She’s Your Dreamgirl: An Interview with ArtCentric’s Crystal Freeman on playing Effie in Dreamgirls

Your dream is about to come true if you open your eyes to what’s in front of you! And that’s the ArtsCentric production of Dreamgirls now playing at The Motor House in Baltimore’s very own Station North Arts District. Live for one night only— well, one night each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening over the course of eight weekends— they will indeed be your Dreamgirls as only the fine talents of ArtsCentric can be! In an TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with Crystal Freeman and talk about her history with the show and find out what it’s like to live with Effie through multiple performances.

Thank you for taking time to sit with us, Crystal. If you’d give us a quick official introduction and tell us what you’ve been up to on the stage lately we’ll get started.

Actress Crystal Freeman
Actress Crystal Freeman

Crystal Freeman: I’m Crystal Freeman and most recently you might have seen me on stage in South Pacific as Bloody Mary at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.

Now you’re no stranger to the role of Effie or the musical Dreamgirls, how many times have you done it?

Crystal: This will be my fourth time playing her. The first time was in 2006 with ArtsCentric. They had a partnership then with Frederick Douglas High School in Baltimore City. Cedric (Music Director Cedric D. Lyles) was one of the teachers there at the time. And that was the year that they were filming a documentary at the school because Frederick Douglas is the oldest African-American high school in the country. The production was happening while that filming was happening too, I want to say it was an HBO Documentary, but the whole thing was a really great experience.

After that show I had auditioned for Ragtime with Toby’s of Baltimore, and I did get in, but my schedule was so busy I ended up having too many conflicts to make that work. So in 2007 I went back and auditioned for Dreamgirls. I was seven months pregnant. It was hilarious. Ray Hatch was the choreographer for that show and I can remember being on the stage and Ray freaking out saying “Oh my God! She’s going to have the baby!” And he kept asking me if I was okay. I kept telling him I was fine. I was not having that baby at that audition. I got through the audition. It went well. This time I was cast in the show and could accept! I was due June 3rd. I worked up until 1st. McKenzie came late; she didn’t come until June 8th. And then on June 20th I was literally in rehearsal that very first day. That was an experience in itself because with McKenzie, I had her all natural, I almost had her in the toilet. I get to rehearsal that day and it was literally “Oh this hurts! What was I thinking?” It was literally 12 days later. And then Toby’s of Baltimore brought it back in 2011, under David Gregory’s direction, and I played Effie again. Now I’m doing her for the fourth time.

How did you get involved this time around?

Crystal: I had to audition just like everyone else. It’s always interesting to me because people assume that because we (Artistic Director Kevin McAllister and performer Crystal Freeman) are such close friends and we’ve known each other for so long that I automatically just get into shows. That is not the case at all. I have standards to live up to and I have to work just as hard as everyone else to impress at an audition and get a part. I actually think that makes me work harder just for the simple fact that people assume Kevin will cast me. There were two or three callbacks this time around and I had to go through them all just like the other people being considered for the role. It’s not just in the bag.

What is it about the role of Effie that keeps drawing you back to want to audition and play her again and again?

Crystal: It’s such a great story. The older I get as I play her; I find that I have a better understanding of what the monster of Effie is. The role is so demanding, it’s a beast of a role. The first act especially there is just such a myriad of emotions that she goes through. When I did it in ’06 I had experienced life but it was my first major role. And 2007 she was my first professional role. I felt like a deer in the headlights. The second time I did it I was older. I had just had McKenzie. By the time I played her in 2011 my life experiences were much different. I started off playing Effie really angry all of the time. The older I get the more I realize that it’s so much more than that. Now doing it at this point in my life I realize that while it may come off as anger, what she’s going through is more of her being hurt. I have all of these dreams and I just don’t know how to achieve them and the way I had been doing it was wrong. It’s so much more nuanced now beyond the raw anger. Effie gets played a lot as being angry but she’s super emotional. Now she is angry, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not just angry, there’s so much more to it there than just really angry and I’ve learned that as I’ve lived with her over the years spent playing her.

It’s trying to find that place where I can access all of those things and then not falling back into habits of things I’ve done with her before. That’s especially hard when you’ve done it so many times. You have to try not to fall back into those habits and not try to reinvent the wheel but look at the wheel differently.

Is that one of the bigger challenges that you have to approach her differently?

Crystal: Yeah. I’m in a different place in my life, this is a different company, I’m working with different people, it’s different everything. Because I’ve done it so much Kevin’s a lot harder on me, he wants me to really rediscover her and not fall into that trap of just being who I was and doing what I did the last time I played her. He’s always throwing new things at me, “Try this, do this, I don’t like that, I’m thinking what if you tried this.” And he’ll tell me to try to find different things besides anger but not necessarily say what those other things are, he wants me to think about the emotions differently and find the backstory of those moments. Now it’s been fun. Kevin’s constantly asking me is he being too hard on me and I tell him no. It’s good that he’s pushing me, because I need to do it differently. I want to do it differently, I’m not the same person I was the last time I played her, my life is crazy different so I look at her and the story completely differently. It’s been different every time.


What of you are you bringing to Effie this time around or even every time around and what is she bringing to you?

Crystal: Hmm. What do I bring to the role? My life experiences and understanding that I can be pretty emotional and pretty caught up in those emotions. When I’m angry I have to take a second and remind myself to step back, that my life isn’t ending. I understand sometimes that my stubbornness can get in the way of life in general. I tend to compartmentalize my emotions. Nobody ever gets all of the emotions all at once. I reserve some things for myself. With Effie its being able to access those places, which can be a little frightening at times, but having that access and then being able to say “hey, this is who I am.”

No matter what role I sing or play, I look at it and I know it’s a blessing from God. Even though its secular music, the light that you have and the blessing that you have to be able to touch people with that music should be able to resonate no matter the genre that you’re singing. Effie gives you all of her emotions she’s always all out there. Whenever I do any singing I make sure to give my all. It may not be the best thing for the moment but you can never say that I don’t give my all. Effie is the same way; she’s gives her all no matter what. She may be late, she may be yelling and screaming but she gives her all. That’s always there for me. I put my all in there when it comes to singing, I lay it out on the line, and then I go pass out once I go back. I push through no matter what if I’m sick, if I’m hurting, I put it all out there.

Who’s doing your choreography? Does Effie do any dancing? What is it like this time around?

Crystal: Shay. (Choreographer Shalyce Hemby) And yes, Effie does dance. Why wouldn’t Effie dance? Now I am not a dancer. Let me repeat, I am not a dancer. I am a mover. Now, once I get it, I’m there. But I am that person at rehearsal saying, “I’m sorry, I know we’ve done this 50 thousand times but I need it four more.” The dancing is hard! Shay is a task master. We had a rehearsal where we spent the entire rehearsal just doing choreography and she had us doing “Fake Your Way to the Top” I can’t even tell you how many times. We’d finish it and she’d shout, “No! Again! You’re not smiling! Again! I know you’re tired, I don’t care! Again!” and then we’d go through it again and again. She’d say “It’s not that you messed up! It’s that you let me know that you messed up. Again!” I think we heard “again” a thousand times that day. But Shay is great. She is a task masker but she is great. She talks dancer speak, though, and a lot of times I’m like “What did she say?” and it takes me a minute to figure out what she’s talking about. She’s so funny, because she’ll look at me and say “I know you have questions, but I just don’t know how to tell you without talking dancer.” But when she starts talking dancer? I have no idea what she’s saying. But we figure it out.

Do you think Dreamgirls still holds a relevance to today’s modern audience?

Crystal: Yes. Who doesn’t love black people whooping and hollering? But seriously, the music is great. The music is timeless. The beauty of shows like this is that there is something freeing and un-restraining about this music that resonates to everyone. You can literally dance to it because it’s so exciting. It’s so moving, it’s so engaging, there is always something to keep your attention going. And we have some seriously talented singers who are really moving this music along too! We have Sequina DuBois she’s a classically trained opera diva. In the fall she’s actually starting her doctoral thesis at College Park in Vocal Pedagogy. She has a masters from George Mason, she’s traveled all over the world doing Porgy & Bess and she sings for the National Spiritual Ensemble. This is her first adventure into the world of musical theatre, she’s also my best friend from high school. She’s playing Deena. It’s really amazing to watch her. You will understand when you hear these people sing how absolutely amazing they are. The whole cast is just so amazing. From top to bottom it’s just going to be so amazing. And once you see what Kevin has done with the concept of this show—

There’s a concept? Did David Gregory return to us unexpectedly?

Crystal: Haha! No, not a David Gregory concept. Though I love David Gregory’s concepts, I love them. The way Kevin is approaching this show— there are just so many subtle differences that just grab your attention. There are some scenes that you would never pay attention to because they’re always done a specific way, but then Kevin has taken the wheel and repainted it. Not reinvented it but repainted it so that you look at it in a new and different way. You’re going to see more storylines connected that aren’t normally connected. It’s a completely different Dreamgirls.

What is the message that you hope people are going to take away from seeing this production of Dreamgirls?

Crystal: Communication. Everything falls apart if you do not talk to one another and if you do not communicate. A simple misunderstanding, whether you’re afraid to let someone know about something that’s going on in your life or it’s something more seriously, if you don’t communicate it all falls apart. And you have to communicate in a way where people can actually understand what you’re saying. You’re not just yelling and screaming. This show shows you that when you don’t communicate and when you don’t have that understanding of what’s going on in someone’s life every little thing will all fall apart. Selfishness plays into that. We have to remember that there’s no need to be selfish all of the time. It really is all about communication, though. All it takes is for you to say, “Hey! This thing is happening to me!” and a lot of problems can be avoided.

What is the moment in the show that defines the show for you personally?

Crystal: “I Am Changing.” That’s in the second act. Everything for me is in that build up and then that realization of “Hey, I’m literally about to fall apart here. I have this child, I don’t’ know where to start, I have nothing.” And then to come through and turn around and make it happen in the second act, all of that comes together for that moment in that number. It’s the moment where I realize as Effie that she’s tried to blame all of the things that have happened on everyone else and that she has to stand up and take ownership for them. I realize that I need help, I’ve always tried to do everything on my own, but I do need help. In order to get that help I have to approach people correctly, treat people correctly, and that it is not all about me all the time.

Crystal Freeman as Effie in the 2011 production of Dreamgirls at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Baltimore
Crystal Freeman as Effie in the 2011 production of Dreamgirls at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore Kirstine Christiansen & Pastiche Creative Works

What would you say your biggest dream is as a performer?

Crystal: My big dream is being able to be submersed in performing and music and that be what I do for a living. Not even to be rich or super famous, but I’m constantly working outside of the field. I just want to do performing. While I love teaching, I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but I want to be surrounded by music. I’m happier now because I’m getting ready to start giving voice lessons. I also started a non-profit with my mother and a friend of hers. It’s going to be based in Dallas initially and we hope to bring it here to Baltimore eventually. It’s for kids of incarcerated parents to give them exposure to the arts. We have our non-profit status and we’re getting the ball rolling there.

I’ve been brainstorming for that because my mom and her friend have these really lofty goals and they want to jump in and achieve those lofty goals straight away. So I’m reminding them that we have to start off small, you know, like singing background for Jimmy Early. I have to deflate their balloons just a little. But we’ll get there. Right now we’re figuring out which age group to target first. My passion is for the older kids but the money is in the little kids. Money is very important in non-profits. Eventually we want it to be for kindergarten through age 18. And this isn’t just for performing arts, we want it to include visual arts and really every aspect of the arts.  

What has taking on the role of Effie for the fourth time now taught you about yourself as a performer and as a human being?

Crystal: Breathe. Ask for help. That it’s okay to ask for help.

What is it about ArtsCentric that makes you keep wanting to come back and work with them?

Crystal: Artistic creativity. People always think because it’s a community theatre that it’ll be missing something. There is unspoken core that people assume is missing because it’s not a professional theatre. I’ve never been in an ArtsCentric production that hasn’t had that core. I mean this company is run by four people but you feel like it’s run by four dozen. It’s Kevin, Cedric, Shay, and Sequina. And sure there are a bunch of volunteers that help out, but as far as the everyday inner workings of the company, it’s a very small group of people but the productions never suffer because of that size and intimacy. With other places that you work you fall into the same old rigmarole, it’s the same old routine. And sometimes it doesn’t feel artistic because it’s the same wheel spinning on the same track. You don’t have that feeling with ArtsCentric. ArtsCentric has the freedom to create whatever, they’re not stuck in a track of having certain requirements they have to meet. It’s always a work of love and a work of passion. Artistically it’s fun to do productions with them and it’s because they have that freedom where other places don’t always have that type of freedom in what and how they produce. ArtsCentric doesn’t have all of those constraints.

Why do you want people to come and see Dreamgirls at ArtsCentric?

Crystal: It’s an amazing show. The cast is phenomenal. Everyone is doing a phenomenal job. It’s a great story and it’s going to be completely different than what everyone is used to seeing. It’s the 35th anniversary. Cedric, Kevin, Shay— everybody really— we’ve done such hard work and it’s just going to be phenomenal.

Dreamgirls plays through September 11, 2016 at ArtsCentric on the main stage of The Motor House— 120 W. North Avenue in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.

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