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.