The icy streets of Montgomery County in early January had unexpected consequences for the cast of ANKH Repertory Theatre and The Finest! Performance Foundation’s upcoming production. Kashi-Tara Barrett and Kelly Chauncey, the Silver Spring-based company’s co-founders and co-artistic directors, had intended that Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly” mark their return to the stage together.
But when Barrett slipped and got a concussion just three weeks prior to the show’s opening, their plan was derailed. Since Chauncey had to help her recover, and also take on the day-to-day responsibilities of their two youngsters, he had to find two replacement actors and get them up to speed—immediately—so he could “focus fully on directing.”
The play, which debuted on Broadway in 2011, “gives audiences an opportunity to peer into the discussions of an affluent African American family struggling to find its way,” said Chauncey. “Inside, while giving off the impression that they are the perfect family. Outside, they laugh, they cry, they reflect, and they confront, some seeking change, understanding and redemption, while others see no problem with who they are and the choices they have made.”
“Described by the show’s original producers,” he added, “It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend at the family home on Martha’s Vineyard–until the baggage got unpacked.”
Chauncey found his replacements quickly. “I brought back Linae Bullock in the role of Taylor and Tyrell Martin took over my role as Joseph LeVay,” Chauncey said.
Fortunately—in a sense—Bullock had encountered a similar situation in ANKH’s production of “Dreamgirls” last summer. “We had double-cast the show because it is a vocally demanding production and we thought it best to be able to give our main characters a day of vocal rest between performances,” Chauncey recalled. “Two weeks before opening, we lost the other young lady who was cast as Deena Jones. Without hesitation, Linae stepped in for the entire nine-show run.”
Chauncey noted that the Baltimore-bred actress “is the only ANKH Repertory Company member to have been in every ANKH Rep production since its inception in 2015.” Since her debut as Dorothy in “The Wiz,” he added, “Linae has consistently been an artistic powerhouse for ANKH Repertory Theatre. Her fierce desire to challenge herself by embracing a multitude of characters is truly an asset.”
Bullock has no formal training in theater; instead, she tends to “work on things on my own.” From age 6 on, “I just did a lot of studying by watching movies, TV, looking at plays, reading books and observing,” she said. “I always had a thing for performing and making people laugh.” Her high school classes helped her “to perfect my craft and ability to take on a role and be a professional.” A successful audition for “The Wiz” gave her the lead role and initiated her association with the then-fledgling company. “Kashi and Kelly always give me a challenge and know I am always up for it.
Taking on the role of the intelligent, passionate and somewhat arrogant woman “with a lot of layers” in three weeks has been “challenging” as well as “nerve wracking,” Bullock acknowledged. Before “hitting the stage,” she had to learn Taylor’s backstory and put herself into her shoes “to let this role warm up to me and eventually suit me.” Now she is confident that “with faith and around-the-clock work, I know I can pull this off.”
Based on her positive experiences with ANKH, Bullock introduced Chauncey and Barrett, whom she refers to as her “Gaithersburg theater family,” to her best friend—and now costar–Tyrell Martin. Chauncey calls him “a gifted artist” who is doing “his fourth show with us.”
“Tyrell is every director’s dream and every actor’s nightmare. He is the actor that is so focused, so prepared that he can step into any role in a production with a moment’s notice. He knows everyone’s lines and blocking. That’s a tremendous gift.”
Martin, too, had the replacement experience in “Dreamgirls,” Chauncey said. “In the middle of the run, we made the decision to replace one of the actors playing the role of Curtis. It just wasn’t working out. I called Tyrell at 11 p.m. Sunday night. Told him I wanted him to move into the role of Curtis. I asked him how he felt about it since the show was Friday, five days away. Tyrell didn’t blink. He immediately said “Yes, I got this!” The result, Chauncey added, “He was phenomenal.”
Martin, who also grew up in Baltimore, said he was introduced to theater in fifth grade, but received his training at the Baltimore School for the Arts. “From Lessac to Laban, storytelling, musical theater, scene writing, I learned it all,” he said.
Taking on the role of Dr. Joseph LeVay so late in the game, Martin said, is “exciting! It’s another way of pushing who I am as an artist. It shows the directors that I have the maturity, dedication and professionalism to do what others may not be able to do!”
Martin, too, is playing a multi-layered character. “Dr. LeVay is obnoxious yet sensitive, which is the total opposite from myself. There are moments where he lets you in, and you see, ‘OK! He’s not so bad!’. Then he switches up and it’s like, ‘Oh, I hate him!’
“That’s what I love about this role, those who know me personally get to see a side of me that even I haven’t seen.”
“We can rely on these two actors time and time again to do the ‘dirty’ work, to spend the extra hours on character study, absolutely have that ‘it’ factor, that thing that makes everyone watch and listen to their every move, their every word,” said Chauncey about Bullock and Martin. “What really sets them apart is they are humble artists—always willing to pour their hearts, souls, blood, sweat and tears into someone else’s story. But isn’t that what true actors do anyway?
Chauncey is equally enthusiastic about the “artistic strength and versatility” of the other four cast members “who have stuck by us through this time,” adjusting to the cast changes.
“A cast has to be able to develop chemistry, have a sense of connection to each other. There are lines in a script, but there are also unspoken words, facial expressions and reactions shared between actors on stage that often are only recognized by their fellow actors. Sense memory and moment-to-moment connection are an actor’s best friends,” he said.
“These four collectively have crashed their dazzling personalities with their stellar character work and have created some amazing moments on stage. Their work has made the work of Tyrell and Linae that much easier….and it has been awesome watching the new connections and discoveries happen in real time.”
Mack Leamon, who plays Spoon, is new to ANKH Rep, but has professional links to Bullock and Martin as well as the co-directors. He recently performed with Bullock and Martin in Spotlighters Theatre’s “Two Trains Running,” and earlier in the year, in Arena Stage’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Chauncey said, noting that he and Barrett, veterans of Arena, and Leamon are part of the D.C. theater’s “artistic fraternity.” Leamon, said Chauncey, “brings a brilliant ability to silently live in each moment and does it in a way that forces you to live fully in his moment–so much so you have to sometimes snap yourself out of it. That’s powerful.”
Edward Grant, who was in the 2017 production of “Dreamgirls,” said Chauncey, “has continued to impress in his willingness to explore the artist within. This is his largest role to date and he dives in fully to bring the role of Flip to life.”
Allison Bloechl, he said, “brings this wonderful energy to the role of Kimber, she’s funny, witty and oh so comfortable in her ability to stay effortlessly connected in her role. We are lucky to have her.”
And Breana Thomas (Cheryl), according to Chauncey, “is indeed a pure joy to watch, a little ball of energetic explosion.” Thomas is majoring in theater at Howard University, where Chauncey studied acting. “She is unafraid of taking risks in stage and pushing herself to really nice moments of self-discovery,” he said.
Barrett’s misfortune does have a silver lining or two. Out of the adversity came what is certain to be an outstanding production, and all can look forward to another day when Barrett and Chauncey will reunite onstage.
ANKH Repertory Theatre and The Finest! Performance Foundation will perform Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly” Feb. 9 through 25, with shows starting at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Admission is $20, $18 for students, ages 17 to 21. Student tickets will be held at Will Call and require an ID for pickup. Purchase tickets at www.gaithersburgmd.gov or call 301-258-6394. The play contains adult language with adult themes and is intended for mature audiences. Learn more about this performance on CultureSpotMC here.