Mt. Airy actress/professor brings onlookers to tears

Local Life December 28, 2012 0 Comments

Mary Tuomanen (left) is Cinderella, and Mt. Airy’s Kala Moses Baxter is the fairy godmother in Arden Theatre’s updated version of “Cinderella,” a great show for children that is playing through Jan. 27. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

by Constance Garcia-Barrio

How fitting that actress Kala Moses Baxter of Mt. Airy, whose career has stood on faith, sweat and magic, is playing the fairy godmother in the Arden Theatre’s current production of “Cinderella.” Fate stepped in to help her land the role. “I was teaching this past summer when I heard about auditions for Cinderella’s step-sisters,” said Kala, 40, who teaches in the Arden’s Teen Company Summer Camp. “I could see myself creating an out-of-the-box character.”

However, when Kala approached the casting director, auditions for the step-sisters had ended. He invited her to try out for the fairy godmother instead. “He explained that he wanted the godmother to be a kind of angel, a God-appointed helper,” Kala said. She must have channeled the energy of her faith-centered life when she stepped onto the stage. “When I auditioned, it brought onlookers to tears,” she said.

Yet, the opportunity to have a lead role gave Kala pause. As a wife, mother, teacher and Deejay at Praise 103.9, an FM radio station in Philadelphia, she already had a full plate. A scheduling conflict between Saturday theatre performances and her radio show, “Out and About with Ms. Kala,” which features contemporary gospel music artists, loomed. “I told God, ‘If this is what you have for me, make it easy,’” she said.

All the details, including the scheduling difficulty, soon ironed themselves out. It wasn’t the first time Kala leaped forward on faith. “In 2008, God told me that I would play Berniece, the lead female character in ‘The Piano Lesson,’ by August Wilson,” said Kala, who has acted at the Arden for 15 years. Another actress had the role, but Kala remained confident. Five days before the play opened, the other actress was let go. The director asked Kala to take over.

“I walked onto the set with my script in hand,” Kala said. She taped other actors’ words and spoke hers in the dialogues with them to speed-learn her lines. She also turned to her father, poet Edwin Moses. “He and I would meet at the McDonald’s in Chestnut Hill at 6:30 a.m., before my children woke up for school, and he helped me go over my lines,” said Kala, the mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 8, and step-mother to two boys. “The play got rave reviews.”

Kala’s an old hand at magical performances. At age three, she played a doll in “Babes in Toyland.” Her mother, Dolores Moses, sang in that production in Newport News, Virginia. Still a preschooler, Kala helped to choreograph the movements of children who represented the wind in “The Wiz.”

In 1980, Kala’s family moved to Mt. Airy when her father, a social worker, accepted a job at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital. Kala found fertile ground to develop her acting skills. She took part in plays as a student at the Houston Elementary School. Philadelphia’s vibrant cultural scene also worked in her favor. “My mother took me to a Sonia Sanchez poetry reading at the Uptown Theatre,” she said. “Afterwards, my mother, now a retired preschool education specialist, asked Ms. Sanchez where I could take acting lessons.”

Kala, then age 10, was soon enrolled in classes at Freedom Theatre. After acting in several children’s plays, she became a demonstrator, someone who shows younger students how to portray an emotion. She advanced to assistant teacher, teacher and then director of the children’s theatre. “At Freedom Theatre we learned not only acting, but life skills and teaching,” Kala said. Freedom Theatre proved important in another respect. Kala met her husband of 10 years, Juan Baxter, there. He has a radio show in Trenton, New Jersey.

Kala majored in Theatre at Temple University, and later earned an MFA in acting and directing from the University of Arizona. She thought California would beckon, but a role in “The Legend of O. V. Catto,” by local playwright and poet Kimika L. H. Williams, brought her back to Philadelphia. Ozzie Jones, with whom Kala was eager to work, directed the play.

Faith and hard work have opened doors for Kala, and so has versatility. Besides being a singer, dancer, and radio personality, she has been a professor of theatre at Lincoln University and an adjunct at Temple University. That adaptability has earned her recognition. In the Arden’s 2008 production of “Gee’s Bend,” Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play about quilters from an Alabama town, Kala played a woman from ages 16 to 91. She was nominated for a Barrymore Award (for excellence in theater) for that role.

Family is at the heart of the current adaptation of “Cinderella,” written by Charles Way and directed by Whit MacLaughlin. Cinderella’s father, a clockmaker, remarries after the death of his wife, Cinderella’s mother. Cinderella doesn’t want a step-family and promptly bites her step-mother upon meeting her.

This adaptation of “Cinderella” tells us that we must be midwives of our own dreams. “The magic is simple,” the fairy godmother says. “All you have to do is believe in your own dream and it will come true.”

“Cinderella,” a family show, runs at the Arden, 40 N. 2nd St. in Old City, through Jan. 27. Tickets from $16 to $36. Ask about the Target 2 for 1. Those tickets are $8 to $18. Call the box office at 215-922-1122, or visit www.ardentheatre.org.

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