MXO ‘Up Close And Personal’: Robert Barry Fleming Director And Nikkole Salter Co-Star Of ‘The Royale’

By Ms Osupa Nia

Posted May 18th 2018




MXO:     Good Morning Everybody!

F/S:        Good Morning!

MXO:    Mr. Fleming (F) and Ms. Salter (S)and thank you for this interview…and Kristin thanks so much.

F:            We are grateful for the coverage…. thank you!

MXO:     No problem. I think we have an amazing theatre district in Cleveland with an impressive history. A majority of the theatres were built between 1921-22 and the architecture is reflective of that time period…gorgeous pillars and marble floors…what are your thoughts about Cleveland’s theatre district? Ladies first …Ms. Salter.

F:            (Laughs)

S:            As a regular outsider on the phone…I’ve been to this town mmmm now I think it’s my fourth time which says a lot because I come her each time for work in celebration of the theatre of Cleveland or I’ve been hired by the theatre of Cleveland…. because I want to see the theatre in Cleveland (laugh) So Cleveland is not a pit stop on my way home to Jersey from New York. So it’s something that I’ve chosen to do so I think that speaks a lot to the quality of work that‘s here. I haven’t paid much attention to the gorgeous architecture because I’m focused on the gorgeous work on stage.  But I will pay more attention.

MXO:    Mr. Fleming.

F:            Yeh I’ve had the good fortune of working around the country and part of the thing that I always miss about New York is exactly what you identify and for some reason I am very drawn to that kind of architecture. It’s the permanency and almost making monument to whatever the institution or organization that is housed and how it’s circular. How so many of those organizations, these buildings have continued to be the purpose as the city has continued its evolution. Many of those periods being economic decline and then periods of great reminders of periods of great wealth and great productivity. That’s one of the things I love about Cleveland. I can get that feeling of that beautiful architecture.  And then the country boy in me who only likes about five people on the street at the same time as me can have that too. Unlike in New York and other larger metropolises, with that beautiful infrastructure comes a lot of human congestion and other things. So, I enjoy that Cleveland has amenities of a big city and yet has a moderate population to inhabit those structures.

MXO:    Yes, I call Cleveland a big old country town.

F:            Yep it’s just my speed.

MXO:    (Laughter) And let’s not forget that our theatre district is the second largest to Broadway.

F:            It is. It is only second in terms of the number of theatres in one organization next to Lincoln Center, so yes, it is something to have great pride about.

MXO:    Precisely. Now you two are very busy in the CLE in the month of May.  The Royale and The Nolan Williams Project.

F:            Yes maam

MXO:    Mr. Fleming/Robert let’s talk briefly about Nolan Williams Jr. Are you a DC native?

F:            I was born in DC. My dad was born in Cleveland. My Mother is from Cherryville, North Carolina and was a migrant to DC. So that’s where I was born. They met at the University of Chicago and then were at Howard.  Yes, so all of my people are in DC and Cleveland for the most part. That city obviously rivals any city for me around the world.  People talk about London, Paris and all that, but DC is one of our most extraordinary cities.  I’m proud to call that my birthplace although I was raised in Frankfort, Kentucky.

MXO:    Okay I did a semester at Howard, unfortunately I didn’t graduate from Howard. I noticed that Mr. Nolan is very active in the DC area and I just wondered how did your paths cross?

F:            I had the good fortune through another colleague Seema Sueko who is dear friend and we have known each other for a number of years.  She connected me with Nolan. He was working on a Christmas project and thought I might be helpful to him.  I said ‘sure I’d be happy to do that.’ Then upon meeting him and encountering his work and just the incredible quality human being he is and artist.  I was like wait a minute, no this is a whole other level of excellence.  This is not just me assisting someone.  It’s finding extraordinary talent and helping the world community in which I circle in, the ethical community, get to know what I’ve come to discover that like Nikkole he’s an extraordinary talent that all Americans are going to benefit from as they get familiar with his talent.

MXO:    And he’s so talented in so many areas. It’s crazy.

F:            And the idea of him and Nikkole working together because they’re both hyphenate artist who have expertise in multiple areas and such rich ferocious intellect and creative abilities…just extraordinary human beings. And that’s something that is infused in their work. That’s not always the case.  Sometimes people are extraordinary human beings but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the work.  It’s a delight to be around them but you don’t see that in actual output. Nikkole has quite a track record as an actor as well as a playwright, very similar to Nolan, so I knew that it was going to be a really rich combination.

MXO:    Ms. Salters you are definitely a part of this collaboration with The Nolan Williams Project.  What made you decide to come on board?

S:            (Laughter) This is going to out me.  Truth be told I decided to come on board because it was a project already in process.  I didn’t have the brain safe to even consider conjuring my own libretto of musical like that.  As many sparks and ideas that I get throughout the course of my days; whenever I have a spark for a musical I quickly squash it! (Laughter) Hey that’d be a good musical. Naw.Ummm..NO! This was a project whose story had already been developed by Nolan.

MXO:    It was done last year, right?

F:            We did the music without libretto. It had a rough outline of a narrative but it was only small connecting pieces.

MXO: Okay, I’m sorry Ms. Salters continue.

S:            That’s fine.  So, when I realized that I would not have to be responsible for conjuring basic elements of story; I’m looking to actually pull the story out of Nolan and craft the story on the page. I said that’s a little easier, that might be a good place to start. (Laugh).  To start my foray into this parallel path of storytelling that I’ve never done. I’m like so faith should do it because Nolan Williams is so talented as a musician, as a songwriter and because it was a story that was deeply seated in his heart that he wanted to tell.  I felt like I was in service of something useful and great.

MXO:     That’s beautiful and I’m sure it’s going to be a very compelling production. Now Mr. Fleming…Jack Johnson the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1900’s.  Why was Marco Ramirez’s interpretation of his life ‘The Royale’ selected for the New Ground Theatre Festival this season.  ‘The Great White Hope?’ also tells the Jack Johnson story.

F:            Yes, it does. This unlike ‘The Great White Hope’ is not a bio drama.  It is inspired by Jack Johnson.  But Marco ‘s quite forthcoming in saying as a Cuban American he did not feel like that this was his story to tell.  It was the themes within this man’s life and quest for the heavyweight championship that really intrigued him.  Because often writers can’t do a comprehensive from birth to death and have the kind of nuances and theatrical in truth. They have to make choices and be quite selective about where I am going to focus this story or this man or this woman or this given circumstance. His interest in his actual quest to be able to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, not the negro heavyweight champion was something that was intriguing to Marco.  And so, we wanted to investigate it because of the complicated history that Cleveland has with race relations and politics. As a place that has had the first black mayor and also has been a part of so many first, it seems to me and to Laura Kepley and all of us in artistic that it was the kind of story Clevelanders would feel a particular affinity to fanatically, and it intrigued all of us not only for its content but for its unique forum in which that content is offered.

MXO:    I see. I see. Ms. Salter, Now you are playing the role of Nina who is Jack Johnson’s sister and his inspiration somewhat in Mr. Ramirez’s interpretation.  In preparing for this role did you bring a different perspective to the dramaturgy?

S:            Well yes because my director is different. Robert had a very specific vision for this production and one that I appreciate. So, layers in a conversation that I feel is universal and pivotal.  It celebrates our connection to West African culture.  It does so in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone or compromise the integrity of what’s on the page.  I in my acting career have been a part of a lot of unique plays.  So, when I participate in those productions a lot of the direction is really about anchoring a sense of understanding of the basics of the story and the clarity of the story.  I’ve only recently been working on projects with directors where I’ve been able to collaborate with them on vision, a tick on a story as opposed to the clarity of the story. So, it’s interesting to me to see this particular play shoulder a new vision and perhaps it’s a vision that Marco didn’t see.

MXO:    It sounds exciting and I don’t really want to know much of the details because I want to see it firsthand how you guys make the interpretation of this production.  I know you two are very busy so winding down I just have one more question for both of you. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has a magnet school called the Cleveland School of the Arts.  It has a phenomenal curriculum for the fine and performing arts.  Ms. Salters and Mr. Fleming, you have just been chosen as the keynote speaker for their 2018 commencement.  What is the main idea that you want to impress upon this graduating class in your speech? We’ll start with you Ms. Salter.

S:            I would say to these young people our culture has delivered the message that we are participating in an industry for the purpose of entertainment.  When really, we’re part of an ancient tradition.  Story is used to help bring awareness to the elevation of humanity collectively and that is what they should be about the business of participating in.

MXO:     Ujima…Beautiful. Mr. Fleming.

F:            I would duck tale on that and have them say TRUST that what they bring to that story, bring to that narrative and bring to that experience is of deep and meaningful value.  Perhaps more nuances sophisticated that even they are aware of.  We have the good fortune on our project to have two young men who are sixteen and seventeen serving as advisors for a form of movement that we are utilizing in the play called krumping. And their contribution has been extraordinary.  They are experts at what they do and mentors to us who are generationally much older than they are.  But the idea that young people or very old people have less to contribute…I find those ideas are extremely false and distorted. I always try to utilize the opportunity to use as diverse collection of people racially, ethnically, age wise, gender orientation because it always makes the whole better.  My interpretation is only as good as the collaborators who bring their expertise and intelligence to it.  So, I would tell them to trust that they may know more than they know; and to also hold the contradiction that they would want to continue to be lifetime learners because you can stay in your lane and know what you know and at the same time say there’s a great deal I don’t know.  As a social being, as humans are you need to be a part of a whole.  It’s not all about you, so they have something to contribute. This is long winded, but I appreciate you giving me the time. (Laughing all).

MXO:     That is on point because you’re never too old to learn.  Wisdom comes from seeking knowledge from all ages, all sexes, and all groups of people.

F:            Agreed one-hundred percent!

MXO:   Again, thank you for this interview.  Ms. Salters enjoy Cleveland and Mr. Fleming I may be two years late but welcome to Cleveland.

F:            Thank you so much Osupa this has been a pleasure.

‘The Royale’ plays Cleveland Play House in the Outcalt Theatre now through May 27th. Tickets, showtimes and more information available here.

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