Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: What can you share with us about the genesis behind this special event?
Nancy Davis-Bellam: The press surrounding the movie implies that is was the first and only adaptation of the book. We wanted to share with audiences the long history of our adaptation of the book to the play that pre-dates the movie by 25 years. I discovered the book when I was 22 and had originally wanted to make it into a movie, as well, with me starring along with Lonette McKee and Denzel Washington, of course!. We had a script, a package, and shopped it around a few places. But this was in the 1980s when it was much more difficult to make a period movie with a black cast and an unknown entity producing. So, literally, I put it back on the shelf but was still determined to make it at some point as my acting career grew. A few years later when we founded the Towne Street Theatre, a dear friend suggested we make it into a play. Best suggestion I ever had!
BD: Your own history with Passing is an extensive one, given that you won the NAACP Best Actress Award for portraying the book’s main character and for the continuation of the story in your one-woman show, PassingSOLO. What was your experience in revisiting the production, and what do you look forward to about the panel discussion that will take place on November 14th?
NDB: There were multiple productions of the full-length play before it became a solo show. Assembling the pictures, video, press, [and] cast lists took me down memory lane as I recalled the process of each year.
The first production was in 1997, and we had received our first grant from the LA County Arts Commission to produce it. The excitement of manifesting this long held dream of mine that became our theatre’s signature production washed over me and made me realize how many people we touched with this production. The play was so popular that people asked when it was coming back, so we remounted it in 1998. In that production we expanded the characters to flush out the play more. In 1999, audiences still wanted to see the play and I did, too, so I stepped out of the role of Clare and co-directed it with my producing partner Nancy Renee. It was fascinating to see it from the audience perspective. Due to folks still asking for it, we did a revival in 2004, where we opened the play up even more with more actors, more costumes, more music. Each time the production values; Set, Sound, Lighting and Costumes became more exquisite, as well. That’s the beauty of doing a play several times over; you can continue to develop and expand it vs. just doing it one time and never coming back to it.
In 2006 I was asked if I could make it into a one-woman show, which is something that had never crossed my mind. How do I take 14 characters and make it a woman show? I went back to the book and focused on the two main characters, Clare and Irene. PassingSOLO became successful like the full-length, and we were again able to develop, refine and open it up over the years; it was produced from 2007 to 2016 and traveled from LA to Detroit to Shreveport to Chicago to Germany. It was published by Northwestern University Press in 2014 as part of the anthology, black/woman/solo.
I want to share with the audience the impact that this book continues to have on my life and the incredible creative journey it has taken me on. How reading a book can literally change your life and that by creating your own work, you create your own legacy.
BD: There are quite a few incredible individuals who will be participating in the panel discussion. What can you tell us about the team that will join you for the discussion?
NDB: First of all, my Co-Founder/Co-Producer Nancy Renee is one of two reasons all incarnations of the play were so amazing. She is a visionary and extremely meticulous which makes her a great Director, Choreographer, and Producer. She also curated the music for the shows and was instrumental to its success. One person who won’t be at the panel but who is just as instrumental in the development of the plays is our Co-Founder/Co-Producer at Towne Street Theatre, Nathaniel Bellamy. His artistry of set, sound, and lighting design was a key factor in the visual pleasure the audience had watching these plays.
Sy Richardson was the director for 1997 and 1998, and he is an excellent actor, writer, and director in his own right. He is a longtime member of Towne Street, and we were lucky to have his creative collaboration.
Brian Evaret Chandler, another longtime member of TST, originated the role of Brian in 1997 and returned to the 2004 production. He is an amazing actor and the epitome of who Brian is in the book.
The same can be said of Dick DeCoit, another brilliant actor who originated the role of Jack and was so spot on.
Trish Johnson portrayed the role of Irene in 1999. She is an exceptional actress who brought great depth to the character.
Tony Robinson is one of the directors of PassingSOLO and member of TST. He is a super creative director and writer, and we are grateful for his talent.
Leslie Miller Jenkins, another exceptional actress, was Assistant Director in 2004, she is also a TST member and has a wonderful acting career.
Stephanie Leigh Batiste is an English professor at Univ. of Santa Barbara and has a long history with teaching the book.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. Why do you feel that Passing’s story so deeply resonates with audiences?
NDB: The book was written in 1927 but the story remains the same. While set in the last century, Race in America continues to be the defining issue of our time. How does one exist as a whole person if one is not seen as whole? What is like to be able to step out of your assigned role in society if you could, especially when you are denied certain privileges that are inherently given to White people. There are so many other levels and subtext in the book that resonate with audiences: female friendships, marriage, family, love, betrayal, and the actual danger of what it meant to pass during that time. It was something that if you crossed over, coming back had dire consequences. These are timeless qualities that still make for a fascinating story, play or movie.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about and purchase tickets for Passing: A Retrospective?
NDB: This is a contribute-what-you-can event to help support Towne Street Theatre’s ongoing programming, and we will be inviting the audience into the discussion. Please visit www.townestreetla.org for more details or email us at info (at) townestreetla (dot) org.