Local Arts

The Mitchell Influence: ‘I think of the theater as being a laboratory’

This is part of an Observer series about people who have had significant and sustained influence on Charlotte’s arts world.

Corey Mitchell might have become a farmer, instead of a Tony Award-winning theater teacher.

When he was growing up, a self-described “country boy” in Harmony, his mother told him and younger sister Alvera that she wasn’t going to drive all over creation taking them to individual activities. They had to do the same ones. Young Corey wanted to be a Cub Scout, so Alvera had to be a Brownie. Alvera wanted to do 4-H, so Corey was 4-H-bound, too – with less than a heartfelt passion for agriculture.

Then he turned 13, old enough to join the 4-H performing arts troupe — and there it was. Fertile soil for his imagination.

“I made friends from Asheville to Elizabeth City,” he said. “There were kids from 13 to 19 in the acting troupe. I was getting to work with and learn from people in college. It was all very exciting.”

And once Mitchell, began to show a talent and love for theater, his mom supported him. She drove him to public speaking contests. She got him to talent shows and school plays. She was always in the audience. His dad was often there, too. (“He may have hated it, but he was always there to support me.”)

At North Iredell High, he became even more involved. He can still reel off the names of teachers he found “wonderful” – Gail Creech for choir, James Calabrese for band, Debbie Miller for theater. High school “was a wonderfully affirming experience.”

Now he helps re-create that experience, as he’s done since 2001, for students at Northwest School of the Arts.

(Alvera went into education, too: She’s Dr. Alvera Lesane now, and she’s associate superintendent for Iredell-Statesville Schools.)

Mitchell, said Charles LaBorde — NWSA’s former principal and the person who brought Mitchell to Charlotte — is a father figure to his kids.

Some of the students he’s taught at Northwest have gone on to big stages.

eva noblezada AP_870668360220.jpg
Eva Noblezada, also a former Mitchell student, was a 2017 Tony nominee for the lead in “Miss Saigon.” (She too was a Blumey winner from Northwest, in 2013.) AP/Matt Dunham

Eva Noblezada, whom he taught from sixth through 12th grades, earned a 2017 Tony nomination as the lead in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway. (She had starred in the 2014 London revival, too, plucked while still a senior at NWSA). Chase McCall is in the 20th anniversary tour of “Rent.” Former pupil Abby Corrigan was one of the leads in the first national tour of Broadway’s “Fun Home.” Mekhai Lee, who with Corrigan won twin 2014 Blumey awards as best actor and actress in Charlotte high-school musicals, went on to the national tour of “The Color Purple.” Phillip Johnson-Richardson understudied and routinely appeared in the title role in “Hamilton” in Chicago, while Renee Rapp won the 2018 Blumey, advanced to the national final in New York, then brought home that trophy, too.

Teacher, mentor, cheerleader

“Mr. Mitchell has long-term relationships with former students who are enormously successful in the performing arts,” said former student James Kennedy, 27, now a New York-based freelance playwright/composer and one of the people who nominated Mitchell for the first-ever Tony for theater education that he won, in 2015. “But he has equally strong relationships with students who didn’t go into the performing arts. He connects with all his students regardless of the path they choose.”

Both the 2014 Blumey winners for lead acting were students of Mitchell’s: Mekhai Lee (left) went on to the 2018 national tour of “The Color Purple,” while Abby Corrigan was in 2018’s live-TV “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and had a main role in the national tour of “Fun Home,” among other work. (Northwest took nine of 12 main Blumey awards that year.) Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Linda Franzese, who team-taught musical theater with Mitchell (“he did theater; I did music”) at NWSA for nearly a decade, agreed. “Corey wants the best for all his students. You could see it in the way he cast some of his shows. He might choose a student who wasn’t at the top of his game yet. He believes everyone deserves a chance.”

Mitchell with Broadway legend Carol Channing, in 2006. He had requested, via her website, that she come to Charlotte – but was surprised when her husband/manager called a week later to talk about education and legacy, the Observer reported at the time. She ended up doing two shows benefitting the school and teaching a master class there. Fellow CMS teacher Dennis Delamar took this photo, and told Mitchell, “”I recall how much she adored you, Corey, and the connection you made with her to make the Charlotte NWSA event happen.” Dennis Delamar

Mitchell, reached by phone in late January, had just hung up with Kennedy. They’d been discussing “Relapse,” the addiction-themed opera Kennedy co-wrote for the American Opera Initiative at the Kennedy Center.

“James is my mini-me,” Mitchell said, carefully enunciating, at booming theater volume. “Except that he’s about a foot taller.” He laughed a while about that line; he’s known for that joyous laugh. “Once he gets tickled, he can’t stop,” LaBorde said.

Kennedy said he doesn’t just call his former teacher to discuss his career highs. They talk every couple of weeks. “Mr. Mitchell started teaching me when I was 12,” Kennedy said. “I’m in touch with some of my college professors, too, but I arrived in their classrooms more fully formed. Mr. Mitchell had direct involvement in helping me grow up.

“He’s with me every step of the way. Right from the germination of an idea, he’s the one to say, ‘Go for it. You have to do it.’ He never lets me off the hook.”

When Kennedy was accepted to the American Opera Initiative – which aims to encourage emerging composers and librettists – he couldn’t believe it. “I’m always hustling, always pushing,” he said. “But with this, I sent in 30 pages of my writing and was accepted. I didn’t feel I deserved this, but Mr. Mitchell said, ‘You got this because you’re a good writer. You belong in that room.’ His belief and optimism in me have never changed.”

Beyond the classroom

Mitchell’s influence goes beyond NWSA – and not just because his students have gone on to national fame. He has directed throughout the area, including at Davidson Community Players (“Chicago”), CPCC Summer Theatre (“Sister Act”) and Theatre Charlotte, where he’s directed “Memphis,” “Aida,” “Harvey” and more.

It’s important to him to do community theater, he said: “Art and theater are communal efforts. If you’re only a part of your own little world you’ve created, it’s sort of like a snake eating its own tail. I want to be part of Charlotte’s larger arts community.”

He’s currently directing “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ,” the Fats Waller musical revue that runs through Feb. 17 at Theatre Charlotte.

It’s a show he’s waited a long time to put his imprint on — since the early ’90s, to be specific, when a shot at starring (as Andre) was sunk by circumstance. He’d gotten a job as an entertainer on a cruise ship, and been cast by Bhetty Waldron, then director of Quest Theatre & Institute in West Palm Beach..

“I studied every nuance of that show. I knew it backwards and forward,” he said. But two weeks before opening, his contract was cancelled. (Waldron told him an accountant had bilked her, he said.)

So this is his first time revisiting the musical he knew by heart — and he’s directing two former students: Keston Steele and Nonye Obichere. Back in 2012, Steele played Celie in “The Color Purple,” a production that was broke ground in several ways for NWSA.

‘Purple Dreams’

NWSA was the first high school permitted to perform the Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Robin Grey of Charlotte’s GreyHawk Films, and Joanne Hock, her producing partner, set out to document the process.

Phillip Johnson-Richardson (left) with another Charlotte actor in the Chicago cast, Colby Lewis. The two are @itphilsgud and @kingcolbythe1st on Instagram. Courtesy of Phillip Johnson-Richardson via @itphilsgud on Instagram

What they crafted — a tale of teens grappling not only with the plot’s mature themes but also with some personal tragedies among them, and finding hope in art — became “Purple Dreams,” an award-winning film that spanned auditions, rehearsals and production.

Grey and Hock began making the film festival circuit rounds in 2017, and Mitchell would often accompany them. “He was a rock star everywhere we went,” Grey said. “The kids mobbed him.”

Its trailer offers a sense of why, from a Mitchell voiceover — ”This,” he tells the viewer, “is what ‘Glee’ looks like in real life” — to the scene in which he tells the cast they’ve been accepted to an international thespian festival. Screaming enthusiasm ensues.

Kennedy, a NWSA alum, said a theater classroom is different from any other. “Teachers are asking for so much vulnerability from students. We need to draw on personal life experience. But Mr. Mitchell created a brave space for us to explore. He was captaining the ship in a safe, supportive way without going to dangerous places. That skill is unique to theater teachers.”

Cultivating ... compassion

Each show has something to teach his students. “There’s never going to be a state test for theater,” he said. “I don’t teach theater because I want to give a test on Act III, Scene IV of ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ I teach because I want students to see the collectiveness of our humanness.”
His theater students become more empathetic humans because they have to “connect with the characters they play,” he said. “It might be a fictional person from 300 years ago or someone their age who lived just three years ago -- but in New York City.”

So Corey Mitchell did end up planting seeds.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.