At a table read in Detroit. Left and moving clockwise: John Campbell Finnegan, actors William Street, Bertena Brown, Madelyn Porter (host), Cassisus Merriweather (stage manager) actors Isaiah Archie, Johnathan Williams, & director Clyde Tyrone Harper. Photo: Larry Muhammad
Larry Muhammad & John Campbell Finnegan Give Answers About Muhammad’s New Play
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
On February 9, Bunbury Theatre opens a new play by Louisville playwright Larry Muhammad. Last Night at Mikell’s features James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Miles Davis socializing in a legendary jazz nightclub. Bunbury’s Artistic Director John Campbell Finnegan points to this choice as part of the company’s, “…enduring commitment to showcasing African-American stories and experiences on stage. We have a long history of presenting works such as Look What the Fire Did, Master Harold and the Boys, and Driving Miss Daisy.”
Arts-Louisville asked a few questions of Larry Muhammad and John Campbell Finnegan about this project.
Arts Louisville: What is the genesis of Last Night at Mikell’s?
Larry: Woodie King Jr. at New Federal Theatre in NY commissioned it during the pandemic in 2021. Woodie produced Looking For Leroy and asked if I was interested in James Baldwin. Then he told me he regularly saw the globe-trotting author at this club Mikell’s when he was in the US, gave me contact info for former co-owner Pat Mikell and others to interview, and I read several biographies, including Herb Boyd’s “Baldwin’s Harlem”, Quincy Troupe’s “Miles: The Autobiography” (I interviewed him too), the 1200+ page “Collected Biographies of Maya Angelou”, James Campbell’s “Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin”, most of which mentioned the club.
AL: When you write dialogue for historical figures, particularly people as iconic as these, where does research end and the writer’s license begin?
Larry: It’s mostly research, interviewing people like Woodie, Quincy, Pat Mikell, and actor Tommie Hicks, who had frequented Mikell’s and gave me eyewitness accounts. I watched tons of online videos of the three main subjects to replicate their speech patterns. I learn everything I possibly can about historical figures and the play’s setting before I start putting words in their mouths.
Playwright Larry Muhammad watching a rehearsal
AL: You have made a career out of documenting Black Kentucky history in your writing. What prompted you to start exploring national and international figures with Looking for Leroy (2017) and now Last Night at Mikell’s?
Larry: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was my literary hero, he knew Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. came to his New Jersey home. I joined the Nation of Islam in the 70s after reading an interview with him in the old Black World (Negro Digest), I had awkward interactions with him probably typical of an emerging writer trying to match wits with greatness, the quality of his scholarship was very high. Ironically I ended up marrying into Baraka’s family and always wanted to write a play about the relationship I wish we’d had. Coincidentally Woodie King Jr. was Baraka’s main theatre collaborator, and directed and/or produced nearly all his work, I asked him to read Looking For Leroy and had no idea he would do a 26-performance Off-Broadway run, and take it to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, where it won the AUDELCO award for best play in 2019. Woodie likes my work and as I was saying before commissioned Last Night At Mikell’s.
AL: The play is being produced by Bunbury Theatre and The Detroit Repertory Theatre. How did the collaboration between these two theatres come about?
John: We encountered some casting challenges when three of our original actors faced scheduling conflicts. However, we were fortunate to collaborate with Clyde Tyrone Harper, a director with deep roots in the Detroit theater community. Through his connections, we were able to audition and cast three talented actors from Detroit, who bring their unique perspectives and experiences to the production.
Our rehearsals have been taking place in Detroit with our Detroit-based Stage Manager. The rest of the production team is based in Louisville, ensuring a seamless collaboration between our two cities. The Detroit Repertory Theatre’s storied past motivates us. As we expand our artistic productions and broaden our footprint within the Louisville theatre community, we are taking cues from their journey to becoming an equity theatre. Furthermore, we are eager to pursue partnerships with numerous other theatre companies.
AL: What’s next for you?
Larry: I’m in discussion with Actors Theatre of Louisville and Redline Performing Arts about my play Who Killed Alberta Jones? It explores the unsolved 1965 murder of the trailblazing activist who was the first black woman to pass the Kentucky bar, the first female prosecutor for the City of Louisville, and Muhammad Ali’s first attorney, and brings her vividly to life onstage
John: In June Bunbury will produce Tangled Webbs, a world premiere of a Soap Opera spoof musical! Louisville natives Sharon Murray (director) and Ron Creager (music) along with longtime friend Gary Brumburgh (book and lyrics) are coming together to bring us this grand opportunity.
Last Night at Mikell’s
February 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, & 24 @ 7:30 pm
February 11, 18, 25 @ 2:00 pm
The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. 3rd Street,
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.