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Meme Simmons Loves Theatre

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Meme Simmons HS1.jpgThe theatre is something special.  Meme Simmons knows that.  She was drawn to it as a child.  First singing in the choir at age four then performing in high school plays for five years since she did her first musical with the high school when she was still in the eighth grade.

From high school she went straight to college in New York City.  Eventually landing roles in off-broadway productions and touring companies.

Now she's back in her hometown bringing her theatrical talent to the people of Jacksonville, North Carolina.  Here she has established Debbie's Angels Productions to produce shows and teach acting with the help of her relatives and friends.

In Jacksonville she has helped produce a musical at Southwest High School and directed theatre classes for the city's Parks and Recreation Department.  Debbie's Angels produced a musical called Broadway After Dark last year and has plans for two more adult performances this year and one for kids.

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Their production A Raisin' in the Sun will begin February 22nd starring: David "Mel" Melvin, Pearl Fox, Jessica Aiken Lark, Zenaida Bennett, Sabien Chandler, Travis Stewart, and Ed Dzioba.  Also appearing:  Kesha Bennett Brown, Gregory Humphrey, Daniel Hamilton, and Isaiah Hodges.  Estra Williams is the understudy for the role of Lena Younger.

Based on the poem Harlem (What happens to a dream deferred?) by Langston Hughes the drama is about a man, living with his family in a small Chicago apartment and barely getting by. He wants to improve his lot in life by opening a business. Unexpectedly his dream of doing so is made possible by a check that Lena receives as an insurance settlement but things don't go as planned.

Tickets are available now at: Tickets for A Raisin' in the Sun   Show times are February 22nd - 23rd at 8:00 pm, and February 24th at 3:00 pm.

Also check out Debbie's Angels Productions webite for more information on upcoming performances and classes.

Debbie's Angels Productions

How did Debbie's Angels come about?

Meme: Debbie's Angels was an idea I've had since forever. It has always been a dream of mine to open a professional performing arts theatre in my hometown of Jacksonville, NC.

I want to be able to hire actors from other cities such as New York and Atlanta and also bring in local community actors. To have an after school musical theatre program where kids can come and learn all aspects of theatre from backstage to onstage to the band.

The actual name Debbie's Angels came from my sisters and I. My mother's name is Debbie and she was a police lieutenant for 25 years and people would always say "Debbie and her Angels" or "Debbie's Angels are keeping her safe out there".

Also, this theatre company is made up of pretty much just family so I thought it was a great name and just made sense.

Next up is A Raisin In The Sun. You seem very serious about what you're presenting. This is not just for the youth is it?

Meme: No it's not. I specifically wanted to direct my attention to the adults of Jacksonville. I feel as if kids and teens get to perform here in a lot of different ways whether it be dance recitals, band concerts, high school musicals, church plays, etc.

I was being told that there wasn't any place for adults to perform (other than that "other" stage but that's not my area of expertise if you know what I mean) so I really wanted an outlet for them to be able to perform. Of course I will do a kids/teen show here and there.

As a matter of fact, I have been asked to direct Southwest High School's musical again this year and we just started rehearsing that, so I do get to work with the youth at least once or twice a year. But my main focus is adult theatre.

You played Armelia in the Ain't Misbehavin' touring company. This is one of my favorite all time musicals. You have to have a great voice and lots of stamina to pull that off. What was it like?

Meme: I have to say that was one of my most challenging roles! They actually asked me if I wanted to play Nell or Armelia and I decided on Armelia because I felt like she would be more of a challenge.

I am a contralto/alto and sometimes tenor but I also have a strong 1st soprano voice. It's crazy I know. So I wanted to use that more and perfect that more so I chose Armelia. Also, some people don't realize that the whole show is singing. There isn't any dialogue. There are over 30 songs in that show and I sang in 90% of them! Plus, we danced the entire time! Swing, jazz, it was crazy but it was definitely rewarding.

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How did you get that role? What had you been doing at the time?

Meme: I had actually just gotten off of the tour of Good Ol' Girls and they were auditioning for the tour and I went and auditioned and got it!

When did you first become interested in acting and singing?

Meme: Well I had been singing since I was very small. My mother said I would memorize nursery rhymes when I was really young and then I started singing in the church choir when I was 4.

I was doing church plays and school plays really early too. I was one of two eighth graders in the county cast in the high school musical so I did 5 years of shows with them. It wasn't until my sophmore year in high school that I realized I wanted to do this for a living.

I was toying with the idea of being an English teacher but I never got that "pull" to teach like I hear teachers say they get, you know?  But I was always performing and it wasn't until I did Pippin in 10th grade that I realized that the stage was my home.

How did it feel going to work in New York City? Did you have something lined up there or did you just hit the ground running?

Meme: I was accepted into a performing arts college and moved to New York City right after graduating from high school. After college it took over a year and half for me to book a job. I went on so many auditions and heard so many "no's" or "you're too young" or "you're too big" etc...

It was hard for a minute but I never thought about giving up. I just knew I had to prove myself and work harder and change up my audition songs and when I did that, I started working.

Once you started working did it become easier then?

Meme: It kind of did. I started getting called in to more auditions but I also still had to pound the pavement.

I imagine there were lots of people competing for roles in New York. What are some of your other favorite roles that you've played?

Meme: I enjoyed playing the wig head LaWanda in The Colored Museum. Having to act without moving your hands or lower body and doing everything with just face or voice was challenging but I really enjoyed it.

I also enjoyed playing Jewel in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. My director didn't want me to play a maid, which is what the original Jewel is, he wanted me to be more of an assistant and to keep the girls in line. I had a lot of fun with that role!

Your production of A Raisin in the Sun will be performed this month. What kind of talent did you find?

Meme: The actors in A Raisin in the Sun are all amateur actors. Some of them have never done a show before and some have only done musical revues and have never done straight plays.

Three of them want to pursue acting as a career so I try to give it to them straight. I tell them the ups and downs of the business from my perspective. They seem eager to learn and eager to rehearse and I am very excited about the show.

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Tell me a about the team you have assembled to help you with your productions. Who are they?

Meme Simmons

My team is made up of mainly family and friends. My mother (Deborah Matthews) does my costumes, my sister (Stacy Simmons) is my production assistant, my friend Christina Hardy is the choreographer and my friend Sharyn Phillips does makeup.

I also have men from my church that come and help move heavy set pieces and I have a carpenter (Steve Zawistowki) who builds sets for me. He is the husband of my mentor Claire Zawistowski who was my high school music teacher.

And EVERYONE is a volunteer. They understand that my company is new and they are just here to support me in any way they can. I am very blessed to have them in my life.  

What about the classes you offer?

Meme:  Our focus right now is finding an affordable space to rent so we can start our classes. I know what theatre did for me as a kid and I want to get them involved and show them that there are alternate ways to be in the entertainment industry.

Theatre classes will be about 6-8 weeks long and meet about twice a week. The age range will be 8-12 years old and 13-17 years old. We will teach them a small show or medleys of Broadway shows with choreography and also concentrate on acting and interpreting songs. There will be a showcase performance open to the public at the end of the 6 weeks to show them what they have been working on.

I did a program like this for the Jacksonville City Parks and Recreation about 2 years ago and it was a huge success. Parents are always asking me when I will do it again and how can they get their child involved.

To check for updates on when we will start these classes, people can visit my website or just call me. Right now I offer Private Acting Coaching and I have been getting a lot of students (kids and adults) so that is also an option.

As far as our performances go, I will be having at least 3 more productions this year with a mix of musicals, reviews and a kids show. If you would like to be added to our emailing list, feel free to fill out a Contact Form on our website so we can keep you up to date with what we are doing.

One piece of advice for aspiring actors.

Meme: I would say to make sure that you absolutely LOVE what you do. Nobody goes into the business of theatre and teaching for the money! You have to have a deep passion for it and some really thick skin.

Be ready to hear "no" a lot! But don't let that discourage you. Sometimes it means you just simply aren't what they are looking for. Sometimes it means you need to take a personal inventory of yourself and your audition material. But it never means to give up.