Meet the amazing cast, choir, and creative team behind the revival of this powerful and uplifting gospel musical.
The Gospel at Colonus is a soaring celebration of transcendence and the fragility of life. The music is an inspiring fusion of Black church gospel with blues and Motown. The show’s message of redemption and hope is sorely needed right now.
A.J. Calbert (Theseus) hails from the cornfields of Illinois and is excited to make his debut with Avant Bard. A.J. studied acting at the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory and holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Yale University. His previous shows include: Romeo & Juliet (Capulet), Prince George’s Shakespeare; A Christmas Carol (Young Scrooge and others), Chesapeake Shakespeare Company; Oedipus the King (Creon, Teiresias), Lean & Hungry Theatre; DC State Players present: Agamemnon (Agamemnon), Barrelhouse Theatre.
Jessa Marie Coleman (Ismene), a native of Ellicott City, MD, began her journey with music from early childhood. Graduating from Stevenson University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Film/Theatre/Video, she began performing professionally regionally at Toby’s Dinner Theatres in Columbia and Baltimore. Soon after, she joined Royal Caribbean cruise lines as a lead singer. In addition to travelling the world through song and dance, Jessa has performed as a backup dancer for the artist M.I.A at the 2010 Oktoberfest at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Also in 2016 she was featured in the FKA Twigs Baltimore dance documentary. Her credits include ArtsCentric: Sister Act (Michelle), Memphis (Ensemble, Felicia u/s), Snapshots (Natalie), For Colored Girls… (Yellow); Royal Caribbean: Majesty (Lead Vocalist), Grandeur (Lead Vocalist); Toby’s Dinner Theatre: The Color Purple (Nettie), Hairspray (Dynamite), Buddy Holly Story (Apollo Singer), Ragtime, All Shook Up, Beauty and the Beast, Cats (Syllabub), Phantom of the Opera, Sophisticated Ladies (Ensemble). Jessa is thrilled to be a part of such a talented cast and incredible project! She gives infinite thanks to her mother, father, Todd, and all those friends and family who have continued to support her toward her destiny! Shine on!
e’Marcus Harper-Short (Creon), who is also Musical Director of The Gospel at Colonus, is a performer with extensive recording, touring, and television credits. Among the artists he has worked with as keyboardist, vocalist, or conductor: Carlos Santana, MC Hammer, Lionel Richie, David Murray, Davey Yarborough, Walter Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins, Li’l Richard, Aretha Franklin, Billy Preston, and Michael Jackson.
William Thomas Newman Jr. (Preacher Oedipus) is a busy and familiar stage, screen, TV, and voiceover performer. He most recently played the title roles in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Othello with Lean & Hungry Theatre. He won critical acclaim as Jack in The Winter’s Tale. His theatre credits also include starring roles in Plaza Suite, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, and Let’s Get Sanctified. On network TV he played the role of Hal Johnson on the daytime serial Somerset, and his motion picture credits include Suspect and Lee Daniels’s The Butler.
Ayana Reed (Antigone), a native Washingtonian, graduated from Duke Ellington School of the Arts and obtained her BM in Vocal Performance from George Mason University. Her versatility is showcased through performances such as an opera debut in Italy and a starring role in the Helen Hayes Awards nominated blues musical Blackberry Daze. She loves bringing meaningful stories to life on stage. www.ayana-reed.com
Kenton Rogers (Singer Oedipus), native of Paterson, NJ, presently residing in Baltimore, MD, is an accomplished recording artist, actor, and ordained preacher. He has performed Off-Broadway (in God’s Creation and Black Nativity) and on stages across America and internationally. Kenton made his recording debut on Melvin Williams’s project Live! In Living Color performing the duet “Time Is Running Out.” He then signed with Blackberry Records and released his freshman project, Just Look at Me, which yielded the classic and still popular “God Has Never Failed Me.” In addition, he released his sophomore project, Alive & Pressin’ On, featuring gospel superstars the Williams Brothers, Paul Porter, the late Willie Neal Johnson, and the late Albertina Walker, who blessed him with standout selections “Jesus Will Fix It,” “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” “Help Me Lord,” “I Wanna Go,” and “God Is.”
Rafealito Ross (Balladeer) is a lyric tenor and a Washington, DC, native. metropolitan area. He is a graduate of George Mason University (B.M., Vocal Performance) and Catholic University of America (M.M., Vocal Performance). Currently Rafealito teaches choral music in the Prince Georges County school system and private voice at Falls Church Music Conservatory, and he serves as the Director of Music at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, VA. As an emerging artist, Rafealito has performed the roles of Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte; The Conductor in Pasatieri’s La Divina; King Kaspar in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors; Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi; Eisenstein in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus; Basilio in Le Nozze di Figaro and Tamino in Die Zauberflote, both by Mozart. In December 2003 Rafealito made his debut with the Old Bridge Chamber Orchestra as the tenor soloist in Handel’s Messiah and was invited to return for the 2004 performances. Rafealito has also had the opportunity to perform as a featured soloist in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Salzburg, Austria. More recently Rafealito has performed the roles of the Tin-Man in an Off-Broadway production of The Wiz, a leading soloist in Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, Goro in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Camille in Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, Romèo in Gounod’s Romèo et Juliette, and Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. When Rafealito isn’t singing he enjoys exploring new restaurants and activities in DC; spending time with his dog Rocco, family, and friends; and watching marathons of A&E’s The First 48. http://rafealitoross.weebly.com Twitter: @R2Tenor YouTube channel: Rafealito Ross
Greg Watkins (Polyneices), a born and bred Washingtonian, is a well-respected artist: singer, pianist, musical director, composer and arranger, actor, voice talent, and a brilliantly-pure entertainer. He is a graduate of The Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University (BM, Music Education), and a former graduate student of Catholic University, where he pursued his masters in vocal performance. Greg is the recipient of the ASCAP Foundation/Cherry Lane Foundation/Music Alive Award in Honor of Dr. Quincy Jones (2008) for his outstanding work in production, composition, performance, and musical direction. He is also the recipient of the Coalition for African-Americans in the Performing Arts’ Emerging Artist Award (2015) for his exemplary work with children, his service to the community, and his many accomplishments as a rising performing artist. He has appeared in several operas including Steven M. Allen’s The Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows for which he sang the original leading baritone role of quintessential novelist and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and garnered media attention in the new PBS documentary Beyond the Mask, which chronicles the life of Mr. Dunbar. He has also appeared as an extra on Season 6.2 of the hit television series House of Cards. Effervescent renaissance man that he is, Greg has appeared as an actor in Avant Bard’s 2017 productions of The Gospel at Colonus and King Lear, both of which were Helen Hayes Award Recommended. Some of Greg’s other theatrical credits include The Amen Corner, Black Nativity, Blues for a Royal Flush, Dreamgirls, and Sister Act. He has worked as a musical director locally and nationally on a number of productions including The Poet Warriors, which won the Capital Fringe Festival Best Musical Award in 2010. Additionally, he has worked in tandem with prolific Broadway and Sundance Film Composer Kathryn Bostic and Tony Award Winner Phylicia Rashad as co-music arranger and musical director for the nationally acclaimed staged reading of Christina Ham’s Four Little Girls. Greg’s talents as a singer and pianist have even taken him from the White House and John F. Kennedy Center to international soil: Germany, Russia, Italy, China, Antigua and Barbuda, and Colombia. Greg serves as the artistic director of The MusicianShip Washington Youth Choir and resident musical director and instructor of the Children’s Theater Workshop.
Gregory K. Wright (Choragos), a native of Alexandria, VA, graduated from T. C. Williams High School, attended Howard University, and graduated from The University of the District of Columbia with a bachelor of arts degree. He teaches in the Special Education Department at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, coordinates Counselors in Training at Burgundy Farm Country Day School, and is director of music and fine arts at Woodlawn Faith United Methodist Church, all in Alexandria, VA. Married for 26 years, Gregory and Barbara M. Wright have three children, Michael, Marissa, and Matthew Wright. Gregory loves to sing and offer outreach services to those in need, and he is thankful for new opportunities to fellowship with others.
Minister Becky Sanders (Founder and Director of the Women’s Ecumenical Choir) is a native of Alexandria, VA. She is also a remarkable minister and vocalist who has traveled extensively in various countries fulfilling the great commission of the Word of God. She has ministered throughout the United States and has traveled abroad to France, England, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland, and Norway. She has performed as a background singer for such legendary and stellar award-winning artists as Richard Smallwood, Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Holliday, Tramaine Hawkins, Twinkie Clark, and Michael Jackson. She has also been a vocalist with such nationally acclaimed gospel groups as “The Wesley Boyd Gospel Music Workshop Choir,” “Jeremiah Murphy and Judah,” and “El Shaddai.” She has appeared on the dramatic stage with world-renowned actors such as Morgan Freeman, and Carl Lumbly and was part of the cast of the 1984 production of Gospel at Colonus presented at Arena Stage. She is a much sought-after music clinician, workshop facilitator, and motivational speaker.
The Women’s Ecumenical Choir of Alexandria, VA, was divinely inspired by God and placed on the heart of Minister Becky Mays. The initial purpose of the group was to provide music for the Women’s Day Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in March 2007. Approximately 40 women, representing various churches throughout the faith community came together for the single purpose of lifting up the Name of Jesus through song. Since then the choir has traveled to Bear, Delaware; Edwardsville, Virginia; Albany, New York; Buffalo, New York; West Virginia; Hardeeville, South Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Atlanta, Georgia, ministering God’s Word through song. They were the featured artists at the City of Alexandria’s Mayoral Inauguration, the Alexandria Branch of the NAACP Officers Installation, and in August 2011, they ministered for the Tuskegee Airman’s Gospel Luncheon. The choir is the first Gospel Choir to be included in the Alexandria Performing Arts Society’s yearly calendar. There are currently more than 65 women from the Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, and Christian Methodist Episcopal religious backgrounds throughout the Washington, DC, Metropolitan area represented in the group. We are grateful for the support of all the Pastors of the churches represented. We are willing vessels with a strong desire to do God’s will. We are committed to carrying the Word through song and letting the lives we live speak for us.
Members of the Women’s Ecumenical Choir performing with The Gospel at Colonus are Angela Adams, Angela R. Gray, Sandy Taylor Hawkins, Robin Walker Shanks, and Kimberly A. Young.
Jabari Exum (Percussion)—born Jabari Kibwe Jawanzaa Ibyn Yaha Exum (“Brave Honorable Dependable Son of John”)—is an electrifying performing artist born and raised in Washington, DC. He is a skilled percussionist in the West African / Latin tradition and is a prolific writer and performer of Hip-Hop music. He recently worked on the film Black Panther as tribal dance and movement coach.
e’Marcus Harper-Short (Keyboard). See his performing bio above under Cast and his musical direction bio below.
ABOUT THE CREATORS OF THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS
Lee Breuer (Book and Lyrics) is one of America’s most innovative avant garde theatre artists. He is a founding co-artistic director of Mabou Mines, where his adaptations and direction have received critical acclaim. Notable works include Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, J.M.Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, and Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones. He has directed 14 Obie Award–winning performances; won Obies for writing, directing, and sustained achievement; and has been nominated for Pulitzer, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy awards. He has also been the recipient of a Chevalier Des Artes et Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture and the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship, among others. He has held positions at Yale University School of Drama and Stanford University.
Bob Telson (Music) has had a career as a composer and musician that has earned him an Academy Award nomination for his song “Calling You” from the movie Bagdad Café, as well as Pulitzer, Grammy, and Tony Award nominations for The Gospel at Colonus and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, an adaptation of the Gabriel García Márquez novel. Telson has composed soundtracks for American, French, German, and Argentinian films, as well as a ballet score for Twyla Tharp (Sextet). His songs have been recorded by many international artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, George Benson, Joe Cocker, Celine Dion, Etta James, k.d. lang, Shawn Colvin, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, and George Michael.
CREATIVE TEAM AND PRODUCTION CREW
Sandra L. Holloway (Director and Choreographer) is delighted to work with the artistic team and cast of Gospel at Colonus! Some of Sandi’s choreographic credits in musical theater include: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough for Theater Alliance , Eyes at Howard University, I, Too, Sing America for the Howard Players, Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, tigertigertiger at Theater of the First Amendment, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Guys and Dolls for the GMU Players, among others. Some of her concert dance works have been featured at the Lincoln Theater Black Choreographers Showcase, Dance Theater of Harlem’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Hi-Arts Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Hollow Dance In Concert at Howard University Cramton Auditorium and Ira Aldridge Stage, The 45 Degrees Project (a partnership between Joy of Motion DC and Deeply Rooted Dance Company in Chicago, IL), New World Dance Company in DC and is currently working with Hill Dance Academy in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been included in concert dance seasons for Collage Dance Company in Memphis, TN. Sandihas worked with directors and choreographers including Mike Malone, George Faison, Diane MacIntyre, Kenneth Daugherty, Linda Gravatt, Nick Alcott, Ed Gero, Tom Prewitt, and other really interesting and influential artists. Sandi is the Artistic Director of City at Peace, a youth development organization that uses the arts to effect social change, and is the founder of the holloway arts project (the hap). She is the recipient of the National Association of Regional Ballet Choreographers Conference Award, Mayor’s Arts Award in Arts and Education for City at Peace, GAEA Foundation Sea Change Artist Award for Arts and Activism, the 2015 Paula Giddings Arts Award and was a 2014 Presenter at Alternate ROOTS Festival Week. Sandi is a graduate of the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA.
Jennifer L. Nelson (Original Direction) is a Washington, DC-based theater professional committed to principles that value human dignity, justice, and compassion. She is Resident Director of Mosaic Theater Company and brings more than 40 years of experience as an actor, playwright, administrator, professor, director, and two-term president of the League of Washington Theatres. She is Senior Advisor for Programming at Ford’s Theatre, and previously served for 11 years as the Producing Artistic Director of the African Continuum Theatre Company, where she directed more than 20 full productions and readings. She is a 26-year veteran of Living Stage Theatre Company, the former community-outreach program at Arena Stage. Locally she has directed productions at Ford’s Theatre, Round House, Woolly Mammoth, Theater of the First Amendment, Theater J, the Kennedy Center’s Youth and Family Programs, and more. Among other places, she has directed at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore; Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY; the Fulton Theatre in Lewisburg, PA; Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, MN; and several Universities. As a playwright, Nelson won the Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award for Most Outstanding New Play for her play Torn From the Headlines. She has taught at UCLA, the University of Maryland, George Washington University, and American University, most recently teaching “Theatre for Social Change” as an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University. She is not able to be with us for this remount due to a commitment at Cleveland Public Playhouse.
e’Marcus Harper-Short (Musical Director/Keyboard/Creon) received the Helen Hayes Award (2015) for Outstanding Musical Direction for Black Nativity by Langston Hughes (Theater Alliance); a Grammy Award nomination (1998) for Best Traditional Gospel Recording as Conductor for Love Alive V: Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir; and a Hollywood NAACP Theater Image Award Nomination (2004) for Best Musical Direction for Da Kink in My Hair by Trey Anthony. Other credits include Musical Arranger for Three Mo’ Divas (PBS Special National) conceived by Marion J. Caffey, and Musical Direction for Invisible Life (Apollo Theater, New York) based on a book by E. Lynn Harris.In 2017 he was named a United States Arts Envoy by the U.S. Department of State.
Keta Newborn (Stage Manager) is thrilled to be joining Avant Bard for her third production, having been the Stage Manager on King Lear and last year’s The Gospel at Colonus. As a freelancer, Keta has worked in the world of theatre for over 10 years. She has held several titles including Stage Manaager, Assistant Stage Manager, Venue Manager, Production Assistant, Light & Sound Board Ops, and now Production Manager. Her past credits include The New Play Festival (Young Playwrights’ Theater), Little Thing, Big Thing (Solas Nua), Yellowman (Anacostia Playhouse), Black Nativity and Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea (Theater Alliance), Leto Legend and Failure: A Love Story (The Hub), Disgraced, Secret Garden, and Gidion’s Knot (Next Stop), and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, How We Got On, and Gidion’s Knot (Forum), The Flick and How We Got On (Company One). Keta would like to thank the whole WSC Avant Bard cast, crew and the Gunston Theatre for being apart of an amazing shows! She thanks G_d for the opportunity to be used as one of His vessels, working to bring His work of art into the hearts of many while doing what she loves. www.newbornketa.com
Tim Jones (Scenic Designer) is presently the Props Shop Supervisor and an instructor at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. He has also worked as a freelance Scenic and Props Designer throughout the Washington, DC, area. His design work has been seen on stage at African Continuum Theatre, Theater J, Kansas City Rep, Morgan State University, and Everyman Theatre, as well as the Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences. Tim is a native of Prince Georges County, MD, but has lived and worked throughout the United States. He holds an MFA in Scenery and Properties Design from the University of Memphis and a BA in Communication from Salisbury State College.
John D. Alexander (Lighting Designer) is excited to make his debut with Avant Bard. His recent designs include the national tour of The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence presented by Step Afrika!, Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, Blackberry Winter by Steve Yockey, Darius and Twig by Caleen Jennings, and the national tour of Anne and Emmett by Janet Langhart Cohen. http://www.johndalexanderdesign.com
Clare Parker (Costume Designer) is a freelance costume designer newly located in Washington DC. She recently graduated from The University of North Carolina School of the Arts with an MFA in Costume Design. She has designed for theatre companies in DC and North Carolina including The In Series, Peppercorn Children’s Theater and Triad Stage. Her credits include Jacques Brel: Songs from his World (The In Series – Costume Designer); Having Our Say (Triad Stage – Costume Designer); Maisy and Sprout (Peppercorn Theater – Costume Designer); The Italian Straw Hat (A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute – Costume Designer). Education: MFA candidate in Costume Design, University of North Carolina School of the Arts; BFA in Costume Design and Technology, Southern Oregon University. clareparkerdesigns.com
Ralph Derbyshire (Technical Director) is an Arlington native. He has worked throughout the DC region for the last 15 years, though most notably with The Smithsonian Folklife Festival (2002-08, 2010-15), GWU’s Lisner Auditorium (2007-12), as well as many local crewing companies setting up special events. He has held the titles Master Carpenter, Master Flyman, Assistant Stage Manager, and Shop Foreman. He also works and volunteers with the National Folk Festival as well as several other festivals locally and around the country. This is his first show with Avant Bard, and he is excited to bring his skills back to real theatre.
Jose Nunez (Properties Designer) is a native of the Maryland area. He recently graduated from Ohio University with an MFA in Production Technology, with a focus in Properties Design. He is excited to be working with Avant Bard!
Maegan Clearwood (Original Resident Dramaturg) is a dramaturg, teaching artist, and arts journalist who has served as the Director of Audience Engagement at Avant Bard, Literary Associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and Dramaturgy Apprentice at the Olney Theatre Center. Selected dramaturgy credits include: TAME., A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Holiday Memories (Avant Bard); Lizzie: The Musical (Pinky Swear Productions) A Bid to Save the World (Rorschach Theatre); Static (Source Festival); World Builders (Forum Theatre); I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, Colossal (Olney Theatre Center). As a critic and columnist, her work has appeared in On Stage Blog, HowlRound, and DC Theater Scene. BA in Drama and English from Washington College.