The Vital Theatre Company symbolizes a rare breed of small theaters left in New York City. It offers no political statements nor does it follow a lofty social agenda. Instead, its goals are quite simple: tell a great story, pay the bills, and provide community. Anyone who knows what life is like for a theater artist in New York knows how complicated these goals can be. But for the Vital Theatre, the answers lie in the words.
The company was founded in March 1999 by Laura Stevens, Scott Embler, Michael Schloegl, and their common denominator, Stephen Sunderlin. After many regional and big-city gigs with little-to-no pay, the quartet realized that these experiences left them cold. Their answer was to start their own company where, if they were not going to get paid, they could at least do work that would feed their souls. The right time revealed the right place, as a space on 42nd Street previously inhabited by The New Group became available. This intimate theater allowed the group to do riskier pieces and establish a strong connection between the actors and their audiences.
The Vital Theatre Company's latest production is Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery by Shay Youngblood. It is a memory play, which combines storytelling, music, and dance to recount a young black girl's coming of age in the South in the 1960s. Originally produced in 1988 at the Horizon Theatre in Atlanta, Shakin' has been mounted at over 30 regional theaters around the country but is only now making its New York debut. Youngblood is thrilled to see the play being produced here, as Manhattan "feels like the center of the universe,"
Shakin' is based on Youngblood's book The Big Mama Stories, a collection of short stories in which she created a whole community of characters based on the men and women who raised her in south Georgia. After finishing the book and while living in an artists' colony in the south of France, Youngblood decided that she wanted to bring these characters to life in a theater piece. She cut and pasted pieces of the stories into a more theatrical format and brought it to the Horizon, where she was paired with director Glenda Dickerson. Realizing the material's potential, Dickerson helped Youngblood shape it into a theatrical experience. After the production was very well received, Youngblood suddenly found herself classified as a playwright.
Her main reason for writing Shakin' was to give voice to her "Big Mamas," most of whom could not read or write. Music played an integral part in bringing their spirits to life, Youngblood recalls. Music was influential "in their language, in the way they walked, in the air around them." It was their primary resource to "heal, uplift, soothe, help them to remember and to forget."
Sunderlin, Vital's artistic director as well as the production's director, and Embler, the company's producing director, are ecstatic about this play. They rave that "works like this are why we're in the theater." Simple sets and costumes allow the poetry and dynamic sense of storytelling to come through, giving the production a real sense of intimacy and truth. The ensemble is made up of phenomenally talented African-American actors including Audelco winners Betty Vaughn, Kimberly "Q" Purnell, and Johnnie Mae. Rounding out the cast are Audelco nominee Melody Cooper, Vicky Lambert, Gena Bardwell, Geany Masal, Monica J. Palmer, and Cheryl Simone.
Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery has generated considerable buzz for the Vital Theatre Company, which has extended the play's run. The company's operations are funded entirely by ticket sales, which is uncommon in small theater these days. Vital has already attracted over 2,500 patrons--not bad for a theater that turned one in March. It will be exciting to see where the company is 10 years from now.