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Libby Williams played Juliet and Josh Brelsford was Romeo in Stage Door Theatre's '80s-styled take on "Romeo and Juliet." (Photo by Broughton Dulin)

Classics play large role in Willie E. Jones III’s new artistic vision for Stage Door

Fans of the early 2000s sitcom That ‘70s Show might recall that much of the series was set in the half-finished basement of the Forman home. It is here where teenage characters fell in and out of love and trouble. Watching those actors have fun inspired Willie E. Jones III, the new artistic director at Stage Door Theatre in Dunwoody, to try his hand at acting. 

Jones, 22, grew up in Orlando where he was president of his high school drama club and performed in several productions. He earned his acting degree from the University of Minnesota. While there, he helped produce a virtual new play festival called “Blackness Is . . .” and trained under Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Following in his mentor’s footsteps to steer his own company, Jones jumped at the opportunity to lead Stage Door and moved to Atlanta in the spring. 

Willie E. Jones III says his goal for Stage Door is to transform the community playhouse into a professional repertory theater dedicated to the classics.

Last fall, the board of Stage Door Players furloughed artistic director Robert Egizio, who led the organization for 16 years. Citing a loss of income due to the Covid pandemic, they let go all full-time staff except executive director Debbie Fuse. After more than a year of going dark, Stage Door Players is now Stage Door Theatre and Jones is at the helm. 

Jones says that his vision is to turn Stage Door from a respected community theater to a professional repertory theater dedicated to producing the classics. So far, he’s established an acting ensemble, hired a resident playwright and planned a season anchored by Shakespeare. 

The season opened with the dramatic comedy Becoming Dr. Ruth, followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet and a one-night Halloween cabaret that featured monologues from plays with ghost characters. Speaking of spirits, A Christmas Carol is up next, running December 3 through 19. 

As he finds his footing in the new role, Jones is ready to usher in a new era at Stage Door Theatre. 

ArtsATL: Why start with Shakespeare?

Willie E. Jones III: In this country there is not a great appreciation for the classics and that’s a crime in my opinion. For people of color and minorities, the classical theater is so important and we’re all in it. Part of my mission is to preserve classical theater and also expand the canon to include those who have been forgotten. 

ArtsATL: How do you see people of color in the classics?

Jones: For me classical theater is all about language. If you look at Shakespeare or Marlowe, they played with language and invented new words. It’s all about humans expressing themselves through language, and I don’t believe that language knows race, sex or gender. There are obvious choices like Othello, but I’m sure there are people who can see themselves in Medea or The Seagull. The problem is that people of color have been pigeonholed. The majority of people do not see me in Miss Julie or Pride and Prejudice. Because classical theater is more about language and story than about identity, I see a great opportunity for people of color to be included in those works. 

Hope Funke (left) and Libby Williams in Stage Door’s “Romeo and Juliet.” New artistic director Willie E. Jones III believes having an ensemble “makes the work better.” (Photo by Broughton Dulin)

ArtsATL: What have been some of your challenges coming in?

Jones: I’m never going to be who Robert was, so the biggest challenge is no different than if your favorite band got a new lead singer. Then, if you throw the pandemic into it. He was here for 16 years, and I’m not from the community, nobody knows me. I think the biggest challenge is getting the core audience comfortable with me being here. Earning that trust is not easy and it’s not supposed to be. 

ArtsATL: What has been the response from Stage Door’s board to all of these changes?

Jones: The fortunate part of my coming on is that most of our board has not been here much longer than me. Many of them joined only about six months before me. When I interviewed for the position, they were really able to give me a sense of what they were looking for. They said they wanted to diversify the audience, cast and creative team, but that they also wanted a new direction. We’ve given a little and taken a little, but what you see onstage and in the education programs we offer is part of that vision. 

ArtsATL: Why bring in an ensemble?

Jones: I was trained in an ensemble environment and I’m convinced that it makes the work better. The hope is that as we grow, we can start performing multiple shows at once. During the Shakespeare Festival next year, The Tempest and Twelfth Night will be running at the same time. As an artist, how great is it to have a home and work with the artistic director on bucket list plays and parts? I want to begin bringing more regularity to an acting career so you don’t have to travel to three different cities to get work. 

ArtsATL: Tell more about your approach to the classics. Stage Door recently produced Romeo & Juliet set at an ’80s high school dance. What will be the approach for A Christmas Carol?

Jones: Our approach to A Christmas Carol will be traditional because that’s what everyone’s favorite version of that story is, and it’s cemented in our holiday culture. My approach to the classics is about clarity and accessibility. Transporting the audience to a different world like I did with Romeo & Juliet is all for the sake of clarity and inclusion. It was partially inspired by our set designer wanting to do a design with broken columns, and from that I started hearing different types of music such as Aaliyah and A Tribe Called Quest. From there, we took off with that late ’80s-early ’90s aesthetic, but for the most part we kept the language intact . . . Next spring, we’re setting The Importance of Being Earnest in the early 20th century South, and those costumes can take on a multitude of lives depending on what our team wants to do. 

ArtsATL: What do you want to see for Stage Door in the next five years?

Jones: My hope is that we’ll be one of the most respected classical theaters in the region, if not in the country. I think that’s possible because there are a lot if talented people here. There are actors and directors here that are adept at works ranging from Antigone to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. My hope is that in five years Stage Door will not only be looked at as a place that preserves classical theater, but also brings new works into the canon.

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Kelundra Smith, an ArtsATL Editor-at-Large, is a critic and arts journalist whose mission is to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Her work appears in The New York Times, ESPN’s The Undefeated, American Theatre and elsewhere. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. 

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