Five years ago, Rose Jangmi Cooper was doing her thing when she heard the dramatic call of the theater muses.
She’d been known in the Lansing area for years as the woman who rode around on a motorcycle singing (in tune) at the top of her lungs. It was her enjoyment, and she didn’t care what anyone else thought.
While she was comfortable with that very public form of performance, the stage was something she’d never considered.
“I’d never done theater,” the 59-year-old said. “Except for that theater class in eighth grade.”
That was, until Jeff Croff, founding artistic director of Ixion Theater and Board Member Sara Frank-Hepfer, asked the singing biker to lend her talents to a production.
“I got bit by the theater bug, hard,” she said.
Indeed, she tackled a series of roles over the next five years, including “Othello.” Now, she’s tackling her largest role yet, directing an eight-person show on Riverwalk’s main stage later this month.
“Fabulation, Or the Re-Education of Undine” tells the story of a woman who loses her material things only to discover the magic and joy of life. Cooper found the play after her first choice, “Fences,” was unavailable for production.
“I had to search through the play catalog for ‘Black’ plays,” she said, a hint of anger on her tongue.
And it’s not unearned anger. When it comes to theater, it has faced a reckoning nationally and locally on racial equity, color-blind casting and finding and telling stories about and for communities of color. Cooper said that when she started doing theater, she often heard “how hard it is to get Black actors to audition.”
The auditions for “Fabulation” should silence any of those claims. Cooper said she wept as she watched the depth and breadth of talent stroll across the stage during her auditions. There were about 20 people who auditioned. That’s a good turnout for an unknown play.
“I don’t ever want to hear a theater say again they can’t find Black talent,” she said. “We’re here. Give us a chance to show you our talent. If it’s not enough, we build it up and come back. All we want is a chance — the same chance. It’s time.”
She’s decided to team up with theater queen Jane Zussman — famous for her years on stage, behind the stage, and, of course, coordinator of the infamous The Greater Lansing Ubiquitous Theatre (G.L.U.T.), which sends out emails with upcoming auditions, performances and even mini-reviews for shows across the region. Cooper said she would make sure G.L.U.T. is capable of reaching communities of color in the coming future.
As for Cooper, taking the helm of a mainstage show was not on her “to-do” list. She fell into it after directing some staged readings and Zoom events during the pandemic. As a first-time director, she said she is incredibly fortunate to have the assistance of her crew.
The show features eight actors, but they play multiple roles with many costume changes. And the scenes bounce around, meaning it requires a set that accommodates multiple locations without slowing the show down or costing an arm and leg in construction. She wouldn’t reveal what award-winning set designer Tom Ferris has cooked up.
Despite having the assistance of old hands in the theater, she said she still has late-night panic moments about the show.
“It still keeps me up at night,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just not the usual stuff that does it.”
And while she might be sweating in the director’s chair, she said she is experiencing the magic of theater through her beloved grandson’s eyes. The 10-year-old accompanied her to a rehearsal recently. Afterward, the two discussed the show, and she asked him who the bad person was.
“He was able to identify the villain in the first act,” she said. “But that second act, he was not so sure. That’s because not everyone comes out looking good, and that’s important. This is real life.”
Williamston Theater — “The Magnolia Ballet, Part 1”: A Southern Gothic fable about a Black queer boy blending high drama, dance poetry and spectacle to explore masculinity, racism and the love between a queer kid and his father. This is a co-production with Plowshares Theater in Detroit. Oct. 13-Nov. 6. Oct. 13, pay what you can. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. williamstontheatre.org
Lebowsky Center — “Misery”: Stephen King’s novel of an obsessed romance novel fan and the author of her favorite series come crashing together in this thriller. Oct. 21-22, 28-29, 8 p.m. Oct. 23, 30. 3 p.m. lebowskycenter.com
Peppermint Creek Theater Co. — “Merrily We Roll Along”: This musical, an early work of Stephen Sondheim, charts the turbulent relationship between composer Franklin Shepard and his two lifelong friends: writer Mary and lyricist and playwright Charley. Lansing Public Media Center. Oct. 20-22, 8 p.m., Oct. 23, 2 p.m. Oct. 27-29, 8 p.m., Oct. 30, 2 p.m. peppermintcreek.org
Lansing Community College — “Queering History”: Emma is a quiet, unobtrusive high school student who also happens to be queer. Her high school history class is turned upside down after a visit from her “Fairy Queen Godmother,” Kinsey Scale and his Gaggle of Historical Gays. Written in collaboration with LGBTQIA+ Homeless Youth, “Queering History” explores how our world might be different if LGBTQIA+ history was taught in our schools. Black Box in the Gannon Building. Oct. 13-15, 8 p.m. staged reading. lcc.edu/calendar
MSU Theater — “Corktown, or Through the Valley of Dry Bones”: Jackee, a fabulous 14-year-old boy, takes us on a tour of one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods between 2007 and 2034. From the neighborhood’s urban blight to the gentrified renaissance, “Corktown” chronicles a city's life cycle and its residents' lives. When the music is turned down, and the graffiti is painted over — there’s a beating heart in a place’s history that can’t be ceased. Oct. 14-16, Oct. 18-23. Pasant Theater at Wharton Center. whartoncenter.com/events/detail/corktown
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