything I had. It’s a beautiful thing. This don’t happen all the time. It really doesn’t.
RSH: It’s funny, with him, people are always calling me about August Wilson plays, “I need an actor.” And I used to say, get Ray, get Harvy. They would say, “Where am I going to put them?” I’d say, put them anywhere. They’re going to fill any spot. So when I got them two guys, it’s like having a basketball team and having two power forwards. You can put them anywhere.
These people have graduated and attended some of the finest cultural institutions teaching acting in the nation- NYU and Yale and all these schools. One day, I came in the room and said, “They spend so much time teaching you what they think is correct in acting. They teach you so far away from your grandmother. What I’m asking you to do is bring her; I want to see her in the room. If you’re not bringing your grandmother, you’re not doing August Wilson. I’m bringing her back. All that they tore out of us, in those schools and conservatories, that’s what I want to see. So let me see that, because now it is time to revisit.”
KG: You had mentioned the mechanics and the obstacles to getting here. What currency does a John Legend co-producer bring to this?
RSH: When I said I got quiet, I didn’t stop working. I stopped telling people this is what I’m going to do. It’s a different thing because they just blocked it. So I said, if I let it go, it’s not that important to me anymore because there’s too many other things I got in front of me.
I got two or three other writers I’m developing right now. I gotta make sure when I go to dust, they’ll be fine. Particularly, I was talking about taking August Wilson’s play to Broadway. I could take a writer in this room, and say I want to do your work. I’ll get it done. I’ll get it done before the year is over. Many theaters want me to come do work there.
Broadway is held by a small group of people. When a person comes in with money sayin’ I got all the money to produce a play, which I did. I ain’t producing this one. Manhattan Theatre Club is producing this one. They didn’t take my money. They took the play and took me as the director. They gave me a date and a theater. And gave me a seat at the table which was very important, or I wouldn’t be here.
The people that run it and hold it don’t want some outsider coming in. Name Black men or female directors on Broadway. We can’t get past five.
So here I am intruding and saying I want a say. I had to come to a theater that trusted that say. That I’m going to do a play and honor a play, also respect the theater, but also, my agenda would be intact. That I bring the finest actors. That I do an ensemble. And that I reach out- Marci can tell you this- that I want to reach out to my community and let them know they’re invited. That’s why tickets are $47. They aren’t going to do that for a lot of plays, but I told them we got to go into my community and do that. That’s why I went to Harlem to be honored. I want you all to know, y’all come, this is yours. Broadway don’t need some intruder trying to tell them what to do. All I want to do is my art. I don’t want to run Broadway. I’m at the Signature Theatre, that’s my home. I can do two plays there next season. I wanted August to have this moment.
We as entertainers, particularly rappers, singers, artists, we make all our props be invisible. As soon as something come up that we need to be very visible for, we get invisible. And John Legend is not one of them. Jessie Williams, people like that, they stand right up there. When you put yourself out there like I have, you gonna take a hit. There’s a price to it. John Legend, if you look at what he’s producing in film and TV, it’s about us telling our stories. Let us be the custodians of our grandmother’s history, our history, of who we are. Quit letting other people tell us who we are. We’ll never measure up if we don’t hold up the measuring stick.
The thing with John Legend, he wanted to be a part of this. He didn’t know anything about August Wilson. He asked for nothing but to be a part of it. He walked in the room last week and said, “I want y’all.” So when you make this the biggest hit in New York, when we finish with it, we got John Legend with us to say, “John, let’s roll.” We just need more people to say, “Let’s roll.” There are 100 August Wilson actors that want to be in this play. When my cast members go to do movies and stuff, I’ll grab the next one in line. We could go back to London, go around the country. This is the first one he wrote, which is the last one to be done. This is the beginning again. We can start back. We’re going to get Gem of the Ocean back. We closed in three months. Phylicia Rashad didn’t get the Tony for that, she got it for Raisin. She should have got it for Aunt Ester. We’re start with Gem and go right on down that line. Radio Golf ain’t seen what it should see. Two Trains Running ain’t seen what it should see. King Hedley, Joe Turner closed in three months.
KG: How does Jitney resonates with you now, from when you first read the play?
RSH: I have a real personal connection with Jitney. A lot of people don’t know. I’ve shared it with the cast. Jitney was a very short play in ’79 when it was written, when it was completed. If you look at the history, in ’96, it was right after Seven Guitars. There’s at least forty minutes of this play that came out if Seven Guitars. And that forty minutes is all Canewell, which is the character I played in Seven Guitars. August did a drastic cut on Canewell, which caused us to not speak for six weeks. I think it was two weeks, but said it was longer. He was on Charlie Rose and he said, “Me and my friend, we didn’t speak for six weeks.” The glory of it to me is that it ended up still living. When an actor loses something, he thinks it’s dead. When a writer takes something, it’s still alive. It lives somewhere else. So it lives here.
They know if they are stumbling on lines, they get mad at me ‘cause I’ll throw a line out to ‘em. They say, “You know every damn line?” I just make them think that. So it is a personal connection. A lot of these words, I’ve said in front of hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people. Now it’s like a father passing on something to their child, because it was mine. It ain’t mine no more. Eventually this play that I’m directing, is not mine anymore. Ownership goes to them. It’s not August’s anymore, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to them. They know where the pain of each character is, where the bunion is on the foot. That time has not come yet. I’m still a papa. That time will come, when the first ass hits the seats on December 28th, there will be some passing over of the keys. Y’all in for a treat.
Q: What would you say to your younger acting self?
RAT: Don’t turn nothing down. Do as much work as you can.
AC: Stay in touch with God. Keep your seat belt fastened. Don’t do any bad writing. Have the ability to tell the difference between the two. Bad writing is hard on everybody. It’s hard on the designers, sets, lights, the actors, and backstage crew. It’s hard on everyone. You wonder, how did this thing get produced? Some way, some how, it slipped through the cracks. Somebody put up the money and made it happen. It could harm your instrument. Try to stay away from bad writing.
RSH: There’s no one answer to that question. I say turn down work. Don’t do anything you’re not going to be proud of. Film is forever. Whatever you do on film is forever.
JDT: Something really simple that some teachers told me that I didn’t quite pay attention to in school, was that there was no substitute for hard work. I often, when I was in drama school, skipped class, played hooky and it kind of got me nowhere. I remembered some of the things that I was taught, I didn’t remember until 5-10 years down the road. Then I started to apply them.
The writing thing-I can tell bad writing because there was a point at which I could do no more with it. You can go as far as you want to go emotionally, and it just doesn’t support you. Then you start trying to work it out, but it doesn’t quite work.
BD: See as much theater as you can. There’s a lot of free way to see theater. Find the free ways. Even if you don’t think you’re going to like it. That’s the one thing I felt like I got right. Because you develop your taste, you develop your palate. You develop a sense of what’s good and what’s bad. You realize what is available to you. It might not be August Wilson, it might be Chekhov. You might be an expert in Chekhov. You might not even know it. When you see it come to life, this is what drama is about. This is what plays are about. They are written to be performed and seen and witnessed. Not just read. August Wilson is great literature. I read them all the time. But it’s meant to be seen and experienced. See as much as you can.
AC: The ability to listen. The better you listen, the better you are going to be as a performer because acting is reacting. Learn to listen. A lot of actors, they are not even listening, they’re waiting to say your lines.
AH: Make your own stuff. Write, direct, produce, edit- whatever you got to do to make your own stuff. If I could tell myself anything, that’s what I would say.
RSH: If it were me, it would be learn the craft. Prepare yourself mentally, physically and spiritually for the long run. Figure out what your goals are and how to attain them. It all starts with one step. I knew where I wanted to be and I know where I’m going to be in three years. I got it already booked. Know what you want and figure out a real attainable way to get it without compromise. Learn the craft.
HB: Stay physically fit because you can’t do it if you’re not healthy. Eat well, get on a workout regimen, work your body and stay physically fit.
CP: For me, it was keep a connection to God or something greater that can sustain you through all the ups and downs ‘cause it’s a very crazy making industry. And to create your own work and your own opportunities. When I was coming out of undergrad, I put together my own showcase that led to so many open doors that led me to New York. Equally to the art, be very sensitive about who you have around you in your circle. Like relationships and friendships that can be equally as toxic.
Click here for tickets and more information. Use code AUGUST for $47-$77 tickets through January 22nd and $47-$89 tickets for January 24th- March 12th. In person at the box office, call 212-947-8844 or visit telechargeoffers.com.
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Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.