Summer is the season of Avery Sharpe in Atlanta theater

Avery Sharpe plays the title role in “Black Nerd” at Dad’s Garage through Aug. 4. He makes his playwrighting debut Aug. 3 with “Woke,” part of Essential Theatre’s annual playwriting competition. CONTRIBUTED BY MEG ANSTEENSEN

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Avery Sharpe plays the title role in “Black Nerd” at Dad’s Garage through Aug. 4. He makes his playwrighting debut Aug. 3 with “Woke,” part of Essential Theatre’s annual playwriting competition. CONTRIBUTED BY MEG ANSTEENSEN

From lead role to his playwrighting debut, local actor is having a moment

It’s heating up to be a banner summer for Avery Sharpe.

After making strides in some less prominent roles and less widely seen shows over the past few years, the up-and-coming actor appears to have suddenly arrived on the local theater scene with two high-profile shows. The 27-year-old Atlanta native is currently enjoying a run with Dad's Garage, playing the title character in a seemingly lighthearted vehicle called "Black Nerd."

But, wait, there's more. Even before he closes in that show on Aug. 4, Sharpe will debut as a first-time playwright on Aug. 3, when Essential Theatre opens its premiere production of "Woke," his thought-provoking coming-of-age story about two boyhood friends whose camaraderie is challenged in the wake of a school shooting.

Apart from the Sharpe connection, the two shows might not sound like they have much else in common — and yet both of them are billed as dark comedies, and each in its own way addresses socially relevant issues about racial identity and race relations.

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Jon Wierenga (left) and Avery Sharpe in rehearsal for “Black Nerd” at Dad’s Garage Theater. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

Jon Wierenga (left) and Avery Sharpe in rehearsal for “Black Nerd” at Dad’s Garage Theater. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

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Jon Wierenga (left) and Avery Sharpe in rehearsal for “Black Nerd” at Dad’s Garage Theater. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

“Black Nerd” (scripted by Dad’s ensemble member Jon Carr) is more overtly funny. Marcus, the geeky protagonist, prefers Weird Al to Jay-Z and “Star Wars” movies to those of “Madea,” which is at once a source of concern for his black family, and one of confusion for his predominantly white cohorts among the Dragon Con crowd. The humor in Sharpe’s “Woke” is decidedly subtler, as high-school buddies Adrian (who’s black) and Jesse (who’s white) struggle with their conflicting reactions to a shared tragedy.

Coincidentally or not, "The plays are thematically similar," Sharpe observes. "Marcus is caught between different worlds. I mean, he's black and he's a nerd, you know? In the black community, the whole nerd culture is usually seen as a white thing, so he's looking to balance being fully black with his inner geek, hoping to find that it's OK to just be himself, instead of having to choose one or the other."

In “Woke,” Sharpe employs comedy with a gentler nuance, as an illuminating means to a deeper end. As he explains it, “Even though I’d never written a play before, one of the first things I learned in this process was that, if you want to talk about something real, it definitely helps to win over the hearts of your audience first. If they like and relate to the characters enough to laugh, they’ll care about what they’re going through and truly listen to what they’re saying.”

Sharpe was surely listening in late 2016, when he began work on “Woke.” Between a polarizing Presidential election and so many school shootings and viral videos of police brutality, “I was hearing all these heated discussions and differences of opinion, and the play came out of that,” he says.

“I started wondering about the tough conversations we have about race or politics, and how most people, on either side of a debate, just talk in their own echo chambers when they should be listening and paying more attention to the opposing viewpoints and experiences of others.”

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Sharpe’s character Marcus looks through old clothes belonging to his grandmother, played by Andrene Ward-Hammond, to prepare his costume for Dragon Con in a rehearsal for “Black Nerd.” Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

Sharpe’s character Marcus looks through old clothes belonging to his grandmother, played by Andrene Ward-Hammond, to prepare his costume for Dragon Con in a rehearsal for “Black Nerd.” Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

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Sharpe’s character Marcus looks through old clothes belonging to his grandmother, played by Andrene Ward-Hammond, to prepare his costume for Dragon Con in a rehearsal for “Black Nerd.” Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com

“Woke” received its first public reading in early 2017 at Kennesaw State University, where Sharpe graduated in 2015. In the ensuing year or so, Actor’s Express presented another reading of the play; KSU mounted a “workshop” version of it; it was named among five finalists in the Detroit New Works Festival; and artistic director Peter Hardy selected it as one of two co-winners (along with Rachel Graf Evans’ “Built to Float”) to merit full productions as part of Essential’s annual Georgia playwriting competition.

Atlanta actress Ellen McQueen, who has previously staged a number of Essential standouts over the years, returns to direct “Woke.”

“I’m drawn to shows that speak to me, that make me feel like I have something to bring to them, to contribute to the dialogue,” she says. “I loved that this play could be written by a young black man, and yet really resonate with a middle-aged white woman like me. Especially right now, seeing where we are as a nation, that’s what it’s all about, reaching across our differences and bridging those gaps between us.”

While Sharpe acknowledges that his double dose of exposure at the moment is akin to “having the best of both worlds,” by the same token, he notes, “Even now, I still don’t consider myself a playwright. I’m mainly just an actor who’s written a play. Above anything else, (acting) is definitely my first love. Always has been.”

Well, not quite always. It wasn’t until the end of his senior year at Etowah High School in Woodstock — where he was “totally on the jock track” as a member of both the football and wrestling teams — that Sharpe made his stage debut in a production of the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Although he was originally interested in studying medicine, he says the “drama bug” promptly bit.

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Since then he’s appeared in productions with the Alliance Children’s Theatre, Georgia Shakespeare, Actor’s Express and Stage Door Players. It wasn’t long before artistic director Kevin Gillese recruited him to join the “rookie” ensemble at Dad’s Garage, where he has performed in several of its improv shows.

Clearly, Sharpe has been getting around a lot lately. Come opening night of “Woke,” as he’s otherwise engaged in “Black Nerd,” he’ll effectively be in two places at one time.


THEATER PREVIEW

'Black Nerd.' Through Aug. 4. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $15.50-$29.50. Dad's Garage, 569 Ezzard St., Atlanta. 404-523-3141. www.dadsgarage.com.

'Woke.' Aug. 3-26 (in repertory with "Built to Float"). Dates and times vary. $18-$25; two-play pass, $40. West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., Atlanta. www.essentialtheatre.com.