From The Lion King to Dreamgirls, Black creatives on Clubhouse are carving their own space in the entertainment industry
- Clubhouse, an audio-based platform, has allowed Black creatives to successfully use the app to adapt musical theater productions like The Lion King and Dreamgirls.
- The invite-only social media network, which is still in beta, has created a space for creatives, in general, to network and have open conversations.
- But Black creatives told Insider how Clubhouse paved a way for a digital space for new and seasoned trendsetters to shine.
The coronavirus pandemic forced Noelle Chesnut Whitmore to take a step back to reevaluate her life and purpose after she was furloughed from her job as a festival marketing manager.
"If it was not for the pandemic for me personally, there is no way that I would've been able to have the time to think and be a kid again, and think about what I like, think about what I love, and what makes me happy," Whitmore told Insider.
By last September, months into her leave from a job that included major events like Coachella and Camp Flog Gnaw, Whitmore, 32, said she jumped into Clubhouse, the invite-only audio-based social network, without knowing what to expect.
In the virtual setting, she found Black creatives who would eventually pull off a complete musical production on the social media platform.
"The beautiful thing about Clubhouse is that if you have an idea, you can literally just do it, create it," said Whitmore, who served as the executive producer and director of Lion King on Clubhouse, which debuted in December. "You don't have to wait. We all have access to the green 'start a room' button."
Clubhouse, which reportedly is occupied by 2 million users and has a valuation of $1 billion, is currently in beta and only available for IOS users. Anyone from celebrities to politicians has profiles and frequent the app, including Andrew Yang to rap superstar 21 Savage.
Current users can create and join "rooms" curated to discuss a wide variety of topics, like holding debates, forming a book club, or hosting roundtables about the latest news and popular culture events. The room moderators (who have a green badge) are in control and can bring the audience up and down from the "stage" as they please. Listeners raise their hands to signal that they are interested in joining in on the conversation. The rooms ultimately disappear after the moderators close it, so better luck next time if you miss a fascinating discussion.
People of color dramatically shifted the in-app experience from a focus on tech elites to more diverse users, especially Black creatives, influencers, and "heavy hitters," as CNBC reported.
"Clubhouse has done an incredible job of embracing the Black community as investors in the platform and helping us build a community on the platform," Felicia Horowitz, wife of investor Ben Horowitz and the founder of the Horowitz Family Foundation, told CNBC.
Sydney Connors and Brandon Patterson are also amongst a wave of Black creative content producers taking over the new digital space. Their production, Dreamgirls on Clubhouse, is slated for the end of February.
The development of both musicals was strictly curated by the production teams and did not involve the app's creators.
"No matter where we move, we always bring the sauce," Whitmore said about Black creators on social media. "We always find ways to be creative with little to nothing without people asking us."
"When I got onto Clubhouse, I realized how it was for a lot of people who were creative," Connors, who joined in December, told Insider. "During that time, I had seen a lot of table reads, Lion King had been going on, and I was just like wow, this is a great way for those of us who are creative on here that can express ourselves right now."
The app bridges the gap between professional heavyweights and creatives from different industries to chat and connect in rooms.
Clubhouse "allows for those barriers to be broken," Patterson told Insider. "Clubhouse has dismantled that to where now we can communicate directly to others and be able to create immediately."
'It was bigger than us'
In her experience on the platform, Whitmore met fellow talented artists and creatives like musician Bomani X, whose face is currently the app's icon and founder of The Cotton Club room, Chis Glover, and Myles Grier. It was getting to know one another on the app where they organically discovered each other's natural talents, from singing to voice acting.
With no budget and the sole purpose of bringing joy into people's lives amid a life-altering pandemic, the group ultimately decided to produce "Lion King: The Musical" on Clubhouse with Whitmore as executive producer and director.
"Everyone's hearts and commitment to that and understanding that it was bigger than us was literally what created the magic that was to come," Whitmore said.
—Lee-Lonn (@LeeLonn) December 26, 2020
In late November, the group held auditions for the production on Clubhouse to cast actors, narrators, and even a live band.
"The fact that our audition room had about 100 to 200 people in it the entire time, that's when it became a community investment where people were following along with the journey," Whitmore said. "People had their favorites and people who they were rooting for."
Whitmore announced the finalists on her Twitter in the style of an award show. The cast and crew were majority Black and people of color, Whitmore said. After two weekends of private practice, it was showtime on December 26 at 3 pm and 8 pm ET.
—Noelle Chesnut Whitmore (@noellechesnutw) December 26, 2020
Thousands of Clubhouse users, including well-respected filmmaker Ava DuVernay, tuned in to the fully interactive live audio event, chiming in on the #LionKingonCH hashtag on Twitter. Many people raved about the visual elements where the cast changed their profile pictures with scenes from the movie- which required listeners to Pull To Refresh, or PTR - bringing a nostalgic piece to the performance and the digital show to life.
—Her (@reckless_dino) December 27, 2020
—Icy (@IcyTheARTIST) December 26, 2020
"In addition to the audio piece and nailing that... I wanted people to be able to use their imagination but also give a level of reference or guide, visually," Whitmore said."The same way you would have background aesthetics if you were watching theater so that you can set the scene."
The musical production has not only opened doors for Whitmore, who is now Chief Marketing Officer for the social music platform Geojam but has also allowed her to develop genuine connections.
"The family bond that I have built with 40 strangers that I have never met in my life...I never would've thought that I would feel anything to what I have felt about the people that I've met on Clubhouse," she said. "I've built life-long friendships and bonds on this platform."
"For what to have come from this... is way beyond anything that I could have expected," she said.
Dreamgirls on Clubhouse for Black History Month is a 'dream coming true'
Sydney Connors, 28, and Brandon Patterson, 28, grew up on the same street in Cleveland, Ohio, with dreams of orchestrating a major production. Now they're putting on Dreamgirls as Clubhouse production as co-directors and executive producers of the show.
Dreamgirls on Clubhouse, made up of an all-Black cast and production crew, is expected to debut at the end of Black History Month. Each showcase will highlight different causes that affect Black women, like police brutality.
The artistic duo chose to adapt from the 2006 film in light of "the fact that it highlights Black women and what Black women have to go through not only in the industry but in life," Connors told Insider.
After Connors nominated Patterson in December, the production idea naturally blossomed after networking on the app, especially after meeting the show's casting director, Leroy Church, Patterson, the script's lead writer, told Insider.
Church played a significant role in the audition process and casting of the show, which kickstarted right after the New Year. Thousands of people waited in the Dreamgirls audition rooms for the opportunity to sing for a role in front of notable judges.
Some noteworthy unexpected appearances included Sheryl Lee Ralph, an actress and singer who was an original Dreamgirl and played Deena Jones in the 1981 Broadway musical, and Amber Riley, the "Glee" actress, and singer. She in 2016 played Effie White for Dreamgirls in London.
The crew didn't expect celebrity presence in their rooms but were happy to be amongst good company that has inspired them throughout their lives. "Amber changed my life, especially as a big Black girl growing up, watching Amber on TV," Connors said.
The auditions trended on Twitter, and users tuned in, picking fan-favorites of who they wanted to make it into the show. "At no point were we trying to go viral," Patterson said. "It has taken on a life of its own."
The audition process led to four different casts, including seasoned Broadway actresses and new talent -who will perform during two shows on both February 27 and 28. "This cast... the way they align with us is just insane to me," Connor said. "Every single person apart of this cast is extremely talented regardless if they're as big as someone who we've seen on TV, or someone that we haven't. We have the perfect four cast."
"I'm excited to see not only the people who you know to get shine, but I'm excited for you to see those who you do not know yet for this to be their breakout moment, " Patterson added.
—Dreamgirls on Clubhouse (@DreamgirlsCH) January 18, 2021
Patterson told Insider that there's also has a secret special guest who will perform as Effie White during the final show. "When the Effie is announced, people's jaws are going to be on the ground; history will be made."
"This is our dream coming true, Patterson said. "And we want each Black person who taps in one the 27th and 28th on Black History month to be like 'my dreams can come true too.'"
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