'Jelly Belly' makes regional premier at Ensemble Theatre
One of the earliest plays by renowned playwright Charles Smith will get its regional premier at Ensemble Theatre this month, when “Jelly Belly” opens on Feb. 9.
In the play, Cleveland actor Lashawn Little plays Mike, who finds himself at a crossroads in his life after being passed over for a promotion at his construction job. Frequent Ensemble collaborator Greg White (“Thurgood,” “Death of a Salesman”) plays Jelly Belly, just released from prison and looking to get the gang back together.
Originally produced by Chicago’s Victory Gardens in 1990, the play comes from a real-life meeting Smith had with a Chicago gangster named Jelly Belly.
“What shocked me was not that Jelly Belly had very calmly and openly admitted to murdering several people on several occasions, many of whom had been his friends,” wrote Smith in the opening to his play. “What shocked me was the fact that each time he had been convicted of murder, he had spent no more than six months in jail.”
Taking place in one night on the front stoop of Mike and Barbara’s (Mary Francis Miller) house, the play follows Mike’s struggles with staying on the straight and narrow, all while being confronted by Jelly Belly, a man nearly everyone is afraid of for one reason or another.
“I think people will be surprised by the depth of this script,” director Ian Wolfgang Hinz said of the play. “It really deals with the African-American experience in their neighborhoods, and in places where there are economic issues and issues with finding jobs. It’s about kings and queens and territory and power, and how those components interact with each other. I think it’s different than any other play you’re going to see in Cleveland this season.”
“Jelly Belly” is just one of many collaborations between the playwright and Ensemble Theatre over the years. Celeste Cosentino, Ensemble’s executive artistic director, and Hinz are both former students of Smith, who is head of the Professional Playwriting Program at Ohio University. Recent productions of Smith’s plays at Ensemble include “Gospel According to James,” “Knock Me a Kiss,” and “A Free Man of Color.”
“Jelly Belly” runs Feb. 9–25, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd.
Tyler Whidden is a playwright and associate artistic director at Ensemble Theatre. He also co-hosts "The Cleveland Stage Podcast."