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Interview: David E. Talbert – Playwright, Director and Producer

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David E. Talbert is one of the highest-grossing and most-recognizable brands in the world of touring comedies and musicals. In addition to being acknowledged as a “trailblazer” by the NAACP, which has bestowed Talbert with five awards over the years, he has also been honored as “Best Playwright” at the New York Literacy Awards. Such recognition, however, is the byproduct of 12 critically-acclaimed touring productions, which have broken box office records nationwide. His latest play – “What My Husband Doesn’t Know” – is set to begin its tour in February 2011.

In the midst of a promotional campaign for the DVD release of “Love in the Nick of Tyme,” David E. Talbert managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his creative process, his musical collaboration with Vivian Green, and the influence of Neil Simon, August Wilson, and Spike Lee on his craft.

Although your collegiate background is marketing-focused, at what point did you realize that you had a passion to write for the stage?

In college, I was a radio announcer on the college station, followed by stints at the local one – Z103 – and then the big station in D.C. – DJ100. So that’s what I was really doing while I was in college. I thought I was going to be the next big radio jock. So when I graduated from Morgan State, they transferred me to this station in the Bay Area, which was KSOL in the Oakland, San Francisco market. I was working out there, and then they fired the guy who hired me and they cleaned house of all the jocks. Then someone gave me tickets to see the play called “Beauty Shop” and the play called “Diary of Black Men.” Those were the first plays I had ever seen, and I just saw how enamored the audience was. I began to study the audience. Being a radio announcer, I understood how they marketed the play. So then I left the play that night and said: “Okay, I think I can do this.” That’s when I wrote my first play, and a year later, we took it across the country.

Oh, wow! What an unexpected twist of fate! With your background in marketing, is there a particular strategy that you have used to build the David Talbert brand?

Well, if it’s coming from the heart, people will gravitate towards your work. You know, I started writing a few years earlier while I was doing radio in Ohio. I did a three-month stint at a radio station there. I had broken up with my college sweetheart, so I started writing. You’re crying and writing and listening to Al Green! [laughing] And so, I was listening to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” over and over again and the record started scratching, because I was playing it so much! [laughing continues] And then I stopped and looked at some of the things I had been writing. You know, “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong” poetry, all that kind of stuff. I just took that time when the Al Green record started scratching. I looked at it and I said: “Man, this stuff isn’t so bad.” So then I stopped writing about her, and then just started writing short stories. I tucked it away. Three years later, after I had gone to those plays, I pulled those things back out, and that’s where I started to piece together my first play, which is a comedy about relationships.

Early on in your career, before you turned into an award-winning playwright, did all of your inspiration come solely from within?

Well, most writers are voyeurs. We’re flies on the wall. You can be in a room full of people and writers will just sit there and listen and observe other people. So what I do is I observe what other people are talking about that is going on in their lives, and then I find what makes it real to me, because I can only write what’s real to me. So if it touches me, then I believe it will touch other people. So I write about things that really touch me, but I get my inspiration from my wife’s girlfriends and female friends that I know. I listen to what they’re going through in their lives, and their issues. The thing about emotion is it’s really genderless. You know, women are a little bit more up-front and open with their feelings, but men have the same feelings. So I really write for the emotion, which is genderless, that everyone can relate to.

I definitely agree with you on that point.  When I hear your name, I always think of you as a writer, but you are also a director and a producer. I want to talk about those two hats that you wear, and get some insight on the joys and the struggles that come along with those two pieces.

Writing is what is the most pure expression of what I do. Some stories come to me, some stories come through me; but writing is really an instrument of what touches you and moves you. It just flows through you and you share it. So that’s the purest form of what I do. Now directing… I believe I’m the only one that can really bring out what I’ve written to life, and that I can communicate that to the actors the most, because it came from me. So directing was only out of necessity because the first play that I put out, we hired a director, but he could not communicate what I had written. So I had to then communicate that to the actors. Then I realized that what I was doing was directing. But my craft is really as a writer, and as a director I like to just communicate what is really the emotion, what is the intent behind the words to the actors. So that’s out of necessity. And producing is really just connecting the dots. The biggest thing I do as a producer is understanding how to market. And I use my marketing background to really understand that. How do you get your message across to the audience and how do you cut through all the rest of the noise that’s out there in the marketplace? You cut through that so your message can get across. So that’s really what my biggest value as a producer is marketing.

Although I did not see your latest play live, it was recorded in such a way that I felt that I was literally in the audience. My biggest surprise, however, is that while the opening credits of “Love in the Nick of Tyme” rolled across the screen, I noticed that all the songs were original pieces written by Vivian Green, who I absolutely love! How did that professional relationship develop? And how did she become attached to the project?

Initially, she came out to audition for the play. She auditioned for the role of Portia – which Trenyce [Cobbins] played. And I thought that she was a very good actress, but I thought Trenyce would be better suited. But her songwriting skills are crazy! I love “Emotional Rollercoaster,” “Gotta Go Gotta Leave,” and just her whole vibe. So I told her: “You know, you’d be great at writing songs.” She said, “That’s something I always wanted to do for theatre.” So we hung out that night. After she auditioned, we went over to our musical director’s house. She wrote that first song in the play – “Maybe” – that night. She wrote it in about thirty minutes. After that, Viv said: “Okay, okay.” And I said: “Viv, we’ve got to do this.” So she flew out for another week, and we hung out, and she wrote all the songs in a week. I mean, she’s a beast with that pen.

Yes, indeed! I really love “Under My Skin,” which is on her second album, Vivian. Out of the five songs that she wrote for the play, which one do you think best captured the moment or the feeling of a particular moment within the play?

 I like “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” because I love duets that continue to tell the story; songs that move the story forward. So I thought that was a great character song. When it comes to just a Disney ballad, which I think she did so well, it was the song “Maybe”. I thought that was just a Disneyesque song that was just beautiful. Then, I love the song Trenyce sung…

Oh, yes! “I’ve Made My Bed”! [laughing] That is my favorite! [laughing continues]

 Man, Trenyce sang the daylights out of that song! [laughing]

 Yeah, her performance really stood out!

 Definitely.

At the end of the play, we find out that the narrator is actually an older version of Marcelles, who is played by Morris Chestnut. One quote that he used really stuck with me: “Time is the most precious commodity on earth.” When you think about it in your own life and your own experiences, when did you come to that realization?

It’s funny, man, because I wrote this play in 2000.

Really? Oh, wow!

The same summer I wrote “The Fabric of a Man” and “Love Makes Things Happen,” which I did with [Kenneth] “Babyface” [Edmonds]. And I wrote them all within the course of three months. It’s like my relationship trilogy. At least, that’s what I called it. But I held onto it because I knew it was a sweet Cinderella story, a kind of an urban Cinderella story. That’s what I always wanted it to be. But those moments with the jazz musician were just going to be spoken word by an artist that just would talk about the theme within the play.  Now, it just so happened that by the time I put it out in 2007, spoken word was passé, really. It wasn’t as hot as it was in 2000. So I said that’s not going to work. I think that’s going to bore the audience. So I started to say that I’m just going to have a guy narrate this, and I want to have a jazz musician narrate it at this club. I just started thinking: “What would he be talking about?” Because it would be interesting to see if it was an older guy kind of reflecting on his life. And it just hit me that time is the most precious commodity on the planet. Some folks say it’s money. They print money every day, but you show somebody printing more time, I’ll show you a unicorn and a $3 dollar bill. When I started thinking about this guy, I thought: “He has to have a perspective based on some kind of pain.” So then when I kind of discovered who he was, his dialogue just flowed through me. He life experiences flowed through me, which is one of the things as a writer, you want to be able to access the character, become the character. The road to writing is when the writer becomes the words. The singer is when the singer becomes the song. A preacher when the preacher becomes what he’s preaching. Then there’s no disconnect in the message, because you become one with it. So I became one with that character. He wasn’t even supposed to be the older Marcelles. We came to the rehearsal. We had cast COCO [Brown], and my wife came to me and said: “Look at COCO and look at Morris.” And I said: “Yes?” And she said: “Don’t they look alike?” And I said: “Yes.” And she walked away, and I said: “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I can make him the older Marcelles!” And then, that’s when I  wove in all of the things during rehearsal that tied them in. They weren’t originally supposed to be the same person.

How fascinating!

And then the magic came on New Year’s Eve. The day before we were going to leave town to open up with the play, it hit me that I was going to have Morris Chestnut come back into the play and freeze everybody, and have that whole scene at the end, which ended up really blowing everybody away. But magic just happens. Quincy Jones has a quote, where he says that he always leaves room for God to come into the room. And that’s what I try to do with my pieces. I try to do as much as I can do, but I always want to leave room for the magic to happen, for the Master to come in there and add value to something that I would not have normally thought myself.

Well, the ending definitely is a shocker, but it makes sense once you see it all the way through, especially when you watch it again. The second time, it all flows and makes sense. But it is really interesting to hear that it was all accidental! As a recent recipient of the NAACP’s Trailblazer Award, what do you consider to be your biggest influence on the contemporary musical theatre landscape?

It is really bringing a certain level of quality to the theatre. It’s really the written word. You know, the circuit has been criticized for so many years, and it still takes hits a lot of times for the integrity of the art. What I Iike to bring to it is that the written word is solid, and it stands on it’s own; therefore, it can attract the kind of talent that I’ve been able to attract because of the written word. I believe, If you write it, they will come, so I’ve been able to get Shemar Moore, Malik Yoba, Morris Chestnut, “Babyface,” Deborah Cox and Kirk Franklin to participate in my productions. All these people have worked with me, because they gravitated towards the written word. I think that has continued to push the envelope artistically, so that it will be something that will attract entertainers and these top-flight actors and singers that you wouldn’t normally see on stage.

As you transitioned to the world of Hollywood, what major challenges did you face – internally or externally? Describe your learning curve.

The curve never ends! [laughing] It’s a curve that has many twists and turns. You have to always be learning. I always say, There is never there. You know, people may say, I’ve been here twenty years and I’ve written twelve plays and toured them in a film and novels and done television. And people ask: “Well, how do you feel to be there?” Well, no, I’m not there. I’m still learning. I’m still experimenting. I’m still growing. I’m still being inspired by other great artists that are either before me or who have come after me. So I’m still tweaking. It’s always a work in progress for me. So the challenge  is to stay open. It really is. That’s the biggest challenge. It’s easy to go into a film saying, Well, I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I know what I’m doing. Well, no. You have to always be open and understand that you’re always a teacher and a student, and you have to be comfortable with that. So that’s probably the biggest thing that as I continue to get in different mediums, that you’re always a teacher and always a student. You always have to continue to be learning, drawing from what you know and then adding onto it what you don’t know.

I really love the phrase that you used: “You’re always a teacher and always a student.” In addition to being a journalist, I am an educator as well.  I am really curious to know who you consider to be a mentor or role model in the development of David E. Talbert, the man the world has come to know and love.

As a writer, it’s probably Neil Simon. I’ve never met him, but I’ve studied his work. As a writer, it’s also the great August Wilson. As a director, Spike Lee is a great influence. I’ve never met him, but just as someone who pushes the envelope, and who has a voice, and who isn’t afraid to have a point of view and then express it. That’s someone that I really have a tremendous amount of respect for. I would say those three are probably, from a distance, the biggest influences in my career.

And when you look long-term, since you said that “you are not there yet,” what goals do you have for the future?

The ultimate thing is basically to continue doing what I love. Continue doing what I would do for free that someone happens to think enough of to pay me.

For more information on David E. Talbert, visit his official website: http://www.davidetalbert.com/

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About Clayton Perry