For those of us still grappling with the United States Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the current Actor’s Express production of the hit off-Broadway musical “Lizzie” is a brilliantly timed, two-hour primal scream therapy session in stiletto heels. Remarkably, this fierce female-led rock musical that explores the motivations behind the infamous 1892 murders of Lizzie Borden’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby in Fall River, Massachusetts began pre-production at Actor’s Express, pre-pandemic, in February 2020. But on June 24, halfway through rehearsals for “Lizzie” when Roe was overturned, the show’s themes of female empowerment and burning down the patriarchy took on fresh urgency for the cast, director Jennifer Alice Acker and the blistering onstage female rock band led by music director Ashley Prince. During the musical’s opening night curtain call, the screams from the audience more closely resembled what you might encounter during an encore at a Metallica concert than an Actor’s Express musical. “Lizzie,” running through July 24 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University, is a guitar-crunching cathartic show that inspires you to pump your fist in the air and hoist a cigarette lighter above your head.
Atlanta musical mainstay Jessica De Maria (who knows a few things about bloody murderous musicals having done “Sweeney Todd” at Actor’s Express and “Threepenny Opera” at 7 Stages), lends her mezzo soprano to Lizzie’s older sister, Emma. The Suzi Bass Award-winning Christina Leidel plays the House of Borden’s wickedly hilarious housekeeper Bridget Sullivan and Megan Zhang, fresh off her impressive performance originating the role of 1930s news hound Gloria Rowe this spring in the musical “Pretty Pants Bandit” (a show created by Jessica De Maria and her songwriting partner Chase Peacock) at Georgia Ensemble Theatre, plays the Borden family neighbor Alice Russell. As if that powerhouse trio of talent isn’t enough, Jasmine Renee Ellis is a revelation in the show’s title role. Best known for her performances at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, Ellis completely embodies Lizzie Borden from the moment she first steps on stage. It’s a star-making performance and, ironically, it’s a part Ellis didn’t want to audition for and had to be convinced to try out for.
In their few hours apart offstage together this month, Ellis, De Maria, Zhang and Leidel, along with director Jennifer Alice Acker agreed to meet up on Zoom for a powerful, poignant and funny conversation with Eldredge ATL. The following is an edited version of our Q&A.
Q: The SCOTUS ruling overturning Roe came while you all were in rehearsals for “Lizzie.” How did that influence the show’s message, particular musical numbers or pieces of dialogue for you?
Jessica De Maria: Jen led us in a conversation about how we were doing. That was really helpful because I felt, personally, in every other aspect of my life, I was being asked to just continue on as usual. That felt good to be able to talk with each other about how we were feeling, share our experiences and feel unencumbered. I’m not sure if it changed why I wanted to do the show because we saw this coming, we saw this brewing. But it did deepen my commitment and my own personal stake in it. [The musical number] “Burn the Old Thing Up,” especially, took on a larger meaning. For me, it’s also a great way to have that cathartic safe expression of rage through music while rocking out with your girls.
Jennifer Alice Acker: The day the ruling came down, Jess, in her Instagram stories, actually quoted from “Burn the Old Thing Up.” For me, that made everything click into place. Even in 2020 [in the show’s pre-production], we kind of knew where things were headed. But for me, [the ruling] sharpened the focus and the intensity of it. I could also tell in the actors, who were approaching the material with a new voracity, which was really thrilling to watch.
Q: Jasmine, what attracted you to the role of Lizzie Borden?
Jasmine Renee Ellis: Funny you should ask! (everyone laughs). I originally did not go out for the role of Lizzie. I wanted to play Emma.
Jasmine Renee Ellis: Really! (laughs). I was terrified of the role. That’s why I didn’t go out for it. I was terrified of everything Lizzie represented within myself. I can relate so well to Lizzie’s need for freedom, her need for liberation. Somebody is always bringing her down, trying to keep her in a box. Me, being an artist in the Atlanta community, I know what it feels like to be kept in a box and wanting to break out. Now that I’m in the role, it’s been such a rewarding experience. I’ve learned so much about myself, breaking down my own mental barriers, breaking down all of the insecurities. I just kept moving forward because I knew I had to push through. Not just for me but for the other young women who may be looking at me in this role, thinking, “Wow, Jasmine is out there, she’s doing it.” Lizzie has been teaching me how to burn the old thing up!
Q: You go through such a trajectory in Act One. You literally go from “This is Not Love,” where there’s this line where Lizzie asks, “What kind of life is this if I have no voice?” and then by the end of the act, “Somebody Will Do Something,” you’ve got that ax in your hand and Lizzie is swinging for the fences. As an actor, how did you plot that course?
Jasmine Renee Ellis: At first, I really tried to compartmentalize, moment by moment, instead of having every dot connect to the next. And then Jen gave me this note. She said, “There are moments of freedom, there are moments of controlled freedom, there are moments of control and then there are moments when you don’t have control at all.” And I began to think, how do you implement those different moments throughout the course of the show? Throughout the first act, I’m mentally tracking as an actor where each of those moments are. From “This is Not Love” to “Somebody Will Do Something,” I’m slowly but surely losing that control until I’m bursting through that door.
Q: When the audience comes back from intermission for Act Two, your energy is completely different. Not only do you have on this bad ass outfit, it’s like we’re seeing a new lead character, isn’t it?
Jasmine Renee Ellis: Absolutely. She’s finally free. My box is gone. They can’t put me back in that box. I’m liberated to a certain extent. I have this new-found love, my heart is opening to new things, new horizons, new ambitions. It was about relishing in that freedom and letting go of the fear. It was about letting go of everything that has been holding me down and caging me in. It’s about letting out my wings and flying.
Jennifer Alice Acker: To me, Lizzie’s arc, storytelling-wise, structurally, is the cornerstone of the show. The old adage is, directing is 90-percent casting and that’s 100-percent true. I can’t even envision a different cast for this show. With another actor, I could see the risk and the danger of them showing off. It would be about the “acting” and not telling the story. The cornerstone of burning this shit to the ground is watching Lizzie go from someone who is not allowed to take up space to someone who does and who says, fuck it, I am existing. I am bigger than my body and I’m hitting the back walls of this theatre with my energy. Jasmine came in and she didn’t want it but Ashley Prince and I said, “Bring her back for Lizzie.” Jasmine could turn on dime. She was so grounded, so centered and emotionally connected. And there was no pretense about it.
Q: Christina, Bridget is a confidante, an enabler and possibly, even a co-conspirator. Is she the most fun character in this piece to play?
Christina Leidel: I don’t like your tone. (everyone laughs). It’s funny to me because when I was reading about the real Bridget, she doesn’t appear to have had a sense of humor. She was very serious and kind of dour. In our show, she’s the comic relief. It’s a blast. I started leaning into Bridget being this empathy demon. She has these episodes where she can’t help but viscerally feel the rage, the pain or the joy that Lizzie is feeling. That’s been a lot of fun to play with.
Q: Megan, you’re playing Alice in this show on the heels of being in “Pretty Pants Bandit” this spring where you played Gloria, this fiercely independent 1930s female reporter in a show about women written by a woman. How has this all-female “Lizzie” cast has bonded?
Christina Leidel: Ssssssh! (everyone laughs).
Megan Zhang: There are a lot of things I cannot tell you! But I can say this: one of the reasons I really wanted to do this show is that it’s a cast of four people and you really get to know everyone in the room and really get intimate. I was really excited for that. Coming in, I only knew Jessica. But as time went on, we felt more comfortable and we all went out for a dinner together and we’ve gotten really close.
Jessica De Maria: All four of us are very different and we bring very different things to the table both as people and as performers. It all clicked and it’s created something remarkable. Not only on the stage in terms of comfort and vulnerability but also reliability on each other and off stage as well. I can honestly think of maybe one other time where I’ve felt as comfortable with being completely myself at all times. A lot of that is because we’re all women. But I also know these women are looking out for me, they’re protecting me and I’m looking out for them.
Jasmine Renee Ellis: Jessica is not only my big sister onstage but she’s become my big sister offstage as well. [looks into the camera] Do not cry, Jessica! (everyone laughs). Everything that a big sister entails, Jessica has been that for me. Christina keeps me laughing so hard. She can say the most random things that make you laugh until your stomach hurts. Megan is one of sweetest humans I’ve ever met. We’ve been able to have these really long conversations together. I’ve really found a friend in each one of them.
Q: On opening night, it was really electrifying during the curtain call when not only did the entire audience stand, but people were screaming and clapping their hands off. When those lights come up and the “Lizzie” audiences head out to Oglethorpe parking lot, what do you want them to take from the show, especially at this particular time?
Christina Leidel: What I’m left with when I leave the theatre is I remember this line Lizzie says to her pigeons — that for me is the show: “the beating of your wings and the violence of freedom.” That works so well since it’s a rock show. Breaking free of oppression takes a fight. I love that imagery of birds and its wings and that violent battle to beat fast enough that you can take off from whatever it is you’re trying to leave behind. For me, it’s Lizzie on the top of those stairs at the end. I don’t get to see it from where I’m standing, but you can sense it from the audience. I feel so pumped when the show is over, I immediately want to do it again.
Jessica De Maria: For me, there’s a severity about Emma from years of keeping things bottled up and trying to maintain some sense of control over her life and for her sister. And when she finally gets out, I feel like her freedom channels into something. There’s an element of rage and violence that she hasn’t really expelled. I want women in the audience to be her and I want everyone else to be afraid of her. We’re saying, this is what fucking happens, so, look out! I want everyone to see the power in these women in a show that’s almost entirely created by a fem team.
Jasmine Renee Ellis: Freedom and justice do not come without sacrifice. In pursuing both of those things, there’s fear. But because you desire those things so much, you have to use that fear to fuel you. I want people to feel empowered and rooting for Lizzie. I also want them to see an underdog take control of their voice, take control of their life and say “No more!” and then go for it with every ounce of their being. I want them to feel like they can do what I’m doing as Jasmine the actor but also do what Lizzie has done — liberate themselves by any means necessary.
Megan Zhang: I have a line at the end where I’m talking about Lizzie where I say, “They were young girls but young girls cannot go and do and have.” Every time I’ve gone on stage and said that line, I’ve felt the rage behind it. I want young girls who see the show to go out in the world and take control.
Jennifer Alice Acker: I really want the audience to leave feeling the fire re-ignited. Personally, right now, I’m feeling really debilitated and hopeless in a lot of ways and I know my friends are too. It all comes back to Lizzie’s journey. We literally watch her grow. I intentionally staged Lizzie’s first number with her behind the staircase in a corner of the stage. And by the end, she’s ascending those stairs. I want people to take that re-invigoration, take that ascension to fight. Have that courage to fight and have the joy in that fight and feel the strength in it. Like Lizzie, I want women to take up space, speak our truth and don’t back down. Ever.
“Lizzie” production photos by Casey Gardner Ford, courtesy of Actor’s Express
The Actor’s Express production of “Lizzie” starring Jasmine Renee Ellis, Christina Leidel, Megan Zhang and Jessica De Maria runs through July 24 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University. For tickets and more information visit the Actor’s Express website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.