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Robert Townsend interview for ‘Musical Theater of Hope’ special on Gospel Music Channel October 25

Robert Townsend, the actor/director/producer known for films such as “Hollywood Shuffle” and “The Five Heartbeats,” recently created a set of mini-plays in Atlanta based on particular gospel songs called “Musical Theater of Hope,” which you can see at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Gospel Music Channel.

“I grew up in theater as a kid,” he said in an interview last week while at Gospel Music Channel headquarters near Hartsfield airport. “I love gospel music. When I listen to it, I see pictures and imagery. When I did a sketch show called ‘Townsend Television,’ even though it was variety, I threw in a few dramatic sketches.”

He has written close to 30 vignettes based on songs. In the episode airing Sunday, one sketch involves a man who announces he’s going to soon die of cancer but is ready to go. Another is forgiveness among sisters who were estranged until their mom’s death. And a third focuses on a woman who is about to be sentenced for killing a man molesting her daughter.

Tameka Scotton, a Riverdale actress who plays the prisoner, said she cried after singing her song on stage, she was so emotionally affected. “It ministered to me. As I shared with Mr. Townsend, I could hear the struggle because my voice was on the brink.” She has been in theater for 30 years but this was her first true spotlight role.

Townsend, in alliance with Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, produced the show. Long and Townsend held open auditions over the summer, paring down 2,000 people to a handful. They taped the shows in a small theater in Newnan in front of a live audience. The actors are a mix of newbies and some better known folks, including Howard Hewitt, the former lead singer of Shalamar, and JaQuitta Williams, former reporter at WSB-TV.

“I was the first person in line,” Williams said. “It’s my first hand at acting and singing and playing off three other dynamic women” in the second sketch featuring the fictional Sparrow Sisters singing group. She is also very happy to be out of TV news: “Life after news is just as sweet. The days of standing in the rain and telling people to stay inside is over.” (In fact, she said she’s now more happily “uninformed” of the news as she’s had in years.)

JeVonne Wilson of Duluth, another Sparrow sister on Townsend’s show, has tried out for “American Idol” three times, Tyler Perry films and “Sunday’s Best.” This is her first real break. “I wasn’t even going to come but coworkers convinced me,” she said.

“Musical Theater of Hope” is a bit of a test pilot. If the GMC crowd likes it, he’d be happy to make more.

Townsend, who also helped Beyonce get her acting break many years ago, ran programming for the Black Family Channel, which was based in Atlanta but ended its run a couple of years ago. BET and TVOne, owned my major corporations, outgunned the Black Family Channel. Gospel Music picked up their distribution. “We fought a good fight,” he said. “I loved being CEO. I was able to create 16 different TV series.” Townsend now does a Web series called “Diary of a Single Mom.”

He also recently produced a Showtime documentary set to air in February about the history of black comedy. He intereviewed Bill Cosby, Paul Mooney (who I talked to last week), Dick Gregory and the like. He goes back to slavery, through the minstrel period, Nipsey Russell, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy to Dave Chappelle. Outside experts included Prof. Cornel West, radio talk show host Michael Eric Dyson, former Atlanta mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and Rep. Maxine Waters. Even he learned things he didn’t know such as Gregory marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and how he refused to go on the “Jack Paar Show” because Paar wouldn’t let blacks sit on the couch. But when Paar let him sit on the couch, he went from making $200 a week to $5,000.

12 comments Add your comment

Robin

October 24th, 2009
9:54 pm

It is really inspiring to see Mr. Townsend back in the lime light. His work has paved so many roads for others that his legacy will always stand tall.

Regina

October 25th, 2009
12:00 pm

Robert Townsend is an unappreciated talent. The Five Heartbeats was Oscar worthy. Much continued success to him and hopefully soon, America will truly appreciate his contribution!

Bob

October 25th, 2009
10:20 pm

An outstanding program that really grabbed me. The irony of “David’s News” was particularly touching. I sat there with tears rolling down my cheeks, going through my life’s memories and praying that I would also look at life and death with the spirit exhibited by David. Although I don’t watch much TV, It is too bad that this type of programming isn’t on TV more instead of what is – a must see for our politicians in Washington!!! Keep it up, Robert!!!!!

Saundra

October 26th, 2009
1:00 am

I’ve watched the Musical Theater of Hope twice back-to-back and I think it is one of the best theatrical productions to come along in a long time. I agree with Regina above, Robert Townsend is an unappreciated talent who is far, far ahead of his time. I consider The Five Heartbeats one of the best movies ever made. A message to Robert Townsend…you keep the faith brother. Don’t be a sell out. God will continue to bless you with talent and an audience like me that appreciates your talent. I work with the Newark Public Schools in NJ and I’m sorry I missed you when you came to Barringer High School.

Phyllis

October 26th, 2009
1:22 pm

I must say this is the best theatrical productions I have seem in my life. Mr. Robert Townsend, your work is what the world needs to see more of.It was such a postive,spiritual,and message of hope for me.I pray that God will continue to bless your work as you share it with others.

Jackie

October 26th, 2009
8:41 pm

What I saw was amazing, I was distracted by a emergency phone call. Does anyone know if its coming on again?

Jimmy

October 26th, 2009
8:44 pm

I loved the show I cried like a baby. Keep up the work Mr. Townsend this is the kind of TV show we need. Is this one time only or will it be on a regular basis?

keisha

October 26th, 2009
8:48 pm

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jason

October 26th, 2009
9:18 pm

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Miss Manner

October 27th, 2009
1:05 pm

Its time for some clean movies and sitcoms that the entire family can watch regardless of age.

NASIR RAHIM

October 27th, 2009
1:59 pm

I WORKED WITH MR TOWNSEND ON THE PILOT THUG ANGLES FOR THE BLACK FAMILY CHANNEL AND I WAS CRUSHED TO KNOW THAT IT WOULD’NT MANIFEST. HE IS BRILLIANT AND I LOOK FORWARD TO WORKING WITH HIM SOONER THAN LATER. HOORAY MR. TOWNSEND.

Chrys Yvette

December 4th, 2009
2:26 pm

I love Mr. Townsend’s work! He has such a unique voice for our culture. Brilliant.