They're the sparks that add glamour, glitz and guts to area theater. They make us laugh, cry, think, ogle and admire every power-packed performance. A bevy of acting talent has emerged on the local theater scene, ladies who keep us coming back for more.
Over the last year or so, metro theater-goers have had the good fortune of getting their money's worth with dazzling productions of "Talking With," "Dracula," "Marvin's Room," "Cowgirls," "Steel Magnolias," "The Sound Of Music" and the Fondren Theatre Workshop's "New Playwrights Series." Lavonne Bruckner's Actor's Playhouse in Pearl is the pinnacle of superb youth theatrics. Fondren Theatre Workshop, the thinking person's theater, takes bolder steps with each production. And with theater's Everyman, Patrick Benton, finally getting his due, New Stage continues to glow.
Throughout each metro-area playhouse—Brandon's Black Rose Theater, The Clinton Brick Street Players, The Primrose Path in Richland, Madison's Center Players, Actor's Playhouse, Fondren Theater Workshop and New Stage—several actresses come equipped with their own spotlight. Their talent astounds, delights and grows with each new production. When we find out they're in an upcoming show, we make it a point to attend.
I know I've missed a number of talented ladies in this feature and for that I apologize in advance. But here are 13 of local theater's best actresses, where you might've seen them and what's in their future. Reserve your seats now.
Cute. Driven. Respected. Knows exactly what she wants. Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Jewish Life. Hell of an actress. Fine playwright, too. Beth Kander never stops. When she's not volunteering at various functions, Beth might be doing the theater wrap for a certain Jackson free press. Or heading up the New Playwrights Series at Fondren Theater Workshop, while directing one show and proudly watching her play "Terminal" shine through the directorship of good friend Sam Sparks. A graduate of the prestigious Brandeis University, Beth may have been in Jackson only a short time, but she's very well known already.
Recent roles: Golda in "Fiddler On The Roof" at Millsaps. Mary Titfer in "Talking With."
Future goals: Beth is applying for MFA-acting programs and MSW-social work programs. "I'd love to merge theater with youth work while continuing to act, write, volunteer, and find other creative and community-oriented ways to save the world," she says.
What's next? Hannah in "Arcadia," a Fondren Theatre Workshop production Sept. 30-Oct. 10.
The lady behind Richland's Primrose Path lives a life of theater. Whether performing at New Stage, directing and teaching drama or working alongside John Maxwell in Fish Tale Theater, this gal's got the chops, and then some. The award-winning actress received her degree in English with a minor in theater from Mississippi College in 1998; she returned for an MC masters in 2000. Jessica went to work immediately, acting and directing at local theaters and at the Gaslight in Oklahoma, plus planning curriculum for her classes at Florence High School, where she taught for four years. She's also the president and founder of Primrose Path Theater. Somewhere along the way, Jessica took on the role of Mom; her daughter Belle Grace was born in 2002. Wilkinson is a stay-at-home mother/actress these days. Quite often, husband Lenny becomes Mr. Mom as Jessica heads off to another rehearsal. "He's a real sport, for sure," she says.
Favorite roles: M'Lynn in "Steel Magnolias," Rose in "The Prodigal" and Audrey in "Pump Boys and Dinettes."
What's next? "The Spitfire Grill" at New Stage Sept. 15-26 and "A Christmas Carol" at New Stage Dec. 1-23.
TORSHA MARIE McELROY
When I call Torsha, she's on her way to New Orleans. To another audition. This girl is always heading to auditions. They often pay off, too. Torsha Marie, her stage name, has been read a lot lately. Vampire vixen in Dracula; mother-to-be in "Talking With"; Sarah in "The Actor's Nightmare"; "Paint The White House Black" at Thalia Mara Hall.
She's on the small screen as well, hawking cars for Wilson Kia, guest hosting on BET's 106th and Park, and on Jackson's WB40 and WJTV. Torsha's very smart, too: a summa cum laude in biology at Tuskegee College. "Know anyone hiring?" she asks.
Breakthrough role: The very pregnant woman in "ragon," a monologue in "Talking With." This childless starlet certainly convinced me she was having a kid right on the Artery Coffee House stage. My ears are still ringing.
Ambition: Torsha is now aiming to master her craft as a "professional" lottery player who has only managed to win three bucks. "Any winning numbers would be greatly appreciated," she says.
We long to see Torsha— Beautiful, brainy, talented and a dead ringer for Robin Givens—on another stage in the very near future.
Jackson attorneys Alyssa and husband Gary agreed the lead role of Sara in Black Rose Theater's "Beau Gest" would be a natural for her. She and the character are both young, feisty and Jewish. It was a lark, Alyssa recalls, but she was immediately cast, under the strong tutelage of director Lydie Vick. "I got to kiss two men in my first play," Alyssa says with a laugh.
The tiny, yet powerful novice went on to portray Nurse Fury in the Center Players version of "MASH." But bigger things lurked in the shadows.
Breakthrough roles:Last Halloween, Alyssa starred as Mina in Clinton's "Dracula." Another lark proved to be fortuitous when she was cast as (what else?) a feisty Jewish actress in "Talking With" at Fondren Theater Workshop.
What's next? The social worker in John Webb's "The Sound Of Steel," the New Playwright's Series winner, will be directed next year in its entirety by husband Gary.
If you've been around Millsaps or New Stage over the last several years, you've probably seen Laura Hastings. She's even managed to trickle over into the Fondren Theatre group to help unveil a new play or two. Laura's impressive stack of credits include "Steel Magnolias," "Blithe Spirit," "Charley's Aunt" and "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All To You" at Millsaps and "Marvin's Room," "Ride a Blue Horse" and "Christmas Carol" at New Stage. She's also toured with New Stage in "Poe! Poe! Poe!" and "The Sword and The Stone." As a member of New Stage's Professional Acting Intern Company this past season, Laura learned her craft backstage as well, managing the stage for "Broadway Bound." "I've always been a performer," says the Jackson resident. "Acting and singing have always been a part of me."
Favorite role: Salome in "The Robber Bridegroom" at Millsaps. "I've always liked doing comedy," she says. "But every role is different. Each character becomes a part of you."
What's next? Laura's stage manager for "The Spitfire Grill" at New Stage Sept. 15-26.
From a demure Alias in "Lion In Winter" to a honky-tonk queen in "Cowgirls," Jennifer Hudson never ceases to captivate audiences with her very wide range of characters. This hot property from Florence is the recipient of two scholarships: one at Hinds and now at Belhaven, with a theater major/creative writing minor. Since portraying Beth in "Little Women," in 1998, Hudson never misses a chance to take the stage. This year alone, Jennifer played Rita in "Cowgirls," a street person in "Talking With," and one of the leads in Beth Kander's one-act "Terminal."
Diminutive, with long brown hair, a neon smile and a self-professed coffee fetish, Hudson's also has a heck of a singing voice, as heard in "Cowgirls." Sorry, guys, she's engaged.
A "poetry junkie" and goth wannabe with an Anne Rice obsession, Hudson enjoys transferring her soft-spoken manner to whatever the stage demands. "I first stepped on the stage at age 15 in order to overcome shyness," she said. "I've been hooked ever since."
Favorite roles: Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie" and Llalla in "The Praying Mantis," both at Hinds Community College.
What's next? A possible role in "The Mousetrap" at Primrose Path in November.
At only 16, actress, singer, dancer and way-cool girl Brighton Goode has some track record. She began as an angel (what else?) at 3 in "The Nutcracker" at the Madison Cultural Center. By age 7, Brighton met John and Diana Howell, who helped guide her talents, starting with "Alice In Wonderland." Last year, young Miss Goode portrayed six characters in Howell's world premiere of "Through The Looking Glass." Brighton has worked with Black Rose, New Stage, Fondren Theater Workshop, Actor's Playhouse and Primrose Path. Then there's The Children's Choir Of Mississippi, Mississippi Opera, The Mississippi Girlchoir and Starz Over Madison County. "She's always wanted to act and sing," said mother Patrice Goode. "When Brighton was very young and we went to plays, she'd always pay attention to the acting and stagecraft."
Breakthrough role: Lee in last spring's "Cowgirls" at Primrose Path.
What's next? The blonde bombshell in Black Rose's "The Creature Creeps," Sept. 30-Oct. 10. Plus the lead in "Always, Patsy Cline," in fall 2005 at Primrose Path.
You rarely get to share the stage with another member of your family, let alone two of them. But 16-year-old Caroline Turner enjoyed a double treat last January when her mother and sister both appeared with her in Fondren Theatre Workshop's production of "Talking With." Mom Rhonda chilled audiences with her rendition of a religious snake handler. Older sister Katie took her turn in the emotional "Clear Glass Marbles." Yet it was the Terry High School honor student who made the biggest noise with her "Twirler" monologue. "My mother and sister were doing the show," Caroline recalls, "They asked me to try out, just for fun. I never thought I'd get cast." The novice actress turned heads again in the Fondren New Playwrights Series as a cynical bystander in "The Great Play," a two person one-act, alongside veteran Bob Perry. In only six months, the teen's range had expanded dramatically.
One of five sisters, Caroline is a former member of the All-Superior Terry High marching band and color guard, where she played clarinet. She's into speech full time now, besides being a guitarist and composer. But acting has become a high priority. "I like getting into other people's heads," Caroline says. "I enjoy knowing how people react; not being yourself for a while."
What's next? Young Miss Turner's going for three in a row with Fondren Theatre Workshop. She'll play the challenging role of Thomasina in "Arcadia," Sept. 30-Oct. 10 at the Cedars.
The sky-la's the limit for this lucky young talent who manages to steal every scene she's in. From her debut at age 14 at New Stage's Summer Camp for Teens to the bellhop in the Center Players' 2000 production of "Lend Me A Tenor" to the chain-smoking grouse in the female "Odd Couple," Skyla's sharp wit, unpredictable improv skills and ever-changing hairstyles make her the "wild card." "People think I'm a bit weird," says Luckey of her free-spirit style. "But hey, we're in the theater. We're all a little strange." Luckey is a sophomore at Holmes Community College, besides being a personal trainer at Fitness Lady. She plans to transfer to Southern Miss next year to pursue her love of theater.
Breakthrough role: Allison in "And Then," with the Fondren New Playwrights Series. Skyla impressed the room with a more serious side as a psychiatrist who has a session with her old flame.
What's next? She's back for laughs as Sylvie in the female "Odd Couple, Sept. 16-19 with Madison's Center Players.
AMIA D. EDWARDS
I've known Amia since she was a JSU freshman interning at WLBT. I watched her learn the blistering ropes of the newsroom. Then, all of a sudden, Amia's on camera, the entertainment host for JSU's Hollywood Hustle. Up pops a vibrant, self-assured young woman with charm and charisma. Thanks to her persistence, we were able to put Amia in her first commercial about a year ago; she looked great. Amia started doing modeling gigs and auditioning for plays. Now she's hitting the stage, appearing in "The Yellow Man" at Tougaloo in November. I'm so proud of Amia. We call her a diva at WLBT. Amia's just received her degree in mass communications and has begun producing the early morning news, doing a damn good job of it. She's on her way.
Favorite expression to the world at large: "You too busy!"
Aspirations: Entertainment reporter for a major network. "I want to do a Broadway show and direct a film."
It's been a very good year for Anna Mason. Actually, the last several years have been good to this Jackson Prep junior. but 2004 has been exceptional. In January, Anna helped claim an All-Star Cast award at the Mississippi Theatre Association competition for her role in "The Art Of Remembering." She won first place in both monologue and voiceover at the Modeling Association of America International and was a vocal talent winner at the Mid South Fair Preliminary. Plus she recently returned from a six-week stint in New York on scholarship to the School for Film and Television. Miss Mason began her stage career in musicals, rounding them out with title roles in Annie, Jr. and Alice in Wonderland.
Breakthrough role: Anna broke out when she was cast as Becky in Black Rose Theatre's summer one act of "The Art Of Remembering." "A real person with real emotions," Anna says of the role. Then she played another real character: Margot in the intense Actors Playhouse production of "The Diary Of Anne Frank." Anna has presence. You feel it when she's on stage: an electric current that rivets your attention completely. In her 16 years, Anna has been in radio and TV commercials, modeled, sang, acted, run cross-country and even managed time for some volunteer work.
What's next? "She's regrouping right now," says mom Susan, after an involved summer and classes beginning. "But it won't be long."
Morgan Cowart is living on the edge these days. It's her first month as drama teacher at Jackson Prep, filling the very big shoes of Francine Thomas. Then there's that nighttime gig at Actor's Playhouse, opening in a matter of days. But Morgan makes it look easy. Hailing from Pearl with a BS in communication/theater from Mississippi College, Morgan specialized in Shakespeare with the Tribal Players. Kate in "Taming Of The Shrew," Mistress Quickly in "Henry V," one of the witches in "Macbeth." She directed Chekhov's "The Bear" at MC and "Miracle On 34th Street" at Pearl High School. The effect of theater: At age 14, an "insecure and terribly self conscious" Cowart attended a theater camp at Ole Miss. "For the first time in my life, I felt the freedom to be truly me, to let loose," she says.
Spiritual staging: "I know that God has given me these talents and gifts to use for his purposes to give me the confidence I need to fulfill my destiny."
What's next? That nighttime gig. The role of Marmee in "Little Women" at Actor's Playhouse. Sept. 16-19, 23-26.
FRANCES HORTON WHITE
When JSU drama professor Darius Williams thinks of prominent actresses in the metro area, Frances Horton White immediately leaps from his lips. Speaking to Frances, I begin to feel the same reverence. Frances' voice holds righteous wisdom. So do her performances on stage, on TV and radio, and as a motivational speaker. A Jackson native and mother of "four beautiful daughters," Frances holds a masters from JSU in counseling and human resources. She's the programs manager at Building Bridges, Inc., a non-profit organization.
Inspirations: Juanita Moore, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Lawrence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. "At age 8, I decided that I would one day be an actress. There was always a burning in my spirit that served as my confirmation."
Greatest performance: Lena Mae Younger in "A Raisin In The Sun." "Deep pain, agony and joyful fulfillment," she says of the role.
What's next? A role in "Before It Hits Home" for World AIDS Day in December and Pastor Margaret in "The Amen Corner," from Tougaloo and Sangha Theater in 2005.