Spit out your gum, turn off your cell phone and end that conversation with your neighbor before the lights go down, because actor and comedian Nonie Newton-Riley is living out every performer's dream: calling people out who disturb her show. As the "sister" teaching the "class" in the play "Late Nite Catechism," Newton-Riley welcomes the opportunity to scold members of the audience -- and the audience tends to welcome it, too.
"People love to see somebody next to them get in trouble. They squeal on people, and they're pointing them out. Everybody sort of becomes 10 years old in that regard," she says. "You can't perform this in a way that you don't make room for [the audience] because they really are the co-stars. I think everybody's fun and funny, and if you make room for that, you just have a great show, and people walk out and they feel like they all know each other."
‘Late Nite Catechism’
WHEN — 8 p.m. Sept 6-7; 2 & 8 p.m. Sept. 8; 2 p.m. Sept. 9
WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville
COST — $25-$32
INFO — 443-5600, waltonartscenter.org
For nearly two decades, Newton-Riley has played the part of Sister in the one-woman play "Late Nite Catechism." Though Newton-Riley leads the evening's lesson from a 1960s Catholic schoolroom, there's no need for modern audiences (her "students") to brush up on their history. The partially improvised play applies the sister's teachings to current events and even includes a wide open Q and A with the audience.
"It was always a pre-requisite that you grew up in the Catholic church and had Catholic schooling because ... you have to know your stuff," Newton-Riley says of the various touring sisters. "People are going to bring their selves, and the whole sum of their parts. And some people want to throw it down -- some people want to fight with you about the politics of the church or they're mad because a nun punished them when they were a kid. So you never know what you're going to get."
Coming up in an Irish-Catholic Chicago family of 11, Newton-Riley certainly has street cred. She recalls a childhood attending church six days a week and hosting nuns and priests at her family home for meals. In her household, "you ate [the religion] for breakfast, lunch and dinner." And in spite of her constant trouble making and battles with the nuns of her youth, Newton-Riley admits the phone calls home ratting her out and the frequent whacks were usually justified. She has "nothing but mad respect" for the women who don the habit.
"Part of our legacy of doing these shows is we've brought attention [to] and raised enormous amounts of money for retired nuns that didn't get Social Security. When that was first invented in the '30s, the church opted out for the women. So you have a situation where thousands of elderly nuns that worked their whole lives in service, many, many of them retired with nothing," she explains. "That's something we're very proud of, and I'm blessed to call so many of them my friends. I mean, these are women that just work tirelessly for social justice, in the teaching, in the nursing. So there's a surprise -- [my mother] always thought it was so funny I had so many nuns that were friends because I was such a terror as a child."
Newton-Riley's Sister may not be so easy to befriend, though. She may have been a bit mild in the beginning, but following advice from the show's creator and original performer Maripat Donovan, Newton-Riley came into her own as a "nun."
"She said to me, 'Play the nun as if you had become a nun yourself.' So instead of playing a character, you take on the aspects of that. It lends to a certain candor and honesty," Newton-Riley shares. "I grew up in Chicago, and our nuns were tough, let me tell you. So, I think I'm kind of a composite of a lot of those nuns. She's not sweet and demure.
"So, tell everybody, spit out the gum, sit up, and come see me, or I'll have to come to your house and drag you into the street."
NAN What's Up on 09/02/2018
Print Headline: Praying For Laughs