New Work in Progress: The Sweet Potato Queens

This month, we chat with Bruce Lumpkin and Marley Wisnoski from Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Texas about their upcoming premiere of the new musical The Sweet Potato Queens, written by Sharon Vaughn, Rupert Holmes and Festival Alumna Melissa Manchester (I Sent a Letter to My Love, Fest ’01).

How did The Sweet Potato Queens find its way to TUTS and your Underground season? 
Melissa Manchester was doing a concert at The Hobby Center in Houston, and she requested a meeting with us to discuss the project. We then met with Rupert Holmes in New York and discussed his input in the project. After reading and listening to the piece, we believed a staged reading was the next step for this project. In March 2015, we invited Holmes (Book), Manchester (Music) and Sharon Vaughn (Lyrics) to Houston where we worked on the show with local actors and produced TUTS Underground’s first 29-hour reading. After a successful reading, we felt that the material could be developed further into a full production. The writers visited us again in November 2015 to work on the piece and do a table read. We believe that the show is now ready for a full-scale TUTS Underground production in March 2016.

What drew you to the show and why is it a good fit for the Underground? 
TUTS’ Associate Artistic Director and Co-Director of The Sweet Potato Queens, Marley Wisnoski and I felt that the score, book and lyrics combined with the universality of the subject matter were so unique and moving that the show needed to be done. Over the process, we also have built a strong collaborative relationship with the writers. Our primary goal with TUTS Underground is to incubate and to cultivate new works and to provide writers an artistically conducive place to create.

What work has TUTS been doing on the show as it prepares for production?
Since the initial staged reading, we have been working with the writers on getting the show ready for a production in March 2016. Last month, we had the creatives in town for a week, and some major revisions were made during that week including changes in the order and the addition of two new songs and a prominent new character. After concluding with a table read, we feel that we are very close to being ready for our first rehearsal in March.

As this is its first production, what moment in the show are you most excited to share with your audience? 
The opening number. This is the first time our audience will meet The Sweet Potato Queens and the most prominent character of all THE Sweet Potato Queen, Jill, in true Sweet Potato Queen fashion: a big parade. This will be a moment of pure spectacle which introduces us to the distinctive music and a universal story.

How does The Sweet Potato Queens fit in to the overall season at TUTS? 
TUTS Underground is now incubating and developing new works from start to finish through our newest project The Sweet Potato Queens (SPQ), based on the life of best-selling author, Jill Conner Browne. The project helps us to achieve the following goals of Underground:

  • To develop a new musical from start (staged reading or multiple readings if necessary) to finish (TUTS Underground production and beyond)
  • To collaborate with prominent writers on a new musical
  • To create a local following and offer ownership to audiences throughout the entire process
  • To establish a reputation for TUTS locally and nationally—a place which draws in local and non-local practitioners who want to create here and a place where new works can begin to be developed as staged readings
  • To utilize local actors and theatre practitioners
  • To offer Houstonians the experience of developing new works

Why should people check out the show this Spring in Houston?
We are very proud to be presenting The Sweet Potato Queens to our audiences not only because it is a world premiere, but also because it has been incubated and developed through TUTS Underground. The story is for everyone, and the music and lyrics are distinctive. The writers have brought all of their unique talents and specialties to this piece, and it is truly well-conceived material. We hope people will check out The Sweet Potato Queens at TUTS Underground in Houston because we would like for audiences to see who we are and what we do. TUTS Underground is where this musical will begin its journey, and we hope that in the show’s future life, locals and non-locals alike will say, “I saw it first at TUTS Underground.”

Visit Theatre Under the Star’s website for more information about their upcoming production of The Sweet Potato Queens.

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