CHICAGO Preview: One on One with Mama

By Kimberly Rau

“Chicago,” that iconic Kander and Ebb musical about how to get away with murder and wind up famous, opens Friday at Theater by the Sea in Matunuck. And in “Chicago,” directed by Bob Richard, the one with the power to make or break your prison outcome is Matron Mama Morton, who’s always ready to make a phone call on your behalf…for a price.

If you caught “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the start of the season, then you already know what a vocal powerhouse Tarra Conner Jones is, but if you missed it, rest assured you’re in for a treat. Jones, who hails from Jacksonville, Fla., is an actress with an impressive resume. Favorite roles include Effie White (Dreamgirls), Sofia (The Color Purple), Ma Rainey (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and the aforementioned Nell. She also has her own cabaret, Here is Love, which chronicles aspects of Jones’ life, interwoven with jazz standards and a few show tunes. She took a few minutes during an undoubtedly crazy rehearsal schedule to talk theater, goals, and murder in Jazz Age Chicago.

What would you like audiences to know about the show? It’s a satire of the corruption in the criminal justice system. I think what makes it special are the themes of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation and adultery. Unfortunately, these are the things that create interest. [The most entertaining things are] the dancing! The show is full of movement and music.

Tell us a little bit about Mama, especially your interpretation of the role. This is a layered role that I am absolutely loving. Mama Morton is the warden of Cook County Jail. Even though she loves her girls, she believes in the system of reciprocity. And when you’re good to her, she’ll be good to you! I feel I’m bringing my softer side to a very brassy character. I would say that I’m playing the role as close to how I would be as a warden. Authenticity!

What’s it like working at a summer stock theater?: This is my first time being part of summer stock. For me it’s been great. I guess what makes it unique is that the shows run a bit shorter. The challenge is, it’s hot! What I always love about the rehearsal process is watching the entire puzzle come together. I love seeing everyone do their parts to make a beautiful quilt.

You’ve been involved with two very different period pieces at TBTS this year. Did you audition for one role more than the other, and do you have a favorite now that you’ve worked on both?: I was actually targeting Ain’t Misbehavin’, and was blessed with both! I love each show differently. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gave me a load of singing opportunities, and Chicago lets me play around with my acting side. I love that I’ve had a summer of singing and acting!

How did you get involved with theater? I think theater found me. I attended and graduated from Douglas Anderson School of Performing Arts in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I started auditioning, and learning. I started out as a classical singer with hopes of becoming the next Jessye Norman. Somewhere in there, musical theater snatched me away. At 16 I was cast in my first show, Ain’t Misbehavin’, as Armelia.

What would you like people to know about you? I’ve had such a rich life. Nineteen years of my life was spent teaching 1st and 4th grades, and I spent my last nine years [in the field] as a professional development facilitator for teachers. I resigned in 2014 to pursue my passion for theater. Since then, so much has happened. I’ve worked non-stop in theater, worked and lived in Shanghai, China for six months singing in two night clubs, and moved to NYC in January of this year.

What are you like as an actor? I am a hard worker. Every time I step on stage, I give my absolute all. My goal is to always be better, do better, remain humble and give my audience a SHOW!

After this, what’s on your plate? I will continue auditioning for other theaters and roles. As of now, in mid-November, I will be in Sarasota, Fla., at the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe for Black Nativity, which is a Christmas show.

What advice do you have to women trying to break into the field? Just do it! Believe in yourself. Offer your best self. Be authentic. Start studying your craft. Surround yourself with others who are doing it!

“Chicago” opens Friday, Aug. 18 and runs through Sept. 15 at Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield. Tickets start at $52 and may be obtained by calling 401.782.8587 or online at www.theatrebythesea.com .

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