Alli Angelou was at work at the New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch recently when her boss, artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, walked in and said she was going to be in their next play.
OK. Sure. No problem.
Angelou, who graduated from Middletown High School South in 2012, has been Barabas’ assistant at the professional, non-profit theater specializing in new American plays for about seven months. But that’s not why she got the job.
“She knew I could sing,” Angelou said.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater arts with a concentration in musical theater and a minor in dance at Rowan University in 2016. Now, she’s working on a master’s degree in arts administration from Rowan, online, fulfilling a promise she made to her mother.
“My mom knew I wanted to perform ever since I was a kid,” she explained. “When I was 17 or 18, and said that I wanted to be an actress, she agreed — as long as I promised to get a master’s (degree designed to prepare her for a career in theater management, or related businesses such as gallery director, music producer or dance company manager).
“And now I’ve found that I really like it,” she said.
Working at NJ Rep gives her hands-on office experience. But from Feb. 22 through March 25, she and nine other not-yet-professional actors will be part of “Wild Horses,” a one-woman memory play by Allison Gregory, featuring Estelle Bajou (who last season turned in a superb performance in “The Jag”) and directed by Barabas.
The play is set in a Tastee-Freeze turned karaoke bar in Anywhere, U.S.A. in 1996.
It’s is a coming-of-age story — told by a grown-up about her adolescent self and several other 13 year-olds who recognize injustice, throw caution to the wind, and act upon it.
This is the fourth production of “Wild Horses,” which is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere. Previous productions were staged at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, WV; CenterStage Theater at the JCC, NY, and The Vortex, TX.
A 20-minute, onstage pre-performance featuring karaoke proceeds each show for patrons who arrive early. No karaoke bar and no extras were in the previous productions. And the actress played a character in her 40s or 50s.
“The playwright basically left things wide open,” Barabas explained, adding that one director set the play in food court with the audience seated at tables, and another in a smaller theater set the play in a comedy club.
“Since we cast her younger, we also had to adjust the time frame as the memory is from the 1970s,” she said. “We made the year 1996, and (pre-show) performers bring their stories, and it clarifies things in some ways. We’re having a great time with it.”
Not all the “bar patrons” will be at each show.
“Some are students and they have classes, or other obligations,” Barabas said. “Some will be blended into the actual performance, but have no dialogue.”
Keeping the director’s vision in mind, Angelou and Amelia Vitale, Asbury Park, tried some improv during rehearsals to develop characters.
“We had to work within certain parameters to decide what characters we’re playing, but Amelia can’t make every performance,” Angelou said.
For those shows, Angelou said, “I’ve decided it’s my 21st birthday, my first time in a bar, and I’m going to get everyone to buy me a birthday drink.”
That’s a far cry from when Angelou’s interest in acting began with the 2005 movie “Because of Winn-Dixie.” It starred 11-year-old AnnaSophia Robb as a lonely girl in a new town befriended by a mischievous dog. Angelou was four months younger than the child actress.
“I read everything I could about her and looked up ‘behind the scenes’ clips online,” she said. “My mom thought it was just a phase.”
When they moved to the Lincroft section of Middletown Angelou was 13 and got involved with community theater. First with the now closed Eatontown Playhouse, as well as Playhouse 22 in East Brunswick, and the Spotlight Players in Matawan, where she was cast as Holly in “The Wedding Singer” when she was 17.
She took acting, singing and dance classes. She got involved in school plays and musicals landing the role of Kim in “Bye Bye Birdie” (Ann-Margret in the movie) in high school.
She also honed her craft acting in numerous shows in college, her favorite as the title character in “Sweet Charity.” She is also very proud of her work as Yvonne in “Who Will Carry the Word?” based on the true account of a French Resistance fighter sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.
And all four years of college her mom, plus her father and step-parents, have been supportive and came to see every show she was in, she said.