Janeece Freeman Clark sits in the window of the South Orange Dunkin’ Donuts, staring at her laptop and making notes about her one-year-old local theater company, Vanguard. From the street, she is intently working from one of her many “remote office” spots with wifi. Her business partner Daryl Stewart, co-founder of Vanguard, sits at an adjacent table, staring at his laptop.
Together, the two artists conceived the upcoming Broadway Buddies Mentorship Cabaret Program, which makes its debut at South Orange Middle School on May 22 at 7:30 pm. BBMC unites seasoned Broadway talent (with credits like Hamilton, Aladdin, School of Rock and The Color Purple) with acting students to provide show business advice, personal stories and one-on-one performance coaching.
Most of the actors are friends of South Orange-based Clark and her husband, actor Dwayne Clark, from their many years working in theater and entertainment. Matching these talented professionals with young, up and coming local actors of color is all in a day’s work for the partners, and supporting diversity in theatre is part of their mission. “For many years, I did a lot of acting in the business – it’s how my husband Dwayne and I met – and I was frustrated at times because I felt like as an actor of color, I always placed in a box,” says Clark. “I would get callbacks but they would say, “Do the lines more urban or street!” I was infuriated. I wanted to have roles that fit me and not just my color first. So, I founded Vanguard with Daryl Stewart, and we wanted to support local talent.”
Clark’s recollections of these struggles she had early in her career are always front of mind when she sees talented young performers who are without guidance from experienced industry professionals. Broadway Buddies is about changing that for the better. “In the early days of my career, I had no idea what I was doing. I had come from a really great training background, buts still, here is this girl from Michigan who plops in New York City, and a lot of people like me fell by the wayside because they didn’t know what to do.”
Clark was lucky – her very first show was called “Constant Star”, about Ida B. Wells, and all of the actors were strong black women. There, Clark was at least 20 years the junior in the cast, but the more experienced actors taught her a lot.
“After the show, I stayed in close contact with them, and they took on the role of mentoring me, which I really appreciated,” she says. The same thing happened for Mr. Clark as a junior in college coming to New York with no connections. He was lost until the actor Adrian Bailey, then the lead in Smokey Joe’s Café, took Dwayne under his proverbial wing.
Dwayne auditioned time after time for the show, and was called back, only to be cut during the dance routines because he wasn’t a trained dancer. One day, he waited at the stage door and asked Bailey for help with choreography. “The guy was so impressed at Dwayne’s ballsiness that he took him to a studio and taught him all the dance numbers,” laughs Freeman Clark. “Adrian Bailey became his mentor. To this day, when he talks about Adrian, he talks about how much that mentorship meant to him.”
When the idea for Vanguard came along, Clark and Stewart wanted to present opportunities for emerging musical theater artists. “We chose to represent diversity in every way.” In last year’s production of Hairspray, there was a pivotal moment that differentiated the players of Vanguard from other community theater – or larger productions in general. “We were talking about this song, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” where the black maternal figure in the show tells the young black kids in the show to pick up the torch and keep trying. I asked the young black men in the cast how many of them had left their home and wondered if they would ever come back…Every single black man in that room raised their hand, and everyone else was dumbfounded because others don’t understand that for many, you think you might die when you go out every day.”
Another successful production earlier this year on MLK weekend was Ray, about the life of Ray Charles. With husband Dwayne (whose credits include Spiderman, Rent, Tarzan, Porgy & Bess, The Color Purple, and In The Heights) in the lead, the show was nearly sold out. All cast members were of color. Though they plan on doing colorblind casting in general, without ongoing mentorship from working actors, the future for young actors from diverse backgrounds may not be so fruitful. Thus, Clark and Stewart organized Broadway Buddies to foster local relationships between talent young and those more seasoned. Two actors mentoring are Bob Dusold and Stephanie Kurtzuba of Maplewood.
Dusold, who worked with CHS student Jacob Tall, found kindredness with Tall. “He’s a great kid, and he’s a mini me,” says Dusold. “He’s very smart and very into theater. The mentor program is such a great idea, and I hope it leads to a big recurring event for the community. And I love Janeece’s theater and her mission of diversity. Instead of waiting for someone to do it for her, she did it for herself.”
Kurtzuba, who’s working with Marisa Budnick, seconds how great her experience working with Clark and her students has been. “I’m struck by the level of ability and professionalism of the mentees,” she says. “Janeece chose some amazing young artists. The mentor role is really rewarding because it’s a give-and-take between like-minded artists. I’m talking with Marisa about being an actor, instead of AT her. We are collaborating. She’s learning. I’m learning. She’s opened my eyes to a few things…namely Snapchat filters,” she laughs.
All proceeds from BBMC will fund need-based scholarships for deserving students at Vanguard’s mentorship-based performing arts August summer camp, Vanguard Kids. Prices start at $325. Visit vanguardtheater.org for tickets to Broadway Buddies, or for more information about programs email firstname.lastname@example.org.