folio arts

Powell Packs the House

Playwright mounts her next production


Shaun Powell is a born leader.

“My mom would say I was born directing people,” she laughs. “She would call it bossy.”

Poems, stories and imaginary worlds manifested themselves from the time she was seven years old. She always knew she would be a writer. Then life happened, and her passion for the pen got put on stand-by until last year when her life changed rather spectacularly. It all started with the flu.

“There was nothing on Netflix, nothing to do,” Powell recalls. “So I picked up my laptop and said, ‘Hey, I’ll write a play.’”

The conversations and characters materialized on her screen as she worked nonstop. In just two days, Powell wrote her first play, The Wrong Man. She brought the completed manuscript to her friend Renee Robinson, who fell in love with the idea immediately and agreed to help produce it.

“Let’s do it,” she said, “Let’s bring it to Jacksonville.”

Powell was terrified at the thought that nobody would come to see the production, but with the help and encouragement of family and friends her play became a reality. Not only were people interested; they packed the theater.

“My biggest success so far,” she says, “was selling out the historical Ritz Theatre with my play, making me the first African-American female to ever sell out with an original play. Tyler Perry—he’s one of the biggest playwrights out there—he never did it with his first play. His first play had 25 or 35 people who came to see it. That’s definitely my biggest success that I feel like I’ve accomplished.”

She believes it was divine inspiration that led to the quick and successful creation of her first play. Faith is a theme that runs deep in Powell’s work, though it’s certainly not preachy. Within the humor, heartache and intricate family dynamics depicted on stage, deeper messages speak straight to the audience’s hearts.

Opening at the Ritz Theatre on Nov. 17, Powell’s newest play, Sweep Around Your Own Door Before You Sweep around Mine, picks up where last year’s dynamic performance of The Wrong Man left off. While The Wrong Man centered on the Robinson family, this story focuses on their neighbors, the Rose family. The Wrong Man’s Pops plays an integral role here, tying the plotline together in one beautiful continuation.

Played by Jarrel Rhodes, Pops “brings the funny.” “He’ll have everyone under the roof laughing,” Powell says. “He’s excellent on stage. It’s magic.”

Yet this is no lighthearted comedy. Sweep Around Your Own Door Before You Sweep around Mine is a double-edged sword, contextually dealing with unresolved family drama and our nation’s mental health crisis.

Theatergoers step into the complicated world of four Rose sisters—Dena (Nancy Pittman), Kristina (Sara Lockett-Payne), April (Trenae Zafira) and Taz (Stacey Simmons)—whose mother left them in the care of their grandmother while she pursued her career. Once their beloved grandmother dies, estranged Mama Jackie (Ruth Charlene Davis) re-enters their lives and stirs things up.

“When she comes back, she’s going to drop some bombs,” Powell says.

Jealousy, deceit, lies and family secrets are revealed, and the ensuing unrest threatens to destroy the sisters’ bedrock faith.

The playwright and director found her inspiration within her own family.

Powell laughs, “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, she put that inside the play.’ The grandmother in the play is actually based on my mom. She’s no-nonsense. She’s not going to take anything. She made us grow and believe in God, but she didn’t take any mess.”

Powell pays homage to her mom’s quirky words of wisdom in the play as well.

“She always had these crazy sayings about things: ‘If you don’t close the front door, your tooth is going to fall out,’ or ‘Don’t take no wooden nickels.’ It’s just, like, where does this stuff come from? It’s stuff I grew up with in the African-American community.”

The story tackles weighty issues like family bonds, betrayal, death, relationships and mental health. Dr. Shaun Powell earned her Doctorate in Christian Counseling from St. Thomas Christian University. Her passion for mental health and her advocacy for better mental health care permeate every facet of her work. She doesn’t dance around the issue, but fiercely faces the beast head-on with determination.

“We must understand that mental health is real and there’s nothing embarrassing about getting help. We don’t talk about counseling and mental health that much in the black community,” Powell says. “When going through anxiety attacks and other types of emotions, we’re told to pray and give it to God. But no, sometimes we need counseling. God is our Source, but we also have resources. We’re dealing with a lot of mental health issues not only in our city, but in our world.”

A born-and-raised Jaxon, Powell lives in the River City with her husband and children. She’s the co-founder of theatrical performance company Powellful Productions and loves creating uniquely Jacksonville stage plays with local casts. She’s an influencer determined to bring community-impacting issues to the forefront of public debate.

In partnership with Duval Charter Schools BridgePrep Academy, Powell is also producing Grownups Just Don’t Understand, dealing with pertinent issues like bullying, self-esteem and mental health in Jacksonville’s youth. The show will open Feb. 9, 2019.

Powell is enthusiastic to be part of Jacksonville’s budding cultural scene. When asked why Jaxons should come out to see her play, she laughs, “Because they have nothing else to do.”

Fun and playful, she also has a serious side that’s largely responsible for her success as a writer, producer and director.

“They should come out and support their very own—a native of Jacksonville. For me to get on the level of the great playwrights, I need the community’s support.” Local theater-lovers have one chance to see Sweep Around Your Own Door Before You Sweep around Mine on Saturday, Nov. 17 at The Ritz Theatre in Downtown Jacksonville. The Wrong Man sold out, so grab your tickets for this new play right away. Powell knows how to pack a house.

Shaun Powell is a star on the rise, a Jacksonville child with big dreams for her city. She’s fiercely determined to empower and inspire this city’s rising talent. Not afraid to broach uncomfortable topics, Powell vocally challenges Jaxons to take issues like mental health and interpersonal relationships seriously. Fans of The Wrong Man will be delighted and new fans will get on board. Watch out, Jacksonville. This girl’s going places.

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