In his second term on the Manhattan Beach City Council, Mitch Ward is familiar with the local political stage. Yet since moving to California, he’s strayed from his New York City acting roots in theater.
Ward returns under the glaring lights of the Hollywood stage beginning this weekend and co-stars in the Cambridge Players - Next Generation production of the comedy/mystery “Reunion in Bartersville,” a play about a 50th high school reunion that takes a mysterious turn. “Reunion in Bartersville” is the first production of the rejuvenated Cambridge Players with its CEO/president Kirk Kelley-Kahn, a Manhattan Beach resident who is the grandson of Oscar-nominated actress Juanita Moore (“Imitation of Life”). Moore was a founding member of the African-American theater troupe, the Cambridge Players.
Written by playwright Celeste Bedford Walker, Ward plays Perry, an egotistical actor who has a bit of a drinking problem.
“Perry is in his own world and he’s a Hollywood actor who really wasn’t that much of a Hollywood actor but in his mind he’s always been big,” Ward said. “When he comes home to this small town, that’s his opportunity to show off to those people who are just pretty much your old country bumpkin-type classmates.”
Kelley-Kahn starred on Broadway and continues to act but he felt it was time to revive the Cambridge Players, with the blessing of his grandmother, after nearly 25 years. The group was named after Edmund J. Cambridge, a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, and formed by African-American actresses older than 40, including Moore, Esther Rolle, Helen Martin, Lynn Hamilton and Royce Wallace, who had difficulty finding roles in Hollywood.
“It’s a legacy that you’re carrying on,” Kelley-Kahn said. “You have the Beyonce Knowles, Spike Lees and John Singletons, all these people who seem to have forgotten that these people came up in a time where a person of color, you only saw one or maybe two movies a year with Juanita being one of them or Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen, Sydney Poitier. There were so many of them who couldn’t get parts and now you turn on TV and you see people of color everywhere. But it’s kind of strange, some of the people, legends, who do want to still work can’t get the attention of producers and directors of color, and it’s sad. It’s a legacy I am making sure we always remember and never forget. These are icons.”
Ward is no stranger to the stage, training in New York City with the Harlem Jazz Theater Company and the Michael Moriarty Acting Studio along with Weist-Barron-Hill Acting for Television & Film in L.A. and Shakespearean training with Lynn Redgrave. He was an actor with the New York City Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera Company. There was also work on “Another World,” off-Broadway productions and theater directing work after arriving in Los Angeles. He continues to do national commercial work.
Moving to California and Manhattan Beach in some aspects drew Ward away from the stage.
“You just don’t think of stage out here in California, in Hollywood,” Ward said. “I moved from New York primarily to start working in front of the camera as opposed to on stage. In New York, that was my focus, the stage, because it’s a stage town with Broadway there. So I kind of migrated from doing any work until I did a play called ‘The Blacks’ by Jean Genet in Hollywood. That was one of the first plays that I did once I moved from New York. I just don’t get involved in professional plays here in L.A. that often so I made a determination that I would start looking at a few things and this is one that came about and I’m very pleased to be part of the cast. It’s a stellar cast.”
With a cast that includes Roger E. Mosley (“Magnum P.I.”), Aloma Wright (“Scrubs”), Jeris Lee Poindexter (“Everybody Hates Chris”), Amentha Dymally and Susan Fallender (“The Last Dance”), Ward said it’s taken some hard work and long hours to “hone your instrument again” to be on par with the professional actors he’s opposite of in “Reunion in Bartersville.”
“I’ve had to work lots and lots of hours just analyzing and coming up with what the character is all about and try to make it real,” Ward said. “I try to express what I’ve already analyzed and decide what I want that character to do. The time that we’ve had off from City Council and holiday has been in rehearsal for me. We’ve been rehearsing some days from 1 to 6:30 p.m. and now we’re 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at night and sometimes later. It’s an intense process but you do what you have to do to bring a character to life.”
A little added pressure with the production includes requiring dancing and aging a few decades since his character is 68 years old. But in “Hollywood you live out of bottles,” according to Ward. He’s taking the challenges in stride as opening night arrives but as someone told him, “If you’re not nervous, you’re dead.”
“Every time I go in front of an audience I’m nervous but the key is not to let the nerves overtake what you’ve studied and learned,” Ward said. “The part you try to become that person as much as you possibly can and take home the words of that person to become him, to make those words your own. So of course you’re nervous because your nerves are there, but if you can’t work with the nerves it’s a very difficult time to perform on stage. The nerves feed your energy and make for a spectacular performance in some actors. I try to feed off those nerves because they don’t go away.”
The pressure has been intense for Kelley-Kahn who said he and Producer, Doug Fager, have “maxed out all credit cards and our parents are hating us right now, trust me.”
“It has not been easy but as they say, ‘If it’s not worth working for, it’s not worth having,’” Kelley-Kahn said.
“Reunion in Bartersville,” which is directed by Sherrie Lofton, opens at the Egyptian Arena Theatre, located at 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave. in Hollywood, Friday, Sept. 5. Additional performances will take place every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 4 p.m. through September.
For more information, call (323) 960-7787 or visit www.plays411.com/reunion.