Stephan McGrue, 22, is making history by producing and directing the first all-black leading musical cast at SF State with “That Jones Gal.”
As a theater arts major, McGrue was inspired to have an all-black cast by watching his best friend Jasmine Williams, 22, direct the SF State Theatre alum’s production “36thStreet Blues presented by SF State’s Brown Bag Theatre Company.” Williams wrote and directed the play. Starring an ethnically diverse female cast, she told stories of personal love, struggle and triumph through movement and poetry.
“I felt honored that Stephan was so inspired by my piece to do one of his own,” Williams said. “It’s really historic what he’s doing and I’m honored that my work could encourage him, it’s amazing.”
McGrue’s independent musical “That Jones Gal” is his own adaptation of the 1954 musical film, titled “Carmen Jones” directed by Otto Preminger. The all-black cast musical is set during World War II and tells the story of sassy factory worker Carmen Jones, who sets her sights on Joe, a young and handsome soldier already taken by the sweet Cindy-Lou. Carmen uses her seductive tactics throughout the musical to tempt Joe and claim him as her beloved.
It is a movie that made film history for African-Americans. Dorothy Dandridge who played the lead role of Carmen Jones was the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award for best actress category. It was the ideal story for McGrue to showcase an all-black leading cast and provide issues that an audience could appreciate and relate to.
“It’s so relevant today even though it was made back in the ’50s, it’s just timeless,” McGrue said. “It’s love, tragedy, betrayal, sex. They are all topics that take place in our time today; it’s a film that holds stories that young people can relate to and connect with.”
McGrue pitched the idea of an all-black leading musical to his theater advisor as an independent study project. William “Bill” Peters, theater professor at SF State, encouraged him to find a cast and crew and pursue his dream production.
“When he first told me about his project I thought it was really exciting. It’s always exciting to see someone grabbing onto fresh ideas,” Peters said. “I’m absolutely proud of him, all of our students are self-motivated and it’s always great to see students setting challenges for themselves.”
When McGrue started he went in search for his cast and held school wide open auditions. It was a way to find and embrace the black students at SF State who could be leading actors but are not offered the opportunity to do so.
“I don’t see too many black students in the department; I feel like I can count the number of them on my fingers and when it comes to the main theater productions it’s usually the same people,” McGrue said. “I wanted to show the black community, I wanted to show that we have talent too.”
McGrue finalized his script and had the perfect cast but needed just the right music to complete the story. Oscar Villagrana, 26, SF State student, music major and music director of “That Jones Gal” was approached by McGrue after his school jazz concert. McGrue really thought that Villagrana could help bring classical ’40s jazz to the musical.
“My first reaction to Stephan was that this guy had really big musical ideas,” Villagrana said. “But I was willing and hopeful to get it as close to his vision as possible.”
McGrue had his fair share of highs, but like most productions, also had problems throughout preparations. He had a space, but due to priority a different director received it. Professors offered him a smaller venue but he had his mind set on his ideal production. He looked at other outside options, but workers at the Creative Arts Technical Services helped get him Knuth Hall for the end of February, and SF State’s Black Student Union made sure McGrue would have a space to premiere his hard work.
“The reason why BSU wanted to help sponsor and promote ‘That Jones Gal’ is for the simple fact that our members are like family and we try to create a family-like environment; Stephan seemed very passionate and strong willed about his senior project and when he shared his goals with us we were immediately on board,” Skky Foster, 21, SF State student and BSU coordinator said. “BSU is here as a resource for students here at SF State to use and network with; we have to be supportive of one another and try to point each other in the right direction.”
McGrue accomplished all that he set out to do, but he credits his achievements to the students who helped him make his dreams come alive.
“I’m humbled that I could represent the black community at State but I honestly am nothing without the students who came together for one goal,” McGrue said. “Everyone who worked on this team deserves their credit; I’m just the one who happened to lead them there.”
“That Jones Gal” will be shown at Jack Adams Hall, Feb. 23 at 2 p.m.— Knuth Hall Feb. 21 – 23 at 7 p.m. — and Feb. 24 at 2 p.m.