OGDEN — Alicia Washington remembers the moment the idea came to her for Good Company Theatre’s latest show.
She and her sister, Camille Washington, own the theater known for its edgy, thought-provoking pieces involving oft-overlooked segments of the community. Last fall, when Alicia Washington was in a touring children’s show and driving between performances in the state, her thoughts drifted to ideas for upcoming shows at GCT.
“I’m always thinking about the theater. Or cats,” she confesses with a laugh. “As a 34-year-old single woman, that’s all I think about — the theater and cats.”
On this particular occasion, Alicia Washington started thinking about all the amazing Broadway music written by or for African Americans.
“As we were driving I thought, ‘It’d be fun to have a night of talented actors who are black, singing these songs,’” she recalls. “And then I thought, ‘I’m going to call it ‘You Bet Your Black Ass, Broadway.’”
Alicia then called Camille to tell her about her idea. Her sister responded with, “Oh, yeah. We’re going to do that.”
Opening Thursday, Feb. 14, and continuing through Sunday, Feb. 17, “You Bet Your Black Ass, Broadway” embarks on a one-weekend run at Good Company Theatre, 2404 Wall Ave. As envisioned, the show will feature six black actors singing songs from shows like “Porgy and Bess,” “The Lion King,” “Big River,” “The Color Purple,” “Passing Strange,” “The Wiz,” “Dreamgirls,” “Kinky Boots” and “Hamilton.”
The show, which began rehearsals last Sunday, stars Daisy Allred, Bradley Hatch, Olivia Lusk, Gray McKenzie, Mack Seiler and Alicia Washington.
The Washington sisters call the musical revue a “cheeky, vibrant, songful celebration” of the history of black theater. It coincides with Black History Month, celebrated each February.
With its roots in vaudeville, ragtime and jazz, modern musical theater owes a great debt to the contributions of black folks, according to Camille Washington. She said black music and black performance have been deeply intertwined with American theater since the earliest days of the 20th century.
“There wouldn’t be American musical theater as we know it without the style and performance and creativity of black people,” she said.
Alicia Washington said this week’s shows pay homage to a style and sound that black history and black people created.
“Camille and I have spent time picking pieces that are also influenced by deep gospel sounds or rhythm and blues,” she said.
Many black portrayals in the media have been less than flattering, according to Alicia Washington. “You Bet Your Black Ass, Broadway” offers a chance to examine the varied black contributions to the arts.
“On so many levels we’re celebrating the black experience, and giving a positive light to it,” Alicia Washington said. “In a way, we’re reminding audiences that modern-day entertainment wouldn’t be what it is today without the contributions of black folks.”
As a theater company, Good Company takes pride in finding new ways to present theater, according to Camille Washington. While musical theater is pervasive throughout Utah, she says the state lacks venues for expression by black performers.
“And they get typecast a lot,” she said.
Cast members like Bradley Hatch, a Seattle transplant who moved to Utah when he was 16, say this show feels particularly special to them. After doing some theater in high school, Hatch left the craft for almost a decade. It’s only been in the last two years that the 28-year-old began doing theater again.
“This feels different than a typical show,” the Sandy man said. “Instead of one full-length show, we’re really celebrating all types of music in a lot of shows that celebrate our culture.”
With so many songs from so many musicals, Hatch said audiences can expect to experience a wide range of emotions.
“They’ll be laughing one minute and crying the next,” he said.
Daisy Allred, a 22-year-old actress living in Salt Lake City, recently played the character Emmie Thibodeaux in “Caroline, or Change” at Good Company Theatre. The show centers on a black maid and her family in 1960s Louisiana, and Allred said it was refreshing to work with other black actors.
“It was a great experience being surrounded by people of color in a show,” she said. “It was so good for the soul.”
Allred said she thinks it’s vitally important for black people to see other black people in the theater — especially in Utah, where people of color make up such a small fraction of the population.
“Seeing black people doing theater is important,” she said. “And that there are shows black people can point to and say, ‘I know that show.’”
Gray McKenzie is a 29-year-old Georgia native who’s currently living in Los Angeles but is in the process of moving back to Salt Lake City. Calling himself “half-black and half white — and country as hell,” McKenzie said Good Company has done an admirable job of pushing the envelope and doing shows that address uncomfortable subjects.
McKenzie says that in a larger sense, this musical revue is about his faith, and about his belief in his community. He says the weekend’s performances will be full of powerful songs.
“Not the weak story of us blacks as slaves, but the strength behind it all,” he said. “For me, this feels like a night that’s empowering.”
Mack Seiler, who simply goes by the stage name “Mack,” has been performing all of her life.
“I think I came out of the womb singing and dancing,” the 33-year-old Sandy woman said.
Like the other performers, Mack appreciates the opportunity to celebrate her black heritage, and to expand outside the typical roles that are offered to her.
“Most of the theater I’ve done I’ve played a slave,” Mack said. “But this is being able to shine a light on some of the different musicals out there, being able to say, ‘You don’t just have to be a slave.’”
That’s especially important to her at this time of year, with Black History Month in full swing. This week’s shows shine a light on the variety of black musicals that are out there, as well as the performers, according to Mack.
“Black people are 2 percent of Utah, but we’re still here, and we’re talented,” she said. “We want to show what we can do.”
Camille Washington hopes the show’s title doesn’t scare anyone off. It’s intended as something for theater lovers both young and old.
“This is for everyone,” she said. “Even though it has ‘Ass’ in the title, it’s an all-ages show. It’s just a fun time, and a good way to engage with the way that we as black people are participating in performance in Utah theater.”