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Your weekend arts forecast: Opening night for Studio Grand Central

Bill DeYoung



Debbie Yones, left, and Kim Welch appear in "Rasheeda Speaking." Photo by Jim Swallow.

St. Pete’s newest theatrical space is stepping into the spotlight. Studio Grand Central, at 2260 1st Avenue S, opens its very first show, Joel Drake Johnson’s dark comedy Rasheeda Speaking, Friday evening.

Actor, writer and comedian Ward Smith is directing the production, which stars Debbie Yones and Kim Welch as antagonistic co-workers in a doctor’s office. Time Out New York called it “an acidic depiction of race, power and friendship. Blending darkly awkward workplace comedy with intense racial tension, Johnson’s office-politics thriller is not afraid to push buttons hard.”

With its small cast (the director himself plays the doctor), single set and razor’s edge dialogue, Rasheeda Speaking, Smith believes, is the perfect choice for raising the curtain on his intimate black box performance space. Studio Grand Central, the former home of the Andi Matheny Acting Studio, has just 43 fixed, raked seats – with a few bistro-type portables, the space can safely sit 55.

“The quality of the work is what we’re focusing on,” explains Smith, who’s dubbed his troupe the Off Central Players. “With the intimacy of the space, the emphasis is really going to be on the craft, the storytelling, what’s happening on the stage and not the adornments.”

Smith was Artistic Director at The Heather, a tiny (25 seat) performance space in a Tampa shopping center, “next to a dentist office behind a Chinese restaurant.” The Heather closed a year ago. Smith and his sister Karen started talking about starting a similar project on this side of the bay – and, at that precise moment, Matheny put her storefront up for sale.

It had seats, lights, a stage (of sorts) and little spaces for dressing rooms, storage and the other theatrical necessities. No big “buildout” was required (although they’ve been working on the place for months, and some of the out-front signage is still in the process of being installed). An in-house art gallery is showing the paintings of Rose Marie Prins.

Studio Grand Central is a family affair, Smith explains. “I’m the show and she’s the business. It’s not mom and pop. It’s bro and sister.”

Actress and educator Katie Calahan (The Wendy House) runs the Big Break Youth Stage, which will bring Beauty and the Beast to Studio Grand Central in November. The next “adult” play, Plot Points in Our Sexual Development (directed by Staci Sabarsky) will go up in mid-October.

As for Rasheeda Speaking, “The social side of it is always relevant,” according to Smith. “It’ll never go away. And who’s the villain? You really can’t pinpoint it. Does the doctor have a motive, or is this person a handful and he needs to get rid of her? The fact that she’s a minority, is it sticky? Is that a way of looking at it? Or is that person acting that way because the environment is toxic?”

Off Broadway, Cynthia Nixon directed Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins in Rasheeda Speaking, “an exquisitely tense and often cringingly funny” production, according to the New York Times.

That’s just the right tone Smith wants for the Off Central Players’ introduction to St. Petersburg.  “Your first show out of the box, you’ve really got to make a statement: This is what we do. This is who we are as a company.

“It’s light enough, and bold enough that it checked all the boxes in what we wanted to accomplish.”

Smith has a tried and true filter for such things: “You’ve got to do something that your mom can see, in terms of moral, in terms of good, quality stuff,” he says. “My mom’s pretty liberal. She can take a couple F bombs.”

Rasheeda Speaking will run through Sept. 19. Tickets and info here.

Art in the Village

Pinellas Park is rich in fine artists, and the center of that particular universe is the Pinellas Arts Village, 5663 Park Blvd. Inside the main building are well over a dozen artist studios and galleries, and there are more in and around a central courtyard. It’s an adventure.

From 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, everyone will be there to meet you, greet you, and show you what they’re up to, creatively speaking. It’s the monthly 4th Saturday Block Party – yes, it happens every month – and there’ll be a live DJ, food trucks, live music in the Bottles Pub beer garden, bonhomie with the talented members of the Pinellas Park Art Society, generally cool stuff – and it’s pet-friendly, too. Learn more here.

And also …

Guitarist Nate Najar is back on the Palladium Stage Friday with his Jazz Samba Celebration – the great Brazilian guitarist Phill Fest joins him, with vocalist Daniela Soledade, tenor sax player Jeff Rupert, Herman Burney and Chuck Redd on bass and drums, respectively, Patrick Bettison on electric piano and harmonica, and Alvon Griffin on percussion. Details and tickets here.

Sunday will be your last chance to experience the freeFall Theatre immersive interpretation of Francesca Lia Block’s The Rose and The Beast: Fairy Tales Retold.

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