Though she lives in New York City, Jannie Jones is a staple of the Sarasota performing arts community. Jones has been featured in almost two dozen FST productions, including the powerful musical biography Ethel Waters: His Eye in on the Sparrow, the runaway Cabaret hit Blue Suede Shoes, and last season’s hit musical, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
This season, she brings the distinct music of the 1970s to life in FST’s original music revue, The ’70s: More Than A Decade. Over the course of two acts, Jannie and her castmates celebrate this pivotal decade in American history and the explosion of new music and artists that came with it.
We sat down with Jannie to talk about her relationship with Florida Studio Theatre, what she learned about the 1970s during the Cabaret’s rehearsal process, and her personal connection to the music featured in The 70s: More Than a Decade.
You’ve been in more than 20 productions at FST as well as in shows like Caroline, or Change at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. What keeps bringing you back to Sarasota? What do you enjoy most about being here?
I always refer to and think of FST as my “home theatre.” Of all of the theatres that I have worked at, including Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre, FST is my favorite because everyone feels like family. It always feels like I’m coming home.
Richard Hopkins, the theatre’s Producing Artistic Director, directed me in my first show here, My Castle’s Rockin‘ by Larry Parr (1996), and we have shared a bond ever since. And not just as an actor and director, but as friends. When I get my Tony Award, which is my goal, my speech will definitely include FST and how grateful I am for Richard inviting me back year after year, keeping my skills honed and being embraced with love.
In The 70s: More Than A Decade, you mention being a child of the 1970s. Are there any memories that stand out to you from that time? What was it like to revisit the music you grew up with?
What I remember from the ’70s is that everyone in my culture wearing big Afros and bell bottom pants. The guys with the biggest ‘fros got the ladies’ attention. I learned to corn row hair at a young age, and I remember the guys begging me to corn row their hair, so that when they let it loose, it would blow out their hair, allowing their ‘fros to look bigger.
As for revisiting the music I grew up with that’s in our show, Marvin Gaye was the man! He would sing “Sexual Healing” or “Let’s Get it On” and everyone would simultaneously fall into the groove dance, with their hands up and slow sensual hips swerving. I was too young, but my oldest sister had the biggest crush on Marvin Gaye.
What is your favorite song to perform from The ‘70s: More Than a Decade and why?
I have a few favorites. I love hearing my cast mate, Eddie Weaver, lend his incredible voice, which is smooth like butter, sing “Let’s Get It On,” along with Brianna Barnes and Michael James Byrne’s duet, “We’ve Got Tonight.” I love my solo, “The Way We Were.” This is a very talented cast and I think I enjoy hearing each of them sing as much as the audience does. It’s like listening to your favorite CD every night.
Did you learn anything about the ‘70s during the rehearsal process that surprised you?
I didn’t know the Village People were gay and that they were the first openly gay group to cross into mainstream. I am a Preacher’s Kid (PK) and secular music wasn’t allowed in our household, so when I would catch glimpses of the Village People in passing, I remember being amused by their costumes and that they had their own unique style. I was not really familiar with their music, but I enjoyed watching them when I could catch a glimpse.
Also, I was unaware that there were pro-war supporters. In my world, everyone hated the war in Vietnam. People had sons dying daily, and my community was in mourning all of the time. We were also still reeling from the loss of Dr. King and were fighting for our Civil Rights. The awesome music that Black artists were writing and singing gave us a welcomed escape.
You originated the role of Ethel Waters in Ethel Waters: His Eye on the Sparrow and have revived that role several times since the show’s first production. How does the development process for a show like Ethel Waters… compare to the development process for a Cabaret, such as The ‘70s: More Than a Decade?
Well, Ethel Waters had already been workshopped and the script and songs were already organized and ready to go. I just had to do my own research on Ethel Waters. I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in NYC, which specializes in African American artists, history, and music. I spent hours compiling as much information as I could about Ethel Waters. Since I was the only singer in the show, I didn’t have to worry about finding the perfect blend with other voices. I mainly immersed myself in everything Ethel and tried to embody her energy and spirit to bring her very impactful story to life.
With The ’70s: More Than A Decade, the Cabaret was still in the final development stages when we started rehearsals. The songs and musical arrangements were changing daily and the dialogue bridges were still being written and edited. So, I concentrated on listening to the music that I was not familiar with, which was a lot, and learning my lyrics & figuring out the proper vocal placement in order to blend when singing group numbers. I had heard some of the songs, but I didn’t know the melody or lyrics to most of them. I’ve become a fan of a lot of the songs that were once new to me and I find that they are quite beautiful.
The ’70s: More Than A Decade is now playing in FST’s Court Cabaret. For tickets and more information, click here.
Header Image: Eddie Weaver and Jannie Jones in The ’70s: More Than A Decade. Photo by John Jones.