Updated July 16, 2020

Co-creators of the Spotlight Summer Performance Series in Jackson want to spur Mississippi-made theater into action with a platform for new plays and LGBTQ+ voices.

The call for script submissions, with a June 1 deadline, is open to native and resident Mississippi playwrights and performers. Produced by Randy Redd’s JOOKMS professional theater project, the series was set for July 20-26, with staged readings starting July 22 and continuing through that weekend.

Update: Continuing pandemic concerns led organizers to rework the Spotlight Series schedule, with two public livestream events — JOOKMS Featured Artist Forums — July 23-24. 

The venue was TBA, with hopes the series can be presented at The Warehouse Theatre, New Stage Theatre’s under-100-seat alternative theater in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood. While the series is not a New Stage Theatre production, it has the professional theater’s thumbs-up and partnership potential. Theater scheduling was fluid because of uncertainty in the COVID-19 pandemic. See updates to the orginal schedule below.

In the 6 p.m. July 23 “Find Your Light” event, JOOKMS Artistic Director Randy Redd hosts a chat with theater-makers Jordan Nichols of Memphis, Marc Tumminelli (New York’s Broadway Workshop), Sharon Miles (Jackson’s New Stage Theatre), Tony Award-winner Rachel Bay Jones (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and more.

The 6 p.m. July 24 event, “Be the Light,” is a provocative open forum with Mississippi-made writers Elizabeth McCain, John Bateman, Topher Payne, Redd and more, led by JOOKMS Artistic Associate Taylor Newby, about inspiration, motivation and imagination.  Virtual tickets are $5 (suggested donation) at fundraising.fracturedatlas.org/jookms

Mart Crowley’s March 7 death was part of what prompted Drew Stark, education associate at New Stage Theatre, to pursue an event focusing on LGBTQ+ works to honor the Vicksburg-born playwright. Crowley’s 1968 “The Boys in the Band” was a trailblazer in its depiction of gay life, and its all-star 50th anniversary Broadway production won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Stark, originally from Starkville, moved back to Mississippi from New York City a few years ago. “My dream was to have a theater company and to focus on providing a voice for LGBT in Mississippi and in the South,” he says, where the community is underserved and discrimination lingers.

“Theater should serve everyone, and represent everyone,” as well as stretch its audience, Stark says. “That’s the collaborative art of theater.”

The Spotlight Summer Performance Series is a distillation of that goal. With its LGBT aim, “That can be a character, an experience, a story, a theme — as long as it hits the mark in that way,” Redd says. “But, we don’t want to limit writers. … JOOK is taking submissions of all things all the time.”

JOOKMS has received about a dozen plays already, Redd says, and twice that many emails and questions since the call went out, including on broadwayworld.com. He’s fielded writers’ questions from “Do I have to be gay?” (“No.”) to “Do I have to live in Mississippi?” (“Absolutely not, as long as there’s a Mississippi connection there.”)

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Brookhaven native Randy Redd watches rehearsals for “Million Dollar Quartet” at New Stage Theatre. Credit: Photo by Melanie Thortis

Redd, now based in Memphis, formed JOOKMS nearly two years ago as a nonprofit company to bring Mississippi artists together and create theater true to and reflective of its community roots. The Brookhaven native, with Broadway, film and TV credits, always wanted to get back home and make theater in Mississippi, he says, and he jumps at the chance to teach or direct in his home state (as with New Stage’s “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Sweet Potato Queens” musical). Inspired by The Bitter Southerner, and also chef/author/TV host Vivian Howard, Redd wants to celebrate the best parts of life and work in the South, gather the local artistic “ingredients” and showcase the state’s culture, heritage and history.

“Devised theater not only provides an opportunity for artists to explore and learn and create without boundaries, but it also serves as a big mixing bowl for that artist’s ideas and talents.”

With JOOKMS, he intends to take projects to different venues around Mississippi, keeping the company vital, lively and on the move. Other ideas in the works with JOOKMS include a production of “Les Miserables” set during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, a big hill country blues project, a site-specific Tennessee Williams play, a Beth Henley festival and more.

For the Spotlight series, six selected plays will get two presentations each, with time for playwrights to get response, tweak and rewrite scripts in-between. Plans include an ensemble cast in staged readings of works in progress in afternoon sessions, with evenings rotating between two finished plays, “The Boys in the Band” by Crowley and “Entertaining Lesbians” by Kosciusko native Topher Payne (who has also consulted on the series). Weekend nights may also feature a concert or cabaret. Ticket options will include the entire festival, or a la carte options.

“Submissions are coming in and we hope to continue to collect new works for this and future reading series,” Redd says.

Though LGBTQ+ is a thematic thread for this inaugural Spotlight series, the target audience is broad, “for all Mississippians, all Jacksonians to come and watch great theater and yet still have these voices be heard,” Stark says. The broad outreach holds true in the submissions push, too, and the hope for a diversity of writers.

“I really believe that these voices need to be heard and recognized and humanized. Where discrimination and where bias and closed-minded thinking is, that’s where we need to have these discussions.

“Theater is a catalyst. You can go to the theater to be entertained, to learn and to have that sense of community — being in the same room and having that collective energy” of actors and audience, Stark says. “And, I do think that theater is unique in that art form. It starts the conversation.”

As COVID-19 pandemic-related adjustments continue, Redd and Stark are committed and hopeful as they plan and schedule. “We’re sticking to those dates as long as we can,” Redd says.

“I’m very passionate about this project,” Stark says. “This has been a dream of mine to create in Mississippi.”

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Drew Stark, education associate at New Stage Theatre, said of the series: “I really believe that these voices need to be heard and recognized and humanized. Where discrimination and where bias and closed-minded thinking is, that’s where we need to have these discussions.” Credit: Photo by Sherry Lucas

They hope writers use the extra time spent at home as a time to explore, create, and use this opportunity as a goal to work toward. “I want more of us, as artists, writers and creative types, to come up with progressive ideas that give us something to look forward to,” Redd says. He’d even caught himself bogging down in the here-and-now handling of lockdown and limitations, rather than working toward what’s beyond. “I told myself, ‘No.’ I’m going to work like I go to work any other day and keep moving forward like I’m in pre-production for something at another date and time.

From more than a dozen LGBTQ+ plays submitted, JOOKMS and the Spotlight Series crew selected four for professional readings, feedback and reworks. Though those sessions will not be publicly broadcast, there are hopes to produce at least one of the plays in the coming year.

“So, get busy, sit down and start working on a new play,” he says to fellow theater folk. “I know a lot of people are trying lots of new things now.”

Submit new work directly to JOOKMS and find guidelines and more details about the series here.

New work can also be emailed to spotlightsummerseries@gmail.com.

There is no submission fee. Authors whose manuscripts are selected will receive an honorarium, written critique from a professional dramaturge, video recording of the reading and post-show audience feedback.

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.