Phyllis Yvonne Stickney Returns to the Stage in ‘Laughter & Lyrics’
You know Phyllis Yvonne Stickney as Tina Turner’s devoted sister in What’s Love Got to do With It? or perhaps you remember her as the prosecutor who took Nino Brown down in the black-cinematic classic, New Jack City. The powerhouse thespian has exercised her chops on the aforementioned blockbuster film projects (and many more) and on popular television projects like A Different World and the critically acclaimed Women of Brewster Place, but the stage is where the actress and comedienne feels she gets to exhibit her full range and “God-given talents.”
Stickney’s new one-woman show, Laughter and Lyrics – An Evening of Spoken Word, Conscious Comedy and a Splash of Music and Song, is set to delight Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar audiences this Saturday December 5. But this is not a trial run at a new format. While performing stand-up comedy at The Cotton Club in the early 1990s (around the same time she became ubiquitous on the big and small screen), she would perform according to her pre-determined script. However, for the last show of the night, Stickney would take her deepest desires, fantasies and insecurities with her to the stage. It was then that late night audiences with diminishing inhibitions were treated to impromptu performances, with the accompaniment of the club’s musical director Rene’ McLean, taken directly from her private journals. “These pieces came out of my writing everyday. Telling it to the page, talking about my life, my journey, my reactions to them,” explains Stickney.
Growing up in the middle of five children, Stickney had to find her voice just to be noticed in a vibrant household full of kids. “It happened to be that I could make people laugh,” says Stickney. “I could make my mom and siblings and the family laugh because of the way I did and saw things.” That vision would lead Stickney to New York City. But for an aspiring black actress with only natural talent to rely upon, she would need to align with pros that had the ability to shine-up a diamond in the rough. For Stickney, that initial guidance and inspiration came from the legendary actor and theatrical director, Frank Silvera at the New Heritage Theater. Silvera was tough, she admits. It was required that the actors “learn how to hang the lights, and get the costume and the wardrobe.” Later she would join the New Heritage Repertory Theater and study under the tutelage of Roger Furman. It was here, at Harlem’s oldest active theater company, that Stickney would win an Audelco Award for her stage work in Monsieur Baptiste the Con Man.
Arguably, Stickney’s big break came when she turned the crowd out at Harlem’s world famed Apollo Theater in 1987. The trajectory from that kind of wide broadcast was magic for Stickney’s visibility as a comedienne. Everyone wanted to know, “Who was that comic?” Stickney had arrived.
Phyllis Yvonne Stickney will be doing two shows (8 & 10:30 pm) Saturday, December 5 at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar in Manhattan. Click here for ticket info.
I caught up with Ms. Stickney before her show, which she promises will be “an evening filled with entertainment and laughs.” Check out our Q&A here:
DailyCommune: We’ve seen you on the stage on Comic View and the Apollo Live. We’ve seen you on the main stage at the Essence Music Festival, and I know that that’s a natural place for you. But we’ve also seen you on other platforms, like television and film. Is there a favorite platform that you have?
Phyllis Yvonne Stickney: I like to work. I love the process of what it is that I do called theater and art, performance art. If I had to say, at the end of the day if I had a favorite it would probably be comedy because it’s my voice. It’s my unfiltered, unadulterated voice. It comes from the core and the essence of who I am, and who I grew up to be. It’s been with me all my life. And theater, because it is a process that is collaborative. It’s a process that is healing, character building, and you get the immediate response and connection with the audience. It’s experiential. For different reasons I have to say theater, and comedy.
DC: You come across as less chitlin’ circuit comedy, if you will, and more polished. Were you formally trained in theater, or improv?
PYS: My voice is the voice that developed out of being one of five children, and growing up in the earlier years, the formative years as the middle child, and trying to find my own voice. It happened to be that I could make people laugh. I could make my mom laugh, my siblings, and the family laugh because of the way I did and saw things, and said things. So my comedy comes from natural. Where I was able to hone my craft was New Heritage [Reparatory] Theater, under the tutelage of the late Roger Furman. I was able to work with that theater for five years consecutively. I really started behind the scenes, and behind the camera at Frank Silvera’s Writer’s Workshop. We had to learn how to hang the lights, and get the costume and the wardrobe, and those are the things that I worked with when I first studied. It’s a mixture of study, but mostly God-given talent, and gift.
DC: In Laughter And Lyrics, there’s spoken word with some comedy and some song. Is that all you?
PYS: Laughter And Lyrics is me. It is my spoken word. I laughingly say to people, “It was poetry when I wrote it, but you know how things evolve.” Just in looking over the work that I’m going to present on Saturday I noticed how when I wrote these pieces that they’ve lived with me for a while. There’s only one piece that I actually sat down and said, “I am writing this piece.” That piece, ironically was for Forces of Nature. I was asked to prepare a written word piece that would incorporate dance, and so that bore the poem, Polyrhythmic People. (PYS recites Polyrhythmic People on the spot and it was a treat!)
DC: It sounds like song. Is it?
PYS: Yes, Tony Stevenson the musical director for Sugar Bar is going to be playing. He is accompanying me with the same music from 1991 when I was at the Cotton Club. The last set every Thursday during this engagement I would bring my journal with me, and Rene’ McLean (The Cotton Club’s musical director at that time) would play something with the band and I would read. People began to ask, “is that published somewhere?”
DC: So, not only is it published, it is also going to be performed this Saturday?
PYS: It is going to be performed! It was a pain staking experience for me to take these things that had been very private. The first treatment of it was through a book that I self published called Loud Thoughts and Quiet Moments: A Collection of Poetry and Personal Perspective.
DC: How do you describe or explain Loud Thoughts and Quiet Moments? What are those loud thoughts?
PYS: The poems are about relationships. There is one called Ambiguous Thoughts. Wondering…sitting here wondering which way to go with the rest of my time. How much time is left on the wheel of fortune? What does fate have to say about it all? It’s those loud thoughts when you are just going through life wondering…am I doing the right thing? Is this the right relationship? Is this the right situation? Is this the right job? Is this the right time?
PYS: Especially being an artist of color, a female artist of color. Not having. Deciding and choosing not to deal with the casting couch. Loud thoughts for every kind of imaginable challenge or experience that we face. It was in those quiet moments that I reflected. When I was sitting with a book in my lap and a pen in my hand saying, “What do I feel about today’s choices?”. Those thoughts that we have about family, about love, about health.
DC: It sounds so therapeutic.
PYS: Well, I think that is what it is for me. Sitting in my place that I call the “healing space.” After doing this for the time that I have been doing it now. It’s my excitement about being at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar. I have gone as a patron, marveled and was humbled by the enormity of the talent that just comes through to hang out and do what they do, and to share. Being invited by the woman of the house, the lady of the house…I couldn’t say no. Anytime I have taken the mic there and those times that I have come just to see and experience and to be at home with this kind of artistic wellspring. I would do poetry, and I would always work with a band because I am comfortable. The songs then are comedy, sprinkled with song. I use music as the soundtrack of our lives, and if you think about it, we have been with Atlantic [Records]. Then Sela [Records]. You know that Motown provided the soundtrack of our lives. In my performance, I am able to incorporate music and some song. In this house, I lift the voices the likes of Valerie Simpson and the voices that come though there. Toni Seawright and Allison Williams, just the voices that come through there. I never wanted to compete in that arena as a singer. My contribution was always the lyrics. In fact, the lyrics to the soundtrack.
DC: It sounds like a magical place! Break a leg.