STATE OF STAGES: Q Comes Home
On Q’s Miles & Coltrane – which has played internationally – returns to the QC April 13 – 16
Gather ‘round for the true tale of the “OG” of Black theater in Charlotte.
Way back in 2006, Quentin Talley founded On Q Productions, the city’s first African-American theater company. It was the year Twitter was launched, the year Paul McCartney divorced his second wife and the year a severe heat wave and mass shootings gripped much of the nation. (OK, those last two things happen every year.)
On Q’s mission is to produce classic, contemporary and original performance work that reflects the Black experience.
“That’s always been our mission and always will be,” Talley, the company’s co-founder and artistic director, said before giving a brief history lesson of On Q.
“Up until 2017, things were going relatively well,” he said. “In 2018, we had a little financial fall. It’s the same old story of not enough funding and being burned out.
“I took a step back from producing at the end of that year, although we still did our annual Christmas show, Soulful Noel. One reason for taking a hiatus was to revamp how we do the work and figure out how to make it more sustainable.” He also wants to expand his reach.
That’s not a pipe dream. One of his signature shows, Miles & Coltrane: Blue (.), has already played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – an offshoot of the internationally prestigious Edinburgh Arts Festival.
Talley’s long-term goal is getting Miles & Coltrane on an off-Broadway stage. It’s already played in Scotland (Jazz Bar, 2009), at the D.C. Black Theater Festival (Studio Theater, 2011), during the National Black Arts Festival (14th St. Playhouse in Atlanta, 2011) and Piccolo Spoleto (Charleston, South Carolina, 2012).
“I wanted to focus on making Miles & Coltrane more commercially viable so we could take it on the road,” he said. “We’ve attracted new investors and gotten our production values up. We’ve got new set design and projection. We hope to take the show to other Blumenthals around the country. But we’re taking it step by step.”
‘All the bells and whistles’
Now, he’s bringing it back home where it all began in 2008. Catch the newest iteration of Miles & Coltrane April 13 through 16 at the Booth Playhouse. Tickets range from $28 – $58.
The “musical biography” depicts the personal and professional relationship between two jazz legends – trumpet player Miles Davis and Hamlet, North Carolina’s pride and joy, saxophonist John Coltrane – whose collaborations reshaped music and pop culture. Actors, musicians and poets take audiences on a journey through the artists’ intertwined lives.
The show was written by several well-known local writers and poets, including Bluz, Carlos Robson, Taviss Brunson, Kendra “Mekkah” Collins, Norris Guest, Filmore Johnson, Charles “CP Maze” Perry and Miesha “Ocean” Wilson. Talley served as editor.
Even if you’ve seen Miles & Coltrane before – as I have, twice – “you can get something new out of it,” Talley said. “It’s evolved from the ground level to another level.”
“Miles & Coltrane has been in festival mode recently; we’ve been doing a stripped-down version to see if the story would hold up on its own without all the bells and whistles,” Talley said. “And it has legs.”
But this time, they’re going all out. “With the new production, we’ve given it as many bells and whistles as we could afford,” Talley said. “There’s a new set design, and we have a projectionist coming from L.A. who’s super dope. The show is like jazz. There’s a structure to it, but we improv some things. About 80% is scripted, and 20% is improv. A narrator/storyteller riffs off some things and helps get us from point A to point B.”
Always changing, yet still familiar
The show changes musically, Talley said, because the band never plays the same thing twice: “That’s why the show still feels new and fresh to us.”
The band includes:
- Piano – Harvey Cummings
- Drums – Tim Scott and Malcolm Charles
- Bass – Butler Knowles
- Saxophone – Marcus Jones
- Trumpet – Braxton Bateman and El Schafer
As it has been since the beginning, Sultan Omar El-Amin, co-founder of On Q, will play Miles; Talley will portray Coltrane. Mason Parker (an actor, musician and poet) is the narrator.
“We’ve all been working together for so long in individual settings, as poets and musicians or combos, and we know each other’s vibe and flow,” Talley said. “We’ve all been in different slam competitions where the audience will sometimes give a poet five words, and the poet has to make up a poem, on the spot, using those words. That’s the world we come from.”
These guys are quick on their feet. When one of them ad libs a line – and they all do – it doesn’t throw the others off. It keeps it exciting.
Talley studied Coltrane when he was researching and writing the script. He got to know him well. “I learned how intense he was as an artist,” he said.
“He’d rehearse 12, 14 hours a day, and then go to a gig. He was so committed to the craft. Coltrane was a North Carolina kid, and I’m proud to represent him as best I can.”
Talley wants people to know his upcoming show was entirely birthed here.
“Miles & Coltrane is a Charlotte homegrown production,” he said. “It was written by Charlotte poets. It’s produced by a Charlotte company. The musicians are from Charlotte and are well-versed in jazz. The designers – except for the one I mentioned from L.A. – are from the Charlotte area. This is a truly local, professional show that has represented Charlotte around the world. If you’re a lover of words and/or jazz music, this is the show for you.”
On Q is just one of Talley’s many creative outlets. He’s also a musician who formed Quentin Talley & the Soul Providers about five years ago. And he got his start in Charlotte as a slam
poet. Concrete Generation – a reference to the “Beat Generation” – is the poets’ collective he founded.
On Q was the first African-American resident theater company of the Blumenthal – and they’re still affiliated. Miles & Coltrane is playing on one of the Blumenthal’s stages.
Talley said, “Without Spirit Square, that really cuts down on the kinds of shows we can do at that level. Not everything is a Booth [Playhouse] show, where there are a lot of seats. But that’s a union house and expensive. A show like Soulful Noel – one we know there’s an audience for – can be held there, but if you’re not certain, it’s a [gamble].” Soulful Noel will be back Dec. 21 and 22 this year.
‘The magic of theater hurts us’
Talley’s been part of the Charlotte theater community for a long time, and he’s unafraid to offer his commentary on it. As artistic director of On Q, he’s not paid a salary, yet he does “way more than full-time work.”
Talley has divided his time between Charlotte and Durham since 2019 when he joined Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center as program director.
“You have to have another job to sustain you,” he said. “Our ecosystem has been jacked up for a long time. We have very small spaces, and we have the Blumenthal. We don’t have that midsize theater, that 150-seater that companies can use on a regular basis. I feel like that’s what’s missing.
“Some of the greatest work I’ve seen has been in smaller spaces. People are paying [a lot] to see The Lion King, and I get it. I want to see those shows, too. But we’ve got a lot of talent right here, and a lot of those talented people can’t work here. They can’t live and work here; it’s either/or. Theater is a risky business with thin margins. A lot of times, you’re doing it for the love – but you also want to get paid. A lot of people are trying to figure out – collectively and individually – how to have sustainable careers as artists. I haven’t figured it out yet. Please let me know if someone does.”
People who don’t work in theater don’t understand how much time, effort and money it takes to put on a show, Talley said.
“Many people don’t have a clue about what it takes to make art. For folks who aren’t in theater, I get the sense they feel like shows just materialize out of thin f***ing air – like Hamilton just showed up without any rehearsals or costume design or financial investment. The magic of theater hurts us sometimes.”
Actors make it look too easy, in other words.
“People cannot wrap their heads around how many departments it takes to put on theater – marketing, admin, general management, production management,” he added. “That’s why I’m a big fan of open rehearsals. You see all these people running around and begin to realize what it takes. Even when there are just two people on stage, there are 15 or 20 more backstage and in the front office who’ve made it happen.”
See Miles & Coltrane: Blue
This is the eighth installment of our “State of Stages” series addressing the work of local Charlotte theater companies and the daily challenges they contend with. Click here to read past installments.
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