I was intrigued and excited to discover that we have a missionary for Black theater in our midst here in the Kanawha Valley. Stuart Frazier is a veteran actor who has voluntarily left the center stage to focus on helping to build on the many gifts and talents that he has found among his fellow residents here.
When I asked for a video of a performance in advance of meeting him, he sent me a link to a piece from his company, Black Empire Productions. On the video I saw a succession of vignettes that paired powerful Black women writers with actresses who were fully up to the challenge of portraying their work.
The magnetic combination of two people I have the honor of knowing, Crystal Good’s poem, Black Diamonds, dramatically read by Janelle Williams, brought me to tears. Some pieces for adults only are included in the mix.
I still did not know what to expect when I met with Stuart, whose web listing had included his history of comedic acting. His serious, intense, and quiet commitment to his work came through very clearly as he sat on my porch swing and responded to my questions.
Stuart’s mission related to theater is to give Black actors and actresses an opportunity to perform, express themselves, and enjoy the love of art and creating. He wants them to have the experience of shared camaraderie that theater can bring, tell their stories, and showcase the work that they are able to do.
Stuart describes himself as being very hands on and dedicated to the art of theater. He likes to be involved and collaborate, especially with actors. He wants to hear their point of view and help to build a sense of community where people feel free to express what is in their mind and heart and to be comfortable in themselves.
He observed about himself that he can be kind of scattered with his attention spread everywhere and feel pulled in different directions. During these times he refocuses on the collective experience of creating art for everyone and it all comes together.
He also finds it hard to talk about himself. He enjoys the transition from the role of actor to the role of director. He has had his time on stage in shows. He wants others to shine too, and to let the art shine.
Stuart grew up in Cincinnati, where he was usually the only Black student in his high school productions. He graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a major in creative writing and has a masters in political science from Ball State.
He came to Charleston as a resident director for the University of Charleston. He described falling in love with this beautiful place with great people who are kind, open, and inviting in a friendly and positive environment. His wife, whom he met here, is from Charleston. Their daughter, who is in grade school, is already involved with theater.
Stuart is also able to use his creativity in his day job with the Office of Communications for the state Department of Education. The day we met he had just come from shooting a video where Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. shares his own story about getting a high school equivalency degree as a way to encourage others to follow on the same path. Storytelling is the common thread that runs through his day job and his work in the theater.
I was curious to learn more about what went into a production like the video I saw. Stuart again highlighted the focus on collaboration. The actresses included some people he knew well, including his wife. He picked the pieces of writing and matched them with the actresses he thought would be the strongest in the role.
Each actress studied her assigned piece, after which Stuart met with them individually over Zoom to explore what the piece meant to them and what it brought out in them. The only time everyone came together in one place was for the filming, where they supported and encouraged each other. He said that this coming together was beautiful to witness.
I wish now that I had seen The Colored Museum, which Stuart staged at the Alban Theater. He talked about how he liked being involved with a play that is larger than life with big idea themes related to identity and culture. The actors included some veterans and some who were acting for the first time. He enjoyed his role in bringing them together to produce a great show.
Stuart wants to continue to build his company to be bigger and better as a safe space for great productions by great artists. His next production is the play Fairview, which won a Pulitzer in 2019. He said the play is unique and not what a lot of people are doing. The cast is predominately Black but everyone is welcome to contribute.
I also asked Stuart about his relationship with some of the Black theater I had seen in Charleston. He was complementary toward the play Based on a Woo Story by Leeisha Lee that was performed at FestivALL a few years ago, and he also recruited some of her actors. As for the Charleston Light Opera Guild, where I have seen the plays Dreamgirls and The Wiz, he said that he didn’t try to participate because people probably would not want to hear him sing.
I feel like we are all very blessed that Stuart is committed to pursuing his quiet mission in our midst. Everyone involved in his productions can have the opportunity to develop and share their gifts. We all benefit from hearing more stories from parts of our community that have been less represented. As Stuart reminds us, we can also enjoy the entertainment of great theater.