For theater group, creativity isn't an act

Kene Holliday of Amityville coaches Sharon Jenkins Jones

Kene Holliday of Amityville coaches Sharon Jenkins Jones of Baldwin as she reads and performs her piece, "The Thing About My Man," at a rehearsal of the Moto Theatre Works group in Hempstead. (Feb. 13, 2012) (Credit: Nancy Borowick)

Even through concrete walls, reinforced glass windows and double foyer doors, Kene Holliday's voice floods the cold night air around the 100 Black Men building in Hempstead.

Inside, a handful of people in chairs sit in a semicircle. Sitting rigidly in the center is a woman reading from a script she wrote but didn't expect to perform.

Holliday -- who is 62 but still recognizable from his late 1980s role on the once-popular television series "Matlock" -- is perched on the balls of his feet and is facing her. He's crouching down, his hands poised like an orchestra conductor. He watches her intently as she reads.

"Come on now," he bellows, jerking his body to emphasize each syllable. "Per-form it."

The woman in the spotlight, Sharon Jenkins Jones, is a writer and artist who is also in charge of public relations for the growing Moto Theatre Works, an amateur, ensemble-based theater group formed by Holliday in 2009.

The multidisciplinary group, named after Vantile Motojicho Whitfield, a playwright and producer who inspired Holliday, writes and performs workshops of original plays and began performing at churches and benefits last year. The group has about 30 members.

"I didn't write it for myself," Jenkins Jones responds. "I didn't expect to be doing it myself."

But that doesn't matter to Holliday; the Moto mission is also about creating a cadre of well-balanced individuals.

"It's not just 'Let's put on a show,' " he said of his company's mission. "It's about enhancing people's abilities to express themselves."

 

Rise and fall

Holliday was raised in Amityville and was a star football player at Copiague High School. He began his acting career in college on stages in Washington, D.C., but he jumped into Hollywood stardom with his roles on the late '70s sitcom "Carter Country" and on "Matlock," which co-starred Andy Griffith.

He was young, living in Hollywood for the first time and suddenly had "instant name recognition from coast to coast," he said.

"I came from nothing, and just like that I had everything I could ever dream of," he said. "It was excessive celebration."

Eventually, his drinking led to a destructive lifestyle, Holliday said. He got clean by his own volition, but the damage had been done. After three seasons on the show, he was fired from "Matlock" just three months into his sobriety, he said. He credits the ability to turn his life around to reconnecting with God and his Christian roots, noting that Feb. 2 marked 23 years that he has been sober.

"God allowed me to survive, to live my life," Holliday said. "And the reason I've been able to stay sober is that I easily and veritably admit my own culpability in my deconstruction."

After "Matlock," Holliday spent the next 10 years filming pilots, focusing on family and traveling the country with a gospel musical group. In 2002, he returned to his hometown to care for his ailing mother and slowly began to see to fruition the idea of a community theater group.

Being a local kid -- known then as Kenneth Holliday -- he started spreading his idea through local artistic and church networks, and word got out quickly that he was building a theater group.

When he held auditions, he did so in three parts: singing, dancing and script reading.

During the last phase, people would mysteriously disappear. It happened over and over. Holliday finally figured it out: They were embarrassed to read out loud.

"The level of education was not there," Holliday said. "These people had gone to school, they had jobs, they had figured out how to get by. But they couldn't get past a certain level of achievement."

That realization raised the stakes. Holliday took in those he found promising and willing to work hard. He made a rule that everyone would write, everyone would perform, everyone would support one another regardless of ability.

He gave them reading and writing assignments and suggested they purchase dictionaries because he likes to use big words. Things began to change.

 

Boosting community

Over the past few years, seeing his students grow as artists became secondary to witnessing them grow as people.

They carried themselves with confidence. They began reporting promotions at work, successful job interviews, a better life at home.

"What I'm doing is enhancing our community by enhancing our people," Holliday said.

Jerry Harvey, 30, is an aspiring comedian from Amityville who joined the Moto family two years ago. He said Holliday has been a mentor.

"He's a part of people's lives," he said. "He's trying to help us be more than just actors."

After moving from Georgia seven years ago, Harvey said he spoke with a thick, Southern accent, and as the only minority at his job, it made him self-conscious. He said Holliday helped him refine his speech and pronounce his words more clearly.

"I wouldn't speak in meetings," he said. "Now my confidence is up, and it has helped my work performance."

A divorce and custody battle left Jenkins Jones, 48, of Baldwin, in a rut. She had never acted before, but said she joined Moto last fall to enhance her artistic side. She credits Holliday with helping her put her career back on track.

She said he saw a talent in her that she had forgotten she had -- both as an artist and in her public relations business.

"He sees it," she said. "And he's rarely wrong about what he sees creatively."

 

Performance set

Moto now has three finished pieces members are able to perform, including a series of 10-minute plays focused on HIV/AIDS that the company will perform at 1 p.m. March 3 at Circle of Love Ministry in Copiague. It will be the group's third performance together.

Though Holliday said the Amityville community helped make him who he is today, Long Island is a temporary stop. He hopes to travel more, and would love another shot at a TV series.

"But I'm here now, so I'd like to do something that is profound," he said. "I would like to leave a legacy. I would like people to talk about the poignancy of my theater company and how it impacted this community."

 

Professional pursuits

 

1970-72: Kene Holliday is an inaugural member of the Folger Theatre Group, performing contemporary Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

1972-76: Performs with the D.C. Black Repertory Company led by artistic director Vantile Motojicho Whitfield, after whom Holliday would later name his own theater company.

1976: Is cast as Carlyle in the show "Streamers," directed by Mike Nichols and produced by Joseph Papp. The show is slated for a two-week run at New York's Lincoln Center but lasts for 11 months.

1977-78: Plays Sgt. Curtis Baker on TV series "Carter Country."

1986-88: Portrays Tyler Hudson on "Matlock," starring Andy Griffith.

2005: Stars in Magnolia Films' "Great World of Sound," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

2009: Forms Moto Theatre Works, an amateur, ensemble-based theater group.

-- Erin Geismar

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