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Young talent Eric Lockley sets his sights on theater

Performer/Playwright Eric Lockley
Performer/Playwright Eric Lockley
Black Odyssey, Without Trace

Performer and playwright Eric Lockley has set his sights on bringing stories about the African-American community to the country. Currently the young talent is starring in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere of Marcus Gardley's new play “Black Odyssey.” The show is directed by Obie winner Chay Yew and also stars Tony winner Cleavant Derricks (“Dreamgirls”), Tony Todd (“Final Destination” franchise), Brenda Pressley (“Dreamgirls”) and Shamika Cotton (HBO’s “The Wire”).

Then beginning in April, MPAACT Theater Company in Chicago will mount the premiere production of Eric’s original play, “Without Trace,” at the Greenhouse Theater.

A New York City based artist, Eric has been racking up awards and credentials for some time now. He has earned the Theatre Hall of Fame Fellowship Grant 2012, National Theatre Conference Emerging Professional Award 2012, Harlem Stage Fund for New Work Grant 2011, Mabou Mines Resident Artist 2009-2010 and Poets & Writers Grant 2009. Eric was also selected to write the PSA “My Harlem” for the non-profit organization Caring Across Generation. Originally from Maryland, Eric graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA and a double major in Africana Studies.

On the stages of New York, Eric has earned accolades as a writer/performer/producer for his original solo shows “Last Laugh,” “Asking For More” and “The Sad Secret Sex Life of Steve Urkel.” He is part of The Movement Theatre Company and the producing collective, Harlem 9. His additional stage credits include: “CATO” (The Flea), “Holes” (Atlantic Thtr Co.), “The Winter’s Tale” (NYU), “Black Terror” (NYU), “SPUNK” (Penobscot) and “CHAINS,” performed in South Africa.

We recently caught up with Eric Lockley to discuss his role in “Black Odysssey,” his new play “Without Trace,” and much more.

Tell us about the new Denver Center Theatre Company production you’re currently starring in called “Black Odyssey.”

ERIC: A unique twist on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the play is about an African-American soldier, Ulysses, who gets lost at sea and must endure a series of harrowing trials to get back to his family. It’s an epic adventure that has Ulysses battling gods and mortals from Africa and Afghanistan to Harlem. I play Ulysses’ thirteen-year old son, Malachai, whose assurance that he’s ready to become a “man”, can’t help but keep Malachai in trouble. The play is truly about discovering and dealing with your past in order to move forward; in order to go home. It’s a universal story about family, faith and redemption.

What’s it been like working with such a talented group both on and off stage?

ERIC: Watching some of the pros in their process – making bold choices on stage, asking important questions, staying in-tune with their acting impulses - is so exciting. Also 2 of the original cast members of “Dreamgirls” are a part of our cast, so when it comes to the music in our show, it is truly transcendent. Off-stage the cast has become such a tight-knit family. Tony Todd is a bit of a jokester, so he's always got something fun to say or a practical joke he's planning. Brenda Pressley has been so sweet throughout the process that on anyone's birthday or on holidays she's baked or cooked something to share with the cast. I've truly gained some new aunts, uncles, brothers & sisters.

Any interesting stories from behind the scenes or during rehearsal you can share with us?

ERIC: From learning and playing Chess, to all of us participating in Secret Santa, we’ve had some really great bonding moments behind the scenes. One particular memory that we all shared during rehearsal was a moment when we were singing the gospel song, “Since I Laid My Burdens Down”. The song is sung by the full cast and this is our second time in a row singing it in the large theater where we’ll be performing, and our director Chay Yew asked if this second time we could try to sing it louder. He wants us to fill the space more. So of course, we say we’ll try to sing louder. We are in the midst of vigorously singing this song at the top of our lungs, and then we look over and see Chay stomping and moving his hands and clapping and every once in a while shouting something. Most of us are very confused. We can’t tell if he’s really getting into the song or if he’s upset. At the song's conclusion, we ask Chay if he was having a conniption or if he was trying to tell us something. Chay says, “I was telling you all to CLAP! STOMP! CLAP!” Based on his “unique” sense of rhythm we just weren’t sure what he had been doing. We all had a good laugh.

You’ve also written the original play, “Without Trace,” tell us about this story and what inspired you to write it.

ERIC: My play entitled “Without Trace” is a conspiracy theory drama that takes place in the not-too-distant future and follows an inner-city family in the midst of a crumbling America. Here's a synopsis: When Trace Sullivan goes missing from his family's inner-city apartment, his sudden return with a case of amnesia raises more questions than answers. Trace's father, a suspected Radical leader, grows more paranoid, while his mother, a loyal teacher, grows more worrisome. Amidst a crumbling America, political ties and emotional trauma all complicate the question: What happened to Trace?

What inspired me was my desire to put my own spin on a sci-fi/ thriller story. I aimed to create an entertaining story while also commenting on some of the social and political hurdles our country is still working to get over. Additionally the news inspired me – the amount of political unrest in our country, the amount of missing children, increased gun violence, and the debate over gun laws. Expounding upon today’s current news I began my play at the emergence of an inevitable “New America”.

What do you hope audiences will walk away with after seeing this show?

ERIC: I want audiences to walk away considering the nature of freedom and acknowledging that the fight for true freedom is complex and hard-won. These characters – a war vet desperate for redemption, a lost boy seeking safety, and a mother clinging to aspirations of domestic bliss – are all trapped in one way or another. The play unfolds as they all are seeking to break out of what’s holding them captive.

You seem to focus artistically on stories about the African-American community, both as an actor and writer/creator. What impact do you hope to make during your career?

ERIC: I'm most interested in creating and participating in stories that are rarely showcased within the African-American community. We as a community have a plethora of stories, and what excites me is the varying ways that these stories can be told. Too often “drama” is the go-to genre to tell our stories and make important social commentary about the black experience. I want to do my part to change that in both the roles I play, and in the pieces I write.

My play, Blacken the Bubble, an “affirmative action comedy”, is a nearly farcical examination of diversity in the workplace. I enjoy exploring genres – sci-fi, horror, dark comedy, kung-fu, action – to bring new and relevant stories to life. And being able to play Malachai in Marcus Gardley’s epic, Black Odyssey, is a dream come true because the play is so very imaginative while remaining universally engaging and also making important commentary about the African-American experience.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

ERIC: As an artist one thing I remind myself of time and time again is that perseverance and a having a willingness to learn and grow is so important when navigating this career. If you give up easily and you think you know everything, you will not go far. So I encourage any artists out there to continue to be brave, trust themselves and their talent, and to be open to continually honing their craft.

And finally, how can fans keep up with you and your work? – My website & folks can sign-up to receive emails from me once a month for updates

@ellisongray – Twitter Handle

Thanks, Eric. We’ll definitely be watching as you keep learning and sharing your stories with us!

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