Cheryl Wheeler

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Strong Women, On Stage

These articles by Nicole Plett and Richard Skelly were published in

U.S. 1 Newspaper on

November 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

Family reunions are what Thanksgiving are all about.

Some families even rent a hall for their get-together. But when

playwright

and director Tanya R. Young and her brother Norwood Young II come

home to see Mom and Dad for Thanksgiving, they’re bringing a brand-new

musical and a singing-dancing cast of 17. Young arrives with "The

Strong Black Woman," on Saturday, November 28, at 7 p.m. at the

Crescent Temple Theater in Trenton, launching its national tour. The

tour is produced by the sister-brother production company,

VisionWorks.

Starring the smoky-voiced Alyson Williams and Norwood Young II, the

musical drama follows three days in the life of Sabrina Wright, a

modern-day black woman, in her struggles against the stereotypical

perceptions of her husband, employer, executive wives, and young

women.

Says Young, "Sabrina is not strong because of her victories. Her

strength emanates from winning the hearts and minds of those around

her."

Winning is a familiar sensation for Young. Born and raised in Ewing,

and schooled at Notre Dame High, she was one of Mercer County’s star

athletes of the 1980s. Her mother, Betty Young, worked as a surgical

scientist at Johnson & Johnson for 18 years until a proposed transfer

caused her to leave and open her own beauty salon — she now owns

four Be Beautiful Parlors. Norwood Young Sr. is a retired IBM

executive

who was a college football All-American. The Youngs still live in

Ewing. Their youngest daughter, Tamieka Gaines, is a married teacher

and mother of three.

An outstanding student who earned her law degree from Yeshiva

University,

Tanya Young’s life has been propelled by sports and entertainment.

"We were boxed into thinking these were two different

spheres,"

she says, "but they’re both about going in front of a crowd and

generating the same kind of energy." Her brother Norwood signed

his first recording contract at 16 and has gone on to record Top-20

and gold singles. Now living in Los Angeles, he has formed his own

record label, Norbet Records.

A 1986 graduate of Notre Dame High, Young was recruited for a

basketball

scholarship at Division I schools around the country. Her brother

urged her to get as close to New York as she could, and so, contrary

to expectations, she chose St. John’s University in Queens. There

she helped her team compete in the Big East Championship, before

graduating

in 1990 with degrees in communications and linguistics. In addition

to academics and athletics, Young started working as a runway model

and acting while a student at St. John’s.

"Women’s basketball then was on the threshold of becoming

popular,"

Young recalls. "We took the lead in showing that it can be fun

and it can be great — now people are watching it, it’s so fast

and it’s exciting. Sports is still part of my life; it’s the core

of who I am. Whether you’re playing basketball or on the stage, you’re

just entertaining an audience."

After St. John’s, Young enrolled at Yeshiva Law School, a choice she

describes as "trying to buy time so that I could purse the

arts."

She spent her summers working in lucrative law firm internships, and

graduated as an attorney in 1993. After a brief stint with a Manhattan

law firm that specialized in copyright and trademark law, Tanya’s

brother got her an audition in Los Angeles for the Fox series,

"Lush

Life." The show aired for less than one season, but the

opportunity

enabled her to leave law for entertainment.

"I had a great employer and great pay, but I still was craving

something," says Young. "Nine to five — or rather nine

to nine — was not for me." Young describes her theater work

as "a craft and an obsession almost. But I moved away from

television

to live theater — almost like going back to sports. I like to

have the live audience there with me."

"The Strong Black Woman," Young’s first musical, with original

music written in collaboration with musical director Tony Jackson

and Norwood, grew out of a Yeshiva law school course in which the

students were asked to write about the court system, using any form

they wished. "I wrote a play about a black woman who was a

defendant

in a court case, and what the jury’s perceptions of her would be,"

she explains. "I’ve lived with that outline for seven years, and

spent the past two years working on it intensively."

Launching "The Strong Black Woman" from her childhood home

is a heartfelt choice for Young. The 26-city tour begins in March

from Detroit, proceeding Virginia, and on to Florida. The company

is negotiating to perform at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia and

at the Beacon Theater in New York.

"Coming home to family and friends, to so many people who have

supported me, is important," says Young, whose mother is a member

of Shiloh Baptist Church. "At Notre Dame my basketball coach John

Simone (now athletic director of Mercer County Community College)

encouraged me. Even while I was in college, he kept asking me what

else I was doing. And Gerald Stockman (the attorney), he supported

me, too. These are the kind of experiences that give you the

strength."

— Nicole Plett

The Strong Black Woman, Crescent Temple Theater, Trenton,

609-584-4866. $20 to $45. Saturday, November 28, 7 p.m.

Top Of Page
Cheryl Wheeler

In concert, Cheryl Wheeler combines a humorous persona

with insight-filled songs that both amuse and stir her audiences.

Although her songs are often highly personal, she reaches for the

lyrics that other people can relate to. She sings about the common

bonds: a song for her cat Lou, "Meow," appears on her new

album, "Sylvia Hotel" (Rounder Records). Her other songs run

the gamut from the hold-your-belly humor of "Is It Peace Or Is

It Prozac" and "Unworthy," to a celebration of her father,

"75 Septembers," to the heart-wrenching sadness of

"Further

and Further Away." Her song "Howl at the Moon," is a love

song for her border collie, James.

Rounder Records has also released a humorous video of Wheeler in her

native element, performing at the famed Iron Horse Cafe in

Northampton,

Massachusetts. "What Do I Care I Don’t Have Any Kids Construction

Company Inc." is the title, and its cover features a photo of

Wheeler at the wheel of a bulldozer, smoking a cigarette, and drinking

coffee. The picture tells the story of the tape that features plenty

of laughs and funny, easy repartee with her audience. The same thing

is to be expected from the singer on Saturday, November 28, in

Hightstown,

when Wheeler performs on the Outta Sights & Sounds series stage with

the up-and-coming Tom Prasada-Rao.

Asked how she developed her sense of humor, Wheeler says she comes

from a funny family. But it took her hundreds of shows in her native

Maryland and in Massachusetts, where she’s lived since the late 1970s,

to learn to be funny on stage. Wheeler lives on a small Massachusetts

farm, near Swansea, with a roommate, Kathleen, two dogs, and four

cats.

"Wit and humor was a huge part of my growing up," says

Wheeler.

"My father was always very funny, and we had great times at the

dinner table, cracking each other up. My sister and mother and myself

were all into noticing what was funny."

"My real repartee with my audience didn’t start until later on,

after I moved to New England," says Wheeler, who played dozens

of venues around Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.

Wheeler was born and raised in Timonium, Maryland (sounds like an

element, she notes). She is the daughter of a school administrator

and nurse. She began paying attention to folk music when she was 10,

and her music studies began with the ukulele. A neighbor introduced

her to a world of folk music, but her parents also had albums by the

Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other folk artists.

After attending Catonsville Community College for two years —

and then quitting a four-year college in South Carolina — she

was back home in Timonium playing at a place called the Steak & Ale.

Her decision to quit college hurt her father at first, but eventually

he recognized her determination. After all, 1974, 1975, and 1976 —

the disco years — were difficult times for anyone with just a

guitar and microphone.

"He certainly is delighted at my success, I can say that,"

she says today. In her early years at the Steak & Ale and other venues

in nearby Towson, Maryland, she says her father’s patience was taxed

at times. "He would say, `When are you gonna give this up and

go get a job for Chrissake,’" she says.

But, more recently — that is, since she’s recorded four

critically-praised

albums for Rounder Records — she recalls a day when she was in

a car with her father, driving and talking. "He started into a

speech where he said `I feel badly sometimes that I didn’t encourage

you enough and give you enough support.’ And you would think that

would be what I wanted to hear, right? I told him, `No, Dad, you were

just doing the best you knew. You were a great Dad, how could you

know what a tough business this is, and you just didn’t want to see

me hurt.’" In other words, "I didn’t want to hear him give

the `I was wrong you were right speech.’ He’s very proud of me and

tells me every time I talk to him."

Wheeler has earned the respect and praise of her peers, including

fellow folk singers John Gorka, Patty Larkin, and Bill Morrissey.

Her songs have been recorded by Bette Midler, Melanie, and Suzy

Bogguss,

among others. Her Rounder albums include "Mrs. Pinocci’s

Guitar,"

"Circles and Arrows," and "Driving Home," her 1993

label debut.

Wheeler says song writing is a difficult process for her. And she

strives for perfection in it. That’s one reason she doesn’t release

a new album every year.

"It takes me a long time to write enough songs I like enough to

want to record," she says. "With `Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar,’

I sometimes feel like I should have taken a little more time. It’s

nice to send a producer more songs than you will possibly need on

a record, so you end up recording more than you will use. But I want

all 15 songs to be songs that I would be happy to have on a

record."

She likes to let her producers decide which songs should make the

cut for an album.

It thrills her that country musicians like Bogguss have taken notice

of her songs and admits there’s a lot of country influence in her

writing. She’s been influenced by the classic country musicians,

including

Buck Owens and Hank Williams, but she also recalls that radio was

a different world when she was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s.

"Frankly, I’ve been influenced by everything I’ve ever heard.

When I was a kid, radio was eclectic, not like it is now, where you

listen to this radio station for this kind of music and that radio

station for that kind of music."

In the glory days of AM radio around her suburban Baltimore home,

Wheeler recalls, "stations played everything that was popular

in every genre of music." In the course of one afternoon, she

could hear Louis Prima, Little Richard, and Patti Page.

She says she had the first glimmer of realization that she could

become

a folksinger after she quit college and realized she’d have to get

a job. She worked as a cook for a while but hated it.

"Then I heard this new restaurant, the Steak & Ale, was looking

for a singer and that’s when it dawned on me, `Hey wait a minute,

I could do this.’ I told the guy, `I think I can do this singing job.’

I came in and auditioned, and I could tell he was pleased." The

pay was 25 bucks a night, six nights a week.

Over the years, through hundreds of bar and coffee house gigs around

the East Coast and more recently around the U.S. and Canada, Wheeler

has fine-tuned her shows to wring the most emotion out of her

audiences.

Simply put, she’s an artist who performs better live than on record.

Audience members come to feel an ease with Wheeler that prompts them

to call out requests during her funny, between-song banter.

Asked what she might be doing if there weren’t a network of coffee

houses and folk festivals for her and other folk artists to perform

at, Wheeler pauses. "You’ve gotta do something, and this is the

only thing I know how to do. I love it and I feel fortunate to be

able to do it. For my audience, I just hope they’ll come out and like

it. And I do my best to see that they do."

— Richard J. Skelly

Cheryl Wheeler, Outta Sights & Sounds, Grace Rogers School

Theater, Stockton Street, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. $15. Saturday,

November 28, 8 p.m.


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