NiA – Columbia’s Nomadic Theatre Troupe

By August Krickel

Performance venues and physical space are big issues for theatres in Columbia. “Theatre” usually implies, first, the building itself, whether historic facilities like Town Theatre and USC’s Longstreet Theatre and Drayton Hall, or recent constructions like the current spaces used by Workshop, Trustus, and Chapin Community Theatres. Not so much for The NiA Company, happily independent and “truly nomadic,” as creative director Darion McCloud describes the acting troupe.  This year marks the 15th season for Columbia’s original, multi-ethnic acting company, which grew out of Trustus Theatre’s African American Acting Workshop in 1998.  “Basically, we all wanted to keep it going,” McCloud recalls.  That workshop had arisen to meet a need for black actors in local shows, as well as to provide training for aspiring performers who wanted to get involved in community theatre.  McCloud notes that whether you are black, white or purple, an actor just wants to do good work.  Even in the 21st century, actors of color have the challenge of finding good roles, especially in “serious” shows, i.e., non-musicals. “It’s OK for us to be entertaining, i.e., singing and dancing, but it’s not OK to be provocative.”  NiA was therefore formed to offer an alternative, and to present theater with a purpose.  “NiA” is in fact Swahili for “purpose,” and  McCloud smiles as he recalls a number  of possible names that were suggested (“Sienna, Black with a Q, i.e. ‘Blaq,’ etc. “)

But don’t think this is simply a group of African-American actors.  McCloud is proud that NiA includes both white and black performers, as well as Asian-Americans and Hispanics. He points to 2009’s production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig as a good example of a work by a name-brand author where race was irrelevant, and never mentioned at all in a script focusing on relationships among four big-city yuppies, which could be any ethnicity.  NiA also does children’s shows, where actors may play a dog, a cat, or a hen, making the color of the actor’s skin a non-issue.  Their first production was an original work for children called Fractured Fairy Tale, performed at the Richland County Public Library where McCloud worked as a storyteller.  The revised show is now produced as Whatchamacallit, and Kwanzaa candles are the center of its story.  “We want to be accessible to all types of people, both adults and kids,” McCloud says.  That’s why tickets are generally no more than $10 to a NiA show.  “We don’t want to make any economic hurdles for audiences.  If you can afford to see a movie, then you can see a live show.”

NiA has performed just about everywhere:  in the vacant Fox movie theatre, at USC’s Lab Theatre, in the Tapp’s Arts Center, at the former Gotham Bagel, in the parking lot of EdVenture, and back where they began, at Trustus.  “Trustus had always been an informal partner,” McCloud remembers.  “But it’s like you grow up in your parents’ house, you come of age, and you want to move out.” NiA’s next collaboration with Trustus will be the upcoming production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, set to premiere on February 10th.

Their goal is refreshingly simple yet amazingly ambitious: “to try to make the world a better place, using theater as a tool.” They think of art as service, and recently combined the two in an inter-generational project centered on local African-American history.  Residents of the Marion Street high-rise senior facility partnered with high school seniors to tell stories from the past of the Mann-Simons Cottage.  NiA has continued its relationship with the retirees, welcoming them to rehearsals for subsequent shows; McCloud sees NiA becoming “a cultural portal for the seniors to connect with the rest of the Columbia arts scene.”

“I believe in the transformative side of art,” McCloud says with conviction. “I’ve devoted my adult life to sharing that power with anyone I can touch.”  An important part of the group’s mission is to teach, both by casting less experienced actors alongside veteran performers, and also by exposing young audiences to the power of imagination.  “We’re not a company with bricks and mortar,” McCloud notes. Performances for schools and youth groups often feature what he calls a “Backyard Series of kids’ shows, where everything, every prop, every costume has to be something that a kid can go back and replicate at home.”  Towels become capes, baseball hats become crowns, and children see adults depicting scenes from their imaginations believably on stage.  One cast member of a show called Who’s in My House was quite proud and pleasantly surprised when, walking home one day, he literally saw neighborhood children re-enacting the play in their front yard. Another non-traditional event NiA produced was a guided/thematic tour of the recent “An Artist’s Eye” exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art, where actors performed monologues relating to specific pieces in the collection, breaking CMA attendance records for that kind of gallery tour. “We tell stories others may not want to, or in ways that others won’t tell them.”

NiA stands at the cusp of a new era of productivity, with the addition of Heather McCue as company manager, and McCloud’s recent departure from the art museum staff to focus full-time on creative projects as storyteller, actor/director, and teaching artist and art instructor.  He sees this as a chance for NiA to move to its next step, to become more formalized with its schedule, more ambitious, and more creative.  In addition to the upcoming Gem of the Ocean, NiA will be part of the annual “What’s Love” Valentine’s Day event at 701 Whaley in February; they will continue their  high-visibility shows in actual theatre spaces and auditoriums, as well as non-traditional performances where fortune leads them, plus any number of children’s productions at libraries, museums, and schools.

A Columbia native and graduate of C.A. Johnson and USC, McCloud will also be a presenter at the TEDx conference in January, where local leaders will be exposed to collaborative and synergistic networking and workshops focused on innovation in technology, entertainment, and design.  He’s comfortable in the role of gypsy artist, both in his own career and with NiA.  He refers to his “NiA peeps,” the changing roster of actors and other theatre techs who are like a family.  Some affiliate for a show or two, while others settle in for the long haul.  “If you’re down with NiA, NiA’s down with you.”

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