Blake Robison, artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, is a fan of playwright and actor Daniel Beaty. In the fall of 2012, Robison picked Through the Night by the Dayton, Ohio native as the season-opening production on the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage. Beaty was onstage portraying six distinctly different men. That’s his modus operandi for works he’s created and personally performed for several years.
A more recent Beaty play, Mr. Joy, opens Robison’s fifth Shelterhouse season on Thursday. Robison describes it this way: “A Harlem community is shaken when Mr. Joy, a Chinese immigrant whose shoe repair shop has been a neighborhood pillar for decades, is the victim of a sudden and violent attack. Through the lens of nine of Mr. Joy’s customers — all brought to life by one actress — we learn the subtly profound and unassuming impact the shop owner has had on each of their lives.”
Beaty drew this story from his own real-life experience when he was a young, struggling actor in New York City. He took his shoes to a Chinese-American shop owner for repairs. One day the shop was boarded up with caution tape.
“I eventually wrote this play that asks: ‘What happened to Mr. Joy?’ ” Beaty says.
Robison engaged Nicole Watson to direct the show. She is working with actress Debra Walton, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music who previously performed at the Playhouse in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Beehive.
Watson and Beaty actually graduated from Yale University the same year; she attended and admired some of his campus performances. She did not see Mr. Joy’s original production, which Beaty performed himself.
“We’re doing this differently than Daniel did,” Watson says. “He used projections, stood onstage and delivered monologues. We asked our design team, ‘What do we want this to be at the Cincinnati Playhouse in (the Shelterhouse)?’ We’re using a set, which means more relation between space and performer, not just a mic with visuals. Our designers have built a collage of stoops in Harlem, something three-dimensional. It was our decision to say that Debra is not Daniel: What happens to Mr. Joy if someone else has the opportunity to do it?”
Watson has worked closely with Walton to rehearse her performance portraying nine different characters. First and foremost is Clarissa, who Beaty describes as a “sassy and charismatic 11-year-old black girl who lives in a Harlem housing project and ‘assists’ Mr. Joy in his shoe shop.”
Watson says Clarissa is the character we follow from start to finish. Her relationship with Mr. Joy is more profound than the other characters Walton plays. “She is asking questions and making discoveries to find out what has happened to Mr. Joy. They are thick as thieves,” she says.
Watson says Walton came to the rehearsal process having done some work to identify voices and define various characters. “But that’s a lot of work for one person,” she points out, “and we’re doing more as we rehearse together. We dig into the story to find out what’s important to them. All women don’t behave a certain way, so we dig deeper to learn who a particular woman is. We don’t want to play to obvious qualities or use caricatured features.”
After reading through the script several times with Walton and discussing characters, Watson says the actress helped figure out who each character wants to be. “And then you find the essence,” she says.
She says it’s been a wonderful time rehearsing Mr. Joy, with very few people in the rehearsal room — herself, Walton and stage manager Andrea Shell. “We laugh a lot and work really hard,” she says.
Watson is confident that Mr. Joy offers lessons that audiences will care about. “The play is set in Harlem. It’s about a particular neighborhood and the people who live there,” she says. “What all these characters have in common is how their lives have been made more meaningful by Mr. Joy. It’s about enriching your life by being part of a community. I hope everyone leaves feeling good about being enriched.
“This will be a wonderful, meaningful night of theater — and that’s worthwhile.”
Performances will be onstage at the Shelterhouse through Oct. 22.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]