One year ago, Joe Senqyr Minjares, a playwright, theater lover, and owner of Pepito’s Restaurant, bought his neighborhood theater at 48th and Chicago in Minneapolis — The Parkway Theater. His delight over the purchase is equaled today by the upcoming debut of the theater’s first live stage production.
The Black Orchid: Josephine Baker, Snapshots from her Life, written and directed by Judy Cooper Lyle and produced by Phyllis Productions, opens at The Parkway Theater on June 19. “The family is extremely excited,” said Pamela Huseby, the daughter of Minjares.
“To me, it seems like an opening to a new life for the theater,” Huseby said, “and being able to have this play and all the work that is being put into this. I am really proud that we have an establishment like this, and I think it will open more doors to the theater world.”
Lyle, who has done community theater for over 30 years, expressed appreciation for all the renovation that Minjares has done to the Parkway, and especially for building the set for the production of Black Orchid. One of the joys of Lyle’s Urban Spectrum Theater Company, she said, “is that they like working within the neighborhood and helping people reach their potential.” Part of their mission, she added, “is to bring accessible entertainment to the inner city.”
The Black Orchid celebrates the life of the talented singer, dancer and performer Josephine Baker. Born in East St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker performed in New York and then went on to become a sensation in Paris.
Lyle, who has been doing theater since she was a little girl in North Dakota, researched Baker’s life for two years and was so fascinated that she decided it was time to stage a play about Baker. “She led the kind of life I would have liked to lead,” said Lyle.
The Black Orchid was first staged in Minneapolis in 2005 and toured the outlying areas in spring 2006. The reception to the play — full houses and standing ovations — encouraged Lyle to remount it.
This time the performances will be closer to Josephine Baker’s in Paris in 1925. For example, Melanie Howie, who plays the lead, will do the banana dance wearing only pasties and feathers. “That’s the way Josephine did it,” said Lyle.
Howie is a local performer, teacher and dancer. The role of Josephine Baker was her first lead since playing Annie Oakley in junior high school.
“It’s kind of intense,” said Howie. “It’s been a really amazing experience, especially in doing the research, watching footage, and reading about her. She’s an incredible woman that did so much for the world. I just hope I do her justice.”
Local actor Bill Gorman plays Baker’s close lifelong friend Stephen. In the production, Stephen is also the narrator whose function is to fill in the details between scenes.
“I love the role,” Gorman said. “It’s great fun. It’s a great story. I love the chance to be this fellow — kind of a sophisticated, suave kind of a guy — and I love the opportunity to attempt to be that.”
“This is a great story about a woman who took hold of her life,” Gorman added. “She was a big personality, and if you delve into her life, it shows a woman with great gifts, but also a flawed human being — a free spirit. The primary thing, though, is that Baker was a talented performer who really cared about people.”
Lyle hopes that audiences will leave the theater with not only an appreciation of Baker, but also a sense of the joy of entertainment and of a live performance. Huseby’s wish is that audiences will enjoy both the production and the rejuvenated Parkway Theater.
The Black Orchid will be performed June 19-22 and 26-29 at the Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis, 612-822-3030. Tickets may be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com. For further information about the show, call 612-821-2385. For more information on The Urban Spectrum Theatre, call 612-618-5326.
Jennifer Holder welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.