NC stars of screen and stage return home to honor mentor
Some of North Carolina’s most honored Broadway and film stars flocked to Raleigh to honor a capital city arts legend who helped launch their way to acting success.
At a star-studded event, North Carolina Theatre founder De Ann Jones was honored by award winning performers who launched their professional careers through Mrs. Jones Raleigh-based theatre company.
Raleigh actress Lauren Kennedy-Brady, who starred on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard, Spamalot, Side Show, and Les Misérables, began her training through the Jones-created children’s training program at the Jones-founded North Carolina Theatre (NCT).
“She always made me feel incredibly special; she always made me feel that I could do what I wanted and ended up doing, being a Broadway performer,” said Kennedy-Brady. “That is how I saw my life. I did not care about anything else. It was because De Ann believed in me and saw that I had something to offer, even as a little girl.”
As a performer, De Ann Jones launched Lauren Kennedy-Brady’s professional career. She performed in dozens of NCT shows over the last three decades, including starring roles in Evita, Beauty and the Beast, Momma Mia, and many others. Now she has opened her own professional theatre in North Carolina, designed to bring Broadways best to Raleigh, and send Raleigh’s best to the great white way.
“I am so honored to celebrate De Ann Jones and her impact and legacy with the naming of the theatre Raleigh Main Stage Theatre,” said Lauren Kennedy-Brady, now serving as the founder and producing artistic director of Theatre Raleigh. “Her devotion to professional theatre and education has nurtured generations of talent in our region.
Along with Lauren, De Ann Jones launched countless careers of professional actors, actresses, singers and musicians.
Long before his fame making American Idol appearance, a 17-year-old Clay Aiken performed in NCT’s 1996 productions of 1776 and Shenandoah. He returned at the heights of his success in 2013 to star in NCT’s Drowsy Chaperone. Aiken’s first ever audition was for NCT.
Film actress Kate Arrington, also started her acting career in NCT’s Summer Theatre Arts School, a children’s program created by Jones. Now known as the NCT Conservatory, the program trains hundreds of young performers each year in dance, music, and the dramatic arts.
Three-time Tony nominated actress Beth Leavel, a Raleigh native, also got her career off the ground with the North Carolina Theatre. Since then she has been in 14 Broadway shows, winning the Tony award for her starring role in The Drowsy Chaperone. Even though she is preparing for her latest Broadway starring role as Miranda Priestley in the new Broadway musical, “The Devil Wears Prada,” with music by Elton John, Leavel returned to Raleigh to perform her one-person show for De Ann Jones and those gathering for the stage dedication.
“She had me audition for Funny Girl, and she really believed in me, and she took a chance and gave me that job,” Leavel told the crowd. “To quote something I said the night I won my Tony award: because of your faith in me, I am flying and forever grateful to you.”
“The theatre you built, the community you created, and the artists you have nurtured over the years have deeply changed and touched more lives than you can ever imagine,” said Broadway director Casey Hushion, the former artistic director at NCT.
Jones’ theater career started when she began running Theatre In The Park with Ira David Wood in the 1970s. The City of Raleigh asked Jones to help bring new life into the aging Raleigh Memorial Auditorium by starting a professional musical theatre company in downtown Raleigh.
On May 24th, 1984, North Carolina Theatre, opened its doors to their very first production, Camelot. Under the direction of De Ann Jones, the production starred Terrence Mann as “King Arthur” and Sharon Lawrence as “Guinevere.” Both actors have since gone on to have play countless other roles on stage, TV and film. The show opened with 825 season tickets sold and a total audience of 24,000. Upon Camelot’s opening, The Raleigh Times proclaimed that “Broadway had finally come to Raleigh.”
Mann would go on to star and direct many NCT productions, all while becoming a Tony nominated Broadway star, and featured TV and film actor. Mann currently stars in the Apple-TV series Foundation.
Sharon Lawrence would go on to star in dozens of films and TV shows, most notably NYPD Blue. Lawrence was on hand to support Jones, traveling from California where she currently stars in the Paramount Television Studios TV show Joe Pickett.
Before Jones created the North Carolina Theatre, Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium was a antiquated and dusty facility, mostly used for high school graduations and a few symphony concerts.
Jones success with NCT led to a massive renovation of the building in the early 1990’s, with a new glass lobby, royal staircase, modern production capabilities, new seats, restrooms, dressing rooms and backstage space, along with the addition of a new concert/symphony hall, smaller opera theatre, and a 150-seat black box theatre.
The Kennedy family has long been known for their philanthropic work through Raleigh and eastern North Carolina. Lauren’s parents, K.D. and Sara Lynn Kennedy, provided critical private funding to the major expansion of the downtown Raleigh facility, which not only allowed for larger NCT’s productions but also allowed major Broadway tours such as Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon to use the facility. They also are major benefactors to Barton College in Wilson including funding the creation of a performing arts center.
The Kennedy family support of NCT has been critical to the organizations success for nearly 40 years and the creation of the newly formed Theatre Raleigh.
Jones retired from running NCT’s daily operations years ago. She has continued to serve on the Board of Directors, as North Carolina’s premier professional theatre advocate, and as a mentor to rising North Carolina stars.
“I feel like I am looking at my life, and I thank you for giving me a life,” said Jones. “It never was about me; it was about you. I never would have been able to do anything without the talent you people have.”
The De Ann S. Jones stage is located at the Theatre Raleigh Arts Center, 6638 Old Wake Forest Road in Raleigh. Theatre Raleigh produces professional musicals and plays in an intimate setting.
The North Carolina Theatre continues to produce blockbuster musical theatre in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium inside the Duke Energy Center for the Preforming Arts. Next year, NCT will honor Dee An Jones during its 40th anniversary with a new production of Camelot, the first NCT show, produced by Jones in 1984.