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Theater Wed Nov 07 2012
Actor Laurence Fishburne is best known for his work on Broadway, television and the big screen, having starred in movies such as Contagion, The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood, as well as his Academy Award-nominated performance in What's Love Got To Do With It; however, what you may not know, is that he is also a playwright. Riff Raff, Fishburne's only play to date, centers on the relationship of three men who are immersed in New York's gritty criminal world. Next week, the play will have another run in Chicago, this time via Dream FIERCE Productions; here, Semaj Miller, artistic director, talks about the play and its relevance to the community.
Dream FIERCE Productions' Artistic Director Semaj Miller; photo: Terrance Pitts.
Dream FIERCE Productions is dedicated "to theatrical productions that speak directly to the diverse communities throughout the Chicagoland area." Do you feel that this is something that is lacking here?
Regarding the kinds of show that are available, I wouldn't necessarily say that anything is lacking; Chicago is blessed with some of the most talented artists in theater. My concern is that the people that need to see these shows the most are not in attendance. And that's where Dream FIERCE Productions comes in.
Do you feel or think certain audiences are not patronizing theater enough?
For such a large city, a small percentage of the population attends the theater; many people still believe theater is a pastime reserved for the affluent or "culturally aware." I wholeheartedly reject this and that's partially the reason why I staged my first show on the far South Side. I wanted to bring theater to those who are either not in attendance or just not invited to see productions elsewhere. My shows can and should be enjoyed by a "traditional" theater audience but I'm most concerned about the young people in areas like Chatham, Englewood, Roseland, and on the city's West Side. There is room for more shows that speak to what's going on in our city but in order for the message to get to the intended audience, they must be accessible.
Let's talk about Riff Raff--a gritty crime drama written by Laurence Fishburne. How did this connection come about? Have you ever met him?
I wish! We've worked with some of the same people but never together, unfortunately. Mr. Fishburne is one of my heroes; he is an actor who is brave and honest in all his work and there are few who do it better.
What drew you to the play?
It was suggested to me by Reggie Simmons, who is the Associate Artistic Director of Dream FIERCE Productions. I was looking for a play to produce and at the time, I thought I would do Shakespeare's R&J. I never knew Mr. Fishburne wrote a play, but I bought it, read it, and immediately submitted my licensing proposal to the publisher. I admire his versatility as an artist, I appreciate the integrity of his work, and I'm grateful that as a young actor I have someone like him to look up to.
The story of Riff Raff is happening everyday in our communities; what was it about this play that stood out for you? What about it is different from similar stories that have been told onscreen or onstage?
Its honest, it is brutally honest. I also wanted a chance to play a character I played before. In his notes about the play, Fishburne wrote that this play was, to a degree, an exorcism of the demons that haunted him in his youth. Riff Raff does not romanticize "the lifestyle," and that's the main thing that attracted me to it. I honestly feel as if I'm putting "The Wire" or New Jack City onstage but it is much more impactful because the audience is right there with you.
You play Mike "20/20" Leon in the play--tell us about him.
My character, Mike, is a man who has spent the majority of his life committing crimes. He captures the essence of Jay-Z's "Can I Live," i.e., hustling "out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation." He's almost Shakespearean to me, because his loyalty runs deep and he speaks in rhythmic prose that jumps off the page.
Is there anything about Mike you personally relate to or identify with?
He reminds me of my brothers, well, the men I call my brothers, who actually were heavy in the drug game when I was growing up. I owe a huge debt to them; they kept me off the streets, pushed me to do well in school, and always supported everything I wanted to do. I think for the first time in my life I understand them and where they were coming from, and in a way, this is a nod and a "thank you" to them for keeping me on the right path.
What do you hope people to take away from Riff Raff? Is there a "message" you want audiences to get?
The decisions you make in your teens can and often times will follow you. That's a sobering thought and one that I hope people will take to heart. There is a war going on in the streets of Chicago, kids are killing kids and it is getting worse with each passing day; the only way we can start to change this vicious cycle of violence is by changing the way we think as a community. If we can change the way one young person thinks, I think we have done a good job. From that one person, we can inspire, uplift, and encourage a generation to not only dream big but to dream fiercely.
Riff Raff runs Friday and Saturday, November 16-17, at 7pm, at the Coriolis Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 404. Tickets are $15; for more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 708-439-9908.