The Women Behind the 'Five Guys Named Moe'
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Front row left to right: Lanette Costas (Choreographer), Malkia Stampley (Director), Christie Chiles Twilie (Music Director). Back row left to right: Tara A. Houston (Scenic Designer), Samantha C. Jones (Costume Designer), Latrice Lovett (Lighting Designer). Photo by Ross Zentner
While Five Guys Named Moe, a joyful tribute to blues legend Louis Jordan, requires an all-male cast, Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming production is balancing the men with an almost all-female production team.
Director Malkia Stampley sought out fellow women of color to help her call the shots, including music director Christie Chiles Twillie, choreographer Lanette Costas, costume designer Samantha C. Jones and lighting designer Latrice Lovett.
“One day it would be nice for me to not have someone come up to me after a show and say, ‘Where did you come from? Where have you been hiding?,” Twillie says. “I haven’t been hiding, you just have to look.”
Before this production, Stampley says she never met a professional African American female lighting designer. Because she took the time to intentionally seek out women of color for her team, she found Lovett, a North Carolina based lighting designer with impressive national credits including Disney on Ice.
“There’s no excuse anymore for any theater, no matter what level you are at or what budget you have, to not have your production staff, administrative staff and creative team look like the community you claim you serve,” Stampley says. “That’s how I live my life, making sure I invite others to the table. Now I feel like I am in a place where I need to challenge wherever I work to do the same.”
From left to right: James Carrington (Four-Eyed Moe), Shawn Holmes (No Moe), Lorenzo Rush Jr. (Big Moe), Kevin James Sievert (Little Moe), Sean Anthony Jackson (Eat Moe) and Gavin Lawrence (Nomax). Photo by Ross Zentner.
Five Guys Named Moe follows Nomax (Gavin Lawrence), our lovable protagonist who is going through a bit of a rough patch. He’s broke and his girlfriend Lorraine just left him. While listening to the radio at 5 a.m., five Moes magically appear to offer a helping hand.
Show creator Clarke Peters weaves us through the story by incorporating more than 25 of Jordan’s greatest hits, including “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” "Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” and of course the show’s namesake, “Five Guys Named Moe.” Topping the R&B charts for a total of 113 weeks during his career, Jordan rightfully earned the title of “Father of Rhythm & Blues” and “Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“The music is really diverse,” Twillie says. “It seems like it wouldn’t be because it all came from one person, but Louis Jordan was such a big contributor to different genres, from the sort of blues element, to the rock n’ roll/rockabilly style, which is why he also played with the country style in ‘Safe, Sane and Single.’ Just the fact that all these things can come out of one person means that every single person that comes to this show can find some type of music that they like.”
To complement the music, Costas incorporated line, swing and tap dancing into her choreography. During the beginning of the process, she had to constantly remind herself that the men still needed to hit their vocals while landing their moves. She jokes about initially wanting the guys to jump from table to table, like the Nicholas Brothers, but soon realized an acrobatic routine would be impossible while singing music that gets up to 200 beats per minute.
From left to right: Lorenzo Rush Jr. (Big Moe), Sean Anthony Jackson (Eat Moe), Shawn Holmes (No Moe), James Carrington (Four-Eyed Moe) and Kevin James Sievert (Little Moe). Photo by Ross Zentner.
“I wasn’t sure what the dynamic would be like as a female choreographer with an all-male cast, but they’ve been really open,” Costas says. “I think when we first started they were a little afraid of what I was going to give them. They’d be like, ‘Take it easy on me!’”
Although Costas lives in New Jersey and was born and raised in the Bronx, this isn’t her first time in Milwaukee. She is actually married to Nathaniel Stampley, director Malkia’s brother.
Stampley says her history with Skylight started after seeing her big brother on stage. She made her Skylight debut in The King and I while still in high school, and got her first job as a resident teaching artist with the company after graduating from Marquette University. Stampley says she is thankful that her Skylight directorial debut not only sparked an opportunity to gather a production team predominantly of women of color, but that the show spotlights six talented African American men in our community.
Along with Lawrence, the first African American to join American Players Theatre's core acting company, the five title guys include James Carrington, Shawn Holmes, Sean Anthony Jackson, Kevin James Sievert, and Lorenzo Rush Jr. Rush won a 2018 Jeff Award for Best Performer in a Revue for Court Theater's Five Guys Named Moe.
“There just aren’t a lot of opportunities, unfortunately, for these guys to be featured in such a way,” Stampley says. “An all-black cast is rare, and I’m excited to celebrate them, and I think that the city will celebrate them as well. I hope this brings opportunities for all of us, those of us behind the scenes and on stage as well. I have faith that it will.”
Five Guys Named Moe, presented by Skylight Music Theatre, runs Jan. 25 – Feb. 10 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets visit skylightmusictheatre.org or call the box office at 414-291-7800.