Holding the bedazzled Nikes presented to him as ruby slippers in celebration of the Broadway in the HOOD’s 2016 production of The Wiz, founder and executive director Torrey Russell is entering his tenth season as a nonprofit theatre company. Russell began casting, producing and presenting Broadway-scale performances on a shoestring, seeking out and training novice actors and crew from underserved communities. Early BITH productions were launched from the West Las Vegas Library, opening auditions in local churches to those living in shelters, survivors of gang and domestic violence, and those who might not otherwise have access. An acronym for Helping Others Open Doors, the nationally-touring company has the support of notable celebrities Gladys Knight, Clint Holmes, Earl Turner, Antonio Fargas, and Kelly Price, among others. HOOD alums, such as 12-year-old Teshi Johnson, have gone on to appear in Broadway productions on the New York stage. In 2015, the company secured its current residency at the Smith Center, and recently announced the opening of a new studio and performance space.
I’m truly blessed. I was born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia. I am that kid who had no reason or direct path to being where I am now. My mother had me when she was not much more than a child herself. She was thirteen. For a time, she was doing her own thing and I was raised by my grandmother. When my grandmother passed, I went to live with my mother. I found my passion when I saw the Norfolk public schools’ Performing Arts Repertory production of Guys and Dolls. I fell in love. I wanted in, but my grades were abysmal. A teacher, Ms. Connie Hindmarsh, promised that if I earned C’s, just C’s, she’d allow me to try out. I improved. I actually did better than that, and I was able to attend the high school of the performing arts while I was still in junior high. I honed my craft; I scrubbed floors just to be near school productions. I learned how to run sound and run lights. While I was with the repertory, we attended a production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat at Chrysler Hall. I was there for every show after that. Whether I had a ticket or not, I would stand outside the box office. I was there so much, the backstage manager brought me in and I became assistant to the Broadway Season manager. My mother did not support my dream. She had become a nurse, an amazing nurse, and did not see the value in what I was doing. She became hostile to the idea of my becoming an actor, becoming a singer, becoming as enamored of theatre as I was. She kicked me out. I was fifteen. You can say, I understand the lives of the young people who come through Broadway in the HOOD. I’ve been hungry. I’ve been cold. I’ve slept without a roof over my head. I am blessed that I had what my great mentor Dr. Maya Angelou says are rainbows around me, women who cared about what happened to me — Rebecca Archer, a neighbor who took me in, Ms. Margie Skinner who took me to church, and my aunt, who stepped in to raise us. I moved to Vegas with three hundred dollars in my pocket. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do here, or why I came. I had never been to Vegas before. God told me to come, that was December 17, 2000. I’ve worked with Ms. Gladys Knight, and Shelly Garrett, and as tour manager for Dr. Maya Angelou. I’ve had the opportunity to go down to Atlanta to help open the first Black major film studio with Tyler Perry. The theatre gave me that. Working hard, pursuing my passion and listening, really listening, gave me that. I want young people to understand — you can bring yourself out, if you bring yourself up. It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.