"We walk the line every single day," Ylonda Powell-Medley says. "We might not talk about it, we might have smiles on our faces, but beneath the surface people are dealing with serious issues."
The 41-year old mother of two speaks from experience. She's seen friends, family and strangers struggle with depression amid dead-end cycles of poverty and addiction. People are feeling thwarted in an uncertain world, she says. Too often, they give up hope as they watch their dreams flicker and die. Powell-Medley believes she sees a way out of this mess, and her prescription takes the form of a play.
Written, directed and produced by Powell-Medley, Stuck makes its Charlotte debut July 7 at Duke Power Theater. Cast entirely with local performers, Stuck is a multi-generation saga that combines music, drama and comedy. The play depicts an African-American family in crisis, but their situation is universal. The father is trapped in a self-destructive pattern of addiction. His daughter can't overcome feelings of resentment. Her siblings are also mired in self-defeating behavioral patterns, and every character comes up against the cycle of poverty. When one family member makes a conscious decision to transcend the family's ingrained, self-defeating coping mechanism, the door is unlocked for everyone to move forward.
- Ylonda Powell-Medley.
The show, the first play Powell-Medley wrote outside of scenes and sketches for her church, was first staged in 2010 in Stratford, Connecticut. Powell-Medley has revived the show several times in Connecticut, but this is the first time she will mount the production since moving to Charlotte in 2015.
The Connecticut native got an early jump on theater, landing her first big break when she was a six-year-old student at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet Middle School.
"I was sitting in class and they had an announcement over the P.A. system that there was an audition for a show called The Piano Lesson," Powell-Medley says. She tried out and won the role of Maretha in the Yale Repertory Theatre world premiere of August Wilson's landmark play, which was inspired by an iconic Romare Bearden painting. For Powell-Medley, it was a life-changing experience, set amid heady company. Influential and pioneering director Lloyd Richards helmed the 1987 production.
"I remember he was tough," Powell-Medley says. "He wanted everything to be done right." Powell-Medley says she is much the same way today when she produces and directs.
"I run a very tight ship, because I strive for excellence," she says.
The Piano Lesson cast included future superstar Samuel L. Jackson, and sitting quietly in rehearsals, noting the proceedings, was the playwright, Wilson.
"He was a nice but not outspoken," Powell-Medley remembers. "He watched more than anything."
After that production, she didn't look back. She studied acting at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School and Southern Connecticut State University, and then made the jump to New York. It was an adventure. It was also the first time in her life — though not the last — when she found herself stuck.
"I was going on auditions and I felt the roles were somewhat degrading for women," Powell-Medley says. "I wasn't seeing opportunities for anything that I really wanted to play, something challenging."
- Aleshia Price at a Stuck rehearsal.
If anything, roles for women of color were even worse. "Rather than doing something cliché or having to perform nude — which I never did — I decided I could write better parts myself."
That's when she began producing her own projects. At first she concentrated on productions at her church, but in 2001 she founded Jesonda Productions. (The company title is a combination of Jesus' and Ylonda's first names.) Jesonda started as a local talent showcase, and then transitioned into an acting and performance school, with two Connecticut locations, which ran from 2006 to 2009.
"We brought local artists and professionals into the same room," Powell-Medley says, "so local talent (could) display their singing, acting, and whatever else they wanted to do to entertainment professionals."
Eight years and one move to Charlotte later, Powell-Medley feels she is still training actors, but this time through the medium of Stuck.
After holding auditions last fall, Powell-Medley cast Stuck entirely with local talent in December. She worked closely with the actors in anticipation of the show's opening this week.
- Powell-Medley directing at a recent rehearsal.
"I love working with local talent, and I love working with people who have a drive," she says, adding that she's worked with a handful of talented performers who proved to be undependable and unprofessional.
"I much prefer working with people who may not be as talented, but who to want to learn," she says. "They trust me to coach them into a role.
"Previously I had always taught children and teenagers," she says. "Now, in a way, producing the play is my school for adults."
In the play, the middle-aged protagonist Margaret is trapped in her extended family's spiral of financial stress, substance abuse and dysfunction. It's a classic recipe for a hopelessness and frustration that Powell-Medley believes is at the root of mental illness.
The script depicts Margaret walking into wellness, the playwright says. "She starts by wanting to change," Powell-Medley says. "It's a mindset.
"I wrote Stuck because I was stuck," Powell-Medley continues. "I wanted to write a play to help people who were in the same kind of situation I was in." Though the plot points in the show are different from the incidents and details of Powell-Medley's life, she maintains that the play reflects her emotional truth. She has walked the line like her characters.
"It's my true story," Powell-Medley says, relating how she once felt thwarted in her desires and goals for her company and herself. She felt trapped because she was unable to forgive people who had hurt her in the course of her career.
"I was walking around with a smile, but on the inside I suppressed my feelings," she says. "That doesn't bring any type of happiness.
"If you really want to attain health or get out of a rut, you have to adjust your mindset to achieve your goals," Powell-Medley continues. The first step, she maintains, is deciding that you want to change. "Giving your goal a voice brings you power."
You start by saying it with your mouth, she says, but soon you're saying it with your heart and mind.
"That's when you believe it," she says. "That's how the family in the play gets unstuck, and that's how people I've know have done it too. It's changing your atmosphere, and not speaking negative things."
Powell-Medley believes her message and remedy works best as a play because people can see the characters coming alive onstage. They can engage and relate.
"The play is an avenue for people to pass through the door. A few times, when we did the play in Connecticut, people started crying and had to get up and leave the theater because the characters and scenes were too real for them" Powell-Medley says. She envisions her play being turned into a screenplay, a television sitcom and a book. And she mentions a fan of the show who wants to produce the play in Ghana.
"I say sure," she says. "I see Stuck traveling throughout the world, because it's a universal message." Eventually, she plans to set up workshops, conferences and classes surrounding issues raised by the play.
"I don't see Stuck as just a play," Powell-Medley says. "It's a movement."