Alumna April Yvette Thompson and her producing partners scored big at this year’s Tony awards ceremony in mid-June. SimonSays Entertainment, where she serves as producing associate, took the prize for best “Revival of a Musical” for the wildly popular The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, currently on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (Its leading lady, Audra McDonald, also snagged a Tony for best “Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.”)
The new interpretation modernized the classic folk opera, fleshing out the main characters and introducing music that more closely reflects the music of the black church of the time. Purists may have decried the changes, but Thompson says, “Now the characters seem very real.”
The play was nominated for 10 Tonys in all and has done well in other contests, too. It earned a Drama Desk award for “Best Actress in a Musical” and two Fred and Adele Astaire Awards. In addition, the show’s album soared to number one on the Billboard Top Cast Album chart in its first week of release.
Porgy and Bess has stood the test of time to become part of the American consciousness, says Thompson—having the chance to add to that canon made the play a must-do. “I said, ‘I don’t care if the production makes $1.99. I need to be in the room making it happen,’” she recalls. Adding to the allure of the project was the prospect of working with singers McDonald and Norm Lewis, whom she calls “masters of the form.”
Thompson says McDonald had been very inspiring to her when she was a fledgling actress pounding the pavement in search of work and finding closed doors. “I used to walk from Times Square to Harlem because I didn’t have money to get on the train,” says Thompson. But one day, walking through the streets of Broadway, she overheard McDonald sing “Wheels of a Dream” (from the musical Ragtime) as she passed by a rehearsal space. “It took my breath away,” she says, and gave her the courage to keep at it.
Keep at it, indeed! Among her many pursuits is a role in Clybourne Park, which earned the title “Best Play” at the Tony Awards this year.
She is also a playwright. A staged a reading of her newest work, Good Bread Alley, was presented at Vassar and New York Stage & Film’s Powerhouse Theater earlier this month. The play is the second work in a trilogy focused on Thompson’s hometown, Miami, Florida. The first play, Liberty City, set in the 1970s, explored the experiences of a mixed-heritage (African-American, Afro-Cuban, and Bahamian) family, one that echoes her own family makeup. Good Bread Alley follows four generations of Gullah women in the early 20th century.
Drama is about conflict, and Miami, with its diversity of inhabitants, provides the perfect backdrop, says Thompson. Her family also offered a well from which to draw. Whether from Cuba, the Bahamas, or the U.S., she says, black folks in Miami have traditionally eaten the same food and had similar religious practices, but have led segregated existences. Her family was unusual. Growing up Thompson was like “a fly on the wall,” witnessing “crazy tension between people that are inherently alike.”
“I was fascinated with what that animosity was about and fascinated by where they did come together,” she says. That fascination is evident in Good Bread Alley, in which Cuban immigrants, Gullah people, and other African Americans work, live, play, and love in a home that functions as a boarding house, a gambling establishment, a restaurant, a purveyor of moonshine, and a “roots” parlor where Obeah (similar to Santeria) is practiced as "medicine."
Thompson is committed to illuminating black lives, especially in the places where subcultures of people from the African Diaspora intersect. She is happy that such stories are being told and is heartened that three black producers won Tonys for their plays this year (Thompson and her producing partner Ron Simons, plus Wendell Pierce for Clybourne Park). “I’m walking on clouds," she posted online after the award ceremony, “overwhelmed…grateful…”
So are the fans of her work.