Oz Comes To Harlem -- Q and A With Producer Clark

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[The Backstage]

Interview with playwright and producer Clarke Clark on the sometimes challenging behind-the-scenes obstacles --including some on opening night -- that she had to confront in producing "Oz Comes to Harlem: The Trilogy."

Cher Mills: Clarke, let'’s start with a little background information

Clark Clarke: Sure, I was producing variety shows in Harlem, I started at the MIST I was there for nine months. Also, did a one-day only show at the Red Rooster. From there I did several series at the National Black Theater along with five Film Festivals. In December, just finished the last series of, “"Oz Comes to Harlem: The Trilogy" produced in Harlem at the Kennedy Center.

Mills: What inspired you to produce a full theatrical production of, “"Oz comes to Harlem"?

Clark: It started with the series of vignettes. I wrote a monologue about an older accomplished Dorothy, 20 years into her future. The monologue was about Dorothy's arrival [to her life choices] and choosing to live in Emerald City, [New York City]; making it her home and noticing she had allowed others to shine on her road without realizing she wanted more than just getting home; she was looking to just be that Magnificent other.

Mills: "“Oz Comes to Harlem”: The Trilogy" was not originally a play?

Clark: No, it was not, it started out as Bridges, which was a series of poetry, skits and jazz music. When I first wrote the monologue, it grew into a skit and then a scene with in-between artist performances. Next, I started mounting the show in a seven-part episode that took at least 10 months at the National Black Theater to develop. There I was given the creative room (monthly) to act, direct, produce, write and cast characters like Glinda, The Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion and all the characters that we love from the original (and remake), “Oz” movie but I felt it was important to represent the different sides of Harlem too.

Mills: What do you mean by different sides of Harlem?

Clark: Well, it’'s just not your typical Westside, Eastside story, but the different sides of Harlem that visitors and tourists don'’t get to see. The day-to-day humor, personalities big and small, the unsigned talent that lives in Harlem, the attitudes of the 'it's all good,' the not so bad ones. You know the “Just taking it one-day at a time” attitude, but more than anything the pride of Harlem that makes it what it was yesterday and today.

Mills: In your latest installment, "“Oz Comes to Harlem: Part Three”," you were playing the part of the Wicked Witch of the West. How did that come about?

Clark: I never got involved (with the acting) until my original wicked witch had canceled.

Mills: This was way before, “"Oz Comes to Harlem: Part Three"?

Clark: Yes, it was... this was before it was even called, "“Oz Comes to Harlem”," this is when it was still called, “"Bridges”," it happened early on.

Mills: Why did the actress cancel so close to production?

Clark: The actress relocated to DC; also, she was saying her knees were hurting and her, she had arthritis bad. I knew I was in trouble. I called that woman about twenty times while she was at home rubbing them knees. …Then finally, I surrendered to what the Universe was trying to tell me.

Mills: What was the Universe trying to tell you?

Clark: The Universe was saying, that I needed to get on stage. Barbara Anne Teer told me years ago, you need to get up on stage. So, I finally listened, and in a crisis, put on a painted green face, hopped into a motorized wheelchair, stuck a broom in the back, rode down the aisle of the theater with a pointed black hat and never looked back.

Mills: That is incredible. How did the audience respond?

Clark: After the show people came up to me telling me how much they enjoyed the show and my performance as the stylish Wicked Witch of the Upper West Side. The following three months after I moved into Harlem, a friend took a profile picture of me looking out of an apartment window with sunglasses. This is when Green Faced Witch was born with a purpose and mission; that is also how the logo of the play came to be. So, I embraced the Witch's’ role on so many creative levels; writing the play became easier.

I looked at life through the sunglasses and the shade of a Witch; not through Dorothy’'s shoes.

Mills: The picture used for “The Wicked Witch” in your advertisements is actually you?

Clark: Yes, and it was not easy being green.

Mills: So, at the inception of producing "“Oz Comes to Harlem: The Trilogy" you had to think on your feet?

Clark: Yes, not to mention limited resources. Which caused stress with the lines, finding actors, writing new scenes finding monthly sponsors, and now I am acting in the play along with other talent. Plus, there were roles that still needed to be cast. We were not getting grants that other theaters/productions (that have been in Harlem for years) were receiving. We were out there month by month.

Mills: What were some of your resources?

Clark: We worked with local talent, stores, business owners, restaurants and cafes in Harlem (monthly) Jacobs, Watkins Health Food Store, Harlem Vintage Wines, Cohen's Eyes on 125th, Chocolate, Uptown Veggie Juice Bar, Sylvanna'’s, H&M and Artstore had my back the most. There were also a host of others that provided some support. We could not have made it without their contributions. It was a Sistahs Black Like Me Production, in Harlem; wanting to address our community'’s idiosyncrasies while highlighting what it means to help others to achieve their dreams; living a talented life in Harlem. I would not give up the lessons I learned from being a producer, director, writer. publicist, promoter, and now the artist for nothing.

Mills: Being a producer of independent theater must be extremely stressful?

Clark: You think? When you put your love and passion on the line you can have difficult moments. People expect you to be, Florence Henderson of “The Brady Bunch” and Florence Nightingale. But forty-three shows later, I don't regret a thing, in the process you learn how to treat people better; including yourself. Not to mention my feet hurt! It was not always comfortable wearing all them shoes at the same time.

Mills: Now, let’'s get back to your recent production, “Oz Comes to Harlem: Part Three”. The audience responded positively to the closing show I was amazed at your revelation of having to sprinkle some of the scenes with improvisation due to unexpected cast changes. Care to elaborate?

Clark: Care to elaborate? You don’t know the half of it, I like to highlight raw talent because I feel that there is a lot of it in Harlem, but with raw talent, comes a lot of raw drama. So, you’re going to experience people getting scared at the last minute, some people having to relocate, some people not understanding the importance of their word or their talent. So, for example, the tin-man never called, he texted his co-star Dorothy 32 minutes before the show to say he can’t make it. Just like that! So, no more Tinny, at least not that Tin Man.

Mills: That is incredible, how did you feel and what did you do?

Clark: How did I feel? For the first time, I felt helpless and vulnerable. I was at the final stretch, all these people coming to a show and no Tin Man. I got quiet, prayed to my ancestors; all those that have gone before me to give me a helping hand. I took a deep breath; thought about putting on silver paint and then realized, I was already committed to being green, no pun intended. Suddenly, out the corner of my eye, entered our trumpet player, Michael Young, who opens every show with a solo of “Somewhere over the rainbow” and just like that it hit me like rain, here was our new Tin Man.

Mills: Wow! How did you transition him into the role of the Tin Man that night?

Clark: I told them (the cast), to put silver paint on him, pop a hat on him.

Mills: What stage direction did you give to the actor playing the Tin-man in so little time?

Clark: I said do the “robot” and follow Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road. He was a bit rusty but it was a hit. Michael is a magnificent trumpet player and gigs at Paris Blues, Red Lobster, Harlem Besame just to name a few; all places who have all sponsored our show from time to time. It came full circle, he played “Suga” a jazz staple and lit that room up with one of the most enduring performances. Adam Clayton Powell once said, “Use what’s in your hand”, and that night we did exactly that, and it was brilliant.

Mills: That seems like synchronicity.

Clark: No. That’s ancestors approved!

Mills: Did you face any other challenges before the performance of, “Oz Comes to Harlem Part Three?

Clark: Where do I start? My sister in the play, who played the part of the unseen wicked witch of the lower east side was making a comeback that night to get what belonged to her from Dorothy; but the actress I cast in her role couldn’t make it. You also must realize, this was the day after Christmas.

Mills: What do you mean, what happened?

Clark: The original actress I cast for that scene sent a Facebook message saying she was sick with the flu and was beyond repair.

Mills: Just wondering, what was the time-frame of her Facebook of the message?

Clark: Three hours before the Tin man canceled via text and It didn’t stop there, the piano player was out of town on holiday. Also, realizing for the first time in 4 years the show did not fall on a Sunday, it fell on a Monday so everybody was jacked up----But I don’t want to get sidetracked. I want to stop here and give acknowledgment to Lee Olive Tucker, also “Known as the Harlem Diva”, who without looking at a script (and who has done numerous shows with me starting all the way back at The Mist), said she had no problem filling in.

Mills: Are you saying, Lee Olive Tucker was also a same day replacement?

Clark: Yea, she stepped in that night and I mean she stepped in hard and sang the hell out of four women! Acapella, with a lil’ scat, the audience clapping out a beat and she killed it. It was perfect for the scene too. It was the scene where, I (in the role of the Witch) notice her Flying Monkey’s had left the castle (how perfect). She stepped in right in the nick of time and played the role of the Wicked Witch of the Lower East side alongside of the other Witches in the scene. (The Northside and Southside)

Mills: Simply amazing, what else happened?

Clark: There is more, but I am not going into it because you will be writing a novella instead of an interview.

Mills: Again, from my viewing the play and how it was received by the audience, I would have never known about the challenges you faced had you not said anything. Clarke, do you have any words of wisdom or advice would you like to share about producing an independent play?

Clark: What I can say for that question is in two parts. Firstly, I am a reflection of the artist. And the artists are a reflection of me. I say this because, I didn’t always get it right with all the different shoes and hats I had to wear, and they didn’t always show up or be on time when expected. But one thing I can say for sure is that all worked out for the good.

And that night was magical because I got to see all the people including a packed house the day after Christmas that was raining cats and dogs. I got to see the artists who really supported me, also the Kennedy Center that opened up that night for us to do a show. And we all came together to work on all the problems.

Even our film guy, Andrew Dyke, who worked at the Harlem Artstore provided us with the last-minute silver paint that the former Tin Man kept. But that night, and the experiences I have had living in Harlem, is a testament to the spirit of Harlem artists that came before us; and the ones that are still here walking in their footsteps as a singer, musician, dancer, poet or actress.

Harlemites stick together and come together to get the job done, even when they think they are walking off the job, (so to speak) they are making room for a masterpiece to be born, or discovered. And that is what it is all about.

All that we are not, and all that we are, including myself contributes to the process of seeing a dream come true. Stay with the process no matter what comes your way, stay on the Yellow Brick Road.

Mills: On the closing night of, “Oz Comes to Harlem: Part Three” you mention the production is going on tour. Tell us about your next steps?

Clark: We will be in Atlanta in February, North Carolina in March, and South Africa in the Spring-Summer of 2017.

Mills: Clarke, it has been a pleasure doing this interview, I had to refrain from laughing many times.

Clark: Me and you both. I just want to say I am thankful for the opportunities I have ahead of me, thankful for this interview and thankful for the new-found friends and the experience of living and discovering the Harlem that I have learned to love, appreciate and respect.

 

This interview was conducted by Cher S. Mills. For questions about this interview, please contact createtorelate@gmail.com

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