Has Morgan State University graduate David E. Talbert created a kinder, gentler reality competition?
StageBlack, a new television program airing on TV One through September, provides ample arguments for both sides of that question. The show takes wannabe actors (and viewers) behind the proscenium arch and provides a peek at the myriad challenges, triumphs - and backstage antics - that characterize live theater.
"I probably had the longest auditions in the history of theater," says the easygoing Talbert. "I wanted everyone to win."
He is one of the most successful writers on the urban theater circuit of inspirational comedies and musicals. These shows reap staggering profits; Talbert's 12 stage plays, for instance, have grossed more than $75 million. Perhaps the best-known current practitioner of this theatrical style is Tyler Perry, creator of such blockbusters as Madea's Family Reunion.
In StageBlack, five men and five women compete for a chance to win a part in a Talbert production, Love in the Nick of Tyme, starring heartthrob Morris Chestnut. The top-ranking contestant of each gender also will land featured roles in a subsequent play.
Unlike most television shows, StageBlack makes lots of religious references. Perhaps that's not surprising; urban theater, sometimes known as gospel theater, is rooted in African-American churches.
"We are all very, very spiritual," contestant Charmel Catrell tells the camera during the second episode, "which is a reason for us having such a strong bond."
Several contestants wear crosses outside their sweaters. And, on the way to their first challenge, the men and women spontaneously clasp hands and participate in a group prayer.
"That was really, really interesting to me," says Rose Catherine Pinkney, executive vice president for programming for TV One, the African-American-oriented network based in Silver Spring.
"That was not anything we set up. In a later episode, a really bad argument erupts, and the contestants stop fighting and start to pray. There is a humanity in StageBlack that you might not find in other reality television shows."
That is not to say that the show lacks the low-down, back-stabbing skulduggery that characterizes most reality shows and - admit it - makes them so enjoyable.
Playing to win
In the second episode, teams competed to see which group could hand out the most fliers to that evening's performance. One team was caught red-handed stealing leaflets from the opposing team and replacing them with their own brochures.
"Each of the contestants plans on winning," she says. "They do some underhanded things. Some of those prayers should have been confessions."
But the 10 aren't treated harshly only by one another; they also are at the mercy of the show's filmmakers, who intentionally ratchet up the tension.
During that same episode, contestants performed monologues, knowing that the one with the lowest ranking would be sent home.
Each performer stood isolated on an immense stage, harshly lit and silhouetted against a pitch-black background.
The situation was designed for maximum intimidation value. And it worked.
The young actors promptly forgot every single one of their lines. One by one, they started over from the beginning - only to break down again. Seeing the performers stumble through their monologues was one of the more viscerally painful moments in recent television.
Talbert obviously knew how they felt. He told the group:
"Even if you're eliminated from the competition, you're not eliminated from the craft. Whether I see you tonight, or later, I hope to see you somewhere down the road on a black stage."
His sensitivity, more than any other element, differentiates StageBlack from crueler reality competitions.
"A lot of them make their money off embarrassing or berating people," Talbert says. "StageBlack does not." The 40-year-old Talbert grew up in Washington, in a family so religious, he jokes "that if you breathed, you were going to hell.
"My whole family are pastors and preachers, and there was always the potential that I would grow up to be one, too," he says. "But my pulpit is the stage."
Began in 1991
Talbert graduated from Morgan State University in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in marketing. In 1991, while working as a radio announcer in San Francisco, he attended a performance of Shelly Garrett's Beauty Shop.
"I said, 'Wow! I can do this,' " Talbert says.
He started work later that night on his first play. It was a great success, and others followed; Talbert estimates that in the past 15 years, his work has been seen by more than 2.5 million people.
StageBlack represents his first foray into television.
"I was asked so often for advice, that I decided to put everything I knew about acting into a television show," he says, adding that he initially conceived of the competition as a cross between Fame and American Idol.
He pitched the idea to a friend affiliated with TV One, who referred him to station executives.
As Pinkney puts it, "A very talented playwright called with an idea that was perfect for our mission, and that takes advantage of a great African-American cultural institution - urban theater."
Before the first episode aired, Pinkney already was talking renewal.
Talbert, for his part, isn't so sure. He's editing his first movie, First Sunday, which he also wrote, and which stars rap and film star Ice Cube. It's scheduled to be released in January by Screen Gems.
In StageBlack, Talbert is an immensely appealing presence. But he has learned that he vastly prefers remaining behind the scenes.
"The camera was in my face every five seconds," he says. "Someone always was fussing with my hair or makeup, and I always had to be on. I developed a great empathy for actors."
David E. Talbert
Wrote 12 plays and two novels; co-wrote one novel with Snoop Dogg. Creator of StageBlack, a reality show airing on TV One. Writer and director of First Sunday, a film to be released in January
Bachelor's degree in marketing, 1989, Morgan State University
Married for nine years to actress Lyn Talbert
Won five NAACP awards; nominated for 24