Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, is a long way from home, and yet he is right at home.
Standing at the back of a third-floor rehearsal room in Manhattan's Murray Hill district, Epps watches his cast members going through their paces, studying the nuances of behavior and inflection and making mental notes. They are preparing Charles Randolph-Wright's "Blue," which opens at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Gramercy Theatre on Thursday starring Phylicia Rashad and featuring music by Nona Hendryx.
Epps keeps quiet yet firm control of the proceedings and always seems to know exactly what he's after, although he lets the performers discover the play for themselves. He is a charming man whose dulcet tones and gentle manner soothe his actors as he inspires them to venture further.
Under scrutiny is a moment in which a mother and son come into conflict over a haircut. Orchestrating the counterpoint of one family's dynamics, Epps guides the cast toward a more sophisticated understanding of the scene. Indeed, he seems to know these characters as though they are his own relatives.
As it turns out, that's not far from the truth. "It was serendipitous," says the gracious and well-spoken director, during a conversation in an East Side coffeehouse near the rehearsal hall. "When this play was first sent to me, I started to read and discovered a play that was really very much about my own family. The play is about a family that owns a funeral home in a small Southern town in South Carolina, and my mother's family owned a funeral home through generations in a small town in North Carolina."
That fortuity has made for an unusually smooth collaboration between director and dramatist. "Usually there's a lot you've got to say to the playwright," says Epps, who staged the premiere of "Blue" at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last spring. "But there were so many things--and we laugh about this--that I never had to ask Charles because I knew that sense of humor and I knew those people."
"Sheldon and I are so in sync," concurs Randolph-Wright. "There was nothing about this world, about the family, that I had to tell him, and that's what was astonishing. I'm so grateful for him because he's taken such care."
"Blue" is a memory play with the action centered in the Clark family home and funeral parlor. Dominating the household is Peggy (Rashad), a charismatic and fashion-conscious woman keenly out of place in her small-town surroundings. Her sons, husband, mother-in-law and others must do their best to negotiate her eccentricities. Meanwhile, exerting a powerful influence on their lives, the magnetic jazz singer Blue Williams makes his presence felt.
For Epps, the heart of the play lies in the relationship between Peggy and her youngest son, Reuben, the character from whose point of view the story is told. "The play's about the damage of secrecy and lies within a family," he says.
Reuben (played as an adult by Hill Harper and as a boy by Chad Tucker) is somewhat unable to function as an adult because he's missing something at the center of his personal universe. "What he's missing is the truth about who he is and why his relationship with his parents has always been difficult," Epps says. "His mother, Peggy, has used her theatricality, charm, sophistication and elegance as a substitute for truth, but he needs a real connection with her above and beyond her glamour."
The director finds Peggy easily recognizable. "The main character, Peggy, is very much like my mother," he says. "She's this Southern belle of this small Southern town--I sometimes call her the black Scarlett O'Hara. The family had a little bit of money and social prominence, and my mother was the only daughter in the family, so she had this black Southern princess air about her. And that's very much who Peggy is."
Nor is Epps the only one who noted the resemblance. "My mother saw the play in Washington, and I had not told her much about it because I wanted to surprise her," he recalls. "She really refused to believe that I did not write the play. She argued with Charles about him being the playwright, because she was insisting that I had actually written the play--there was so much that reflected her life. She just refused to believe that it wasn't about our family."
It is a sector of black American life that has had only limited representation onstage. "One of the interesting things about the play is that it's written about an upper-middle-class black family," says Roundabout Theatre artistic director Todd Haimes, whose company has not done a play about African American life--let alone one by an African American writer--in years. "So many plays about the black experience have focused on the struggle, and this is a little bit different."
Randolph-Wright's play is primarily a conventional naturalistic family drama, but it also makes extensive use of music. "Although it's not a musical, there are 17 or 18 songs in the play, and the title character becomes a kind of Greek chorus," Epps explains. "It starts as a theatrical stylization, and then, every time you put the record player on, the character appears and sings. But that which is a gimmick at the beginning of the play becomes intrinsic to the play as the story goes on, and all of the songs are really connected to the emotional progress of the play.
"The use of the music is contrapuntal, in a way," he continues. "You literally could not do this play without the use of the music. You couldn't just take the songs out and have it stand on its own."
Indeed, music's pivotal role is another reason Epps is well-suited to direct the piece. Two of Epps' signature works have been musicals that he both conceived and directed: "Blues in the Night" and "Play On!" The former was nominated for a Tony for best musical and received two Olivier nominations in the early 1980s. In the late '90s, the latter, with book by Cheryl L. West, received three Tony nominations and was filmed by PBS' "Great Performances."
Whether directing musicals or plays, Epps has a reputation as an insightful actor's director. "I would work for Sheldon again and again," Rashad says. "He's wonderful. He brings development--years of study, like you work a muscle--and he also has a wonderful sense of humor. He's smart and he understands the translation the actor must make, so he knows how to communicate with the actor."
Yet for all that actors sing his praises, Epps' directorial style is also unmistakably musical, in more than one sense of the word. "Musical or not," he says, "there's nothing I've done that doesn't involve music a great deal."
It's an approach that works well with both drama and comedy, and "Blue" has both. "The play takes place within the context of this mortuary, so there's room for this literal black humor," Epps says. "There's lots of humor that comes from the fact that the way these people support this very fancy lifestyle is through the deaths of the town. And I remember that kind of humor from when I was a child."
That childhood--visits with the North Carolina branch of the family notwithstanding--was spent close to where Epps now makes his professional home. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Epps, 48, was born in Compton. His family lived there until he was 11, then moved to New Jersey.
He attended Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh before heading to Manhattan to pursue a career in theater. In 1978, he co-founded and served as associate artistic director of the Production Company, an off-Broadway troupe that would be his creative home for several years. During this period, Epps also began directing at a number of New York theaters, making his mark with a broad range of work, including classics, musicals and contemporary plays.
Epps' breakthrough came in the early 1980s with "Blues in the Night," which led to work at many prestigious regional theaters, including the Old Globe (now the Globe Theatres) in San Diego. In 1993, Epps became associate artistic director of the Old Globe.
Also in the early '90s, Epps began working at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he directed and consulted on a number of productions, including "Blues in the Night" in 1995. "Play On!," which mixes the music of Duke Ellington with Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," premiered at the Old Globe in 1996 and was seen at Pasadena in 1999.
Epps took the helm of the Pasadena Playhouse in September 1997. The theater had been without an artistic director since 1992, although it was led by then-executive director Lars Hansen, who functioned as a kind of de facto artistic director in addition to his managerial duties.
Since his arrival, Epps has guided the historic theater in a significant and decidedly quick revitalization. The venue is now a force to be reckoned with on the national theater scene and is considered a highly desirable place to work.
He doesn't downplay his accomplishment but is quick to put it in context. "Since I started working in L.A., I've talked a lot about the real growth of the theatrical community, not just in size but in quality," Epps says. "Frequently, what we have on stage at the Playhouse, the Taper and the Geffen is as good as what you can do in New York. And particularly in terms of my own theater, I think a lot of people feel that way about Pasadena Playhouse that did not feel that way several years ago."
Like many artistic directors of nonprofit houses, Epps also maintains an active work schedule outside his theater. He directs a great deal of episodic television--including such shows as "Frasier," "Girlfriends," "Sister, Sister" and others--and has, in turn, used his industry connections to beef up the Pasadena Playhouse board with such names as David Angell, one of the executive producers of "Frasier"; Andy Ackerman, director-producer of "Becker"; and Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television.
In addition to the productions that he directs at Pasadena--including, most recently, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" in March--Epps also continues to work at theaters across the country. One such assignment was "Blue."
During the initial rehearsal period in Washington last year, Epps and Randolph-Wright forged an unusually close collaborative relationship that has continued in New York. Such was the level of trust that the writer jetted off during the middle of the rehearsal period to direct a couple of Nike commercials in Rome. "As a writer, I think it's really important to let them discover it without you there," says Randolph-Wright, who directed a successful Arena Stage revival of "Guys and Dolls" and is currently creating two new musicals. "I think it's important for the director to have the freedom to create without the writer being there constantly. Sheldon has also been an incredible dramaturge, which was very helpful."
Originally, Epps had planned to follow the Washington outing with a Pasadena staging of "Blue," then a New York production, but those plans were derailed by scheduling difficulties and Rashad's desire to work close to her New York home. "It was just timing, and this opportunity presenting itself when it did," he explains. "But if we'd done the play here in New York or not, I would have done it at Pasadena Playhouse. And I may still do the play at Pasadena Playhouse."
That it ended up at the Roundabout is the doing of Arena Stage executive director Stephen Richard, a longtime friend and colleague of the Roundabout's Haimes. Haimes did not see "Blue" in Washington, but took an interest when Richards sent him the script.
It is, as Haimes acknowledges, "a little bit of an exception" for the revivals-based Roundabout. Although the theater has been doing new plays for the past three years, its stated mission specifies new plays by established playwrights--which doesn't really pertain to Randolph-Wright, who is known more for his work as a director and in film and television as producer-writer of the former Showtime series "Linc's."
"I think it's a very personal, moving play and funny, and I love the way music is integrated," Haimes says. "We weren't specifically looking for a black play, but it's certainly nice when you can do a play that might attract a different audience."
That the play was well-received in Washington probably didn't hurt. Yet Epps, Randolph-Wright and Rashad are not content to rest on that success. Before the New York rehearsals began, Randolph-Wright presented a new draft of the play, with a couple of new scenes in addition to internal revisions.
Roughly half of the Washington cast has reconvened for this staging, led again by Rashad. The actress--best known for her role as Bill Cosby's on-screen wife in television's "The Cosby Show" and "Cosby"--is also a veteran Broadway and off-Broadway performer who appeared with Randolph-Wright in the original company of "Dreamgirls."
Attached to the project in Washington even before Epps--indeed, her participation was part of the appeal for the director--Rashad continues to develop Peggy. "It's a little frightening, because sometimes I wonder if I will dislike her," she says. "As an actor, there's a real challenge when you've got a person who's so complex. You can't play complexity. But you can find the soul of truth in that character. That's a goal, and that's what I like to do."
The ideal, for actress and director, is to not shy away from such complexity. "It's possible to get away with it just being a funny play that suddenly seems to arrive at someplace serious without any preparation and therefore can in the end ring false," Epps says. "I wanted us to be brave enough to be less funny, to not necessarily stick with some of the laughs that we got in Washington."
Not that the artistic goals of directing in New York need be any different from those when working in Washington or even L.A. "It's certainly wonderful to get to work here in New York, but it doesn't represent anymore for me the pinnacle of success," Epps says. "I am well-fed by my theater life, certainly at Pasadena but also at other terrific regional theaters, so I come to it with less of a hunger."
The challenges artistically are no different, he continues. "Given the pool of talent in Los Angeles, I don't feel that I have a greater opportunity to meet those challenges in New York than in Los Angeles. I can get as accomplished a cast of theater actors in L.A. now as I can in New York, and great designers and composers and all of that."
"Blue," Roundabout Theatre Company, Gramercy Theater, 127 E. 23rd St., New York. Runs Thursday-Sept. 30. (212) 777-4900.