Brenda Braxton, a Tony-nominee for her roof-raising performance in Smokey Joe's Cafe, is helping give birth to a new Off-Broadway musical theater company. She's starring in the troupe's inaugural production, Long Road Home, a new, life-affirming musical, running through Dec. 17, 2001 at the Hudson Guild Theater.

"It's the story of an alcoholic and battered woman's journey back to her faith," says Braxton. "It has [repeating what her character Cybele says at the top of the show] enough sex, rock and rhythm 'n' blues to keep a heathen satisfied."
The minimal set is a backwater Tennessee beauty salon, and a church of unspecified denomination with a spirited band and lots of hand-clapping.

"Because I've been so lucky these past few years, I can afford to do a show like Long Road Home, which affords me the opportunity to sing and be myself. I've really been able to stretch. I favor comedy [her bit in Smokey Joe with the boa was hilarious], but I get to do drama here. So much of this show is my life, I feel it was written for me."

Long Road Home is the first production of the Overture Theater Company, a not-for-profit group created to develop new American musicals. Barry Harman, Overture's artistic director, wrote the book and lyrics and directs. He received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for Romance, Romance and co-wrote Olympus On My Mind. Kathy Sommer, a Broadway conductor currently on Beauty and the Beast, is the composer. Musical staging is by DJ Salisbury. Broadway. Veteran stage, film and TV producer Harve Brosten is producing director of Overture. TV producer Robert Blume is the company's managing director.

Those accustomed to Braxton with her closely-cropped "do" from her Smokey years will be hard-pressed to recognize her in her new long-haired "do" with curls. Gospel seems to come natural to Braxton, "but, no, I was raised Catholic. I always loved gospel but never had the opportunity to be a part of it. I vividly remember going with my grandmother and watching the women in church, all dressed in white, dancing, clapping, shouting 'Amen' and getting lost in the spirit. I went to Catholic school at age six and the music changed. Drastically!"

Braxton, a native New Yorker from The Bronx, got hooked on theater via dancing school, where her mother started her at age three. "I went to Professional Arts High School and it was there I realized that theater was the only thing I wanted to do."

At 19, she auditioned for the all-black Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls starring Robert Guillaume. "There were four hundred people there, and they only needed one male and one female swing. And somehow I got the job. I felt like I'd accomplished something! It was tough (covering eight female roles), but it was the best learning experience I could ever ask for."

She went on to assist Michael Bennett and co-choreographer Michael Peters on the original production of Dreamgirls, in which she was a dance captain and swing. Later, in the international company and Broadway revival starring Lillias White, she understudied Lorrell (the role Loretta Devine created).
In 1991, Braxton joined Cats as Demeter and understudied Grizabella; then she went to Jelly's Last Jam starring Gregory Hines. Braxton says some of her best mentoring came from working with director/writer Vinnette Carroll (Your Arm's Too Short To Box with God and Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope) at the Urban Arts Corps. "That was for no money. You know you love what you're doing when you do it just for the experience."

She's shown a clipping in which Andre De Shields, the veteran hoofer making a comeback of sorts as one of the stars of The Full Monty, speaks of never being "invited" to do Hollywood films. "Roles for African-Americans are still constrained there," he said. "There's only one leading man, Denzel [Washington], room for one character actor, Morgan [Freeman]; one action hero, Wesley [Snipes]; and one buddy, Danny Glover."
Braxton says she wholeheartedly understands, since this situation is a big problem onstage. "It's gotten no better for minorities on Broadway or in the regionals."

But, wait, this last decade Braxton has hardly ever been without a job. "True, but I've only had two!" she laughs. "And I count my lucky star every day for them. The problem is that no one is taking a chance on doing new shows with minority casts. When these revivals come in, there are few roles African-Americans would be proud to do. So we wait it out and see if something else comes along. Unfortunately, it rarely does.
"I realized this," she continues, "and stuck with what I thought to be great shows with great companies that became like family. I've been so lucky, but it's hard when you look for work and the shows with parts for you aren't there."

Braxton said she doesn't know "what direction Broadway is going or will go. And it's affecting all minority performers. When Miss Saigon closes, there'll be few roles for Asian-Americans until they revive South Pacific."
She points out that others knew. Smokey, with a cast of nine (six black and three white), closed with seven of the original performers. "We loved what we were doing," says Braxton, "but some probably would liked to have moved on. However, there was no place to go. How many times can you do The Wiz and Dreamgirls? It's a matter of job security."

Did her Smokey Joe Tony nomination bring her anything? "No," she answers quickly. But her four-year run did bring Braxton and her husband, who's in law enforcement, some nice benefits. They renovated a townhouse in Harlem. She's now working with community leaders to develop an upscale hotel on 125th Street that will include a theater.

"Harlem's in the midst of a huge renaissance," she reports. "Just like in 'The Jeffersons,' everyone's moving up! Uptown. Townhouses and buildings are being renovated, and restaurants are popping up everywhere you look."

Braxton funded a mentoring project of her own, Leading Ladies: Just for Teens. "We met Sunday mornings in the lobby of the Virginia Theater and, thanks to the cooperation of the producers, my groups got to meet the cast, tour backstage and stay for the matinee. I was able to contribute something and make a difference."


Key Subjects: 
Brenda Braxton; Smokey Joe's Cafe, Jelly's Last Jam, Long Road Home, blacks
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
May 2002