‘The best show I’ve done’: Choreographer Tony Thomas on the hit all-Black ‘Metamorphoses’ at Folger Theatre

'People, Black and white, love the sight and sound of actors moving and dancing and projecting energy as they tell the story.'

When Metamorphoses — Mary Zimmerman’s take on a 2,000-year-old Latin poem, performed by an all-Black cast — opened two weeks ago at the Folger Theatre, there were some who questioned how the DC audience would respond.

The answer, according to the critics, is with wild applause. In fact, DC theatergoers have embraced the show so heartily that the production has been extended through June 23. (Click here for DCTA’s rapturous review.)

At the performance I saw, there were standing ovations and cheers.

Top: DeJeanette Horne and Billie Krishawn; bottom: Manu Kumasi, Kalen Robinson, and Yesenia Iglesias, singing ‘King Fisher’ song in ‘Metamorphoses.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

And no wonder: As Tony Thomas, the multi-faceted choreographer behind the fast-moving tale, put it in an interview conducted on Zoom, “People, regardless of their backgrounds, love the idea of an all-Black cast and an Afro-American focus.

“More amazing,” he grinned and shook his head in wonder, “is the fact that people, Black and white, love the sight and sound of actors” — many of whom had never danced before — “moving and dancing and projecting energy as they tell the story.”

In fact, according to Thomas, everyone is able to dance. And to prove it, he was planning to conduct a workshop on Saturday June 1 at noon.

Ticketholders who registered would hear about the importance of dance in the staging of Metamorphoses — and then actually learn how to do it! (Click here for details of this and other special events.)

“Yes, I’m going to teach them to dance!” he said gleefully, adding that he was inviting everyone to let down their guard.

“The workshop was expressly designed to combat the common fear of motion,” he said. He planned to show ordinary people the range of motion that’s possible, through a shift in posture, weight, or pace.

His approach — with people on or off stage — is to teach them to understand simple terminology and commands.

“No fancy words like plié or relevé. I tell them to bend their knees, shift their weight, or stand tall.”

Ultimately, it’s all about encouragement. “Actors are different from dancers,” he explained. “In Metamorphoses, where more than half the cast consists of non-dancers, I tell them ‘you can do this!’

“It’s easier when you get rid of the intimidating language,” he added. “Take the word dance away and call it movement.

The bottom line, he explained, is there’s always some pushback.

“Many actors have never danced or moved on stage, or have not done so since college, and that could be 10 or 20 or even 30 years later. For a lot of them, it’s a matter of reconnecting or finding the old joyous feeling that they once had when they were dancing in the past.

“Every production in which I’ve been involved has been like this,” he said. “In most cases, actors show up with a lot of confidence about speaking their lines, but they’re not necessarily confident about movement or dance. Nor do they understand that nowadays, all performances are multi-disciplinary. That’s what I teach them.

“My theory is to trust the actor. The actor is a tool in the process. Most actors are more familiar with blocking than with movement, so I have to push them to their next level, so that they can grow.

“I start rehearsals with movement and ballet warm-ups. The actors need to wake up their bodies, and they need someone like me to shake them up a bit. That’s how I bring awareness to them. I try to inspire them, to show them how movement can be done in their range. I push them to use their own strength to tell the story.”

Now 45, Thomas has maintained much of his dance ability and can still kick, turn, jump, and do a split. He considers his age a selling point, allowing him to show the actors how he wants them to move.

The cast of ‘Metamorphoses.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Although the original Metamorphoses — which arrived on Broadway in 2002 — was steeped in Greek mythology, this version is a retelling of African American history.

“It’s no accident,” Thomas pointed out, “that the play begins with the Middle Passage. The journey from Africa to America sets the stage for what’s to come. And it sets the tone for our intent to tell the stories this way.”

The show opens as the Water Nymph — who is modeled on the great water spirit  called Mami Wata in West and Central African lore — makes her way up the aisle and then dominates the story, both as a character and as a fixture on stage.

Although these scenes are new to this production, the words are exactly as written.

The music and sound in the Folger production are original. (The composer and sound designer is Nick Hernandez, adapted from the music of Willy Schwartz.)

As for the staging, “Mary Zimmerman approved of all our changes,” Thomas emphasized. In addition to changing the pool of water into a character, he and the director, Psalmayene 24, transformed the cast from the white gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines of Greek mythology into their Afro-American counterparts.

‘Metamorphoses’ director Psalmayene 24 and choreographer Tony Thomas. Photos courtesy of Folger Theatre.

“The all-Black cast is intentional,” he continued. “It is specific to DC — known as the ‘Chocolate City’ — and presents different cultures and dialects. For example, the characters reflect Latin culture as well as African Black. So the play is respectful to the original, yet different.

“People see themselves in it. This play says, ‘Yes, we exist,’ the African American presence is authentic and real.”

For Thomas, Metamorphoses is his story too. And it’s been one of the best.

“Metamorphoses is about the possibility of change, both moral and physical. There were challenges in developing it, but we overcame them. Everyone succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

“Career-wise, this is the best show I’ve done,” he said, adding, “so far.”

Describing himself as an “old-school artist/choreographer,” he nevertheless likes to point out that he’s been shaped by many others, including Debbie Allen, Mike Malone, and Tony Powell. And of course by Psalmayene 24, the director.

“I love that man,” he said of Psalm, with whom he’s worked since 2015. “I have so much respect for him. He’s been a true pioneer and a legend to follow. I’m so glad he has chosen me to be at his side on so many of his productions.”

Looking back, it’s not surprising that Tony Thomas has ended up in the theater, though he did take a detour — into architecture and design — for a while.

He was born into a theatrical family. His father was a drummer, performing in the big jazz and rock bands of the day, while his mother was an actor, singer, and dancer who went right on performing even when she was pregnant with him.

After he was born, he often accompanied the pair to rehearsals, falling asleep in the corner of the rehearsal room or right next to the bass drum.

“As a result,” he laughed, “sounds and rhythm are in my head, and the sound of a drumbeat connects to my heartbeat.”

In addition to the sound that seeped into his soul, he absorbed a lot, musically and artistically, from his parents.

The rest came from school, where he was a theater major at the School for Visual and Performing Arts, just outside DC. Like many other young people in the arts, he was encouraged to be a doctor — “something to fall back on,” was his grandfather’s refrain — but he shifted, instead, into architecture and design.

“It was a great compromise,” he said. “As an interior architect, I like to work from building out patterns and sequences from a plan. In choreography, it’s as if I am looking down from my drawings, finding pattern and sequence on stage.

“When I look down, I see movement — actors connecting in space.”

He spent 10 years working for a hotel chain, then — on a dare from a group of friends — auditioned for a role in the National Tour of West Side Story. He got the part, then was back in show business, juggling architecture and the performing arts.

“It’s a dream career,” he concluded. As a creative, he develops his work from detailed physical character development, ultimately driving the story through visual interest. He sees choreography as a way of “directing design.”

Next stop for Thomas and Psalmayene 24 — again as choreographer and director — is The Colored Museum at Studio Theatre, where previews begin on July 3, 2024. The play, written by George C. Wolfe in 1986, was last seen in London in 2011.

Also coming soon, for Thomas alone, is a revival of Miss Nelson Is Missing at Imagination Stage, opening on June 20, 2024.

It’s a busy life. But for Tony Thomas, it’s perfect.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

EXTENDED: Metamorphoses plays through June 23, 2024, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 E Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. To purchase tickets ($20–$84, with many discounts available), go online or call the Box Office at (202) 544-7077.

To see credits for the cast and creative team, click here.

Special Events: Click here for a schedule of related events, beginning with the dance workshop on Saturday, June 1, and continuing with evening performances celebrating Black Historical Colleges and the LGBTQIA community and scholarly talks on the themes underlying classic mythology.

COVID Safety: While Folger audiences and employees are no longer required to wear masks at most events, masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19. Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so. Masks are required at the performances on Saturday, June 8, at 2 pm and 8 pm.

SEE ALSO: Click here for DC Theater Arts’ review by Sophia Howes, here for Ravelle Brickman’s previous feature on Metamorphoses, and here for an earlier interview with Psalmayene 24.

1 COMMENT

  1. There were standing ovations and cheers when I saw Metamorphoses too. What an inspiring portrait of a multi-faceted artist who rejoices in change and growth.

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