STATE OF STAGES: The Accidental Producer
On his way to becoming a playwright, Rory Sheriff somehow became a producer, too. Matthews Playhouse handles producing duties for his latest work, Speakeasy (Sept. 22-24)
Rory Sheriff didn’t intend to become a theater producer. He set out to be a writer.
And with five novels, six stage plays and a couple of film shorts to his credit, he is one. He’s also an actor and director.
But he fell into producing theater. Nearly 10 years ago, he established Brand New Sheriff Productions (BNS), Charlotte’s only Black repertory theater company.
Raised in Reading, Pennsylvania – just outside Philadelphia – Sheriff was a radio personality in Philly before moving to Charlotte to work for WPEG.
“For a time, I thought radio and broadcasting were my life,” he said. “But writing was calling me and would not stop ringing in my head. It was eating me up inside,” he said.
Sheriff began work on reimagining and updating the 1970s movie Mahogany. “I was writing the script and was dreaming big,” he said. “I had Beyonce in mind for the lead.” That project morphed into Be a Lion, which was inspired by The Wiz (which was inspired by The Wizard of Oz.) He shopped the script in L.A. and was told that people loved it, but it was too expensive to produce.
Back in Charlotte, someone suggested he turn the screenplay into a play for the stage. He got some friends and family together for a table read. Then, they did a staged reading in front of an audience.
“In hindsight, it was terrible,” he admits. “But it was a great lesson and experience. I kept working on it, and today it’s our top-selling show – a full-fledged musical with 17 songs.”
“I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t know I was sitting in the producer’s seat,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was art directing. I resisted it. I was so sure I was meant to be a writer; that’s all I wanted to do.”[Editor’s Note: Be a Lion has been staged eight times, including performances in Chicago, Atlanta and Reading, PA.]
FILLING A VOID … ON THE RUN
Still, Sheriff kept hustling, as producers must.
“People told me I could apply for grants to produce my plays; I hadn’t known that,” he said. “So, I learned about nonprofit performing arts companies and Brand New Sheriff became a nonprofit. The rest is history. We got a residency with Spirit Square, where we did four or five productions a year.”
Since Spirit Square closed for construction in 2021, BNS has been sort of nomadic.
“But we’re in bed with CPCC,” Sheriff said. “We have a great working relationship with them and now produce the majority of our season [at the new Parr Center].”
Like many in Charlotte’s theater community, Sheriff’s long-range vision is to operate his own theater company from his own building. He envisions it not just as a space for BNS – but as a place for other African Americans to perform. He wants to offer workshops, singing and acting lessons and have art gallery space within that building.
“It’s unfortunate that most [Black] actors and crew in Charlotte get the majority of work in February,” he said. “Throughout the rest of the year, it’s a little sprinkle here, a little sprinkle there. I want to create a space where we can do that year-round.
“I’m thankful for Charlotte’s other theater companies that are willing to put on shows with an African-American voice, but it’s not enough to just do that for Black History Month. We have so many talented playwrights here, and there are a lot of great stories that need to be told, including some of my own.”
INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS
Sheriff won the top prize at the BIPOC Playwrights Festival in May. As part of the prize, he gets a fully funded reprise of his play, Speakeasy, at Matthews Playhouse Sept. 22 – 24.
It’s set on familiar turf for Sheriff – Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s not quite autobiographical, he said. It’s more “inspired by” his adolescence in the late 1970s.
“When I was around 9, my parents split,” he said. “All the bills were suddenly just my mom’s responsibility. My dad had been the breadwinner, and my mom hadn’t really worked. So, she started a speakeasy inside our house to earn money. I remember the characters who’d come in and some of those conversations I’d overhear.”
The play follows Virginia, a young woman who dumps her abusive husband. When she’s threatened with foreclosure for owing back taxes on her childhood home, Virginia turns part of the house into a speakeasy to raise money. Things can go from there.
Sheriff doesn’t want to give too much away, but something in the play is based on an aunt on his mom’s side – “the Pam Grier of the family” – taking “my grandfather’s old 22 pistol and shooting someone.”
His dad’s side of the family hasn’t been left out. “I cannot do an interview about Speakeasy without mentioning my father,” Sheriff said.
The man everyone called “Mose” passed away three Septembers ago. But while Sheriff was writing Speakeasy, he consulted with his dad about life in the 1970s. “My father was a Black Panther,” he said. “My dad lived in Oakland for a time and was friends with [founders] Bobby [Seale] and Huey [Newton] and all those guys.”
For once, Sheriff isn’t producing. And he’s totally fine with that. “I told my production manager, ‘I could get used to this,’” he said.
“I’m now sitting in the room as the playwright and not the producer. I can concentrate on the magic of the play without focusing on the business side, which can be very stressful.”
FINDING YOUR AUDIENCE
When Sheriff founded BNS, he thought his target audience would be African-American women between 30 and 55.
“But my initial audiences were older, white couples,” he said. “I’m like: What is going on here? I mean, I like it. But why am I not reaching the people I thought were my audience? I want the African-American community to know about our stories.”
He began going into Black communities to perform scenes from his plays. For free. He and his crew would go to libraries and youth and senior centers in Grier Heights and on the west side.
“I’m a firm believer that if you give people something good, they’re going to come back,” he said. And they did.
“They started learning how important it was to show up for this theater company called BNS Productions, how important it is to get involved,” he said.
“We kept the senior white couples and expanded our audience to include African Americans. I love introducing theater to folks who don’t know much about it. In our African-American community, when you speak of plays, most people think of Tyler Perry or gospel plays. And I appreciate both, but there’s more to the African-American experience.”
The people Sheriff counts as mentors are some of the stalwarts of local theater:
- Tom Hollis, former chair of Central Piedmont’s theater department
- Chip Decker, former executive director of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
- Adam Burke, Children’s Theatre’s artistic director
- Dr. Corlis Hayes, faculty member in Central Piedmont’s arts and communications department as well as in Corey Mitchell’s nonprofit Theatre Gap Initiative and a frequent director of local and regional plays
Sheriff was also mentored by the late Shelly Garrett, known as “the godfather of urban theater.” (Garrett wrote the award-winning play, Beauty Shop, made into a movie starring Queen Latifah.) Sheriff met the legendary actor and playwright in Chicago at a new play competition. He lost the competition but caught Garrett’s attention.
“Shelly came up to me and was like: There’s no way you should’ve lost this contest,” Sheriff said.
“The judging was similar to American Idol where the audience gets to vote. Well, if you’re from Chicago and you brought your entire church, you’re probably going to beat the guy from Charlotte, North Carolina who doesn’t have anyone there. I pointed that out to the producers, who ended up changing the rules the next year.”
‘LISTEN TO DIVERSE VOICES’
“Hands down, August Wilson is my favorite playwright,” Sheriff said. Wilson wrote about Black life in Pittsburgh, about three hours away from Sheriff’s hometown. BNS has set out to produce all 10 of August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” plays. They’ve done five to date, and the sixth, The Piano Lesson, is coming in February.
Sheriff appreciates Charlotte’s theater community and calls it a “close-knit group,” but said diversity must be a bigger priority.
“People need to be open to listening to diverse voices,” he said. “I think everyone’s working on it, but we’re not there yet. I’m afraid we all jumped on the bandwagon after the George Floyd murder. Everyone was all about diversity then. That initial enthusiasm has waned a little bit.
“But, at the end of the day,” he added, “I love each and every one of the theater companies in Charlotte.”
Time travel to 1978
See Rory Sheriff’s award-winning Speakeasy at Matthews Playhouse (Fullwood Theatre, 100 E. McDowell St. in Matthews). It runs Sept. 22-24. On Saturday, Sept. 23, there’s a 2 p.m. matinee and a 7:30 p.m. performance. This production contains mature content and is recommended for ages 18 and up. Tickets range from $10 to $19 and are available here.
This is the latest installment of our “State of Stages” series addressing the work of local theater companies and the daily challenges they contend with. Click here to read past installments.
Courtesy of Brand New Sheriff Productions (BNS)
1) Tim Bradley as LION in Be A Lion
2) Rory Sheriff
3) Poster for Speakeasy
4) Tim Bradley as CUTLER, Graham Williams as SLOW DRAG, Jonavan Adams as LEVEE, Jermaine Gamble as TOLEDO in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
5) BNS production manager. Chiletta Marie, and education and outreach director, Jermaine Nakia Lee.
6) Jonavan Adams as STERLING LeShea Stukes as RISA in Two Trains Running
7) K. Alana Jones as LADAWN, Tim Bradley as LION in Be A Lion