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Richard L. Eldredge

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Janelle Monáe on her Hidden Figures role: “Mary and I both use the word ‘justice’ a lot.”

Janelle Monae Hidden Figures

Atlanta singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe sure knows how to pick a movie script. Her first two forays into film are both considered Oscar contenders: the critically acclaimed indie drama Moonlight and Atlanta-filmed Hidden Figures, a new historical drama chronicling the untold stories of three black female mathematicians whose data allowed NASA astronaut John Glenn to obit the Earth. We recently spoke with Monáe about her new Hollywood career:

What was it about these two films that spoke to you?
They reflect themes I’ve addressed in my music: the empowerment of women, the empowerment of the LGBT community, and the empowerment of “the other.” And as an artist, I want to ensure that moviegoers see different kinds of black women being portrayed on-screen. Representation in film is extremely important. I knew I had to drop what I was doing to be a part of them.

Your Hidden Figures costars are Taraji P. Henson, an Oscar nominee, and Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner. Were you intimidated to step into a role opposite them?
When I first came to set, I didn’t know what to expect. But there was a real sisterhood between the three of us. Taraji would cook lasagna and cauliflower and have us over. Once that [relationship] was established, I was able to relax. They’ve taken me under their wings. They never paraded the fact that they’re these genius actors in front of me. I hope that sisterhood comes across on screen.

Your character in the film, Mary Jackson, is smart, independent, and she’s not afraid to speak out—a lot like the Janelle Monáe listeners have come to know. What do you feel that you share with Mary?
Being the youngest in that trio, she represented a new generation of women. Just like my generation now, Mary wasn’t going to sit back and allow anyone to discriminate against her because of the color of her skin or because of her gender. Mary and I both use the word “justice” a lot.

Now that you’re in two films receiving Oscar buzz, will we see you in more acting roles?
It really depends on the story being told. It has to have something to say and the potential for cultural impact. It’s about pushing forward new stories, untold stories, universal stories.

Your third album, The Electric Lady, came out in 2013. Are you thinking about album number four?
Of course. Living as an American today, there’s so much to say. There’s so much commentary. I have material for days.

How long did it take before Taraji’s inner Cookie Lyon emerged and asked you to do a guest shot on Empire?
(Laughs.) I love Cookie Lyon, and I love Taraji. Anything she needs from me, I’m there!

Janelle Monae Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures was shot here in your hometown. What was that like?
Atlanta is home to me. I’m originally from Kansas, and I like to say that Kansas raised me but Atlanta turned me into a young woman. This is where I started my career. This is where my roots are as an artist. I was excited to have Octavia and Taraji come into my world. It was a real celebration. None of us could believe we were a part of this historic project and that we were going to be playing black women in a way that we hadn’t seen before. We hadn’t seen ourselves on screen as these brilliant minded mathematicians and scientists.

There’s a scene in the film where your car has broken down and a white racist police officer comes up and begins asking for identification. Was that difficult to shoot?
It was heavy. I had to ask myself, “How am I going to respond to this man pulling us over?” How would these women have responded back then? How would Janelle Monáe have responded in the 1960s? The Janelle Monáe today would have been upset, and the police officer definitely would have known that. But back then, black people were getting lynched for speaking out against injustice. I had to take all of that into consideration. As three women in that moment, we had to calibrate our response.

Mary speaks to the reality of women in the workplace when she says, “We go from being our father’s daughters to our husband’s wives to our babies’ mothers. Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” How did that line resonate for you in 2016?
I don’t have children, but I have many friends who are mothers and they’re women who are juggling a lot. For Mary back then, it was a moment when she could vent about always feeling the need to be something to someone else. It’s a girl moment that we all have, and it’s something that you don’t see played out in most motion pictures.

Many people of color have criticized Hollywood for producing a steady stream of slave movies in the past few years, including 2016’s The Birth of a Nation. As a role model for young people, was it important for you to be a part of telling a different kind of story?
I wanted to honor these women. They’re pioneers. These are women who changed the world, American heroes. But because of historical circumstances, their stories were never told. We all felt a responsibility to these women who opened up doors for my generation.

A Timeline of Trailblazers
In 1969 three black women—now the subject of Hidden Figures—performed the calculations that launched Apollo 11 into space. But they weren’t the only prominent women of color in the STEM fields. —Tess Malone

1864 Rebecca Lee Crumpler graduates with a medical degree from New England Female Medical College, becoming the country’s first black female physician.

1878 Mary Mahoney is accepted into nursing school. A year later, she becomes the first black professional nurse in the U.S.

1885 Sarah E. Goode, a former slave, is the first black woman to receive a patent—for her folding cabinet bed.

1897 Eliza A. Grier, a former slave, is granted a medical license in Georgia. She is first black female doctor licensed to practice in the state.

1916 The first black research chemist at the University of Hawaii, Alice Ball, develops a treatment for leprosy that was used until the 1940s.

1921 Bessie Coleman earns her international pilot’s license, becoming the first black woman to take to the skies.

1947 Marie M. Daly completes a Ph.D. in chemistry, the first black woman to do so. In the 1950s her groundbreaking research showed the connection between high cholesterol and clogged arteries.

1981 Alexa Canady becomes the first black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.

1986 The country’s first black female resident in ophthalmology, Patricia Bath, invents the Laserphaco Probe, a device to improve treatment of cataracts.

1992 Astronaut Mae C. Jemison flies aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, becoming the first black woman in space.

1993 President Bill Clinton appoints Joycelyn Elders U.S. Surgeon General, making her the first black woman to hold the post.

2010 Ursula Burns named CEO of Xerox. She is the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

2011 Engineer Kimberly Bryant founds Black Girls Code, a nonprofit focused on introducing girls of color to computer programming.

Emory Professor Deborah Lipstadt on Denial, working with Rachel Weisz, and the “post-factual era”

Denial film Deborah Lispstadt
Rachel Weisz and Deborah Lipstadt

Photograph by Liam Daniel/Bleecker Street

Today as we head to the polls, our heads swimming with whatever was deposited in our social media newsfeeds overnight, the new film Denial is perhaps more relevant than ever. Based on Emory University Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt’s harrowing 2000 U.K. court case where she was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving, the film stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt. Unlike the United States, English libel law puts the burden of proof on the defendant. In the judge’s ruling for Lipstadt, Justice Charles Gray stated, “History has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”

In a conversation with Atlanta, Lipstadt discussed the importance of getting the story right on film, how she helped Weisz become her on set (including loaning the Oscar winner some signature fashion accessories) and the growing importance of fact-checkers in our current “post-factual” political climate.

Watching Denial, one can’t help but think about our news feeds currently brimming with election-related conspiracy theories and wild inaccuracies. This problem has only gotten worse since the David Irving libel suit, hasn’t it?
It has. And it’s not just the presidential election either. There was a cover story in The Economist a couple of weeks ago about how we’re now living in a “post-factual era.” Or as that great American social commentator Stephen Colbert referred to it, “truthiness.” The idea is “if I really believe it, it must be true.” No one wants to believe the fact-checkers, and we dismiss people who say “that’s simply not true.” Whether you’re talking about Barack Obama’s birth certificate or Brexit, there are people out there now who just immediately dismiss expertise and label it “elitism.” I’m sorry, there are certain things that are just true and can’t be debated. The Holocaust is one of those things.

Denial Rachel Weisz
Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in Denial

Photograph by Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

Denial is based on your book History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier. A lot of authors sell book rights to Hollywood and have no involvement in the film adaptation. That was not your experience. Did you have a clause in your contract giving you a voice or were you left to the whims of Hollywood?
Essentially, I was at the whims of Hollywood. But thankfully, the people I signed with, the producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasoff and BBC Films recognized this film was all about truth. Everyone involved—director Mick Jackson, screenwriter David Hare—all recognized that. So they turned to me at various points to get my feedback. Rachel Weisz also wanted my input. She wanted to know how I felt certain things should play out, how I said something, how I felt at a certain moment. It was a very interesting process. In the beginning, she wanted me on the set. She liked my energy, she liked having me there. But as she got further into the role, I became a distraction for her. She was Deborah Lipstadt. I made sure I was as unobtrusive as possible. Everyone felt a huge commitment to getting it right.

You’ve said that Timothy Spall had perhaps the toughest role in the film playing David Irving. Did he ask you any questions about playing this guy?
Timothy was wonderful. He did all his own research. He watched videos of Irving. He did his reading. He prepared in a meticulous fashion. He didn’t need to hear from me that I thought the guy was an S.O.B. or whatever. He said something very interesting in the featurette for the film that [Denial’s distributor] Bleecker Street produced. He said, “I knew he was a despicable character but I couldn’t play him that way. I had to play him as a person who believed he was right. I couldn’t play him as a caricature.”

Rachel Weisz and Deborah Lipstadt at the Toronto International Film Festival
Rachel Weisz and Deborah Lipstadt at the Toronto International Film Festival

Photograph by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

You’ve struck up quite a friendship with Rachel Weisz. You lent her some of your scarves and a ring to wear in the film and you did a joint interview together for the New Yorker. What bonded you two together?
She takes every role she does very, very seriously. She is committed to getting it right. She knew I could be an important source of information for her. It was her professionalism that would have bound us together anyway. But in addition to that, her parents were [Jewish] refugees fleeing Eastern Europe during the war. She knows first-hand what these people went through.

Early in Denial, there’s a scene depicting you in your classroom at Emory University, asking your students how they know the Holocaust happened. One student replies, “Photographic evidence.” You respond by saying, “There was not one photo of a victim taken inside a gas chamber.” How close to reality did that scene get depicting the conversations inside your classroom?
That scene could be in my book, but that also comes from conversations I had with David Hare. He came to Emory and sat in on my classes and followed me around for two and a half days to see what my life was like. That’s the level of exactitude these people brought to the film.

We are currently living in a country where Donald Trump and others publicly questioned where Barack Obama was born, and there are people who deny the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings happened. Now that Denial is out there in world and presumably could be watched by students 30 or 50 or 100 years from now, what’s the lasting impression you hope it makes?
It really goes back to your first question. There are opinions, there are facts and there are lies. Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, certain things are true. You can debate how they happened but not if they happened. Conspiracy theories are designed to create distrust. Sandy Hook happened. So did 9/11. The Holocaust is a fact. It’s up to each of us to be critical of the things we see online. Each of us has a responsibility to research things and decide if it’s true. Seek out the evidence.

Dr. Monica Parker

Groundbreakers 2016
Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Science shows that people of color are nearly twice as likely as their Caucasian counterparts to develop some form of dementia. And yet African Americans are consistently under-represented in Alzheimer’s studies. So geriatrics physician Dr. Monica Parker—whose mother and grandmother both suffered from dementia—doesn’t mince words when she’s doing community outreach for Emory’s centers on Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Brain Health. She’s been known to ask: “If you were diagnosed on the dementia spectrum tomorrow, which of your relatives would take care of your business affairs?” She then adds: “Who’s going to help you with more personal needs, including getting you in and out of the bathtub and wiping your derrière?”

Says Parker: “It tends to get a reaction, but that’s the point. We’re Baby Boomers. We think we’re going to live forever. We never stop to consider living forever with an impairment.”

For the past eight years, Parker has worked to foster relationships with Atlanta’s African American churches (including Cascade United Methodist Church, where Alzheimer’s day programs and support groups are now being developed) and historically black sororities (including the Atlanta chapters of Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha). A chief goal: persuading minorities to enroll in Emory’s Registry for Remembrance, which aims to educate African Americans about the disease and recruit them for long-term studies.

Parker says getting those of a certain age to consider joining research studies can be an uphill battle. “These are people who were alive during the Tuskegee experiments of the 1930s or grew up hearing about them from their parents,” she says. “African Americans, especially those raised in the deep South, are certainly more attuned to injustice and unfairness—and rightfully. They have a lingering suspicion of academic research centers.”

Another challenge: explaining the intimate connections between dementia and other chronic medical conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Basically, it all comes down to blood flow to the brain. “So many people say, ‘I don’t want to hear about diabetes,’” says Parker. “My response is, ‘If you don’t control this chronic disease and keep it in check, it will ultimately affect how your brain works later in life.’”

Thanks to Parker’s efforts, people are listening, and more importantly, they’re telling their friends. The community educational sessions she hosts at the Carter Center have already outgrown their original space as hundreds of aging residents sign up to attend. “Our meetings have mushroomed,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot more community participation in our research projects. It’s critically important data for us.”

Though Parker stresses, “I didn’t get into this work because of my personal acquaintance with this disease,” she believes that “hopefully, I’m more sensitive than someone who hasn’t had those experiences. It certainly makes me more motivated to take care of my own health. There are age, gender, and genetic factors with this disease that you can’t do anything about. But you can change what you put in your mouth. You can choose to be more proactive about going to the doctor. When a patient or someone I reach in the community chooses to age more healthfully, that’s a good day for me and this work.”

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This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.

Amy’s Place

Groundbreakers 2016
Photograph by Savanna Sturkie

When Pam Van Ahn greets you at the front door of Amy’s Place, she has a tail-wagging companion, Earl. The friendly black dachshund was previously owned by Van Ahn’s late mother, Carol, who was diagnosed with dementia and passed away in 2012. Van Ahn, a former nurse who moved to Roswell in 2011 to take care of her mother, says that her family created Amy’s Place—a unique gathering space known as a “memory care cafe” for people with dementia and their families—after learning firsthand what caregivers go through.

“This disease can be incredibly isolating,” says Van Ahn. “Not everyone was so comfortable coming around to visit Carol when they realized she didn’t even know her own daughter. I understood their reluctance. But if no one is stopping by to see your mom, they’re not stopping by to see you either. [I knew] other families were going through the same things, and they were not getting support.”

Created by Dutch psychiatrist Dr. Bere Miesen in 1997 in the Netherlands, memory care cafes quickly spread in Europe and later the U.S. But while other cafes pop up weekly or monthly at churches and senior community centers, Amy’s Place offers families a permanent place where they can drop in anytime. Van Ahn has been told it’s the first freestanding memory care cafe in the country.

Inside the converted house in historic Roswell, just past the putting green and the rockers on the porch, there’s a fully stocked kitchen and bathroom (in case caregivers need to grab a shower), comfortable couches, and Van Ahn’s grandmother’s dining room table, where she and her sister, Jean, the CFO of Amy’s Place, once sat as children. The open space is easy to navigate with walkers and wheelchairs, and the atmosphere is overwhelmingly calm and inviting.

With a ribbon cutting in February, Amy’s Place (named in memory of Jean’s friend, Amy W. Norman, whose endowment fund issued a grant for the cafe) is growing slowly, partnering with Alzheimer’s care facilities and doing community outreach. So far, the house has hosted a few hundred visitors and has a regular clientele of about 30 to 40 families who come in throughout the week. Van Ahn and her family modeled the cafe on similar full-service operations in Europe, and in addition to caregiver support group meetings and socializing opportunities for dementia patients and their families, Amy’s Place offers painting classes, free haircuts, and monthly birthday celebrations.

While there are not yet any U.S. studies on the benefits of memory care cafes, shared activities may improve relationships between patients and caregivers. In those with dementia, social interactions can help alleviate depression, which can worsen cognitive decline.

As soft music plays overhead, Van Ahn points to her grandma’s dining room table. “[Recently] a man was sitting at that table playing Go Fish with my granddaughter. He looked at her and said, ‘You’re cute.’ His wife just stared at me, incredulous.” She later told Van Ahn he hadn’t said a word in two years.

“I look around this house when it’s full of families and I realize that my mother endured everything she endured for a reason,” Van Ahn continues. “My family was able to create this in her honor.”

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This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.

Alliance Theatre kicks off its new season with The Prom

The Prom Alliance Theatre
Broadway actress Caitlin Kinnunen plays high school student Emma.

Illustration by Heidi Gibb; Kinnunen photograph by Jimmy Ryan

After Broadway director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw helmed Tuck Everlasting on the Alliance Theatre’s stage in 2015, the musical quickly landed on Broadway—one of five such shows that he’s shepherded to the New York stage, including The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, and Aladdin. To open the Alliance’s new season, Nicholaw is reteaming with Aladdin collaborator Chad Beguelin (who is cowriting the book) for the world premiere of a new musical comedy, The Prom. And given the array of Broadway stars in The Prom’s cast, it seems the show could soon join Tuck Everlasting in New York.

The Prom’s plot revolves around the comedic chaos that consumes an Indiana town when the high school prom is canceled after a female student asks to take her girlfriend. When the story blows up nationally, a band of fading stage actors lands in town under the guise of dispensing social justice—and grabbing a few headlines for themselves.

“In New York people have asked, ‘Is that really relevant anymore?’ But every time we start doubting it, there’s another story in the paper,” says Nicholaw. “This year it was [Pennsylvania high school student Aniya Wolf], who got kicked out of her prom for wearing a tux. For us it’s about high school students finding their voices and being who they are. That’s timeless.”

Nicholaw and Beguelin on…

The Alliance
“The people are supportive, and they understand the process and what it’s like to do something new,” says Nicholaw (left). “It makes it a really great place to work.”

The artistic process
“We’ll be rewriting scenes and songs like crazy, throwing things out, putting new things in,” says Beguelin (right). “Inevitably everything you thought would work doesn’t, and everything you thought was terrible goes like gangbusters. You just never know until you’re in front of a paying audience.”

Staying sane before the premiere
“When you’re working with people you trust, smart people, you know you’re not in it alone,” says Beguelin. “And vodka helps. Lots of vodka!”

HIV prevention pill stirs debate in Atlanta’s gay community

Truvada controversy

While a cure for AIDS still eludes scientists, a drug called Truvada has been heralded as the next best thing: a way to prevent HIV infection in the first place. Taken daily, Truvada works by blocking the enzyme in the body that allows HIV to replicate itself.

If the statistics are any indication, there are few places in greater need of a drug like Truvada than Fulton County, which accounts for almost half of all new HIV infections in the 20-county metro Atlanta area. Infection rates are now so high that AIDS has become the leading cause of death for African Americans in Georgia between 35 and 44. In February the Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that half of all gay black men in the U.S. will contract HIV. Atlanta now ranks fifth among major American cities in infection rates, and studies suggest nearly a quarter of those don’t yet realize they have the virus.

Truvada received approval in 2012 as a pre-exposure prophylaxis medication, or PrEP. Since Fulton County public health officials quietly began giving away the drug to uninsured patients at a new public clinic last winter, it’s triggered a debate within the very population it’s intended to protect.

When AIDS activist Michael Baker, who’d taken part in an early clinical trial of a similar drug, posted on Facebook last year about the benefits of a PrEP regimen, he wasn’t prepared for the negative responses. “It’s not the gay community’s decision to tell me how to manage my healthcare,” posted one commenter.

“A lot of gay men were uncomfortable with the growing availability of PrEP because they felt it would increase promiscuity,” Baker says. In fact, almost as soon as Truvada was endorsed by the CDC for HIV prevention two years ago, stories appeared in national media about a “slut-shaming” backlash within the gay community against the drug’s users.

“Life in 2016 is a lot different than it was in the early years of the AIDS epidemic,” Baker says. “Back then, we had to make sex scary so we could stabilize HIV infections. Now we have another tool in addition to condoms. Why not use it?”

Atlanta sex columnist Michael Alvear is among those unwilling to climb on the PrEP bandwagon. “There was this lock-step mentality,” Alvear says. “It was, ‘Take this pill or you’re ignorant, evil, and working against the safety of our community.’” Last August, after Baker compared Alvear to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, Alvear fired back publicly with a Huffington Post column. “I’m not against PrEP,” says Alvear. “I’m against it being pushed as the only solution.”

Mark S. King, an HIV-positive blogger, notes that the arguments against PrEP—unknown long-term side effects, the potential to promote promiscuity—are similar to those directed more than 50 years ago at the then-new birth control pill. “I always thought that getting back to a place where we could have sex without fear was kind of the point,” he says.

Truvada can cost up to $1,500 a month, but its manufacturer, Gilead Sciences, is providing the drug free to the uninsured and at reduced cost to those who can demonstrate financial need. To qualify for the Fulton County program, patients must be HIV-negative and submit to blood work and a medical assessment that includes a frank discussion with a doctor about their sexual habits. Participants are given a PrEP prescription and a schedule of follow-up visits.

Thanks to free supplies of Truvada and operating funds from the Georgia Department of Public Health, Fulton County’s overhead costs for the new PrEP clinic have been relatively minimal. And the initiative could help repair the county’s image after it was discovered to have forfeited nearly $9 million in CDC grants that it failed to spend on HIV prevention efforts. Following a series of news reports about its poor management of funds, county health director Patrice Harris stepped down in December.

Emory Medical School professor David Holland, who serves as Fulton’s chief clinical officer, says the new PrEP clinic—located in an existing county health center across the street from Grady Memorial Hospital—enrolled 116 patients in its first six weeks and placed another 32 in the pipeline to receive a prescription. While those numbers may sound small for a city Atlanta’s size, Holland says he’s pleased considering that the clinic has been largely reliant on word of mouth and media coverage to promote the program.

“In order for this work to succeed, people have to be very honest with their doctor,” says Holland. “We’re tried to control HIV by telling people [to use condoms]. That didn’t work. Now we have an option to protect people regardless of what kind of sex they’re having. This is a very good thing.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

After 33 years, iconic Athens act Pylon releases farewell concert, “Pylon Live”

The album's cover is an unreleased shot of the band from the late 1970s.
Pylon’s new album is a recently rediscovered live recording from 1983.

While the Athens music scene is now considered hallowed ground for indie rock fans across the globe, in the beginning it was the B-52’s, R.E.M., and Pylon, which R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry famously called “the best rock ’n roll band in America.” Yet while the first two acts would go on to score lucrative record deals and tour the world, Pylon released just two albums on the Atlanta indie label DB Recs before disbanding in 1983. (The band later briefly reunited in 1989.)

There was just one souvenir left behind from Pylon’s original era: a live recording of their farewell concert on December 1, 1983, at The Mad Hatter, a now-defunct Athens club. Lost for decades, the recording was recently rediscovered by Pylon fan and record producer Henry Owings, who, with the band’s blessing, worked to transfer the masters to vinyl.

“We came out of the box almost from the start that night,” says Pylon vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay of the recording. “By the third song (“No Clocks” from the band’s second album Chomp) we had really hit our stride. We were playing fast but we kept the groove.” Hay pauses for a moment and then, smiling, adds: “And Randy’s guitar sounds absolutely awesome. He was definitely the star of the show.”

The July 25 release of Pylon Live (as a double LP on vinyl and digital download) and the accompanying mini resurgence of the Athens act is a way for Hay, bassist Michael Lachowski, and drummer Curtis Crowe to honor their friend and late Pylon guitarist Randy Bewley. In 2009, Bewley suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of a car and later died at Athens Regional Medical Center, the same hospital where Hay worked for 21 years as a nurse. Bewley would have turned 61 on July 25.

The members of Pylon
The members of Pylon

Photo by Curtis Knapp

To celebrate the release of Pylon Live, Hay will perform some of her band’s most beloved tracks as the lead vocalist in The Pylon Re-enactment Society, a tribute act featuring a generation of Athens musicians influenced by the band, including Casper and the Cookies members Jason NeSmith and Kay Stanton, the Glands drummer Joe Rowe, and pianist Damon Denton.

Already a well-established guitarist and recording artist in Athens, NeSmith meticulously learned Bewley’s groundbreaking guitar parts. He says it was a way of honoring the band he was first exposed to as a teenager living overseas. “I thought [the Pylon cassette] was a nice memento from home,” he says. “It didn’t hit me right away. But pretty soon I was enchanted. Getting to know the members of Pylon left me with a similar impression. They are all sincere and relatively well-adjusted people, which does not help to explain how they somehow created magic by democracy.”

Pylon Re-enactment Society, the Swimming Pool Q’s and members of the Athens rock act Love Tractor will play on a triple bill July 29 at The Earl in Atlanta and July 30 at The 40 Watt in Athens. Hay says Lachowski and Crowe have standing invitations to play as part of PRS during the shows.

“We have a lot of fun in Pylon Reenactment Society,” says Hay. “I may be the only singer from an original band who also sings in the tribute band version! The musicians in PRS take the music seriously and have retained the spirit of Pylon but they make it their own. It’s not precious.”

Old friend Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has already sent along a rave review of the Pylon Live album, writing “Pylon stands as shockingly modern and unparalleled these many years later.” The band’s 1979 single “Cool” can also currently be heard in the TV commercial for the 2016 Lexus RX luxury automobile.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay is happy to add Pylon Live to the band’s discography. “This is an opportunity to show people who never got a chance to see us live what the experience was like,” says Hay. Listening to pressing of Pylon Live for the first time in 33 years has even prompted some ruefulness, if just for a moment. “It still sounds original. The energy is still there,” she says. “Michael put it best when he said, ‘Why did we break up?’”

Pylon Reenactment Society will play with The Swimming Pool Q’s and We Love Tractor on July 29 at The Earl in East Atlanta and July 30 at The 40 Watt in Athens. The evenings will kick off with video footage from Pylon’s 1983 farewell show at The Mad Hatter. For more info, visit the PRS Facebook page.

How Atlanta child actor Owen Vaccaro became a Hollywood star—and how your kids could, too

Owen VaccaroHe’s only 10, but Atlanta actor Owen Vaccaro has already mastered the art of making a good first impression. Last year, when Owen got a callback audition for director Garry Marshall’s Atlanta-filmed ensemble comedy, Mother’s Day, not only had he memorized all the other kid roles in the script, he was ready when the casting director asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to show us?” Owen promptly belted out a rendition of “Naughty” from the hit Broadway musical Matilda. A few weeks later, he was playing Charlie, the adopted son of Sarah Chalke and Cameron Esposito.

Reflecting on his creative impulse over a Sprite and a chocolate chip cookie at Zoë’s Kitchen in Buckhead with his mom Allison, Owen shrugs his tiny shoulders inside a navy blazer, peers through his horn-rimmed glasses and says: “Matilda is like the best musical on earth. I was hoping to do something that would make me stand out.”

So far, his strategy is working. Last Christmas, the Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School student appeared as Will Ferrell’s stepson in the comedy Daddy’s Home, costarring Mark Wahlberg. With Georgia’s growing reputation for film and TV production, Atlanta has become a petri dish of prospective ingenues. But Allison Vaccaro says parents should carefully consider the realities of cultivating a kid actor.

“It’s a lot of work, not just for him but for everyone in the family,” she says. “If you’re in the audition waiting room and your kid is asking, ‘How much longer, mom?’—re-evaluate. For Daddy’s Home, we were in Louisiana for three months. That’s a long time to be away from the rest of your life.”

Stuck in rush hour traffic in Los Angeles, 2,000 miles away, casting director Chad Darnell echoes Allison’s words of caution. The Norcross High graduate, who started out as a kid acting at the Doraville Arts Theatre, helped to cast children in Selma (in Atlanta) and Magic Mike XXL (in Savannah). Darnell has a well-earned reputation for scolding star-struck parents.

“The first thing I’ll ask a kid when they walk into the audition is, ‘Is this fun for you?’ If they tell me ‘No,’ I take them by the hand, walk them back out to the waiting room, and tell the parent, ‘Your child doesn’t want to do this. Don’t waste his time or mine.’ There’s no reason for any kid to be put under that kind of stress unless they love to act.”

But Darnell says when he finds exactly the right child actor for a part, casting can be a magical experience. He got to witness that magic first-hand in 2014 when Trinity Simone, Mikeria Howard, Jordan Rice and Ebony Billups came in for a final audition with Selma director Ava DuVernay. The four little girls ended up portraying the children murdered inside Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church when a bomb detonated on September 15, 1963.

“It was a challenge because the girls had to have a period look,” Darnell recalls. “On location, you have next to no time for casting. But as soon as I saw Ava in there playing with [the girls], we all knew they were the ones. Ava also made sure they knew the importance of the roles they were taking on. It’s one of those scenes I get chills just thinking about now.”

Inevitably, with Georgia’s burgeoning film industry comes an uptick in cons. Darnell suggests that parents use the Atlanta Coalition of Talent Agents website for a list of legitimate agents. “Real agents take commissions,” Darnell explains. “They don’t charge sign-up fees. Anyone who asks you for $2,000 up front, run screaming in the opposite direction.”

Back on the set of Mother’s Day, Owen got schooled on another age-old reality of Hollywood—nepotism. Shooting a birthday party scene, he was waiting for Garry Marshall to yell “Action!” when another little kid suddenly scampered up the ladder and into the shot.

“I asked, ‘Did Mr. Marshall say it was okay for you to jump down the water slide?’” recalls Owen. “That’s when the kid told me, ‘He’s my grandpa.’” Owen buries his face in his hands doing his best Macaulay Culkin Home Alone impression, then grins and says, “I should have known!”

That’s show biz, kids.

Hollywood 101
Tips from child actor Owen Vaccaro, mom Allison Vaccaro, and casting director Chad Darnell

Owen says:

  • You’re not going to book everything you audition for. Get accustomed to hearing “no,” and just keep going.
  • Dress professionally. It’s job interview after all.
  • Remember, it’s less about what you say and more about how you say it—and how you react.

Allison says:

  • Hollywood doesn’t work on your schedule. Keep in mind you have to be available at a moment’s notice.
  • Acting requires a serious financial and time commitment, from paying for headshots to driving to film auditions. And that’s all before you see a paycheck.
  • Be an advocate for your child on set. They care about getting in that last shot—not your child’s homework or how many hours he’s worked that day.

Chad says:

  • Start out by working as an extra. That will tell you if you enjoy the “hurry up and wait” nature of filmmaking.
  • Walk into an audition like there’s a party being thrown for you. Own it. Be prepared to think on your feet.
  • Acting classes (see below) will teach you how to interpret a script and the basics of on-camera performing.

3 places to Earn Your Acting Chops
Alliance Theatre
For performers in grades K-12, classes range from musical theater to playwriting to improv comedy.

Atlanta Workshop Players
Learn on-camera acting, sketch comedy—even how to make your own films.

The Atlanta Children’s Theatre Company
This company hosts classes at several Atlanta-area schools and on weekends at the Horizon Theatre.

Kids in the ATL: “For kid actors, the big screen awaits” is reason 10 of our 25 Reasons it’s Great to be a Kid in Atlanta. To read the full list, grab a copy of our May 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

A version of this article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.

BeBe Winans and director Charles Randolph-Wright chat about their musical, Born for This

Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story
Photo illustration by Elias Stein; Winans by Ralph Dominguez/Globe Photos, Inc.; Bakkers by AP Photo/Lou Krasky

When a new musical based on the life of BeBe Winans makes its world premiere at the Alliance this month, theatergoers will be transported back to the Reagan-era meteoric rise and scandal-riddled fall of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, cowritten and composed by the Grammy-winning R&B and gospel star himself, tells the unlikely story of how Winans and his sister CeCe were plucked by the Bakkers from teenage obscurity in Detroit to perform on the then all-white Praise the Lord Network in Pineville, North Carolina.

The musical, which Winans and his cowriter and director Charles Randolph-Wright spent years fine-tuning, has already earned approval from Oprah, who led the audience in a standing ovation when she attended an early reading. Now Winans and Randolph-Wright are hoping that it will join the handful of productions, including the Tony-winning The Color Purple and Aida, that have made the jump from the Alliance’s stage to the Great White Way.

Why Atlanta for the premiere?
Randolph-Wright It needed to be somewhere Southern. So I called [Alliance Theatre artistic director] Susan Booth and said, “We need you, we need the Alliance, and we need Atlanta.”

How did coming of age in the South affect your work together?
Randolph-Wright I grew up in York, South Carolina, 40 minutes from Pineville. For us, it’s an opportunity to show what happens when these separate worlds—black and white, North and South—come together.

Winans Charles has always understood this story and why it’s a uniquely Southern story. I remember saying to him, “Charles, we didn’t experience any threats on that show.” He told me, “Boy, please. It was the South!” At first I thought he was taking liberties, but it turns out those liberties were realities. [In the midst of working on the musical] I was having dinner with Jim [Bakker], and he told me, “Oh yes, there were lots of threats.” The Bakkers had kept that from CeCe and me. I was shocked.

Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story
Juan and Deborah Joy Winans

Photograph by John Bayley Photography

BeBe’s niece and nephew, Deborah Joy and Juan Winans will be playing the parts of CeCe and BeBe. How did that casting come about?
Randolph-Wright I first saw Deborah when she came in [to audition] for Motown. [Then] BeBe said, “You should meet Deborah Joy’s brother.” He walked in, opened his mouth, and I remember thinking, “Are you s—-ing me!?” And the brother-sister relationship is just instinctual with them. The love, that bond is just there.

With everything that’s been reported about the Bakkers, how do you make them three-dimensional characters instead of caricatures?
Winans Being in the inner circle, we knew what was true and what wasn’t. Even after PTL came apart, we kept in touch, through Jim’s incarceration and Tammy’s death. They were our white parents.

Randolph-Wright Because of the scandals and the outrageous makeup, people forget the good work the Bakkers accomplished. They took a chance on two teenagers to integrate their show. Tammy had the first person with AIDS on a religious program. Early audiences were stunned because they went in thinking they were going to see a Saturday Night Live sketch. They came away having seen real people—real people with incredible issues.

You’ve said that you welcomed notes and feedback from Booth as the musical evolved. How has her feedback helped?
Randolph-Wright We were stunned by the notes she gave us on one of the first drafts. She just understood the material. You always want to create where you’re comfortable. When you have people like Susan, who may not have taken your journey but they can help you articulate it, it means a lot.

Bebe, Born for This details how you and your sister moved as teens from Detroit to North Carolina to work for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at PTL. What was that like?
Winans It was scary. CeCe was 15, and I was 17. Our father wouldn’t allow us to spend the night across the street, and here we were, going across the country! I didn’t know about the realities of the South. It was a learning experience. It was scary but also exciting.

What do you think Jim and Tammy saw in you?
Winans They saw a spark in CeCe, and I was just accompanying her. I was the babysitter. One day, PTL’s musical director asked me to ad lib on something, and Jim Bakker noticed. I think the Bakkers saw not only our talent but also our character. With their protection, they knew we had the character to face adversity.

How did coming of age in the South impact your work together on the musical?
Randolph-Wright For us, it’s a trip back home. It’s an opportunity to show people where we grew up. Our costume designer is William Ivy-Long, who has three million Tonys on his mantel and who is currently serving as the chairman of the board for the American Theatre Wing. He wanted to do this show because he’s from Rock Hill, South Carolina, which is even closer to Pineville! For all of us, the appeal of this story is the collision of cultures.

Born for This runs through May 15 at the Alliance Theatre.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.

LPGA documentary The Founders premieres at Atlanta Film Festival

Carrie Schrader and Charlene Fisk
Carrie Schrader and Charlene Fisk

Photograph courtesy of Carrie Schrader

A few minutes into The Founders, Marlene Bauer-Hagge, one of the original 13 female golfers who banded together to create the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950, issues a warning and a challenge to the filmmakers: “You better get busy. There’s only four of us left!” The documentary’s Atlanta directors Charlene Fisk and Carrie Schrader took Bauer-Hagge at her word and fast-tracked this fascinating, educational, and emotional new documentary. On Monday at 9:15 p.m., Fisk and Schrader’s Mighty Fine Films-produced The Founders will have its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre as part of the 40th annual Atlanta Film Festival.

“We knew the clock was ticking and we were up against a real deadline,” explains Fisk. The first person she called to talk about making the doc was LPGA legend Louise Suggs (the native Atlantan has her own permanent exhibition at the Cherokee Town and County Club). The LPGA’s 4th winningest golfer proceeded to verbally take a sand wedge to Fisk’s psyche, and then she hung up. That’s when Fisk was convinced she had to make the film.

“I got peppered with ‘Who are you?!’ and ‘Why do you want to do this film?!,’” Fisk recalls, laughing in retrospect. “When I got off the phone, I was really deflated. But then I realized how much she cared about this, how personal it was for her and how passionate she was. That’s when I recognized what an important story this was for women’s history.” The other surviving LGPA founders interviewed for the film are Shirley Spork, a walking LPGA encyclopedia, and the effervescent Marilynn Smith (who, when she’s interrupted by a ringing doorbell on-camera responds with, “Oh, Shicklegroover!”).

The opportunity to chronicle one of America’s great untold stories was what drew Schrader into the three-year project. “This was a story of heroines,” she says. “It’s about underdogs and redemption. I love telling stories about human beings overcoming odds. I just kept thinking throughout, ‘How come I didn’t know about this?’ Not only as a filmmaker but as a female living in the world. Here were a group of women who came along before Title IX [the equal employment act of 1972], women who helped to create the bedrock for the women’s movement. Why doesn’t everyone know this story?”

There will likely be a few moments of cringe-inducing, seat-squirming discomfort for modern filmgoers at Monday night’s premiere, too. There’s archival footage, for example, of Bauer-Hagge appearing as a celebrity guest on an early 1950s NBC primetime show where the male host asks her condescendingly, “So, you just go out there and slug those balls? You look like an athlete, but you’re beautiful! How much do you weigh?”

“It’s probably one of the most expensive pieces of footage in the film but it’s so worth it,” says Schrader. “That moment just sums up everything they went through.”

THE FOUNDERS FILM TRAILER from Charlie Fisk on Vimeo.

In addition to keeping the LPGA financially afloat in the early years, the original 13 female pro golfers were required to host clinics, attend cocktail parties, and even participate in fashion shows in order to drum up interest in the new professional women’s sport. They drove themselves in caravans in a pre-interstate America to play in the far-flung inaugural tournaments as well, communicating with each other by hanging color-coded ping-pong paddles out the car window. “For a woman at that time, that was an incredibly risky thing to do,” says Fisk.

While Suggs was the first person Fisk spoke to about the project, she was the last of the LPGA founders to sit for an interview. But Suggs’ stories were worth the wait. Recalling her 1961 Royal Poinciana Invitational win over male golfers, including Cary Middlecoff and Sam Snead, Suggs remembered some grousing by the men in the parking lot after the tournament. In the film, Suggs recalls her response to Snead: “I don’t know what you’re bitching about, Sam. You didn’t even come in second!”

One of the film’s most powerful moments comes late in the doc when a wheelchair-bound Suggs is pushed inside an LPGA exhibition at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida. Wiping away tears, Suggs assesses, “This is the first time I’ve ever been up there with the big boys.” She died in August at age 91.

“Louise passed away before she could see the finished film but she knew that her story would get told,” says Schrader. “We want this film to serve as a tribute to her and all of these other amazing women who have made all of our lives better by what they accomplished.”

The Founders has its world premiere Monday night at 9:15 at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre as part of the 40th annual Atlanta Film Festival. Tickets are available at the box office or at atlantafilmfestival.com. Fundraising is ongoing for The Founders to finance a print of the film for future festivals and a potential distribution deal. More information about a tax-deductible donation can be found at thefoundersfilm.com.

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