When Cathy Rawlings began brainstorming about what kind of show she wanted Agape Theater Troupe to debut in the newly renovated Lyric Theatre, she knew one thing.
"I wanted it to be something spectacular, something bright, something exciting!" she says with theatrical panache.
That something is The Duke, The Women, The Music.
Rawlings, a celebrated actor in her own right, is the founder and artistic director of Agape Theater Troupe, a not-for- profit, all-volunteer theater devoted to educating and entertaining Central Kentucky's African-American community and its supporters.
Rawlings founded the group in 2000 under the auspices of Imani Baptist Church's Family Life Center Theatre. Starring in the troupe's debut production, Rawlings expanded her artistic résumé by writing, directing and performing in many of the theater's subsequent productions. During that time, she also performed in shows by Actors Guild of Lexington and other area theaters.
Last year, however, Rawlings received proof that Agape's appeal might be more widespread than African-American church circles and word of mouth of friends and neighbors.
The troupe presented Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's Gee's Bend for one night only to an almost sold-out crowd at the Lexington Opera House. Nearly filling the 940-seat theater is an attendance feat that easily dwarfs that of most area productions.
"It told me the community was ready for a mainstream African-American theater," she says.
Rawlings knew she had to build on the overwhelming success of Gee's Bend.
Agape's first full season launches Friday at the Lyric with another original work by Rawlings.
The troupe does not consider the Lyric its permanent home — some shows have technical requirements that would be better served by other venues — but it is scheduled to offer two more productions there in 2011. It plans to produce two one-act plays in February and a full-length show in April.
The Lyric itself played an inspirational role in Rawlings' work as a playwright and director. "I wanted to debut the show on Dec. 10 because that was the date of the first performance at the Lyric in 1948," she says of the historical parallels that she hopes the show will highlight.
The Duke, The Women, The Music is a musical that explores the life and times of the female singers in Duke Ellington's storied band. Featuring a cast of 10 actors, eight dancers and seven band members, the show is Agape's biggest and glitziest to date.
Rawlings says, "I picked Duke Ellington because his band actually did play at the Lyric and represents the kind of entertainment routinely featured there."
The show did not begin as a tribute to the women of Ellington's Band.
"It really began as a show about the women of jazz," says Deb Shoss, the troupe's artistic advisor and production co-director.
Rawlings had envisioned bringing the greats of history to the stage — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and the like. However, diving deeper into her research, Rawlings was inspired to abandon her original concept for one she found far more artistically intriguing, not to mention educational.
"During my research, I started seeing other names that I had never heard of before. It only took a couple of hours to connect the dots. I noticed that these women all had a connection with Duke Ellington," Rawlings says, "I went to my friend Deb Shoss and said, 'Deb, we are not going to do the women of jazz. We are going to do this show about Ivie Anderson, Betty Roche, Joya Sherill, Kay Davis, Marie Ellington, Marian Cox, Dolores Parker-Morgan, Alice Babs.' When she was only familiar with two or three of these names, I felt very strongly that we were onto something,"
Shoss refers to the show as a "gem of history," but it is even more than that for the troupe's cast.
Another outgrowth of Agape's mission is that it offers exposure and training for performers who might not have found their way to the theater otherwise.
Sylvia Howard, who has appeared in several Agape shows and stars as Ivie Anderson in the The Duke, The Women, The Music says, "I never knew that I could do theater, that this was an option for me, until Agape. Now I wish I could do it full-time."
Another cast member, Vivian Lasley-Bibbs, says her involvement in Agape has inspired her twin daughters. "They want to know when they can get involved, when they can audition," she says.