by Rita Charleston
The People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern is currently celebrating the production of its 10th Holiday “Panto” with “Cinderella: A Musical Panto,” running through Jan. 12.
The panto is a tradition borrowed from England where almost every town has one during the holiday season. Pantos are a mix between a fractured fairy tale and a variety show, using familiar stories to form the basis for exaggeration, outrageous jokes and rollicking songs and dances. At People’s Light they incorporate traditional elements, including “the dame” (a man dressed as a woman), audience participation (in the form of cheering the heroes and booing the villains), a “messy bit,” candy passed out to the audience, and a “silly song” that inspires a sing-along by the audience.
In this production, which essentially follows the traditional fairytale but with several twists of its own, Germantown’s Joilet Harris plays the blues-singing evil stepmother, Lucretia Loosestrife, which Harris admits is unusual for her.
“I don’t usually play evil roles so this is quite a departure for me,” the 55-year-old award-winning singer/actress explained. “So my major challenge was getting into the role of this money-hungry, conniving woman who poisons her husband’s first wife so she can marry the Baron.” She added that the script helped her get in the mood, and so did the makeup. “But the primary thing for me was taking something from life that I could identify with, and that worked the best for me.”
Still living today on the same street where she grew up, Harris says she was raised by her grandmother who encouraged her to find out what her true passions were in life. “Germantown is a very artistic community, and I was able to take music lessons, ballet lessons, judo and so much more.” She also met teachers at Pickett Middle School who encouraged her even further. She later went to Germantown High School.
“At Pickett I met John Lamb, who was one of Duke Ellington’s bass players, and he took me under his wing. There was also Maryanne Lancaster Tyler, sister of famous jazz musician Bayard Lancaster, who also took me under her wing. So my singing was encouraged early on, and the schools I attended were certainly instrumental in my becoming a singer and eventually going into show business.”
Always a singer, Harris didn’t do a lot of shows at Germantown High. She “was in student government thinking I was going to go into politics ‘cause I have a lot of mouth. Then I said, ‘No, that’s not my calling,’ and I did the corporate world thing.” Even while working full-time, she was continuing to act, doing her first professional role in 1982 at Freedom Theatre in a show called “The Gospelers.”
Ten years later she quit her job. “I took a leap of faith. I said ‘OK, I’m tired of lying and saying I’m home sick when I was in New York at auditions.’ There were a couple of opportunities that came my way that I couldn’t take because I had a 9 to 5. I said ‘Well, Lord, if you’ll carry me, I’ll go.’ And so I did.”
And so began her successful career. Over the years her talents have been rewarded with a Barrymore Award for “Caroline or Change.” She’s also been seen on TV in such productions as the HBO series ‘The Wire,” “Law and Order SVU” and “Do No Harm,” among others.
While she acknowledges that she would welcome the opportunity to do more film work, she admits that stage work is where an actor hones his/her craft. And her current role is no exception.
“In addition to honing my craft, I also get to pretend, which is so much fun. When you’re on stage it’s okay to let go and play and be a kid again, no matter what the role. An actor gets to explore life and other people’s personalities, things that I may never have come across in my whole life.”
Joilet’s faith drives everything she does. She will never do a play that is blasphemous, and she will not be in a show that requires exposing more than her arms and legs.
She describes her beliefs as starting with “When all else fails, what doesn’t fail is God. I know that in the times when I’ve done 19 auditions and not gotten one job, or I’m down to that last unemployment check and there’s no promise of a job, God carries me. He just does. It’s simple.”
For times and ticket information to “Cinderella: A Musical Panto,” call 610-644-3500.