Subversive comedy opens Mixed Blood Theatre’s 2016-17 season

Director reflects on upcoming BARBECUE

'BARBECUE' opens Mixed Blood's 2016-17 season
‘BARBECUE’ opens Mixed Blood’s 2016-17 season (Photo by Rich Ryan)

Thomas W. Jones II, when he’s at work, presently directing BARBECUE at Mixed Blood Theatre, is the proverbial consummate pro, acutely assessing a script, deftly taking actors through their paces, expertly crafting an enjoyable stage experience.

Relaxing to get ready for an interview, the man is, as the saying goes, a mess, constantly cutting up like a mischievous kid in class. In the Mixed Blood rehearsal hall, it takes a good 15 minutes of us — he’s a bad influence — cracking jokes before Jones settles down long enough to comment on the artistic attraction to BARBECUE.

“When [Artistic Director Jack Reuler] sent me the script, I said, ‘Yeah, this dude [author Robert O’Hara] is off the chain. He’s fearless…looks at race from both sides.’ What’s interesting to me is taking on the idea of identity and racial politics. What is the truth about that? Cultural celebrity, what is of value? Who owns the narrative? Who owns that [the narrative] controls the story and ultimately has the power.

“He does that in a way that’s really humorous, brutally funny. And without ever letting you know that’s what he’s doing. It sneaks up on you. You turn left and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we were going there.’ Then, when you think you’re in front of it, it takes another turn and you laugh.”

The press release describes the play as a “darkly funny play that [skewers] assumptions we make about poverty, race and social class. The O’Malley family [stages] an intervention for Barbara, whose drug use [is] out of control. Siblings bicker about the family’s history and their own addictions [whereupon] Barbara’s arrival reveals a shocking twist that leaves audiences alternating between shock and laughter.”

Any script taking the hairpin turns to which Jones alludes is going to call for precise timing.  “It does,” he acknowledges.  And, accordingly, he says of his cast, “They’re really sharp.  Folks who really have chops.”

One such person is local legend Jevetta Steele, who cut her teeth and established a household name in music before seguing to performing roles that called for singing and eventually to this, the central character who doesn’t sing a note.

“What’s wonderful about the piece is it almost feels like Robert wrote it for her. It’s a bigger than life presence who can at one point be totally dramatic [and] over the top, and then be subtle, [and] funny,” said Jones.

He continued, “Jevetta has a really large vocabulary which [she] doesn’t often get a chance to use. People are going to be shocked to see her range.” Jones makes this assessment from a well-informed perspective, a Helen Hayes Award winner for directing Samm Art Williams’ Home and his original script Bessie’s Blues.

As a playwright he collaborated with Steele for the national hit Two Queens, One Castle and, along with the likes of Don Cheadle, Carlyle Brown and Lynn Nottage, contributed to Mixed Blood’s 10-miniute play collection Point of Revue.

What is it about partnering with Mixed Blood that works for Jones? “I don’t have to worry about taking risks, philosophically or aesthetically,” he said. “[Jack Reuler] is not going to stand there and look over my shoulder.”

He did, however, twist Jones’ arm to sign on for the Barbecue cast, something about which Jones is of two minds. “I love getting that second check, with a daughter who’s going to NYU.  But, it’s the part of the process I hated the most, directing myself. You’re almost acting in the third person.”

By turn, Reuler relates, “I trust Tom to always bring the highest brand of artistic excellence, focused cultural authenticity, and hi-larious comedy. He is a self-confessed ‘comedy ho’ and I am his willing taker. He is also the most honest actor I know and that bleeds onto the people who are on stage with him. For 20 years we’ve been lucky that he calls Mixed Blood one of his artistic homes.”

Reflecting on Jones’ skill, he readily states, “Tom is an actor’s director. As an actor, himself, he knows how to…inspire casts to become tightly knit ensembles.”

Sept. 30 through Oct. 16, opening its 2016-17 season, Mixed Blood Theatre’s area premiere of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue stars Jevetta Steele (Two Queens, One Castle, Point of Revue), featuring Sue Scott (Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie H ome Companion), Regina Marie Williams (Ruined, This Is Dinah Washington) and Jones (Topdog/Underdog, Yellowman) with Bonni Allen, Aimee K. Bryant, Lolly Foy, Dana Lee Thompson and Stephen Yoakam rounding out the cast.

Visit www.mixedblood.com for BARBECUE show times and ticket information.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403