Tiesha Arnette is putting "You're Gonna Love Me" through the paces. She's accompanied by Joy and Inspiration, a male gospel trio, acting as her chorus backstage. The men stand in a circle, singing a cappella into the center, hands cupped to their ears.
Watching her rehearse, Tyrone Martin's blank expression masks his concern.
Martin -- director, playwright, and producer -- is putting the polish on his latest production, A Scrooge Story, two days before it debuts on December 19 at Playhouse Square's Kennedy Theatre, where they are currently rehearsing. Most of his plays are performed in hotel ballrooms and high school auditoriums; this is his first production in an actual theater.
Arnette, at five feet and 300-plus pounds, brings more than enough jelly for this jam. She sings in church, but has never sung for a paying audience. In fact, Scrooge will mark her second time on stage. Ever. She's excited to be practicing her finale. And she's killing "You're Gonna Love Me" . . . just not in a good way.
"We gonna have to scratch this number, T.Y.," whispers Greg, one of the members of Joy and Inspiration, as he takes Martin aside. "She ain't makin' it."
"No, no, she can do this," Martin says. "We gonna do this -- she know the song. She jus' need to get comfortable with it."
"She'll embarrass herself," says Greg.
Eavesdropping just a few feet away, Arnette interjects. "I c'n sing it, T. Y.," she says. "Just lemme try and feel it a little more."
"You gotta feel it now," T.Y. says urgently. "You know people love this song? You think people payin' they money won't get up and walk out on you fuckin' up this song?" He pushes his tinted frames up on his nose. "They sure will."
Martin takes her into a back stairwell behind the stage to talk. He emerges after a few minutes, and Arnette is left whimpering. Martin holds his chin, looking upwards. He calls Greg over. "Maybe she could mouth the words with someone else singin' it backstage," he says. Greg frowns. "Or maybe you sing it, and she could act it out on stage. Or maybe she could just say the words. I dunno."
Ultimately he decides to cut the number and improvise -- much as he always does. The Show won't be stopped by a deflated diva.
Martin writes gospel plays in the tradition of "chitlin' theater," the dramas that grew out of the black church, intended to entertain, while imparting to newly freed slaves the basic tenets of Christianity, tips on avoiding lynch mobs, and other social values. Today's gospel plays are equal parts Jim Crow minstrelsy, UPN's Moesha, and low-tech Baptist tent revival. Often buoyed by the good Lord, sudsy plots, and coonin' aplenty, gospel plays are wildly entertaining, astonishingly profitable and -- like all good tripe -- delicious, if you can stomach them.
New Orleans playwright Tyler Perry and the Los Angeles production company Marvelous Entertainment make millions touring these shows across America. Martin longs for such success. With 14 plays behind him and another one, I Ain't No Punk 'Bout Mine, in the works, Martin's pen is prolific, and he's become Cleveland's premier contributor to the gospel-play genre.
Watching a Tyrone Martin gospel play is like watching the Hindenberg: It floats majestically for about two minutes before suddenly bursting into flames: Oh, the humanity. Martin's plays are arguably among the worst ever staged, with poorly constructed stories that pander to the worst kind of ethnic stereotypes. The bug-eyed, hapless patriarch? The loud, over-bearing mammy? The uppity city Negro? All present and accounted for, and standing by as Martin crams in as many new Sambos as possible, scene after scene. Most gospel plays are fueled by stereotypes, but Martin's are overwrought with every conceivable caricature.
If he keeps it up, these plays could make Tyrone Martin a millionaire.
Tyrone Martin fell into theater in 1996 while in Memphis, shortly after a tumultuous divorce. He met up with a promoter for Sneaky, a gospel play starring Margaret Avery (who brought Miss Shug to life in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple) and other B-grade actors. Martin, a well-known comedian in those days, was able to finagle this chance meeting into a regular walk-on role. A year later, he was back in Cleveland, determined to start his own production company.
In '98, he wrote, produced, and performed Rich Man, Poor Man in an auditorium at East Tech High School. He quickly churned out another one, Joy Cometh in the Morning. One day after losing his day job at Dillard's, he started Lord Why Me (which he recently revived for another run), compiling the troubles and travails of his family in one theatrical extravaganza. A relentless promoter and resourceful DIYer, he put the play on in the ballroom at the Wyndham Hotel downtown to standing-room-only crowds. This success ignited an enthusiasm that would not be quashed by little details like an incomprehensible script based on a weak premise.
Martin spends roughly $1,500 to produce each play and rarely turns a profit. The patronage is his reward, he says. And he is proud to say that he has achieved moderate success despite having no formal training. "I've only ever even seen a professional script once -- for an episode of Friends," he says. "I looked at it and was like, 'Hell, that's what I'm doing already.'"
His writing method is simple: He gets the title of the play first and then begins refining the stock characters that populate every good drama. "Mother, daughter, drug dealer, drug addict," he says thoughtfully. "Auntie, UPS guy, mailman -- whoever." He then pastes together elements from popular TV shows and movies into a paper-thin plot. Generally, his work follows the same dramatic arc as others in the genre: Problem (Mrs. Scrooge's crackhead husband kidnaps their daughter, causing her to be mean and crotchety to the Simpsons, an unfathomably poor family living in her building) and Solution (God, always, and lots of shuckin' and jivin' in between).
One of his actors takes exception to the classification of gospel plays as "chitlin' theater."
"A lot of popular, critically acclaimed theater has exactly the same elements you have in 'chitlin' theater,'" says William Marshall, the only professional actor in Martin's cast. "Conflict, God as the answer, singing and dancing. Fiddler on the Roof? Borscht! Phantom of the Opera -- what's so great about that? Everybody needs a story they can relate to."
But not everyone can relate to Martin's plays.
The most popular gospel plays are well financed, with high production values. They employ gospel or R&B singers in key roles, filling out the cast with novices and has-been actors from blaxploitation films. They are marketed everywhere from the strip clubs to the pews, and their producers pocket lots of money.
"I don't consider that kind of theater high art," says Randy Rollison, artistic director for Cleveland Public Theatre. "It's kind of like TV for the theater." Martin claims to have approached CPT about hosting a few performances, but Rollison has no recollection of it. At any rate, says Rollison, CPT simply doesn't have the room to accommodate such a draw. Not just that, but his choice of the plays he brings in tends to be based on artistic merits. Whether CPT hosts the play or a production company rents the facility, the public looks at every performance as a reflection on the venue.
"We did a rental for this play called Party, which was basically 'chitlin theater' for gays -- strictly for people that want to see young gay men take their clothes off," he says. It made "pots of money," but it was godawful, and CPT got a ton of negative feedback from the arts community.
"I don't know [Martin] or his work," says Rollison. "But I've read scripts from other gospel plays, like Mama I Wanna Sing. If it is anything like that, then it is definitely theater that wouldn't fit here." Just as well, because the CPT crowd doesn't fit Martin's target demographic. Gospel theater often invites interaction; audience members talk to the actors and inject running commentary, behavior that patrons of La Bohème or Okalahoma! might find distasteful.
Martin says that while he crafts plays with universal appeal, he prefers to deal with "black issues" in his work. According to Martin, blacks don't come out to the theater on a regular basis because the plays are largely about "white people with white issues."
"We can't relate to [white] life," says Martin. "If I started writing Caucasianist, as they say, black people would get parts of it, but they don't live like a Caucasian would live." Sandy Jemison, his assistant, says that Martin's plays -- with flamboyant titles like Mama, Please Stop Hurtin' Me, Torn Between Two Women, and He's Just My Baby-Daddy -- forward lower-class themes as a means to an end: reaching out to people who may have never seen a stage play in their lives.
"Not only don't [African Americans] know theater -- and I'm talking about the people in the 'hood, here -- we don't understand theater. So a way of getting them in is to give them something they can relate to. T.Y. brings a good product to the community at an affordable price."
Prester Pickett, an MFA who teaches African-American theater at Cleveland State University, sees the value of gospel theater as a bridge into the theater world for the black community, but admits, "It isn't anything I would pay to see.
"On the pro side," says Pickett, gospel playwrights "are making incredible profits based on their marketing and entertainment IQ, but the con is that the black community begins to believe that is real theater, to the exclusion of more classical works." He notes that most of the actors in local productions are refining their skills in real time, and this lends itself to a crash-and-burn effect that may be unintentionally comical. Indeed, Martin casts largely from a pool of former-audience-members-turned-actors and encourages lots of improvisation. But improv is hard even for seasoned professionals. Martin's plays can have multiple endings on any given run, and watching his cast of novices try to corral a runaway script, ad-libbing wildly through gaping holes in the plot, is entertaining -- compelling, even. But for anyone expecting something closer to professional theater than an elementary school drama, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Matt Zielenski, whose friend Josh Kessler appeared in He's Just My Baby-Daddy and stars in A Scrooge Story as the ghost of Christmas future -- aka The White Devil -- enjoys Martin's plays, even if he's a little conflicted about why. "White people just aren't supposed to think this kind of thing is funny."
The Kennedy Theatre is located under the Ohio Theatre at Playhouse. Aside from the hackneyed lighting and the posters that line the walls, it looks like your grandparents' unfinished basement, complete with exposed bricks, spiderwebs, and empty bar. This is where the Playhouse hosts "off-center" shows. The Kennedy is long and narrow, seating 100. But Martin plans to add another 30 seats to maximize profit. After all, most of his shows end up being sellouts, he says. And on opening night, it sure looks like he needs them. The room is packed. People are freshly coiffed, dressed in fine furs and tailored suits, and seated in rapt attention.
Okay . . . Ten, eleven, twelve . . . Damn! Twelve li'l dollars I made at the grocery store today.
Now Lord, tell me how I am supposed to feed my family with this little money.
This may be the only original line in the script, which is peppered with pilfered plot devices. A Scrooge Story borrows whole scenes from the '70s sitcom Good Times, Eddie Murphy's Coming to America, Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun ("I wants my wife to have pearls!"), and The Bernie Mac Show. There's even a smattering of Amos 'n' Andy for good measure. Many in the audience revel in the collage-like nature of Scrooge, recognizing scenes and shouting out the reference points.
Eldorado Jones, sporting a permed hair weave to play the pimped-out Ghost of Christmas Past, looks more like a geriatric Snoop Dogg on the skids; this play bears little resemblance to the Dickens classic. But that's what brought the crowd out on this blustery night -- it's their kind of drama. From the good-for-nothing father to the saddity-strumpet neighbor moving to Beachwood with her drug-dealer boyfriend, they recognize these players as people from their own lives. No way they could relate like this to Tiny Tim.
The closing scene is lifted from The Color Purple, when Ceelie and her sister meet again for the first time since childhood and hand-jive back and forth as they used to. It is the tearful climax to a poignant film, a stirring emotional crescendo. In Scrooge, Ebony Scrooge sees her daughter for the first time since she was kidnapped by her crackhead ex-husband (don't ask) and begins the same hand-jive ritual, and raucous laughter bursts from the crowd. As she melts into a heap of faux tears, overjoyed that the Lawd has returned her chile, some people fall out into the aisle, laughing; others leap to their feet and erupt into a storm of applause.
It may be the worst theater ever, but some people can't get enough of it.
As the cast takes a curtain call, Martin is the last to take his bow; the crowd whoops and hollers for him, as he offers himself and the rest of the cast for autographs after the show. He smiles knowingly: This is just one more hit play under his belt.
This is how most gospel playwrights get their start: padding small venues with friends and family, until they generate enough buzz to attract the attention of a major production company. Playwrights who make it that far have budgets and national promotion machines.
"When you do that kind of theater," Rollison says, "you always run the real risk of people coming away saying, 'There wasn't anything to that.' Ultimately, people will demand a script with a plot."
In the meantime, gospel plays are a cash cow with a kind of success rare in the arts. Martin's playwriting role model, Tyler Perry, is already a multimillionaire, and his Diary of a Mad Blackwoman has been optioned for the big screen.
"I would never knock anyone that is doing those plays, because they are just so incredibly profitable," says Pickett. "He's following a tried-and-true formula, and I don't doubt that in five years or less, Tyrone Martin will be a millionaire. In fact, I might make up a pen name and write a play myself."