Theater

Karamu Karma or Kismet: Dennis' Little Taste of Life Upon The Wicked Stage

What’s This: He Did Karamu?

For six wonderful weeks back in 2000, was it kismet or karma at play at Karamu? It must have been meant to be that Dennis got to a chance to thread the same boards as so many talented theatre folks i.e., the late, great black poet laureate, Langston Hughes. It turns out he was a collaborator of a distant relative of Dennis’, Kurt Weill.

Back to Dennis doing the blues at Karamu: Singing and performing in the role of Guitar Man, the only musician in George C. Wolfe‘s Spunk, earned Dennis and the cast an ensemble award (more about that below). He said he loved doing this play, based on fables from the pen of Zora Neale Hurston. Why? The Harlem Renaissance folklorist’s words not only inspired the blues music written by composer Chic Street that Dennis had to duplicate nightly, but they also inspired Guitar Man’s improvisations .

How Did It Go?… Great! Not only did they get rave reviews from the critics, but from nightly audiences as well. So many that they received Outstanding Performance Awards from the Karamu Actors Guild for Best Ensemble and Best Director.

About Those Rave Reviews… In the July 19, 2000 issue of the Cleveland Free Times theater critic James Damico gave a rave review of the play Spunk.

In the July 6, 2000 issue of Scene magazine theater critic Keith Joseph gave a rave review of the play Spunk.

More About Those Awards… Two Outstanding Performance Awards went to “Spunk”. The Karamu Actors Guild awarded Reggie Kelly for Best Direction and the Best Ensemble award went to the cast which included Cornell Calhoun, S. J. Hannah, Terri Singleton , Kelvin Willingham, Joyce Meadows as Blues Speak Woman and Dennis Chandler as Guitar Man.

More about the play… “Spunk” was adapted by Tony award winner George C. Wolfe and is based on three fables from folklorist and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Her trio of tales transcends cultural differences and addresses universal values. The play combines the richness of African-American dialogue with the underscored sultry sounds of the blues. It is a tender, intimate look at man’s common yearning to live a better life.

More about the music in the play… Composer Chic Street Man wrote the songs, along with the scored musical interludes. The author has also written in where the play’s lone musician, Guitar Man, may improvise. Plus this production at Karamu featured that character, as played By Dennis, singing two songs by the great bluesman Jimmy Reed.

More about the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre…. Karamu was first known as the Playhouse Settlement. It was founded by two white social workers, Rowena & Russell Jelliffe, as a recreation center. It became nationally known for its dedication to interracial theater and the arts. It is the oldest African-American Cultural Arts Center and the oldest African-American Theater in the United States. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the complex is located at E. 89th & Quincy in the city’s Fairfax community, (home to another world-reknown institution, the Cleveland Clinic just two blocks north). Karamu is Swahilli for “a place of joyful meeting”.

More about Dennis’ part in the play…. As the only musician, “Guitar Man” had more than a couple of interesting musical moments. He was seen throughout the three fables, playing his accoustic guitar, punctuating action with music. During most of that time, Dennis was seen and heard from stage right. But, in his solo number, he took center-stage when he did Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”, (thus getting to pay a little homage to one of his “teachers”, too). Another number paired him with Joyce Meadows as “Blues Speak Woman”. They sang a musical repartee in a duet that brought the house down. That showstopper was the song titled, “I’m Too Good Looking For You”. The third act opening-scene featured dancer Terri Singleton and had her jumpin’ to his jivin’ guitar. Later in the third act, “Blues Speak Woman”, along with S.J. Hannah, got to boogie to the beat of “Guitar Man” doing another Jimmy Reed song, “Honey, What’s Wrong?” (The rest of the cast would join in singing, too.)

About his audition… Dennis was called “a Godsend” and “the right one for the role” by the director, executive director, cast and crew alike. Why? When the show was already 5 weeks into rehearsal and just 2 nights away from its first preview night, they still had no guitarist! To explain, the director said, “Of all the guitarists who auditioned, many had a feel for the blues, but none could read music.” “Spunk” is a theatrical play and as such, there is a partial score he said, “the composer wants played as written.”

About playing the Blues…. Take note, music students. Recall that adage about learning the theory behind the music one makes? At Dennis’ very own auditon it proved so true. He said he was glad he could accomodate Reggie Kelly‘s vision of what the director wanted “the sheet music to do”. Another dictum that proved out? “Blues is a feeling not just a form. You can put form on paper but you can’t put feeling on paper!” He said he felt proud he could show good form along with good feeling, too, so to speak.

Back to about Karamu… It is a known fact among actors, that being invited to perform there is an honor. Hence the reason so many actors who have “made it” i.e., on Broadway, in the movies, on television, etc., always come back to Karamu.

But, back to Karamu, for Dennis…. Doing “Spunk” was a homecoming of sorts. Being it’s an honor to be invited even once, coming back this second time was also really appreciated. To explain… It was back in ’94 that Dennis first did Karamu, thanks to arts acquaintance Dick Gregory and the humanitarian’s sister-in-law Martha Smith and cousin Web Fleming. Dennis and baritone Fleming, a former Wings Over Jordan soloist, were the only entertainers to be invited to perform for New Day Press‘sBlack History Month Celebration. After performing a program of blues and Negro spirituals to a soldout house, they especially enjoyed the standing ovation they received. To fully understand how meaningful it was for Dennis to play that same stage again, his “second time around”, fit and healthy, read the page titled “The Journey“.

To those involved at Karamu…. Dennis asked to post a shoutout of thanks to the cast, crew and staff, who along with all the audiences there, made him feel so welcome. As a first time actor treading the boards, he relished the rave reviews and the awards. He gives thanks to all the folks there but, most of all, Dennis thanks God for opening the door.

OTHER CLOSE ENCOUNTERS ON THE STAGE

Diversity plays an important part in growing creatively, it’s been said. Dennis sure has his share of various and sundry role models to emulate now. Maybe there’s a muse that will bring out the best in him, yet. Although Dennis’ own love for theater had him writing for the stage, too……..

One Muse (this time we spell with a capital M) was the late, lamented Dorothy Fuldheim, who wanted to be a patron to Dennis! How the woman with the title “The Grand Dame of Television” came to want to champion him to be the composer for her “Three and a Half Husbands” book-into-play project, is written about in the longer BIO on the website. Suffice to say, it was heartbreaking when Dorothy passed away, never having recovered from a stroke. Dennis never got to play for her, the music she “commissioned” him to write.

As for his the latent-actor-in-Dennis Chandler…. Long, long before his onstage role as “Guitar Man” in “Spunk” at Karamu Theater, his stage experience included some interesting and diverse gigs. As a teenager, he toured the Cleveland area in the KYW Roadshow and Press Show Wagon under the direction of Arlene Blank Rich. He was the troup’s pianist and accompanist. He also peformed as a musician on stage, backing plays, like at Greenbrier Theatre. After a wildly successful run of “Grease“, the cast there came to him enmasse and asked him to put together another show. He did.

After writing some dialogue and original songs, he had a Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue he titled, “Maltshop Memories“. With his Stratophonics band aka The Dennis Chandler Band backing the troupe, they toured all around the area. Then, in the late ’80s, he got to reprise the show in a lovely summer-stock setting. It happened during the time Dennis, along with his wife Liz Chandler, directed and taught theater, full time at the summer-camp-type Gates Mills Straw Hat Theater. Many wonderful musical memories are recalled, especially since some Straw Hat students have since gone into the Arts.

Like a trouper, Dennis did duty way, way back with many of his media friends like Laurie Jennings, Dale Solly, Joel Rose, Bill Smoochie Gordon to name just a few. He still accompanies Dick Goddard. Included were various Variety Club shows done with them, along with benefits for charity i.e, Cleveland Area Broadcasters, Cleveland Public Theatre and Broadway Cares / Equity Fights Aids.

Friends say they can see how Dennis’ “strutting and playing upon the stage” at Karamu has brought out the ham in thismulti-faceted performer. Plus he says, looking at his Karamu Actors Guild Outstanding Performance Award makes him think about wanting to tread the boards again… and maybe he’ll get that promised invitation to “Come back toKaramu“.

Spring 2001… Saw Dennis almost return to Karamu for that third time charm and in a Langston Hughes play, yet. But, it was not meant to be. To explain, when Karamu was casting for Simpley HeavenlySue Johnson (a casting director, acting coach and owner of Wake Up and Live! Actors Studio ) called Dennis to say he “would be perfect for this play!” Plus, a cast member herself, she also told the director. The play was being guest directed by well-known, respected actor Richard Gant. Dennis looked forward to working with him. But, he was not called right away. Later it was shared: they thought he only played guitar (albeit very well witness his role as Guitar Man in Spunk). No one fathomed that he could be a master at piano, too. So, although his audition was a success and earned him a rave review being called “more musician than all of them put together” … timing was too late. Dennis’ dance card had been filed (read: conflicting bookings). But, everyone says they look forward to when the match will be right again for him to “come back home, to Karamu!”

October 15, 2011 COMPOSER’S NOTES ON WORLD PREMIERE OF “JUST WE TWO – A NEW MUSICAL”

“Just We Two – A New Musical” had its World Premier at the new beautiful “Theatre at Tallmadge High” here in Ohio. Both nights of this “Two day out-of-town tryout in Tallmadge” drew standing ovations and soaring hopes to take the show all the way to Broadway. Thank you to director Frank Chaff, the talented cast of grade schoolers, high schoolers, young college and community actors who helped to present this new musical. Special kudos to the professional musicians who did spot-on accompaniment.

Now what’s needed next are angels of the New York theatre-type (can you say Tom Hanks, Oprah, Whoopie or Harvey as in Fierstein?) .. OR.. grants as in the Genuis-type grants (can you say MacArthur Grant?)

A critic’s review… “The music of “Just We Two” is magnificent! The music is great on its own, so it is inevitable that someone will rise up to the top of this show! BRAVO, composer Dennis Chandler and playwright Larry Brenner!” George Foster, NORTH CAROLINA OPERA

FYI: FOR THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW ABOUT “JUST WE TWO – A NEW MUSICAL”

THE PREMISE OF THIS PLAY: Everyone can relate to having a loved one lying in a bed in a hospital room. The play begins when family comes to visit. They are seen one by one, pondering and reflecting upon their life together with the patient. Emotions come back in flashbacks; emotions come in-the-moment. They lament. They cajole. They sing their hearts out with their respective “SHOUDA-WOULDA-COUDAS”. Again, everyone will relate to this play. The book and lyrics were written with humor and pathos by (local) playwright Larry Brenner. Composer Dennis Chandler wrote the music in the tradition of olde style Broadway aka melodic music (with a little rock’n’roll thrown in, too).

“RULING PASSION – A MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT RICHARD III”
Book & Lyrics by Deborah Osment
Music by Dennis Chandler

A successful staged reading was done in 1990. But, first the interesting story behind how Deborah met Dennis. It was back in the early ’80s after Dennis expressed, to his long-time mentor, dear friend and second father, B.B., that he wanted to compose music for the stage. The blues legend said he knew the perfect person to introduce him to: Detroit entertainment critic and reporter Deborah Osment Ryan. “Timing seems right for you two creative-types to finally meet”, was the way B.B. put it. So they did. It happened when Dennis and his wife Liz were “running on the road” with him, (as B.B. calls the way family and friends have to catch up with him while he’s working on tour). This was when B.B. was becoming more and more popular,and thus one of his Motor City gigs was for two weeks in one place. There the foursome got to spend some quality time together (and in a quality place, too, for it was the then-new Dearborn Town Center Hyatt Regency). B.B., who admittedly loves to oftentimes play “Mother Hen” with such close friends, managed to steer the two creative-types to many a late-night coffee klatch (held in B.B.’s suite after his performances). In addition, Deborah-the-music-reporter managed to get other blues legends to come ’round for conversations of the musical kind. (Read: jam sessions) It was during those two wonderful weeks at the Hyatt that Deborah and Dennis spoke of collaborating on a couple of future projects. One such project discussed was her idea of A Musical Comedy about Richard III. That idea appealed to the Composer-in-Chandler. She said she would get back to Dennis after she wrote the book and lyrics so that he could write the music.

A few years later, Deborah did send Dennis the book and lyrics for him to begin the music. Then in 1987 Dennis was struck down by cancer. After his incredible battle (and his near-death experience “Go back, my son, it is not yet your time. Your calling is on Earth!”), he completed the score. For Dennis, this play’s music is particularly meaningful and seemed fittingly titled “Ruling Passion”, for he began the music before he began the treatments for leukemia. Rounds of ravaging chemotherapy left him listless physically but not mentally. Desire to write the-music-in-his-mind gave Dennis a much-needed positive focus.

For Deborah, the play took on a less favorable focus. To explain, after she moved from Detroit to L.A. (reasoning that more opportunity might come her way to do creative writing), she set what should have been for her, easily attainable goals: Become a screenwriter, make movies that make money so plays could be mounted. (Not just her own plays but those of other writers, too.) Her dream lost its luster when one of her sons, David Ryan was killed tragically in an accident caused by a drunken driver (on a Hollywood freeway).

Thus, bittersweet were the rewards of a successful first reading of the play. It was held in 1990 before an audience of Shakespearean actors at The American Center for Music Theatre. Deborah called Dennis from L.A. to inform her then-convalescing collaborator that “the music was overwhelmingly received!” “Incredible music, who is this composer?, to quote the lamented, late Norm Maybaum, (then considered the premiere theatre figure and power behind the famed Westwood Theatre). They were told the next move in mounting the play would be a matter of money. That is, a budget big enough to buy lots of stage armour and horses, too.

Needless to say, for Dennis it was good news while at the same time frustrating news. It’s been a long, long “coming out of the woods”, so to speak. Maybe the time is right to find the right angels and this ”Ruling Passion” will live on.