Thornridge High School alumni return home to found the Collective Theatre
BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO firstname.lastname@example.org September 19, 2012 6:14PM
Four of the six founding members of The Collective Theatre are Nelsan Ellis (from left), Jasond Jones, Metra Gilliard and Veronda Carey. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
♦ Sept. 22-Oct. 21
♦ Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
♦ (773) 935-6875;
Updated: October 22, 2012 6:10AM
Sometimes you can go home again, and something wonderful happens.
That’s one way to describe the journey of six Thornridge High School alumni who’ve returned to Chicago to found The Collective Theatre. The new African-American theater company will raise the curtain on its debut production, “HooDoo Love,” beginning Sept. 22 at the Athenaeum Theatre. But unlike most other troupes, the six co-founders have adopted a “round table” approach to the endeavor. No one has assumed a title (such as artistic director) and decisions are made as a group in which everyone has equal say.
“We want to bring great theater to Chicago from a variety of sources and genres — everything from Shakespeare and Chekov to August Wilson and theater of the avant garde,” said Nelsan Ellis, one of the six co-founders, who currently stars as Lafayette on the hit HBO series “True Blood,” and whose film credits include “The Help,” “Secretariat” and “The Soloist.” “For us, our old stomping ground is Chicago. We were reared here, we went to school here, many of us discovered our love of acting and writing here in Chicago, so this is where we wanted to do this.”
The “we” Ellis refers to are his longtime friends (all graduated Thornridge in south suburban Dolton between 1994 and 2000) — veteran Broadway and Chicago actor Francois Battiste, actress and teacher Veronda G. Carey, actor and university theater instructor Le’Mil Eiland, marketing specialist Metra Gilliard and metallurgic engineer Jasond Jones — whose lives intersected as members of the school’s state champion speech teams. Ellis and Battiste, who went on to attended Juilliard, credit the speech team, and specifically speech and drama teachers Tim Sweeney and Bill Kirksey (who remain mentors to the troupe), with helping to shape their adult lives.
“The core of each of us was influenced by the teachers we had at Thornridge and their belief in who we were and what we could accomplish,” Battiste said. “Instead of leaving school at 2:18 p.m. when everyone else did, we’d go to the Speech office and practice and rehearse. Speech gave us incredible confidence and poise and respect for ourselves and one another. Every Saturday you were up at 5:30 a.m. putting on a suit and tie and spending the day [competing] in extemporaneous speaking or dramatic readings. We knew at an early age what it took to become successful in your craft, to learn respect for what you’re trying to accomplish in life. And that was due to Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Kirskey who believed in us. We want high school students to see what you can accomplish if you just start now. The Collective would not have happened if we didn’t learn to believe in ourselves, if we didn’t have that training and discipline in high school.”
“HooDoo Love,” written by American playwright Katori Hall (her Broadway run of “The Mountaintop” starred Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson), is directed by Ellis. It is set in a 1930s juke joint and tells the story of a young black woman (Toulou, played by Lynn Wactor) who escapes the Mississippi cotton fields and heads to Memphis to pursue her dream of singing the blues. She falls hard and fast for a traveling blues singer named Ace of Spades (played by LaRoyce Hawkins) who likes his rambling life on the road. The Collective six decided this was the perfect inaugural work.
“Katori is a good friend of ours,” Battiste said, “but more than that, the play was the perfect jump-off point for us because her work is incredibly rich, her writing has incredible depth and it is a bold statement. By choosing her work it was almost metaphoric for us.”
Chicago is fertile ground for ensemble theater troupes born out of hardcore friendships.
“You see plays at Steppenwolf or Lookingglass, and those were a bunch of friends who wanted to just do great things through the theater,” Battiste said. “Their work is absolutely on par with anything happening on Broadway. And that’s because the Chicago theater scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. We’ve gotten a warm welcome from the theater community here. I can say that might not have been the case had we chosen New York to start. [Laughs]In New York, when a new company starts, it’s like ‘there’s one more we have to compete with.’ But here it’s all about ‘the more the merrier.’ There is such incredible talent in this city whether it’s actors or writers or directors and we’re hoping to tap in to all of that.”
For Ellis, his Chicago roots were also key to his role as the flamboyant diner cook/medium he portrays in “True Blood.”
“I channel my mama for Lafayette,” Ellis said. “My mama had a strong, beautiful way of walking that I can mimic well. It’s ingrained in me and my brother. We were raised by my grandma as well as my mama, and my auntie. So Lafayette was born of all that.”
Ellis’ deep love of poetry, which he said grew out of his Thornridge experiences, led him to yet another entertainment opportunity: He recently made his hip-hop recording debut, delivering a dramatic poetry reading amid rapper Malachi Rivers’ “New World (“Part II The Schizo Speaks).”
“Malachi is a good friend of mine and he asked if I’d like to do some poetry in the middle. It all has this great ’80s vibe, a real kickback. It was fun.”
As for starring in a Chicago stage production, Ellis said he would absolutely consider it.
“Nobody’s called me yet,” he said, laughing. “I’d love to come home and do some stage work here.”