By Synnika Alek-Chizoba Lofton
While standing on the main stage at Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach, Sharon Cook screams “Representation Matters!” Standing on stage with her are Derrion La’Zachan Hawkins (Director), Jennifer Kelly-Cooper (Choreographer), and Ja’Mel Dean (Musical Director). They echo the idea, leading the engaged spectators in a quick call-and-response activity before the final performance of “A Motown Christmas.” All of the individuals on stage are members of Underground Performing Arts Collective (UPAC). Sharon Cook is the Artistic Director and Founder of UPAC, a performance arts organization, which is located in Suffolk, VA. UPAC is committed to bringing the stories of underrepresented communities to the stage, such as the stories and experiences of the BIPOC community, the LGBTQ community, and the Neurodivergent community.
This is the sixth and last performance of “A Motown Christmas,” which explores Motown’s Christmas catalog. It also offers a “tip of the cap” to popular Motown classics. Nate Jacobs is credited with creating and adapting “A Motown Christmas.”
After weeks of rehearsals, Underground Performing Arts Collective has settled in for multiple presentations of “A Motown Christmas,” which began on November 30, 2023.
Tonight’s finale takes flight and never finds a cruising altitude. “A Motown Christmas” simply climbs higher and higher, taking audience members on a journey through the Motown sound. I attended all of the shows at Zeiders American Dream Theater, but tonight feels different. The intimate theater is filled with attendees, reconnecting with the story of Motown or maybe experiencing Motown for the first time.
Over the course of the last five shows, three things are certain tonight. First, nostalgia has definitely stood the test of time, like some ancient statue, standing inside of the theater, flaunting her beautiful intelligence and her ability to entertain audiences. Second, it is quite obvious that Motown created a timeless catalog, which continues to appeal to a wide range of audiences. By surveying tonight’s audience, I think that Motown’s influence really does reach diverse populations, transcending race, culture, creed, and class. Also, this short run has revealed to me that music has a way of soothing, entertaining, and uniting people. Third, Virginia has a deep well of talented artists, singers, dancers, and performers that need more platforms and opportunities.
Tonight’s sold-out show has an infectious energy, just like the last five shows. However, this energy has a brand of urgency and anticipation that is quite different and unique from previous nights. These performers have been growing and transforming for weeks, and I am eager for the audience to experience “A Motown Christmas,” like I have experienced it. This cast has been fearless, mesmerizing audiences with their vocal abilities and footwork, touching hearts and minds, and exploring Motown’s powerful and influential catalog.
For two hours, this gifted group travels through Motown’s timeless catalog, performing classics by Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and many others. Cast members heat up the stage with their high energy performances, and there are just too many high moments in this show to explore.
The following reactions, observations, and sketches do not completely illustrate the impressions these talented individuals have left on the main stage, but they should give the reader an idea. In no particular order, this list reads like a lyric poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, or Amiri Baraka, or my brother, Donnelle McGee.
So, Aleah Ward, Alexandria Steward, Lauren Clark, and De’Vonte Rush deliver powerful performances, burning up the floor with fancy footwork, mixing dance moves from the Motown era with the gritty, new flare of today’s urban dance culture, as well as adding their voices to multiple songs. They also contribute to the storylines of the show.
Elliott Pope takes the show to a new level with his weightless glides across the stage and his silky-smooth vocals, channeling the Motown era in his sparkling green blazer.
Micah Cook cooks with strong vocals, precise footwork, and entertains the audience with his highly skilled and humorous dancing, especially on the song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Nicquetta Selby-Brame’s powerful and captivating voice stands out and finds new heights with “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” and later with “Mary Did You Know?”
Del Fionn Sykes’s dynamic voice soars in several songs and adds another unique dynamic to the show. You do not need to read her bio to understand that Mrs. Sykes is a highly trained, accomplished, and experienced singer.
And what is Motown without The Jackson 5? The show does a phenomenal job of representing The Jackson 5 by exploring their early hits. For example, Job Jones-Noel charismatically takes command of the stage on “Dancing Machine,” with members of “The Big Jackson 5,” dancing behind him. Zuri Sarai Lofton, Jael Joseph, Nyla T. Wimbish, Aleah Ward, and Jared Lawrence (“The Little Jackson 5”) explode onto the stage, electrifying it with upbeat, high energy dance moves, while singing some of The Jackson 5’s biggest hits, like “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save.” Jared Lawrence’s version of “I’ll Be There” strikes a memorable and nostalgic chord with the audience. He captures the audience members, raising his arm, waving it back and forth, and singing the familiar lyrics. The audience answers the call and waves back and forth as well.
“The Big Jackson 5’s” and “The Little Jackson 5’s” infectious energy literally changes the pace of the entire show. The energy level shifts. Like I said earlier, this show never finds a cruising altitude. It just continually climbs.
“A Motown Christmas” is jam-packed with other high powered and memorable moments, like performances by Janette Clanton on “Jimmy Mack,” Chonise Thomas and Felicia Fields on “My Favorite Things,” and Joe Jones and Clifford Clark on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Clifford Clark plays saxophone on several songs throughout the performance, adding a beautiful layer of live instrumentation. Clark says, “I’m actually a natural drummer.”
Tory Myrick Jr. is a profound and gifted performer, with a bold and powerful voice. He attentively engages the crowd. He expertly uses the stage and effortlessly gets the crowd involved. He features on several songs and always commands attention, especially on “Silent Night.”
Travis Waters’ familiar and soulful voice can be found on countless songs, including solo efforts, duets, and group songs. I am extremely impressed by his memory and his ability to work the stage. He is a natural performer–another voice that quickly garners attention.
When you think the show cannot go any higher and cannot find any more altitude, the vocals of Calvin Morris, Travis Waters, Tory Myrick Jr., and Joe Jones on “Silent Night” create a soul stirring effect, which literally steals the breath from the room. Micah Cook, Elliott Pope, and De’Vonte Rush also contribute their voices.
The vocal talents and ranges of these men shine throughout the entire show. I cannot count how many times audience members gasped when Calvin Morris reached into the cosmos and pulled down priceless high notes. Their performance inspired this short poem:
The stillness lives
haunts/ liberates/ inspires
A spotlight bathes his face
He breathes nostalgic life
In my mind
Calvin hits the highs
Joe croons the lows
Travis finds altitude
Micah surfs moments
The space collapses
Elliott taps his knee
They sign their names
Individually, each man is capable of carrying an entire song (and they do) but, collectively, they offer the audience a powerful synergy on “Silent Night.”
Every singer adds new, exciting textures to the presentation and brings the same energy every night. The crowd really does love this group of performers. Watching the payoff for so much hard work has to be a heartwarming feeling.
These performers have chalked up wins tonight.
Mr. Ja’Mel Dean did a great job of preparing these singers for the demanding routine of “A Motown Christmas,” and Jennifer Kelly-Cooper did a superb job with the dance routines. With Derrion La’Zachan Hawkins’s vision, Tre’Veon Porchia’s input/management, and the leadership of Sharon Cook, how can these talented performers lose?
“A Motown Christmas” feels like a celebration, and maybe this is a celebration, a celebration of grassroots creativity, a celebration of identity, and a celebration of culture. Like Derrion La’Zachan Hawkins says, “This is not your typical theater experience. This is the backyard cookout!” All six shows have thrilled audiences. The creative team has worked diligently and efficiently to get these performers to the main stage. Tonight, these performers have brought the precise energy needed to fill the intimate space and to fill the hearts and minds of the people. They have successfully imparted joy and good vibes, leaving their distinct impression on Virginia Beach.
When you put unique artists/creatives into a room, they will magically and organically create something new, something fresh, something bold, something innovative, and something of value. UPAC has made that happen with “A Motown Christmas.” This show has provided an experience and a brief look at what talented individuals can do, if they are only given the opportunity. When Jennifer Kelly-Cooper says, “Our motto is Representation Matters,” the energy behind the words is real. The intent is real. She is not saying these words because they sound nice. She speaks them because there is a living, breathing purpose behind the words.
Sharon Cook has created an artistic bridge with UPAC, which is giving underrepresented communities access to the stage and a wider audience. Cook’s vision is an innovative spark, possibly igniting a cultural shift, and possibly creating a revolution of creativity in Hampton Roads VA.
I cannot wait to see what Underground Performing Arts Collective does next.
Synnika Alek-Chizoba Lofton is an award-winning poet, author, and educator. He is the author of more than 35 books and more than 170 spoken word albums, Eps, singles, and digital downloads. He earned both a B.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College (2004) and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (2006). Lofton teaches literature at Chesapeake Bay Academy and Composition and Public Speaking at Norfolk State University. For more information, check out www.iamsynnika.com