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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
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,
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
Says Young, "Sabrina is not strong because of her victories. Her
strength emanates from winning the hearts and minds of those around
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
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
Tanya Young’s life has been propelled by sports and entertainment.
"We were boxed into thinking these were two different
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
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
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
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
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,
Life." The show aired for less than one season, but the
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
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
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
— Nicole Plett
609-584-4866. $20 to $45. Saturday, November 28, 7 p.m.
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
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
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
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
"Wit and humor was a huge part of my growing up," says
"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
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
among others. Her Rounder albums include "Mrs. Pinocci’s
"Circles and Arrows," and "Driving Home," her 1993
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
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,
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
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
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
Theater, Stockton Street, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. $15. Saturday,
November 28, 8 p.m.
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