Arts & Entertainment

“Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby:” An Interview with Writer, Producer, and Director Mahogany Reynolds-Clarke

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Rahway, NJ- Just Be You Performing Arts will be presenting “Who am I: A Christmas Lullaby” at the Union County Performing Arts Center Loft on December 17 at 1 PM and 3:30 PM. Mahogany Reynolds-Clarke is writer, producer, and director, as well as the Executive Director, of Just Be You Performing Arts. As I found out through interviewing her to learn more about herself and JBY, her passion for mentoring young actors and actresses is boundless and inspiring.

Q: You bring a wealth of acting experience into your role as Executive Director for Just Be You Performing Arts. What roles have you performed in the past and which experience has taught you the most? 

A: The most valuable, fulfilling and rewarding role that I've ever played is that of a mother to my son, Jeremiah. When he was born I took a very long hiatus away from the industry because I wanted to give him my undivided attention. I completely immersed myself into new motherhood. I won't lie; it was a major lifestyle change. Surrounded by baby toys instead of scripts! Here I was, this on-the-rise actress who had just finished staring in my first lead role in a film The Boy With The Sun In His Eyes which was filmed all across Europe. And then, wham! I put on the brakes!

I turned down a lot of great roles during that time. Roles were being offered to me with no audition required! I believe that was due to my strong work ethic and grace. But I wouldn’t trade that quality time I spent with my little baby for anything in the world. When he got older, I decided to make my comeback. The cool thing is: I am a better actor than I was prior to becoming a mother. I had grown, evolved and was able to use that growth to my advantage.

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I've had some amazing roles during my career thus far. Solange in The Boy With The Sun In His Eye who was a mysterious and seductive assassin. Delilah in Christmas In The Hood who was a tough as nails young mother. Ria, my first lead role in an off-Broadway play, Slow Bullet: My Three Loves: a multifaceted woman struggling with her past. And most recently, I am portraying Ruth Younger in the legendary stage play A Raisin in the Sun. Ruth is quiet strength personified! The roles of Solange and Ruth are my most beloved and cherished; they both allowed me to rise higher as an actor. The roles of Delilah and Ria were my most challenging experiences, but they strengthened me as a professional actor.

When it comes to my experiences in the industry as a woman in show business, I had to be very clear about who I am and the kinds of roles I would and would not take. I've experienced some disappointments in this industry. Every experience, and every person in that experience, good or bad, contributed to me becoming the strong actress that I am today.  I have no regrets. In fact, I should send those folks a thank you card. Any experience that makes you stronger is for your personal gain.

Right before I put pen to paper to write "Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby," my mother passed away. It was the most devastating and most defining experience in my entire life. The experience of losing a parent is excruciatingly difficult, but it taught me how to turn pain into purpose. My mother was a firecracker! Thanks to her, I don't fear speaking up about what I believe in. And when it comes to the roles I take, or the directors I work with, I am not afraid to be my own advocate. That is what I learned after starring in lead roles in two stage plays in New York. Those experiences were like my boot camp. The ups and downs worked me out something fierce! I came out of those experiences feeling like a champion after a major boxing match. They remind me of a stanza from one of my favorite poems entitled "Invictus" by William Earnest Henley. "In the fell clutch of circumstance/ I have not winced nor cried aloud./ Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody, but unbowed." 

Q: Please describe Just Be You Performing Arts, its name and its mission statement. What inspired you to start this organization? 

A: One day, I was preparing for a big audition. And as I contemplated what to wear, how to say my lines, and all that jazz actors stress themselves over, this quiet voice came into my spirit and whispered: "Just be you". I will never forget that peaceful feeling I had. I quickly wrote those three words down on a piece of a paper. Then I taped it onto my kitchen cabinet. A few months later Just Be You Performing Arts was born!

The mission of Just Be You Performing Arts is ​to mentor and enrich young aspiring performing artists in a positive, uplifting, safe, and fun environment. To empower the artist to perform with excellence and ultimately become mentors and role-models to the next generation. To be a change agent in the performing arts world by encouraging young people of all cultures, shapes, and backgrounds to let their light shine. To not only strengthen technique, but to inspire them to realize that the true key to success is to... Just Be You!

I was born in Detroit, Michigan. Motown music was a big part of my life. My mom was always playing music. I remember using the vacuum handle as a microphone, dressing up in my mom's clothes and pretending to be Diana Ross. Or rather, I should say, practicing! I knew at a young age that I wanted to be a performer. In school and college, I entered into every talent show possible. So my childhood definitely inspired me. 

But, what inspired me the most to start Just Be You was my son. I wanted to create something unique that wasn't available to children his age. He was four when I started the organization. I'd searched for performing arts programs to enroll him in, because he's naturally gifted as a musician, but I couldn't find what I was looking for. One day, I called my Dad, and I said, "Dad, I can't find what I'm looking for..." He replied with conviction, "You know what to do! Create it!" And that's exactly what I did. My son was my first student!

Q: What age range of children do you work with? 

A: I mentor and coach children ages 5 to 18 years old. As a mother, I learned that children begin to express themselves artistically very early in life. And I love working with little kids. They are so full of energy and hope! As of late, I've been asked by adult actors to coach them. I'd therefore like to share with TapintoRahway an exclusive announcement: starting in 2017, Just Be You Performing Arts will launch our young adult division for aspiring artists ages 18-23. We'll be teaching more than technique!

My vision is to help develop the next generation of playwrights, directors, and producers. In addition to launching our new young adult division for aspiring artists, we are excited to announce two new arms of Just Be You Performing Arts: Just Be You Models and Just Be You Comics. As a result of the success of our production "The Runway In Rahway," held at the UCPAC Main Stage Café, we've decided to develop Just Be You Models. We'll provide training, career development, and artistic productions for emerging models in New Jersey. After several hilarious nights of laughter during "Cracking Up In Rahway,” a stand-up comedy show we produced that was held four times at UCPAC this year, we're developing Just Be You Comics. We'll create comedy productions to help amateur stand-up comics from New Jersey build their careers. My husband, Dale Clarke, who serves as the organization’s Director of Visual Arts/Photography, played a special role in encouraging me to expand Just Be You. This is a very exciting time for JBY.

My duty is to pass along my knowledge and experience to the young artists whom I mentor and coach. The ups and the downs, the good and the bad: I tell it to them straight! Even the little ones; I am very honest with them. I teach them: "Know who you are! And define that for yourself! And never forget, it's not all about you! So, when you make it, help somebody else make it!" 

I feel called to help young people achieve their dreams. This is my way of giving back.

Q: What is "Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby" all about? 

A: "Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby" is an original uplifting musical. It centers on a group of vivacious foster home kids. Some of them are optimistic while others are pessimistic. The woman who runs the home is a bundle of joy. She does her best to keep the kids encouraged despite their bleak circumstance. This musical is about hope. It also sheds light on what Christmas really means, from the eyes of a group of children who don't have much of anything. All they have is hope! The musical is poignant, yet funny too. "Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby" is comprised mostly of kid actors. Several songs in the musical are lullabies that I wrote when my son was a baby.

As a continuation of Just Be You Performing Arts' reputation as a philanthropic organization, a portion of the proceeds from the musical will be donated to local foster care homes. One of which is located in Rahway. 

Just Be You Performing Arts is thrilled to give this donation to help a foster family in need. Thanks to a wonderful new collaboration with Minister Shakkiyah Green, Founder and Executive Director of Beauty In the Spirit, Inc, a non-profit organization based in New Jersey, we are identifying a specific foster care family/families in Union county to which we’ll make our donation. Beauty In Spirit, Inc. services women, children and teenage girls. They advocate for teen girls and women through workshops and conferences given throughout the state of NJ to improve their quality of life. Minister Green has a strong connection within the foster care community, which is very inspiring to us. 

This is a perfect collaboration because we wanted to make sure our donation goes directly to a foster care child in need. It ties in wonderfully with the message in our musical.

Q: What would you say is the most important thing a young actor should know? 

A: Who they are. Bottom line, this is the first lesson I teach my students. Know who you are! We live in a culture where it's very easy to be negatively influenced, especially in show business. If you're not careful, you might look at yourself in the mirror and not recognize yourself. I've learned how to affirm who I am not only as a performing artists, but a person. As a human being walking this great Earth.

When a young actor applies to become a member of Just Be You, they are required to submit an essay entitled "Who Am I.” This essay is a powerful exercise! It empowers these young people to express themselves. After I navigate them through this self-discovery exercise, I begin teaching them technique. But for me, the defining of who you are is vital. To that end, Just Be You is a rather unorthodox acting studio. There's much more to us than technique training.

Q: Do you have any success stories of former students that you would like to share?

A: I have two success stories: one of a former student, and one of a present student. A student who graduated from the organization, named Kayla Richardson, was one of my most rewarding teaching experiences. Her mother enrolled Kayla with the hopes that I could help her learn how to express herself more on stage as a vocalist, as well as help her with stage presence. The first time I heard Kayla sing, I couldn't help but cry. Her voice was so effortless and beautiful. Over the course of mentoring and coaching her, she began to blossom as a performing artist. I did my best to teach Kayla how to free herself artistically. What's so profound about this is that Kayla is blind. By working with Kayla, I learned so much! She was a joy to work with. In a short matter of time, she began booking work as a professional singer! I was so happy for her. But I take no credit for her talent. Kayla was a rising star before she joined Just Be You. All I did was teach her how to shine brighter. 

And that's how I feel about the success of my present student, Linwood Nelson. I call him my little Denzel Washington! Never before have I seen a child actor with so much dramatic depth. And his ability to learn his lines and take direction is magnificent. He's like an adult level actor bundled inside of a great little kid! Recently I was cast in a dream role: Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. Well, one day I received a message from the director saying he was looking for a young actor to play the role of Travis Younger, my character's son. I immediately suggested Linwood! I submitted his head shot, resumé, and spoke of his outstanding potential as a young actor. Well, the director trusted my judgment and cast Linwood immediately.  No audition required! I was so thrilled and happy for Linwood. He has a bright future ahead of him.

Moments like those bring me great joy. They remind me of why I started this organization in the first place: to help somebody. And to build a legacy for my son to inherit!

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The Cast of "Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby" includes: Adora McDaniel, Amanda Vital, Arthur Gregory Pugh, Brody Ferrer, Heaven Michelle McCoy, Jackson Ferrer, Linwood Nelson, Ruth Rocky, Sabrina Dakwar, Serena Marie Williams, and Sophia Bulbulia. The pianist/musician is Mack Williams. The principal photographer is Dale Clarke.

Tickets for “Who Am I: A Christmas Lullaby” are $25 and can be purchased by visiting the UCPAC box office at 1601 Irving Street (open Tues-Sat 11AM-5PM and Thursdays 11AM-8PM), by calling (732) 499-8226 during box office hours, or by visiting this link: http://bit.ly/2gyYxOw. A $20 student/senior price is available by phone or in person only.

 

 

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