The national touring production of the Broadway smash Motown the Musical set up stage last night at the Durham Performing Arts Center for the first night of a six night run. Running from August 1st through the 6th, Motown is part of the DPAC’s Encore Broadway Series, which is a nice way of for the venue to subtly ask Broadway fans in the area, “You don’t want to wait until this show is sold out to start looking into tickets like you did last time, do you?”
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, Motown the Musical is the true story of the American dream that Berry Gordy had for Motown, the record label that he forged into one of the most successful in the world. Motown launched the career of many of the singers that we consider to be the essentials of American music in the 20th century: Diana Ross; Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; and Michael Jackson are but a few of the household names that walked through the doors of the label and became stars.
With a soundtrack featuring more than forty classic hits, Motown the Musical tells the story of how these artists fought the odds to become the music of choice for those that fought for change in America. Motown shattered barriers between listeners, radio formats, and race relations at the time.
Randolph-Wright has played a major part in Motown’s success. Director of the original Broadway run, he is also credited for the national and London productions as well. The South Carolina native, and Duke University graduate, is currently in Los Angeles working on his latest production. Born for This, the story of the legendary gospel duo The Winans, has a ton of local musical fans interested, so it is sure to be a tough ticket to get when it finally reaches the national touring stage.
We had a chance to speak to Randolph-Wright early one morning, before Motown hit Durham, to discuss his history with the show. He doesn’t do many interviews these days, but was happy to talk for a few minutes with a Triangle writer, as the area still holds something special for the Duke Grad. We spoke on his history both on and off the stage; working in television; and why Hollywood so often casts Southern voices in negative lights.
Tickets are still available for the DPAC run of Motown the Musical. They start at just $30 (plus taxes/fees) via DPACnc.com; the Ticket Center of DPAC; and Ticketmaster.com.
Isaac Weeks: I saw where you were raised in York, South Carolina, which I take it is a suburb of Charlotte. Growing up in a town that small [just under 8,000 residents in the 2010 census], how important was music, or the performing arts in general, when you were a young man?
Charles Randolph-Wright: There was more music (and art) within schools back then than there is now, which is disturbing to me. Schools used to bring in things called “young peoples concerts” when I was a kid, and I remember watching those in school. Then the church choir and high school band was a major part of my life, where the art came from. My band director was very influential on all of us in this small town, understanding what art does and is. That influence came to me from so many people from this small town, but this is something I never thought I would be doing. This has been a small town journey that became a reality.
IW: Well, that is definitely something I was wanting to touch on. I understand that you are a graduate of Duke University, but how did you go from a pre-med student to direction Broadway shows?
CRW: My sophomore year I was singing in the Duke choir, and this woman saw us and came up to me after a performance, asked who I was and that I come up to her office. At that point I had no idea who she was, but it turned out that it was Mary Semans, who was a Duke. She said, “I want to send you to England,” so my first semester of junior year I went to London and studied theatre. I had started doing little things around campus at Duke – we had started a black theatre group, we had a dance troupe, just these different activities – but it was still more of a hobby, as I still thought I was going to med school. This woman opened a new door for me.
Around this same time, I actually got a chance to see a touring production of the Broadway show Pippin. My roommate’s girlfriend couldn’t go, so I took her place, and it really changed my life overnight. I thought to myself, “I really have to try this, whether I succeed or not.” The attempt is really the most important thing. I always knew I could go back to school, but I had to try acting. I graduated from Duke early, and moved to New York to become an actor as a career.
I often talk about who gives you permission to do what you want, to follow your dream in life, and I had several family members and people from Duke who were very influential and helped open the door to my believing I could ever do anything close to what I have ended up doing.
IW: How did the move from acting to directing happen?
CRW: I actually always loved working on the other side of things, which I realized during my first Broadway role, working on the original cast of Dreamgirls. I ended up directing everyone’s nightclub acts, just these shows some of us would do late at night, and that was the door opening toward directing. I realized I just loved being on that side of telling stories, and my writing came about in that way too. I wanted to tell stories, especially about people of color. I never saw anyone I would actually know in any of the stories I read; I never saw my family depicted in things, it was always one type of family of color, and I wanted show a different upbringing.
Toni Morrison has said that she started writing because there weren’t any books that she really wanted to read, and I understand that, because I really wanted to see representation for the types of people that I didn’t see. As a writer-director, I have some real issues with the way Southerners are depicted, because anytime they need to show that someone is uneducated they give the character a Southern accent. It happens way too often.
IW: I noticed that you have had a pretty extensive career directing for television as well. You’ve done a lot of work on the show Greenleaf, which I am a big fan of. Touching on that representation of Southerners in film and television that you mentioned, do you feel that having an idea of how people actually are in the South brought something to the episodes of Greenleaf that you had a hand in creating?
CRW: Absolutely. There are several directors that have a say in any television series, because when you are directing one episode the next director will be prepping theirs, but there were so many things about my background – Southern, religion, music – that it felt like I made a difference when I worked on each episode. I love the show, and I love the actors in it. Working in Atlanta…all of it was interesting, because every morning I had to drive down I-85 to get to the studio, and I grew up off of I-85 about an hour and a half away.
Atlanta is such an interesting place to work right now, because there are just so many productions going on there. Which makes me disappointed for North Carolina, because the state had that same opportunity to get that work lined up. I was shooting in Atlanta, and there were forty things in production, and it just angered me. I consider North and South Carolina my home, and it just makes me angry that they are missing out on all of this work, because its such a great place to film. Due to the tax breaks being taken away [from film and television productions], all of that work went away. Also due to other things in North Carolina going on, it all just went away, and I’m so disappointed in it.
IW: You’ve been with Motown since its formation. What character have you found to have grown bigger than it was during the beginning stages of the show? Maybe one that didn’t connect with you during the development period of the show’s run, that has become a favorite over time?
CRW: I knew the story would connect with me, because the music of Motown served as the soundtrack of my youth, so I knew I had a big connection to Berry Gordy. He was one of the few people I idolized growing up; he was a man of color who owned his own business, was very successful, and there were very few people as visible as he was when I was growing up.
Right when I started working on the story for Motown, there was a woman working for him named Edna Anderson, and her story was that she had boycotted Motown because she felt that they didn’t hire enough black people. She boycotted him, and protested him, and he ended up hiring her. She worked for him for fifty years and was basically his right hand. She passed a few years ago, and the great thing for me is that whenever I watch the show, I get to see Edna again. I was recently reminded that I was actually the one who pushed to put her in the story, because originally she was just a peripheral character, and I thought she was just too good a character to leave like that.