Smoked Apple prepares to open its first original full-length, ‘Oh Lord! Mamma Done Burnt the Biscuits’
Smoked Apple Theater Group has been picking up steam and garnering press as they prepare for Friday’s opening of founder Nipsey Greene’s first full-length original work, “Oh Lord! Mamma Done Burnt the Biscuits.”
The play is directed by Smoked Apple co-artistic director Janelle Renee Dunn and features a cast of nine, including Greene. Both Dunn and Greene spoke with Insider about the challenges of staging new works, the learning curve of running a theater company, and the origins of the script, which Greene was working on before he started Smoked Apple.
“I was in a play that lasted eight months in rehearsal and never got off the ground. So that experience alone was, like, I can run a better company,” says Greene, recalling the frustration that led him to consider writing and directing. “I was, like, I need to write some plays, I need to write some work. So I took a whole month and wrote three plays.”
After those first drafts were finished, Greene focused on the satirical “Oh Lord,” which he continued to tweak and edit for two years before he felt it was ready for production.
In the past, Greene has criticized what he sees as the standard mode of black theater, full of what he considers to be stereotypes and clichés. “Oh Lord” is, in part, his answer to those clichés, perhaps best embodied by Tyler Perry’s Medea character.
For the premiere of his work, Greene tapped Dunn to direct, though he admits it was difficult to let go of his script.
“I was all in my feelings when we first started rehearsals,” says Greene. “We went back and forth a little bit. It hasn’t been produced … if other theater companies use it, they’ll interpret it how they interpret it, but this is the first perception … I had a moment in the beginning, but we worked through it.”
Dunn has been out of the director’s seat for awhile, though it was her focus while an undergrad at University of Louisville’s African-American Theatre Program, where she directed “Top Dog Underdog,” “The Colored Museum” and “Slanguage.” Despite the break from directing, Dunn feels like she’s doing great work.
“It’s like I haven’t lost my stride — I remember my love of it,” she says. “There have been exciting challenges. I get to throw in and use things I learned in grad school, so it’s been exciting.”
One of her challenges is sharing control of the project with playwright Greene and the other actors.
“As an only child, I have that ‘I am always right’ (mindset), so sometimes it’s been swallowing that pride,” admits Dunn. “Maybe I’m not always right, maybe what this actor is saying makes sense. So let’s try it.”
And one of those actors is Greene, who plays the zany grandmother Hattie Mae, one of the stereotypical characters he is criticizing with the work. Greene was not originally going to play that role.
“Who we had originally cast as Hattie Mae didn’t work out,” Dunn explains. “I thought, ‘Well, since we’re spoofing Tyler Perry … it makes sense.’ If you look at shows like ‘Martin’ and ‘Big Momma’s House,’ whenever it’s the elderly grandma type, it’s a big black dude in a dress.”
In addition to a brand new script, “Oh Lord” will feature original music by the director’s husband, Joe Dunn, performed by his band Nomad Quartet.
“She was telling Joe (about the project), and he jumped on board,” says Greene, who is enthusiastic about the inclusion of music in the play.
In addition to satirizing stereotypes, the new work gives the ensemble an opportunity to explore and create outside the roles they are often offered.
“What speaks to me is that each day I walk into this rehearsal and I get to work with nine talented black actors,” says Dunn. “And we’re not playing slaves. We’re not recreating some moment in civil rights history — and those are important aspects of our story — however, I am ready as an artist to move past that. There’s more to us than being the slave, or being Martin Luther King.”
Smoked Apple has been building their company for more than a year, starting in December 2014 with the first of several 10-minute play festivals. And word is finally getting around. Their summer camp for kids recently received a visit by the mayor, and “Oh Lord” has been covered by local TV news.
Greene says it’s all been a learning process.
“It’s a constant lesson in how to work Louisville,” he says. “Louisville is a unique beast. We’ve improved how we run things, how we get talent, how we make things happen — the energy we put behind the press and the marketing.”
Clearly it’s beginning to pay off. Dunn also recognizes the company’s growth. “That’s what drives me, being a part of Smoked Apple, that’s the push that’s been driving me to make sure this show is set up for success,” she says.
“Oh Lord! Mamma Done Burnt the Biscuits” runs July 15-16 and 21-23 at 8 p.m., and July 17 and 24 at 5:30 p.m. at Kentucky Center‘s MeX Theater, 501 W. Main St. Tickets are $21 for general admission and $16 for seniors and students.