A Few Minutes With . . .
STEPHEN 'BLU' ALLEN
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MULTITALENTED actor Stephen “Blu” Allen, no stranger to Chicagoland theater audiences, will co-star in Court Theatre’s 2017/18 season-opening production, Five Guys Named Moe, scheduled to run from September 7 through October 8. Joining his character "Nomax" on stage in the musical tribute to the hit songs of composer and saxophonist Louis Jordan will be a group of remarkable actors, including Eric A. Lewis, James Earl Jones II, Kelvin Roston Jr., Lorenzo Rush Jr. and Darrian Ford. In an interview, the youngest cast member talks about the show directed by Ron OJ Parson and associate director Felicia P. Fields, how he became a part of the show and what he hopes remains with the audiences in years to come.
This production, Five Guys Named Moe, received two Tony Award nominations in 1992 and seems to become more and more popular as the years go by. How excited are you to be a part of such an iconic production?
Stephen Allen: I’m very excited and honored to be working the group of people I’m working with, some Chicago heavy-hitters. This is an amazing opportunity for me so I’m very honored to be a part of this show.
How did you get the role of Nomax?
Stephen Allen: I went to an audition back in February, got a callback that same day, did a little dancing that afternoon and got my offer the next day. This was actually one of the easiest auditions I’ve ever had.
What is your process when it comes to preparing for a role? Is there something that you do routinely to get yourself ready for the stage?
Stephen Allen: I try to study as much as I can about the role, listen to the music constantly and, if I can get my hands on the script, go over the script ahead of time. For this role I wanted it to be more natural so I went in with a fresh mind-set and let everything happen organically. This was a lot more relaxed for me. I knew my music, but I let the character come about naturally.
Actors and actresses approach their roles and learning lines for those roles differently. What’s your routine?
Stephen Allen: For me, I learn my lines best when I block––when I get my blocking and scene work I can coordinate the lines with movement. It’s very hard for me to just look over my script and memorize it. I have to have something to put it with––movement or something of that sort to help me memorize it. I know plenty of people who can go through the script numerous times and get it. I have to have something to combine [the script] with and compare it.
In this production, you get to show multiple skills in the story with a message.
Stephen Allen: I play Nomax, who is in a relationship with a woman named Lorraine. They’ve been together for about six years and some of his bad habits cause her to leave him. He’s really down and out and drinking a lot and just kind of wasting his life away. These almost God-like beings come out of the radio and they start to help Nomax through it––showing him how to get his girlfriend back, how to get his life back on track. They set him straight in a stern but loving way.
In any way, shape or form, have you experienced what Nomax is going through?
Stephen Allen: Honestly, I was talking to my director about this, and, personally, I’ve never been in this situation before. I’ve never lost someone like this and been in such a bad place. It’s something I have to try to connect to in other ways, perhaps through other people I know who have gone through it. So there’s really no connection between Nomax and Stephen in that regard.
What’s the most challenging part of this role for you?
Stephen Allen: The most challenging part would be making sure that I don’t get lost in the mix when it comes to the other guys. They have a lot more songs and they are huge personalities. So it’s a matter of making sure the audience knows who the Moes are, but they have to know who Nomax is to know what the story is about. It compels the story, it makes him more than … it gives it a story, script, plot. I have to make myself as present as possible so people know what’s going on in the play, and I don’t just get lost in the shuffle.
You mentioned the other cast members a couple of times. Tell me about the kind of relationship you have with them.
Stephen Allen: I’ve worked with a couple of them before so they are kind of like those uncles who are always picking on you, but it’s in a loving way. We joke a lot. We laugh. Rehearsals are a blast. We have so much fun, but there is a lot of hard work. They are guys I really admire so it's really cool to work with people I look up to, people who I aspire to be.
The director, Ron OJ Parson, is kind of a legendary figure in Chicago theater. Have you worked with him before and what are your impressions of how he goes about his work?
Stephen Allen: This is my first time working with him, and he has been great. He’s amazing at what he does. He has been very good and patient with me. We’ve been able to connect on a few levels and really get down to the nitty-gritty of the story and collaborate on different things. He’s not overpowering. He wants to get your opinion and asks questions such as ‘How do you feel about this? What do you think about that?’ It’s a really nice way to be directed.
You’ve been in several productions in the Chicago area over the years, including a dramatic and emotionally draining role in The Scottsboro Boys at Porchlight Music Theatre. How did that affect you personally?
Stephen Allen: Scottsboro Boys, it did affect me personally. Being in that show was very hard and getting into that material and that character was the darkest place I’ve ever been in for a show. Facing that reality of the story that happened to these boys and knowing that this was a real-life event, for me, it was hard. Sometimes it took time to digress after the show and realize it was just a show and a role. I had to tell myself, ‘It’s not your life so re-track and get back to your happy self.’ The production took me to a dark place, but it taught me so much about myself, not only as a black man in America but as a performer, and it helped me reach new heights when it came to my skills.
You have the nickname "Blu." What’s the history behind that?
Stephen Allen: ‘Blu’ is a stage name for me. Singing is my first passion; it’s something I’ve done since Day One, so ‘Blu’ is kind of my alter-ego. It separates Stephen Allen and my acting career and who I am as a musician. It’s a name I came up with and it makes me happy.
When it comes to acting, where did you get your training?
Stephen Allen: I don’t have any formal training. I work really best just hands-on. That’s how I get my training. Acting came in when I started high school. I got into theater from choir and once I got into it I was hooked. It’s a very intimate thing to do. It’s hard and I’m so blessed that I’ve been able to do it. I absolutely love it.
This production is a tribute to the music of composer and saxophonist Louis Jordan. What are your thoughts about the music in the show?
Stephen Allen: It’s the main component, and it’s really interesting adding story to his music because the way his music incorporates into every scene and aspect … I didn’t know it could do that. Music usually is just you hear it and that’s it. But, here, it’s incorporated so flawlessly into the story––the lyrics, the rhythms. It’s a time period and era that I feel we often forget about, but it’s so important and it definitely influences a lot of what we hear today.
When people see this production, what do you hope they walk away with?
Stephen Allen: I hope people walk out of the theater feeling different than when they walked in. I hope they feel like singing, dancing, thinking about all of the songs, the message. I want them to have a blast, the best time of their life. I want them to leave this show and two years down the line say, ‘Man, I remember seeing Five Guys Named Moe at Court Theatre.' It needs to resonate with them for the rest of their lives. And I think it will.
Stephen "Blu" Allen during rehearsal for Five Guys Named Moe. (Photograph by Joe Mazza)
Portraying the "Five Guys" are (left to right) Eric A. Lewis, James Earl Jones II, Kelvin Roston Jr., Lorenzo Rush Jr. and Darrian Ford. (Photograph by Joe Mazza).
For more information and tickets to Five Guys Named Moe, go to www.courttheatre.org.