Rory Sheriff’s office never closes.
Coffee flows, croissants fly out of the big oven, portraits of Napoleon glare down at the latest novice who decided to conquer Charlotte theater. You often find him there before dawn, hammering at a computer keyboard past sunrise. Meet him for a morning interview at Amelie’s NoDa, and passers-by will interrupt with greetings and hugs.
At 47, Sheriff has become the only Charlotte producer with a year-long schedule of African-American theater. (On Q Productions is taking a hiatus, except for a Christmas show.) This will be only the second full season at Spirit Square for Brand New Sheriff Productions. But a guy inspired by Chuck Norris, Tyler Perry and August Wilson won’t be daunted by much.
You expect an outsized personality as you approach his table. Tom Hollis, who taught him in acting classes in the early ’00s at Central Piedmont Community College, remembers “a roaring lion. He was older than most students, being a veteran, and he had a unique reservoir of experiences and emotions. You always knew Rory was in the room: You couldn’t miss that big, boisterous presence.”
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Yet the guy in front of you, with his soft voice and gray creeping into his beard, has a calmer demeanor.
He’s thinking about “Eclipsed,” the Danai Gurira play that earned a 2016 Tony nomination. (If her name sounds familiar, maybe you saw Gurira as Michonne in “The Walking Dead” or Okoye in “Black Panther.”) The Iowa-born author, whose parents came from Zimbabwe, wrote about five women trying to survive near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.
“Eclipsed” became the first Broadway play with a cast and creative team made up entirely of black women, and Sheriff has brought Dee Abdullah in to direct the local premiere this month. “I made a suggestion once at a rehearsal,” he says. “Everybody turned and stared at me. I just wanted to tiptoe out of the room.”
Sheriff does know something about war. He served during Operation Desert Shield, the 1990-91 buildup of troops and material for Desert Storm. He enlisted after graduating from high school in Reading, Pa., 63 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and flew overseas after basic training – first to Germany, then to Saudi Arabia. He became a combat engineer with the 96th Army, looking for mines Saddam Hussein planted all over the desert.
“It was surreal, flying into Riyadh with an M16 and bayonet,” he recalls. “You’re 19 years old, and somebody’s making you sign a will! Then you’re in heat over 100 degrees, and the shock to your body is crazy.”
Those experiences stayed with him for a quarter-century before emerging in the play “Boys to Baghdad.” Before that, though, came a lot of wandering.
After his four-year enlistment, during which he became an Army kickboxing champ – Chuck Norris attended the prize ceremony – Sheriff went back to Philadelphia and graduated from Temple University in 1997 with a degree in business. There he started the entertainment company Ebony Flava, became a correctional officer, even delivered mail. He worked his way up to on-air host at highly rated WUSL-FM, aka Power 99, from an unpaid internship.
That gave him the confidence to march into the office of WPEG (Power 98) in Charlotte, after following a girlfriend and baby son here in 2000. Oops.
“I told the program director, ‘I come from Philly, and I’ll tell you what I can do for you.’ But they were already the number-one station in the market, and they didn’t need help from me. I worked at First Union (bank) for a while, but I was obsessed with radio. I was on-air at 92.7 as Ghetto Child and eventually worked my way over to Power 98 from 2004 to 2007.”
The lure of the airwaves dwindled – “the smallest thing would get on my nerves at the station” – and he wrote the erotic novels “Get’N Serious,” “Get’N Serious 2” and “Yadira’s Sky.” (He now writes and edits other things to pay his bills.)
“There’s not a lot of variety to those,” he says dryly. “You get bored writing them. So one night, I’m watching ‘The Wiz’ on TV. As soon as it’s over, I’m wondering, ‘What happens next?’ I thought, ‘You’re a writer. Tell what happens next.’ And I started a screenplay.”
A Los Angeles agent scheduled a pitch session with producers. Though he says they optioned a romantic comedy – it never got made, so rights reverted to him – he couldn’t sell “Be a Lion,” in which the no-longer-cowardly creature restores harmony to a troubled Oz.
One woman at that session suggested making “Lion” a play, and Sheriff thought of the path Tyler Perry had taken with plays and screenplays. He gathered friends for a staged reading, then did a full version at Duke Energy in 2014 as Brand New Sheriff Productions. He followed it in 2015 with the weightier “Baghdad.”
“I remembered everything like it was yesterday,” he says. “A lot of that story told itself. There was comedy, because funny things really happened in the war. And I wanted the audience to leave with a ‘Wow’ feeling, so – though no one died with us – I changed that to make an impact.”
He brought vets from his old outfit to the premiere and invited local veterans. “We recorded it, and you can hear someone who had PTSD crying in the audience, just letting it out,” Sheriff says. “As an author, that’s the best feeling you can have.”
He decided to mount a full Duke Energy season in 2017-18. That meant seeking 501(c)3 nonprofit status, assembling a board, becoming one of Blumenthal Performing Arts’ resident companies, forging a relationship with the Arts & Science Council. The ASC gave him a grant for the local premiere of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” fresh off its Broadway run. (Later, ASC sent the company’s “Purlie” to churches and community centers through its Culture Blocks project.)
As he readied “Jitney,” the first show he hadn’t written, Sheriff needed deputies. Hollis helped with an e-mail blast to CPCC patrons. CPCC’s Corlis Hayes agreed to direct, recruiting a distinguished cast that included John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as father-son antagonists.
“Rory has lots of energy and ideas and wants to have a hand in everything,” she says. “I told him, ‘You have to be comfortable handing the baby to someone else. Surround yourself with strong designers. Expand your base of actors. Trust those people.’
“Brand New Sheriff literally grew in his yard: He painted flats there (for sets). A lot of relatives helped; his son and daughter pitched in. But a good company has to grow beyond one person.”
Sheriff remembers the days when he grilled and delivered Philly Bellybusters – cheesesteaks on rolls imported from Philadelphia – to hospitals and radio stations, raising money for “Be a Lion” costumes. (He considers himself a grillmaster; you’ll find him tailgating at half a dozen Philadelphia Eagles games each year.)
Now he thinks bigger. His current season includes two plays by Wilson, his dramatic idol – “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running” -- as well as “Eclipsed,” “Be a Lion” and “Having Our Say,” where Hayes will star as one of the 100-year-old Delany sisters from Raleigh.
He has created merchandise as part of the company’s brand, begun to tour “Lion” and “Baghdad” and lets himself imagine a Broadway “Lion” with Anthony Hamilton as Tin Man and Fantasia Barrino as Dorothy.
“That’s my crazy dream,” he says. “You have to have one.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
The show runs Aug. 22-Sept. 1 (7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday) at Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. Tickets are $28; 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.