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In New Comedy/Drama ‘Heart Song’, Middle-Aged Women Find Faith and Sisterhood in Flamenco Class

Postcard front rough mockupJews doing flamenco? Instead of ‘Ole!’ the crowd shouts Oy vey?’” – Rochelle in “Heart Song”

Three friends embark on a joyous journey of sisterhood, discovering their inner ‘duende’ through a flamenco class for middle-aged women. Heart Song, the newest comedy/drama from Stephen Sachs (Bakersfield Mist, Cyrano), opens at The Fountain Theatre on May 25 with Shirley Jo Finney (In the Red and Brown Water) directing and choreography by internationally renowned flamenco dancer Maria Cha Cha Bermudez.

Pamela Dunlap stars as Rochelle, a middle aged Jewish woman struggling with a crisis of faith. When Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) convinces her to join a flamenco class for “seasoned” out of shape women, Rochelle’s life is changed forever. There, she meets Daloris (Juanita Jennings) and an unforgettable circle of women (Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou, Sherrie Lewandowski and Norma Maldonado) who propel Rochelle on a hilarious and deeply moving course of unexpected self-discovery.

Heart Song is funny but also allows me to explore serious issues about faith, spirituality and mortality that are deeply personal to me,” says Sachs. “The play dramatizes how art, in the form of flamenco — like religion or spiritual faith — has the power to heal and transform.”

“Flamenco is a life-saver for these women,” explains Finney. “It’s about duende, finding the deeper soul, unearthing that deep inner voice that lives inside us and can heal our inner wounds.”

The Fountain Theatre, recipient of critical acclaim and multiple awards for its theater productions, is also L.A.’s foremost presenter of flamenco. The Fountain’s monthly “Forever Flamenco!” series was created by co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor, who acts as consultant on this production.

“This is the perfect opportunity to marry the Fountain’s two audiences,” says Lawlor. “With Heart Song, we celebrate both our dedication to creating and producing new plays, as well as our longtime passion and commitment to the art of flamenco.”

Tamlyn Tomita, Pamela Dunlap, and Juanita Jennings

Tamlyn Tomita, Pamela Dunlap, and Juanita Jennings

Set design for Heart Song is by Tom Buderwitz; lighting design is by Ken Booth; sound design is by Bruno Louchouarn; costume design is by Dana Woods; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; casting is by Cathy Reinking; production stage manager is Corey Womack; and assistant stage managers are Mitzi Delgado and Terri Roberts. The Fountain Theatre production marks its world premiere. A second production will take place at Florida Rep in 2014.

Stephen Sachs’ other plays include Cyrano (2012 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award), Bakersfield Mist (2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play, optioned for London’s West End and New York), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse, Canadian Stage Company, LADCC and LA Weekly Award nominations), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist; Back Stage Garland award for Best Play), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue), and The Baron in the Trees. His play Sweet Nothing in my Ear (1997 PEN USA Literary Award finalist and Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) has been produced in theaters around the country and was made into a TV movie for CBS starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. Open Window (2005 Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) had its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Shirley Jo Finney received the LADCC award for her direction of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain, where she also directed award-winning productions of From the Mississippi Delta, Central Avenue, Yellowman and The Ballad of Emmett Till. Her work has been seen at the McCarter Theater, Pasadena Playhouse, Goodman Theater, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Playhouse, LA Theater Works, Crossroads Theater Company, Actors Theater of Louisville Humana Festival, Mark Taper Forum, American College Theatre Festival, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the State Theater in Pretoria, South Africa, where she helmed the South African opera, Winnie, based on the life of political icon Winnie Mandela. Ms. Finney has been honored with Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Back Stage Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards. For television, she directed several episodes of Moesha, and she garnered the International Black Filmmakers ‘Best Director’ Award for her short film, Remember Me. In 2007 she received the African American Film Marketplace Award of Achievement for Outstanding Performance and Achievement and leader in Entertainment.

Pamela Dunlap (Rochelle) has performed at Lincoln Center, New York Theatre Workshop, New York Stage and Film and Circle Repertory Company. On Broadway: Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Redwood Curtain, Yerma. Off Broadway: Early Girl, Sacrifice to Eros, Green Card. L.A. theatergoers have seen her at the Mark Taper, Ahmanson, South Coast Rep and L.A. Theatre Works. Regional theater includes Theatre Raleigh, Pioneer Theatre, St. Louis Repertory, Hartford Stage, Arena Stage, Pittsburgh Public Theatre and Corpus Christi Symphony. She is the recipient of an OOBR Award, an honoree of the New York Drama League, and a three-time Drama-Logue Award recipient. Mad Men fans will recognize her as Pauline Francis, Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law with the questionable baby sitting skills. TV guest appearances include How I Met Your Mother, N.C.I.S., Law and Order SVU, and recurring as Gilda Rockwell on Commander In Chief. Pamela recently completed filming on Doll and Em for British TV, written, produced and starring Emily Mortimer. Film: The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood; I Am Sam; War Of The Roses; The Holiday; Sixteen To Life; and Mind The Gap.

Juanita Jennings (Daloris) is known to Fountain audiences for her portrayal of Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and for her versatility in From the Mississippi Delta. She recently co-starred in South Coast Repertory’s production of Fences, and has also appeared at SCR in Jar the Floor (NAACP Theatre Award for Best Actress) and Twelfth Night. Other theater credits include productions at New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, Mark Taper Forum, The Old Globe and Westwood Playhouse. Her many TV roles include Edna on the Tyler Perry series Meet the Browns and Dorothy Bascomb on The Bold and the Beautiful. She is a Cable Ace winner for her portrayal in the HBO mini-series Laurel Avenue.

Tamlyn Tomita (Tina) starred in the Fountain’s very first production, Winter Crane (Drama-Logue Award). Other stage work include The Square and Don Juan: A Meditation (Taper, Too), Summer Moon (Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre and South Coast Repertory), Day Standing on its Head (Manhattan Theatre Club) and Nagasaki Dust (Philadelphia Theatre Company). She is best known for the films The Day After Tomorrow, The Joy Luck Club and Karate Kid 2. Other film credits include Picture Bride, Come See the Paradise, Four Rooms, Living Out Loud and Gaijin 2. Soap opera followers know her as Dr. Ellen Yu on Days of Our Lives and Glee fans have seen her as Julia Chang.

Maria Bermudez (Choreographer) is one of the foremost flamenco dancers in the world today. Born in Los Angeles, she now resides in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the “cradle” of flamenco. Her outstanding and critically acclaimed performances include The Hollywood Bowl, The John Anson Ford Theater, The Fountain Theater, The Los Angeles Music Center, and The Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Los Angeles, Central Park and The Joyce Theater in New York City, the Teatro  Palacio das Artes in Brazil, Pena Cernicalos, Los Gallos, and Teatro Lope de Vega in Spain, guest appearances with the Santa Cecilia California and numerous venues throughout the world. Most recently she formed Chicana Gypsy Project which draws on her Mexican-American heritage and her immersion into Gypsy culture. Her life and career has inspired the award-winning documentary film, Streets of Flamenco .

Housed in a charming two-story complex, the Fountain is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 200 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Highlights include In the Red and Brown Water (“Best in Theater 2012” – Los Angeles Times); Cyrano, an adaptation of the Rostand classic for hearing and deaf actors by Stephen Sachs (LADCC Award, “Outstanding Production”), a six-month run of Bakersfield Mist, also by Sachs, optioned for London and New York; the Off-Broadway run of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances; and the making of Sachs’ Sweet Nothing in My Ear into a TV movie. The Fountain has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles City Council for “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.” The Fountain was recently honored with seven Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle including the Polly Warfield Award for Best Season 2012.

Heart Song opens on Saturday, May 25, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through July 14. Preview performances take place May 18-24 on the same schedule. Tickets are $34 (reserved seating), except previews which are $15. On Thursdays and Fridays only, seniors over 65 and students with ID are $25. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 323-663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

Pamela Dunlap, Juanita Jennings and Tamlyn Tomita Set to Co-Star in ‘Heart Song’ at Fountain Theatre

Pamela Dunlap

Pamela Dunlap

Casting is now complete for the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere production of the new comedy/drama Heart Song by Stephen Sachs, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. The trio of TV/Film/Stage actresses leading the way are Pamela Dunlap (“Mad Men”), Juanita Jennings (“Fences” at South Coast Rep) and Tamlyn Tomita (“Glee”, “Days of Our Lives”, “Joy Luck Club”). Heart Song opens May 25th.

Heart Song is a funny and touching new play that chronicles the personal journey of Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), a middle-aged Jewish woman in New York City struggling through a crisis of faith. Rochelle’s life is changed when she is convinced by friend Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) to join a flamenco class for middle-aged women. There she meets Daloris (Juanita Jennings) and an unforgettable circle of other women who propel Rochelle on a journey of sisterhood and self-discovery.

Pamela Dunlap (Rochelle) makes her Fountain Theatre debut in Heart Song. She is a film/TV/stage veteran who has guest-starred on dozens of TV shows including two years as Pauline Francis on TV’s Mad Men and two years as Gilda Rockwell on Commander in Chief.  Her many film credits include Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling and I Am Sam with Sean Penn. On stage, she recently co-starred with Dorothy Lyman in August: Osage County and has appeared in regional theaters across the country including South Coast Repertory, Arena Stage, Hartford Stage, the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum, New York Theatre Workshop and the Lonacre Theatre on Broadway.

Juanita Jennings

Juanita Jennings

Juanita Jennings (Daloris) recently co-starred in South Coast Repertory’s production of Fences. She is well known to Fountain audiences for her thrilling portrayal of Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and for her versatility in From the Mississippi Delta. She has also appeared at SCR in Jar the Floor (NAACP Theatre Award for Best Actress), and Twelfth Night. Other theatre credits include productions at New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, Mark Taper Forum,  The Old Globe and Westwood Playhouse.  Her many TV roles include Edna on the Tyler Perry series Meet the Browns,   and Dorothy Bascomb on The Bold and the Beautiful. She is also a Cable Ace winner for her portrayal in the HBO mini-series Laurel Avenue.

Tamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn Tomita (Tina) is best known for the films The Day After Tomorrow, The Joy Luck Club, and Karate Kid 2.  Other film credits include Picture Bride, Come See the Paradise, Four Rooms, Living Out Loud, and Gaijin 2. Soap opera followers know her as Dr. Ellen Yu on Days of Our Lives and Glee fans have seen her as Julia Chang.  Tamlyn’s stage work include such productions as The Square and Don Juan: A Meditation (Mark Taper Forum’s Taper, Too), Summer Moon (Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre and South Coast Repertory), Day Standing on its Head (Manhattan Theatre Club), and Nagasaki Dust (Philadelphia Theatre Company). Tamlyn returns to our Fountain stage twenty-three  years after winning a Drama-Logue Award when she starred in our very first production, Winter Crane, in 1990.

Jewish women flamenco class title

Also featured in the Heart Song cast are Andrea Dantas, Alicia Dhanifu, Mindy Krasner, Sherrie Lewandowski, Norma Maldonado, and Barbara Oilar.

Stephen Sachs is the author of the recent Fountain hits Bakersfield Mist (optioned for London/Broadway) and Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award). Shirley Jo Finney won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for her direction of the Fountain Theatre’s critically acclaimed and award-winning  In the Red and Brown Water. Internationally heralded flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez will serve as Heart Song choreographer.

Heart Song May 25 – July 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE

Award-Winning Director Shirley Jo Finney Guides Los Angeles Premiere of ‘In The Red and Brown Water’

by Charlzetta Driver

Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve. ~Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Promoting In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre, the riveting play written by award-winning African American playwright, Tarell Alvin Mc Craney would be simple enough. Well known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, the first play of this set In the Red and Brown Water has already been well received in each of it’s venues since the first premiere. Further, Tarell’s talents are highly sought as he is considered by many theatrical leaders as the best young writer around.

However, once combining the desired works of this proven playwright with the style and perspective of director, the eloquent, Shirley Jo Finney, anticipation and excitement of experiencing this enticing play reaches boiling point!

Less than two weeks before the Los Angeles premiere of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre,  in an exclusive interview I had the unique opportunity to experience first hand the reasons Shirley Jo is an award winning actress and director. Within less than an hour, I was virtually moved through the history of theater, Africans in America, church, and the modern day classroom. Her passion and expertise is palpable in conversation as she effortlessly creates visions of slaves on the plantation, Sunday afternoons singing and dancing for their masters. As the folk watched from their porches, thoroughly absorbed and entertained, they were often oblivious to the sarcasm that shadowed the mimicry of their chattel’s exceptional performances.

Fast forwarding some years, I virtually viewed the descendants of the old masters in black face erroneously mimicking Black people. I traveled under her spell to the Black community of theater where portrayals in the history of African American churches were common. Shirley Jo instantly broke into character invoking the “Call and Response” style of the good reverend after which she explained:

That’s the call and response. It’s what I like to call “edu-ma-tainment,” creating ritual, engaging in the stories of, like the bible. Living, laughing, and dying – as a ritual.

Tarell McCraney

I asked Shirley Jo some specific questions about Tarell’s style of writing, here are some of those questions and answers:

Me: Is Tarell’s style like Tyler Perry’s?

Shirley Jo: No. Two different styles. If you want to co-explore, go see the works of August Wilson and Suzy-Lori Parks that show African Americans incarcerated by the institution of slavery. He (Tarell) incorporates those elements which makes the difference.

Me: Okay. Spike Lee said some negative things to say about Tyler Perry’s portrayal of African Americans. What is your opinion on this subject?

Shirley Jo: The beauty is the diversity! Everybody has a market and a point of view. Tyler makes what’s called “cottage films.” No judgement. I love that about where we are. We are no longer stuck in Blaxploitation, allow everyone their voice regardless if you like that person or not, we have a choice.

Me: Shirley Jo, what do you believe the theater’s job is?

Shirley Jo: Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve.

Tarell Alvin McCraney does just that in In the Red and Brown Water. The main character Oya, struggles to maintain her dreams. She runs track and sees it as her way of breaking free from the impoverished community she grew up in. After losing her mother she encounters a number of obstacles and sacrifices her dream. Oya means goddess of wind. Red represents our life blood, life force or passion. Brown represents the environment as the plays setting is in Louisiana. Water represents cleansing or new beginnings.

Entering adulthood just after the Civil Rights Movement shifted in to high gear, Shirley Jo had already experienced a lifetime of firsts. First integrated neighborhood, first Black student in the school, and she was the first African American student in the MFA program for Theater at UCLA. Shirley Jo was in the midst of an amazing acting career when she first delved into the role of director. Best known for her portrayal of Wilma in “Wilma” the true story of one of America’s greatest Olympic athletes; her resume includes many well known works including several episodes of “Moesha” and “Remember Me?”

Just prior to preparation for In the Red and Brown Water, Shirley Jo returned from Africa where she’d just completed “Winne The Opera,” the operatic story of Winnie Mandela.

Video: Winnie – The Opera

In The Red and Brown Water  Oct 20 – Dec 16 (323) 663-1525  More 

Charlzetta Driver is a freelance writer for Examiner.com