In Sammy and Me, Eric Jordan Young plays 35 different parts, including a version of himself. All these people are chasing the idea of Sammy Davis Jr. Unlike other one-person shows the Alliance Theatre has presented, this musical isn’t based on real experiences or a cabaret review. This piece is a solo show in which the performer wears many different skins in order to raise questions about African-American performers of the past, the effect of their legacy on African-American performers today and Sammy Davis Jr.’s complicated cultural legacy.
Alliance dramaturg Celise Kalke interviewed the show’s creators, director/writer Wendy Dann and actor/writer Eric Jordan Young.
This process has been very intimate and involves both traditional writing and finding things in moment [to] improvise together. How do you know when a piece of material works and should go into the show?
Eric: I’m not sure how I know. There is something that speaks true to the moments as we create them. Every step, phrase or piece of dialogue has come from a true moment inside of my memories. If the material doesn’t ring true for us in the room, then we know it won’t for audiences either. It’s really that simple (which is ultimately hard).
This piece involves one actor playing 35 characters. How did you decide who got to be in the show?
Eric: It was very scary, actually. It’s a total marathon, and the 35 characters are so vivid and particular that I thought people would think I was being too ambitious. All in all, I wanted this to be a one-man musical because it’s Sammy Davis Jr. [But] you can’t just get onstage and say “ooooooh, I’m gonna be Sammy!” You have to bring something along with it. I bring along my abilities to showcase all of my talents, just as Sammy did. He was an entertainer who loved to do everything at the same time: Sing, dance, act! That’s what Sammy did. He was the do-everything performer. Telling my story and celebrating his through a single energy illuminates the fact that he was the quintessential entertainer. He did it all. Alone. He never hid behind someone else’s abilities and I thought it only fair and responsible to do the same.
I’ve heard you both talk about rolling up the rug in Eric’s New York apartment during the development of the show. Why was it so important to work on the bare floor?
Wendy: That makes me giggle. The first day we worked on this project, we literally did push back the sofa, the chair and roll up Eric’s (I think it was a really thick shaggy) carpet. I think it was important to us to be on a bare floor because we both started as dancers. Five years ago, neither [of us] would have thought of ourselves as “writers.” I’m a director; Eric’s an actor. So we started with circumstances (who, what, where, when) and improvised. For instance, the “Hey There” scene was one of the first scenes we “wrote” by setting up: “It’s nighttime. You’re watching Flip Wilson. Your mom wants you to go to bed. OK … go!”
Eric: We grew up in dance studios, and our energies flow really well in the empty space. In my everyday life, I tell stories through movement and characters, so it only made sense to embrace my storytelling style [in] the play. We went into the room knowing this, and instead of discouraging it by trying to act like writers, we found our own way. The bare floor.
How is writing different than directing/acting? Would you write another piece?
Wendy: Oh, it’s so great. All those moments when you wish you could re-write the play, you can! We have a joke, whenever we hit a moment that’s awkward: We turn around and say “Who wrote this? Get the playwright in the room!” When we collaborate on Sammy, Eric and I will often meet in person or on Skype (ah the technological advances) and talk about a certain problem in the play: an issue, an idea. We’ll just talk about it for a while, and I’ll take notes. Eric does a lot of freewriting, and I often look through those notes and writings for juicy dramatic events to try out.
What is the hardest thing about having all those characters in the play but only one actor?
Wendy: Well, whenever you rehearse a one-person show there’s a moment the actor turns around in rehearsal and says, “…and then she’ll enter from over there….oh, wait, that’s me.” The joke about a two-person play is that ‘whenever the other actor stops talking, you start.” Well….??I think this play is like a marathon for Eric. And the audience. I often think the audience is playing a game like “concentration.” Turn over the red apple, turn over the banana, and then, oh, wait there’s the red apple again. You have to pay pretty close attention. You have to learn what each character looks like and sounds like. So we work a lot in rehearsal on making those characters instantly recognizable, and yet fully human and intentional.
Eric: I have no one to hang out with backstage. I get to the theatre some nights and I’m waiting for the cast to arrive until I realize it’s just me. Crazy!
How did you pick which songs to use?
Eric: I wanted to use some of Sammy’s most recognizable work but as I dug deeper I found that he recorded and performed every popular song of his generation. His discography is enormous. He even sang Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and “Macarthur Park” for goodness sake! Sammy communicated through his songs. It’s almost like the songs found their place in the show for us.