Darion McCloud, Founder and Creative Director of the NiA Company, is a Columbia, SC, native who resisted the tug of going elsewhere to stay home and work in his community. He has spent most of his adult life working with non-profits as an art professional by performing, educating, consulting and organizing art and art experiences in museums, prisons, theatres, libraries, schools, TV, the Internet and more.
He is a pleasure to interview and has a lot to teach us about art in the community!
ML: What is the significance of the live theater experience in the community?
DM: This is a good question. Most people make direct comparisons to theatre and movies. Movies are great and I love them, but there is nothing like seeing a great theatrical performance. That communal experience of being in the moment with the actors on stage and with the audience is hard to describe. You see characters doing things that you and your friends will talk about for a long time. You hear the audience gasp, laugh, cry. You walk through whole other worlds and it makes you look at your world differently. It all happenes to you with real people in real time right in front of you! Madd fun.
ML: What was your intention and purpose for starting a theater company?
DM: The Trustus Theatre used to have a program called the African American Acting Workshop. Joanne Minder (then Moton) had the idea that we in the workshop should stay together and do something; we weren’t quite sure what. We didn’t have a leader, we didn’t have a facility and we didn’t have money. But we all knew we didn’t want to just sit around and wait till theatres decided they needed a black chick or black male to fill a role. We wanted to create opportunities for ourselves.
I became the Creative Director almost by default. We were trying to choose a leader and no one would accept the position including me. I heard our death rattle beginning before we were even born. Now, here we are fourteen years later.
From the beginning we thought of art as a way to serve our community. Whether by telling stories others wouldn’t tell in ways they wouldn’t tell or by presenting to and for people who usually wouldn’t be part of the conversation.
Initially our mission was more shaped by race–the lack of opportunities for actors of color. Now we have evolved to include any and every ethnicity, gender, orientation, economic background , whatever. We kind of clumsily call these groupings “non-traditional audiences.”
ML: Why the name NiA?
DM: NiA is a Swahili word which means “purpose.” To have purpose, to give purchase, to do with purpose: all these are meanings of NiA. Most people will recognize it as the fifth principal and day of Kwanzaa. Company member Loretta Brown gave us the name and Indira Cureton- Cummings gave us the stylized spelling with the little i. The addition of the word Company shows we are a group.
Plus NiA looks cool on a t-shirt.
ML: What types of shows can people expect to experience through the NiA Company?
DM: The media has taken to calling us boundary-pushing and I’d say that’s right. We do daring things. We’ve portrayed nudity, homosexuality, violence, sex , racism and other hot buttons on stage. We don’t do this to be sensational but to be real. We try to pick smart, entertaining material because we think our audience is smart and wants to be entertained. “We don’t tell you what to think, but we give you a lot to think about.” We do shows we would like to see and we think we can do well and have fun doing. Our children’s shows help little ones define their personal aesthetic. We try to give them good, smart, funny, stuff so they will grow up expecting good smart, funny stuff.
ML: The most recent show was August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” Of all Wilson’s works, what made “Gem” your choice?
DM: We didn’t pick this one. Trustus already had it on their season and asked us if we would be interested in collaborating. It’s August Wilson so of course we said yes. And whenever we partner with Trustus I think it brings out the shine in both companies. Trustus has made a real commitment to Mr. Wilson’s work. This their fifth production of his work.
ML: Many of the NiA shows are performed at Trustus Theater. How did your involvement with Trustus begin and what do you hope to accomplish through this relationship?
DM: We do shows all over from libraries, to museums, to theatres, to restaurants, anywhere we can make a “stage;” we are “nomadic.” But we do perform one to two shows per season at Trustus. Trustus has always been supportive. Many of us are NiA Company and Trustus company members.
ML: How can the community get involved and support the work that NiA is doing?
DM: The most immediate way to help is give us a chance. Come check out a performance. Usually people are pleasantly surprised once we get them to a show. Especially men: somehow art has been perceived as an exclusively feminine interest. But when men come and see the “realness” of theatre, they get hooked. It’s hard sometimes for our audience to follow us because we are in a different places almost every show, but stick with us–we are here for you.
ML: Are there opportunities for those who want to be involved?
DM: There are always opportunities for novices with us. Part of our mission is to create opportunities. We usually get approached by people who want to act. I always say “the question isn’t whether you can act but can you rehearse?” It’s hard work, but if you are serious, so are we. I am hoping more people will find their way on the technical side, putting the work in and directing, designing lights and sound, costuming, reviewing shows–not just the black shows, but all shows.
ML: Share the upcoming shows for this season.
DM: Because we are “nomadic” we schedule our season differently from most companies. Every time we do a show we have to figure out the what, where and when. We are currently trying to figure that out for the next adult show. However our children’s work can be seen at Southeast this April. Also we will be participating in the Urban Tour this spring and One Columbia Has approached us about doing some things with them. And we are excited to be back at the State Libraries Storyfest this summer.
ML: What is your 5-year vision for NiA?
DM: In five years NiA will have a semi-permanent home but still travel to our neighborhoods performing for young and old alike. Also NiA will extend its reach beyond the borders of South Carolina to be known throughout the region as a place where new work can be produced. NiA has a full blown educational wing that serves people from students to senior citizens. And NiA is also generating enough capital to have a full-time staff.
ML: What is feeding your spirit these days?
My daughter Zaire is my greatest joy, of course. She has already upstaged her Daddy onstage! And it’s cool to see this new and familiar wave of artistic energy flowing into Columbia. It has the potential to change our landscape.
But one of the coolest things to happen to me recently was a homeboy of mine. A “cousin” who I hadn’t hung out with in years came to see “Gem of the Ocean.” His loud, proud, enthusiastic response during the curtain call at the end of the show was worth more than money. Afterwards he waited for me to come from backstage. He was so excited and happy for me but more importantly about what he had seen. He kept shouting “Wow!” We talked briefly, he had to rush on but before he left we hugged and told each other “love you man.” Now THAT is why we do theatre.