Sharing black theater’s legacy

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Barbara Ruben

Actor, dancer and author Ronald “Smokey” Stevens has performed at the historic Howard Theatre in Northwest Washington, as well as on Broadway and at theaters across the country. His recent book chronicles the first 60 years of black musical theater in America, and he turned first book, an autobiography, into a one-man show at local theaters.
Photo by Matailong Du

Ronald “Smokey” Stevens tap danced onto Broadway in 1976 at the age of 25, when he got a role in Bubbling Brown Sugar — a musical revue featuring the music of African American performers of the early 20th century, from Duke Ellington to Fats Waller.

Not only did the Washington native get his first big break that year, he met the man who would inspire him for decades to come. Stevens said that renowned tap dancer Charles “Honi” Coles, then in his 60s, became a mentor to him during his Broadway debut and then as they toured the country with the show. Since then, Stevens has appeared in movies such as The Wiz, and in the Broadway production of Dreamgirls.

Even today, Coles’ stories about the Harlem Renaissance and black vaudeville shows still resonate with Stevens, leading him to write his second book. He published it this year, The First 60 Years: The History of Afro-American Musical Theater and Entertainment. The book looks at the period from the end of the Civil War through the beginning of the Depression.

“It was just awesome being in the company of people like Honi Coles,” said Stevens. “He eventually took me under his wing and became my mentor, so to speak. He taught me all of these historic tap routines. I listened, talked — and drank — with him for over a year and a half,” Stevens said of a friendship that spanned a generation.

Delving into the past

Stevens, who lives in Southeast Washington with his wife, spent several years writing the self-published book. He conducted much of his research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, documenting information on African American theater — from the black minstrels of the late 19th century to black theatre owners across the country from 1910 to 1930.

He says his is the only book to pull together information on the evolution of black musical theater during this 60-year span.

“The information I uncovered in this book about African American performers from 1865 to 1930 was mind boggling because there were so many people who had to be entrepreneurs. Coming out of slavery in 1865, we had to create our own theater,” Stevens said.

“In doing so, we created black minstrelsy, we created black vaudeville. In doing so, the blues was created. Jazz was created and became part of the fabric of America. That was the motivation behind writing the book.”

Early inspirations

Stevens had a lot of motivation for entering the entertainment industry. While he was a student at Eastern High School, he was inspired by a group of actors from Arena Stage that came to perform there in the late 1960s.

Stevens got a job acting with the Showmobile, a program of the D.C. Recreation Dept. The mobile stage toured various parks and community centers.

It was here the chain-smoking Stevens earned his nickname Smokey, a moniker that’s stuck even though he kicked the habit years ago. The nickname came in handy when he joined the Actors’ Equity Association: Stevens found there was already an actor named Ronald Stevens.

After performing in a show about Frederick Douglass at the Smithsonian Institution, Stevens was chosen to join the D.C. Black Repertory Company. He was one of its youngest members, and worked as an actor, singer, dancer and choreographer.

It was while with the theater that Stevens auditioned for Bubbling Brown Sugar.

“I got it, man. I was so elated. I was so excited because I was moving outside of D.C. to the big time,” he recalled.

From there he leapfrogged to a role as a crow in the movie The Wiz, dancing with Michael Jackson, who played the Scarecrow in that 1978 African American take on The Wizard of Oz.

“To actually get an opportunity to work with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Richard Pryor — you can’t get any better. It was a truly awesome experience,” Stevens said. “I had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the finest entertainers in America.” 

On Broadway, he appeared in Dreamgirls, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and One Mo’ Time. But Stevens eventually wanted to have more creative control over his career, so he teamed up with a friend to branch out on their own.

Being his own boss

“I said, ‘let’s create our own show instead of auditioning for people,’” Stevens said. “We portrayed two black comedians traveling on the old black vaudeville circuit. We used writings of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and other writers, and we would perform comedy skits and vintage music.”

The show, Rollin’, celebrated unsung black vaudevillians — a genre that Stevens said was created in Washington, D.C. about a century ago.  It had a six-week run at the Source Theatre in Washington in 1993 and toured the country before moving on to New York. Unfortunately, Stevens’ co-producer Jaye Steward died before the show rolled into New York.

The show hit the big time under a slightly different name, Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners’ Booking Association), the first vaudeville circuit for African American performers in the 1920s and ‘30s. The show progressed from off-off Broadway to an off-Broadway venue, and finally to the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway itself in 1999.

The New York Times gave it a glowing review, while Newsday said it was “Smart stylishness, elegant, witty, engaging.” Variety called it a “sleeper hit.”

But the success on Broadway was short-lived due to a landlord-tenant dispute that forced the show to close and move to a new theater. That broke the momentum, Stevens said. And the Tony Awards snubbed the show, saying that as a musical revue it didn’t qualify to be nominated. The show closed after only a few weeks.

“It broke my heart,” Stevens said, “because I was the writer, director, choreographer and performer in my own Broadway show. No African American male had done that since 1922.”

Spiraling down, then back up

Stevens took his show’s closing hard, and spiraled into drug use and depression. A year and a half later, he was caught transporting 50 pounds of marijuana from California to Washington. He ended up in an Ohio prison for two years.

“Imagine going from having your name up in lights on Broadway to sitting in a prison cell,” he said. “I had gone from experimenting, to dependency, and then to giving fully all of my power away to the drugs. It took coming to the point of hitting rock bottom to realize that I had the power to control that power.”

Even in prison, Stevens got a chance to write and direct. He adapted the Biblical story of the prodigal son, putting on a production with “rapists, murderers, 22 of society’s worst offenders you could imagine.”

As he clawed his way back to sobriety, Stevens decided to write an autobiography about his challenges and overcoming addiction. He turned the book, I Just Want to Tell Somebody, into a one-man show that played at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington in 2011.

Stevens’ friend from the Showmobile days, playwright and director Stephen Byrd, said that Stevens has not had an easy time back in his hometown.

“He’s said on many occasions that D.C. is a hard nut to crack, unlike New York or California. Everybody in D.C. is a wannabe —pretends to be a writer or an actor or something in their minds,” Byrd said.

ut he said that Stevens is the real thing.

“He’s like what you’d call a man for all seasons, a Renaissance man, a person who is not just in one area, but multi-talented,” Byrd said.

Plans for the future

Byrd and Stevens recently filmed a pilot for a TV show they hope gets picked up by a cable network. While he’s cagey about the exact nature of the show, Byrd says, “Think ‘The Voice’ or ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but for actors.”

“Because there are so many cable channels now, they’re dying for product, so I know my show stands a very good chance of being picked up by one of the stations,” Stevens said.

Stevens’ 25-year-old daughter, Angela Christine Stevens, is already on a TV show — the WE network’s “LA Hair,” a reality show about a high-end hair salon in Los Angeles. He also has a son and a 5-year-old grandchild.

Film is the next medium on Stevens’ agenda. He appeared in two movies in addition to The Wiz in his younger days, and wants to move back in that direction, but as a producer and director.

Stevens recently finished a screenplay in a completely different genre, a Western, as well as a documentary about the historic LeDroit Park neighborhood in Washington, helped by a grant from the D.C. Humanities Council.

“I’ve been doing theater for more than 40 years, but it can break your heart. You pour your heart and soul onto the stage, and have the audience in the palm of your hand, but it only lives for that one night,” he said.

“But film and TV live forever. You can access it online, on TV. The story you’re telling and the work you do will live on.”