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The men of ‘Mama’s Pearls’ / September 29, 2009
When the curtain rises Oct. 9 on author and producer Joan Whitlock’s independently produced play, Mama’s Pearls, theatre-goers are in for a real treat.

Upon the death of the family matriarch, Mama’s children and relatives gather to mourn, and what unfolds is a tale full of twists and surprises. As the search for her beloved and rare pearls continues without success, personalities are revealed as strengths and weaknesses rise to the surface as is always the case during difficult times.

Years ago Whitlock had thought to write this story as a novel. After encountering a number of stumbling blocks, she began to rethink the project in stage version, at which point the dialogue started to flow and didn’t stop until the piece was completed. The result is ‘the story of us’ … a tale that transcends all ages, all cultures, all races…

While Whitlock’s dramatic experience does include a very compelling portrayal of Mama in Halifax County Little Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun, when asked to describe the process of bringing her very own written word to the stage, she laughed stating, “It’s probably good to be a little naïve; had I known all that had to be done, I might not have gone forward!”

Although new to the producer’s role, Whitlock nailed one of the most important components of the job: assembling a dedicated cast and a tireless crew to help bring her story to life. A recent visit with the men of this production showed one thing to be clear: the love and respect they have for Whitlock and for this project.

Taking the stage as Mama’s oldest son, James, is Roderick “Rocky” Shepherd. Originally from Baltimore, Md., the actual setting of the story, Shepherd now makes his home in Roxboro, N.C. This Baltimore Community College Arts major additionally holds a degree in fashion design and merchandising, spent years as a model, and is a recording artist as well as an avid writer and poet, having won numerous competitions for his poetry.

He describes his character in Mama’s Pearls as having “a big attitude” – one who never got along with his baby brother, Chaka. However, to Mama he had always been “a joy who was surely destined for greatness.” In his youth, Shepherd says he would have been able to relate to James on some levels, but today that is all behind him and he is simply known as “a nice guy.”

Shepherd’s additional stage credits include The Good Times are Killing Me, The Secret Garden, The Waiting Room, and Fame, although he laughs when he describes that prior to his ever having been cast, his only other acting experience was “acting the fool.” Apparently a number of directors from Raleigh to Roxboro to Danville have seen something more in Shepherd.

Alabama native and current Danville resident Tim “Moses” Malone steps into the limelight as baby brother, Chaka, the bad apple of the family. Thought to be destined for either prison or an early grave, Chaka leaves home as a youth, and it is only upon Mama’s death and his return that a number of stunning secrets are revealed.

As was the case with other cast members, Malone met and has worked with the multi-talented Fred Motley (of the Danville Cultural Arts Ensemble) and learned of this production through him. In addition to his theatrical interests, Malone is also a concert promoter and creator of the Gospel Music Soundstage. He has performed in A Raisin in the Sun, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and Once Upon This Island.

Malone has nothing but praise for his hard-working cast mates, stating “Everyone is so committed, helpful, and completely dedicated to this project,” and he urges potential audience members not to miss this production which he calls “an all-American family story.” It is evident in speaking with Malone that he equates support for the arts with support for one’s community and is very pleased that a portion of the proceeds of this production will go to various charitable organizations. Quite a far cry from his character’s ‘bad apple’ persona!

Prepare for tear-inducing laughter when James B. Harris Jr. and Allan Keech team up in the roles of church leaders who are ready to lend support, perhaps of questionable motive, to Mama’s family.

A native of Sutherlin, Harris returns to the area with wife Brenda (also a cast member) after retiring as a Yonkers, N.Y. police officer where he also enjoyed performing with the Messiah Thespians at Messiah Baptist Church. His interest in theatre followed him home as he currently performs with the Cultural Arts Ensemble in Danville.

The once-shy Harris ironically takes on the role of long-winded Pastor Jones who is seeking funding for his church’s new sanctuary, perhaps with some help from Mama’s will? In a land where “Can I get an ‘amen’?” equals an even longer, more drawn-out sermon, savvy congregation members are quick to fall silent to the pastor’s pleas.

Enter the comedic relief of side-kick, Deacon Harris. Keech describes his character as a quiet and aloof man whose job is to “echo the pastor in thought, word, and action.” And echo he does. He describes his role in this piece as small, but the laughs are sure to be anything but.

Born in the United Kingdom, Keech is more recently a New York transplant like Harris. His search for a slower-paced life where he could build a house on his own land and enjoy the four seasons somewhere between the mountains and the coast brought him to retire in our area. Having previous experience in England as an amateur dramatic and operatic performer, Keech credits the show’s director with drawing out the cast’s sense of comedic timing.

In discussing the premise of Mama’s Pearls, Harris reflects that so many people wait until a funeral to gather and appreciate one another, stressing the importance of saying what you need to say and letting people know they are loved before it is too late. Keech finds the story one which has messages as to a good way to live one’s life, and a tale which is guaranteed to take audience-goers through a wide array of emotions resulting in laughter, tears, suspense … Both gentlemen have been pleased to work with such an amiable and talented group.

To fill the director’s role, Whitlock went for broke, bringing on Baltimore’s Howard G, playwright, actor, director, and comedian. Whitlock saw his stand-up comedy routine about a year and a half ago in Maryland (Howard G has been called “the next Tyler Perry” – so one can only imagine the hilarity!), and enjoyed his style so much that she then tracked him down through a relative of hers who had hired him for an event.

After reading Mama’s Pearls, the deal was done; Howard G agreed to direct. He took Whitlock step-by-step through the directorial process, helped add a bit more comedy to a few scenes of what he calls an already very well-written script, and planned out the next several months of his life.

The show was cast, and the weekly treks to South Boston began. While Whitlock and other crew members take on the running of rehearsals in the interim, Howard G laughs when he describes his arrival on scene as that of ‘drill sergeant’.

Laughing throughout our interview, one would have the impression that this ‘drill sergeant’ wouldn’t be found anywhere near your father’s army! Rather one would instead imagine a comedic and gentle guide as blocking, stage etiquette, delivery, and timing were both taught to and honed in this cast of both brand new actors and seasoned veterans.

Despite the director’s very busy schedule (a visit to his website gives an idea of his schedule and of his connections with top celebrities), the five-hour drives to and from our neck of the woods have been well worth his time. He deems Mama’s Pearls a must-see, calling the piece “incredibly humorous and touchingly spiritual at the same time.”

Be certain to add Mama’s Pearls to your calendar of events for next weekend. The curtain rises Friday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. at Halifax County High School’s auditorium. Encore performances will be Saturday, Oct. 10 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., with the final performance a matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11.

Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the door. Those wishing to purchase in advance may visit area businesses: Boo-tiq and Sunil’s on Halifax Road, Odessa’s in the Venture Center on Factory Street, South Boston; and Angie’s Hat Shop, 125 N. Union St. in Danville. Portions of the proceeds will benefit the Halifax County Cancer Association, the Halifax County Rescue Squad, and the Good Shepherd Food Program.

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