Columbus history will be made when this all-Black cast takes the stage

Vanessa “VJ” Roberts (M’Lynn),Courtney Locke (Annelle), Aleigha Burt (Shelby), and Chelcy Cutwright (Truvy), rehearse Wednesday for the Springer Opera House production of “Steel Magnolias.” (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

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Vanessa “VJ” Roberts (M’Lynn),Courtney Locke (Annelle), Aleigha Burt (Shelby), and Chelcy Cutwright (Truvy), rehearse Wednesday for the Springer Opera House production of “Steel Magnolias.” (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

The Broadway comedy ‘Steel Magnolias’ runs through May 15th at the Springer Opera House.

Local history is made as “Steel Magnolias” debuts at the Springer Opera House.

Shows have performed for 151 years at this Columbus venue, known as the State Theater of Georgia, but this production is the Springer’s first all-Black cast for what originally were all-white roles.

The promotional material doesn’t declare this distinction, but the Springer’s marketing calls the production “a fresh new take on a heart-warming classic” and displays a group photo of the actors: Aleigha Burt (Shelby), Rubye Feagins (Clairee), Chelcy Cutwright (Truvy), Sheila Green (Ouiser), Courtney Locke (Annelle), Vanessa “VJ” Roberts (M’Lynn) and Chiara Richardson (radio DJ).

Paul Pierce, the Springer’s producing artistic director finishing his 34th season in Columbus, considers it the theater’s natural evolution of storytelling.

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“It might look like there’s some big plan here about the casting, but there’s really not,” Pierce told the Ledger-Enquirer. “Every time we’re doing a show, we’re looking for the best actors to fill the roles that we are filling. We’ve been in the world of nontraditional casting and colorblind casting and whatever you want to call it for a long time.”

He listed more than half a dozen examples, such as the Springer’s 2019 production of “Cinderella” featured a Black actress in the title role, and its 2014 production of “Les Miserables” had a Black actor playing Javert.

And this all-Black cast is the natural consequence, Pierce said, of choosing Beth Reeves as the production’s director.

CHOOSING THE DIRECTOR

Reeves, the Springer’s former director of educational outreach, is a part-time instructor of African-American Theatre Performance and Socially Responsible Theatre at her alma mater, Columbus State University. She also is an independent contractor teaching theater at organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs.

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Beth Reeves is the director of “Steel Magnolias” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia. (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

Credit: Mike Haskey

Beth Reeves is the director of “Steel Magnolias” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia. (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

Credit: Mike Haskey

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Beth Reeves is the director of “Steel Magnolias” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia. (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

Columbus theatergoers know her as a veteran actor, but this is the first Springer show she has directed.

Pierce recalled watching CSU’s 2020 production of “Milk Like Sugar” directed by Reeves. The quality of the performance was at a professional level, Pierce said.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked with what I saw,” he said. “She brought so much out of these student actors. I was just blown away.”

Pierce then committed himself to giving her the opportunity to direct a Springer show. So after “Steel Magnolias” was booked for the Springer’s 2021-22 season, Pierce figured the time was right.

“Beth is pure love,” Pierce said. “She is not superficial in her relationship with you, and that carries over to the relationships between these characters. They’re not just casual friends — they are the best of friends — and love is pouring off of the stage in this production.”

Reeves explained why she chose an all-Black cast for this production.

“This is a specific shop at a specific time with women,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer. “I brought my life experiences, and I’m glad I did.”

So are the cast members. Roberts summed up their appreciation of Reeves when she described her as a “very thorough” director.

“She wants to have multilayers to the characters as well,” Roberts said. “I think she’s an excellent director. In fact, I think I probably got more direction from her than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”

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Reeves expressed her gratitude for Pierce trusting her unusual vision of this production.

“Paul’s always been that way,” she said.

Reeves also praised the actors.

“I cast some amazing actors, actors who get the process,” she said. “These wonderful, beautiful women could have said no. And they’re all master artists.”

What the audience will take away from the show depends on what they bring to it, Reeves said.

“If you come with closed arms, and if you come with comparison, I don’t know if you’re going to enjoy it,” she said. “But if you come with open arms, you’re going to laugh, you’re going to cry, you’re probably going to talk back to the actors.”

Anybody can relate to this version of the story, Reeves said.

“Yes, we celebrate this all-Black cast,” she said, “but this is a show about humanity. Enjoy the show, but also expect to learn some lessons.”

‘STEEL MAGNOLIAS’ HISTORY

The play, set in a beauty shop, is billed as a comedy-drama about the bond among a group of Southern women who are as delicate as a magnolia flower but tough as steel. The story originated as an off-Broadway play, written by Robert Harling, in 1987.

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Aleigha Burt (Shelby), left, and Courtney Locke (Annelle), rehearse Wednesday night for the Springer Opera House production of “Steel Magnolias.” (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

Credit: Mike Haskey

Aleigha Burt (Shelby), left, and Courtney Locke (Annelle), rehearse Wednesday night for the Springer Opera House production of “Steel Magnolias.” (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

Credit: Mike Haskey

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Aleigha Burt (Shelby), left, and Courtney Locke (Annelle), rehearse Wednesday night for the Springer Opera House production of “Steel Magnolias.” (Courtesy of Mike Haskey)

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

The film adaptation was released in 1989, featuring Julia Roberts (Shelby), Sally Field, (M’Lynn), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser), Olympia Dukakis (Clairee), Dolly Parton (Truvy) and Daryl Hannah (Annelle). A TV pilot, featuring Cindy Williams (M’Lynn), Elaine Stritch (Ouiser), Polly Bergen (Clairee), Sally Kirkland (Truvy) and Sheila McCarthy (Annelle), aired in 1990 but failed to become a series. Shelby wasn’t a character in the TV pilot, so maybe that’s why. The Broadway production ran from April-July in 2005.

All those actors are white.

Then, in 2012, a Lifetime TV production filmed a version in Atlanta with an all-Black cast, featuring Condola Rashad (Shelby), Queen Latifah (M’Lynn), Alfre Woodard (Ouiser), Phylicia Rashad (Clairee), Jill Scott (Truvy) and Adepero Oduye (Annelle).

The Springer isn’t the first American theater to produce “Steel Magnolias” with an all-Black cast, following a 2014 production in St. Petersburg, Florida.

For more information on tickets, visit springeroperahouse.org. The play continues through May 15th.


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Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

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