5 Guys 2 Coasts

by Ross Jackson
The Five Guys Named Moe in the barbershop (l-r): Jacques C. Smith, Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Eric B. Anthony, Obba Babatundé, and Octavius Womack.
The Five Guys Named Moe in the barbershop (l-r): Jacques C. Smith, Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Eric B. Anthony, Obba Babatundé, and Octavius Womack.

ASM Ross Jackson reflects on taking Five Guys Named Moe to the National Black Theatre Festival

Moving a production across the country is an exciting opportunity at any time and while it does come with its challenges, for me as a stage manager, there’s nothing short of the incomparable feeling of satisfaction and success that comes with lifting a show out of a theater on one side of the country and remounting it on the other. That was the extraordinary experience that I got to have this summer as I assisted in moving Ebony Repertory Theatre’s highly praised Five Guys Named Moe from their Los Angeles home at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center to the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem, NC to be presented for the National Black Theatre Festival.

First a bit about The National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) itself. The NBTF is more than your average conference or event, it’s a celebration of Black excellence, of Black art, of Black joy. The week that the NBTF inhabits beautiful Winston-Salem, NC is filled with jovial and genuine representation. Wrapping up its 15th rotation (every two years) the festival presents Black theater productions from around the world, putting focus on companies like Ebony Repertory Theatre (Los Angeles, CA), The Layon Gray American Theatre Company (New York, NY), and Spirit Sister Productions (Cape Town, South Africa). In doing so, it helps to celebrate the achievement of oft-forgotten and unsupported Black organizations that produce exhilarating and influential work and gives a depiction of transcendence for a majority Black audience to see themselves represented on stage. 

Larry Leon Hamlin, the founder and executive director of the NBTF and former artistic director of North Carolina Black Repertory Company, founded the festival in 1989 as means of creating unity among the Black theaters in the country. NBTF has more than doubled since its first year when there were 17 shows. This year there were 40 in 20 different venues around the city. 

According to the Winston-Salem Journal, this year’s festival had at least an 8 million dollar economic impact on the city by bringing in almost 45,000 people from around the world. Walking into the opening night gala, feelings of pride and belonging arise. The NBTF is home for the Black theater and is the pinnacle of an observance by us and for us.

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So it was with that real sense of excitement and anticipation that I assisted with the move of our production of Ebony Repertory Theatre’s Five Guys Named Moe. I worked as the assistant stage manager (ASM) for both the LA and NBTF productions and had a large role in maintaining the production as it traveled the nearly 2,500 miles across the nation. 

I was lucky enough to work alongside a legend in the Black stage management world—Ed De Shae (Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, A Soldier's Play) as our production stage manager. Because of the dependable nature of our working partnership, I was trusted with responsibilities like facilitating the rehearsal room, communicating needs, and maintaining notes and staging. However, my most important (and favorite) duty was the usual task of the ASM, insuring the execution of a well-polished and efficient backstage. While in Los Angeles, the only true challenge we had backstage was simply space. But not in the way you’d think. While we had tons of offstage space, The Holden is a generous sized theater, we were running out of space up in the air on our linesets. Any time we wanted to bring in our coup de gras, the Club Alabam portal, we’d have to dress the lineset downstage of it to clear lighting fixtures. Truth be told, while this was a challenge, once we had the personnel available and got the rhythm of the show under our belts, it became simple to navigate.

The production was praised highly by the LA Times and Stagescene LA and by the raucous applause of the audience, so it was a natural decision to go to NC when given the opportunity to attend the NBTF. The show starred Obba Babatundé (Nomax), Eric B. Anthony (Eat Moe), Trevon Davis (Little Moe), Rogelio Douglas, Jr. (Four-Eyed Moe), Jacques C. Smith (No Moe), and Octavius Womack (Big Moe). Along with the outstanding cast, the renowned creative team included Keith Young (director/choreographer), Abdul-Hamid Royal (musical director, also of the original Broadway production and national tour), and Dominique Kelley (associate choreographer). The impressive design team was set designer Edward E. Haynes; Dan Weingarten as the lighting/projection designer; costume designer Naila Aladdin Sanders and John Feinstein as the sound designer. 

At the end of July we spent three days in LA getting the show, which had closed on June 11, back into the actors’ bodies and up on its feet again. Earlier in the week, props, scenery, and costumes had started their journey across country in an Enterprise moving truck. With only tape on the floor, some gaff dance number markers, and some chairs and a table, the guys picked up their choreography, staging, and lines as if we had only closed the show the Sunday before. It was truly remarkable and we got to run the show a total of three times under the guidance of the creative team and Ebony Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Wren Brown.

We headed to NBTF and two days of technical rehearsals. During our first day of tech, I specifically came in looking to identify any issues we might have adjusting to the new space. Thankfully, the Stevens Center is much larger and had allotted us tons of room in the air, eliminating the tight lineset issue from the LA run. The downside was that the stage itself was also wider than the playing area we had available at The Holden and was shallower from the plaster line to the downstage edge. This threw off the measurements that were taken to preserve spike marks, but that was simple to adjust. There were a couple of moments which we thought we’d need to restage due to access to the house, but the theater accommodated us by adding staircases to the edge of the stage. It is Five Guys Named Moe, after all, so it was a must that we bring a conga line into the audience. 

On the first day we finished teching the first act and then returned the following day to finish the show in our morning session. We ran in the evening then with costumes. The element of the Stevens Center that made things run so smoothly was its IATSE crew. These folks took care of everything; all I had to do was hand over a run sheet and breathe a sigh of relief. The sigh of relief was a sentiment that Ed shared with me, as he always said that walking in to the Center with this union crew took a weight off his shoulders. This was certainly true for me as well. It was with confidence we went into an exciting Monday with the opening night gala and our first performance. The first performance was great with a wonderful and supportive audience. Though some of our transitions were a little bit slower than I’d like, but that comes with only having a couple shots at them before having an audience. 

Our final three shows, after a couple of days off, were better and better. We actually ended up with a nice rhythm despite our short run. Ed said it best, “What you do last should be your best.” and it really was. As the main production of this year’s festival, we were all very proud with the production put forth and look forward to a future return to the NBTF.