Motown lifted R&B music to new heights in the ‘60s, as Barry Gordy Jr., founder of the famed black-owned music label, put a starlight on numerous popular acts of the day: Marvin Gaye, The Shirelles, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and Jackson Five. None, however, were as prominent as The Supremes, led by Gordy’s own love, Diana Ross.
In 1981 when the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” opened, it tipped its hat to the drama that took place behind the scenes at Motown—specifically in 1967 when Gordy replaced The Supremes’ lead singer, Florence Ballard, with Diana Ross. As history shows, the girl group went on to sell millions records and score top hits aplenty. Yet, Ballard was dropped from her label, and thereafter struggled with depression, alcoholism, poverty and eventually death before she could make a comeback. Gordy and Ballard’s story loosely makes up the plot for “Dreamgirls,” with lyrics and book by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger. The show went on to win numerous awards—Tony, Drama Desk, GRAMMY and Laurence Olivier alike—before hitting the big screen and becoming an Oscar-winning film, starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce, Jamie Fox and Eddie Murphy.
For Kevin Lee-y Green, “Dreamgirls” represents the African-American experience from a different angle. “One that isn’t the stereotypes we run across in most art forms,” he says. “It demonstrates how we come together as a community, no matter what the dysfunction may be.”
Cofounder of Techmoja Dance and Performing Arts, Green directed the musical in 2009 and 2013. It was a goal he and his mother, Donna Joyner Green, vowed to do every five years to celebrate Techmoja’s mission to give artists of all ethnicities a chance to create quality work with quality talent. Though Green’s mother passed away in 2014, he is carrying on their pact from a decade ago. This weekend Techmoja will present “Dreamgirls” on Thalian Hall’s main stage.
“One of my main objectives when I start any project is to strip away any preconceived ideas people may have about the subject matter, and make it accessible and authentic,” Green tells. “Our mission is to enliven community, create a deep sense of cultural understanding, and connect people across boundaries, [with] diversity as a positive social value. ‘Dreamgirls’ performed as our anniversary show to remind us where we started and how far we have come.”
Green has cast Adrienne DeBouse as Lorrell Robinson, Kayla Simone Ferguson as Deena Jones, and Joshlynn Starling as Michelle Morris, who replaces Dreamgirl Effie White, played by Myra Graham Quince. Many of the ladies are reprising their roles from the first Techmoja productions. Though, it’s Ferguson’s first time on a Wilmington stage. Green saw her perform as Deena Jones in the show in the western part of the state.
“Deena deals with self-esteem and being her own person,” Ferguson says. As the beloved wife to record-label mogul Curtis Taylor Jr., played by Kaleb Edley, Deena is more reserved, perhaps even a tad shy to be center stage. Ferguson plays the singer as someone struggling to find her own voice and who allows others to control her life. It’s been a lot to take in and learn from, according to the actress. “You can’t have other people make all of your decisions for you. You have to have the strength to make your own path.” It can be seen and heard in “One Night Only,” a song illuminating Deena’s feelings about her relationship to Curtis. It sets up Ferguson’s favorite scene at the end, when Deena chooses to leave.
“It really shows what their dynamic as a married couple was and how it was no longer going to be tolerated,” Ferguson explains. “Each character goes through something everyone can relate to, especially feelings of loneliness.”
Perhaps no one deals with solitude more than Effie, who’s at the top of stardom, only to get fired from the group, then dropped from her label as a solo artist, and is estranged from her family. Quince connects with the soulful singer on many levels but also is embracing her resilience. “I’m learning [from Effie] to adapt, overcome, and to never let anyone rob me of my voice,” she says. “It’s precious to me.”
Effie’s fall from grace is the crux of the story’s movement. Her storyline delves into heavier themes within the show, like abuse. “When everyone and everything is working against you and you have a choice to make, do you fight? Do you live? Do you give up? Or do you choose to dream again?” Quince asks about Effie’s choices.
“As one who has experienced this personally, it is challenging to work through onstage. Having to tap into that pain and relive it, you basically feel exposed. That’s difficult when you’ve tried so hard for so long to never show anyone that part of you.”
Michelle replaces Effie in Dreamgirls, amidst their rise to superstardom as The Dreams. Starling’s favorite scene is the first she’s in—as she steps in the stead of Effie. “You get to see every dynamic of Michelle,” Starling says. “She’s sweet but won’t be walked over, and she’s not willing keep herself in situations she doesn’t think are good for her.”
Starling refers to Michelle as “down to business,” but also someone who has fun and knows how to go with the flow of life. Getting to sing with Devon Brown, who plays her love interest, CC White, tops the show’s highlights. “He’s so talented,” she praises. “I get chills just about every time I listen to him sing.”
Brandon Bradley will play James “Thunder” Early, a popular musician who gives the Dreamgirls their start as backup singers. He also becomes the love interest of Lorrell and openly struggles with drug abuse. DeBouse says it’s a storyline likely to hit home to many and even carry on conversations beyond the stage. “If there isn’t a level of truth brought to the table, how can there can be an opportunity for discussion?” she asks of the performances. DeBouse praises moments of discomfort as the real impetus for art to illuminate life.
“Hopefully, the audience’s ride home will be more than just, ‘Wow, that was a great show,’” she says. “It will be a time for, ‘Let’s talk about what happened with Jimmy, and how to be careful how we treat the ones we love or care about because we never know what they are going through when we aren’t watching.’”
DeBouse admires her character’s loyalty and energy, not to mention her desires as a hopeless romantic. She calls Lorrell outspoken, bubbly and likable—someone who believes in self-worth. “She understands self-love and that she is important and deserves happiness as much anyone.” “Ain’t No Party” stands out as DeBouse’s key song, but the ensemble’s “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” is her favorite dance sequence. “Mr. Green is a stellar director and choreographer,” she credits.
Green tapped into mixing style with the social dances of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the time periods of the production. He credits the show for broadening his dance vocabulary, even. “The styles of dance have range,” Green tells, “but in particular there is a number that utilizes step, which was made popular at historically black colleges and universities.”
With costumes by Terrill Williams and Allyson Mojica and music directed by Brian Whitted, Techmoja will open “Dreamgirls” Thursday night for a two-weekend run. It’s been an emotional process for Green. “I’ve lived with these characters for so long. To go on this journey with Effie, Deena, and Lorrell again, I find myself honored, but I also find myself deeply connected to them.”