How Wilmington theater helped connect a father and daughter

Hallie-Claire Weems and her father, Marlon Weems, in front of posters for plays they were in at Thalian Hall in February.
Hallie-Claire Weems and her father, Marlon Weems, in front of posters for plays they were in at Thalian Hall in February.

On Father's Day, Marlon Weems' daughter, Hallie-Claire Weems, will celebrate her 21st birthday.

"We have this joke that Father's Day is just kind of null and void in our house," Marlon Weems said, especially since the birthday of his wife and Hallie's mom, Shannon, often falls on Father's Day as well.

This year, however, among the many other reasons to celebrate, it will be the first time that father and daughter can say they are connected in another way: as actors in Wilmington's theatrical community.

Hallie, a rising senior with a Studio Art major at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has been doing theater since middle school, most recently turning in a delightful performance as Southern squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks in the Thalian Association's production of "The SpongeBob Musical" at Thalian Hall, and giving an understated but effective take on the character of meek hairdresser Annelle in "Steel Magnolias."

Hallie-Claire Weems (far right) in Thalian Association Community Theatre's "Steel Magnolias" at Thalian Hall.
Hallie-Claire Weems (far right) in Thalian Association Community Theatre's "Steel Magnolias" at Thalian Hall.

Marlon, who lives on Topsail Island, has spent most of his career in finance and business, including 10 years on Wall Street. But his daughter's success on the local stage led Weems to getting his first-ever acting opportunity in February, when he played Ben Loman in Opera House Theatre Co.'s production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

It never would have happened "if not for her," Weems said.

It all started when Hallie was playing Erika in "School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play" for Big Dawg Productions in 2022, a role that would see her nominated for best actress in a play at the 2023 Wilmington Theater Awards. That play was directed by Fracaswell Hyman, who would later play the title role of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."

Hyman and Hallie's dad had become friendly during the run of "School Girls," and "One day I got a text message from him asking me if I'd ever done any acting. I thought he was joking," Marlon said.

He ended up joining Hyman in "Death of a Salesman," of course, and Weems had an almost regal bearing as Ben, the late, successful older brother of Willy Loman, who appears to Willy in flashbacks. (In Opera House's production, staged almost entirely with Black actors, Ben is reimagined as having made a fruitful return to Africa, where his business endeavors flourished.)

Marlon Weems (far right) as Ben Loman in Opera House Theatre Co.'s production of "Death of a Salesman."
Marlon Weems (far right) as Ben Loman in Opera House Theatre Co.'s production of "Death of a Salesman."

Weems held his own as the rookie member of an experienced cast that included Grammy winner Natasha Yvette Williams as Linda Loman.

"I'm a competitive sort of person. In the back of my head I was like, 'I'm not going to be the guy to mess this up,'" Weems said. "I might give it a shot again."

For his daughter's part, Hallie said her feelings were "a mixture of incredibly proud and, like, so excited."

Plus, she got to coach her dad a little.

"He asked for my advice," Hallie said. "I think I was kind of surprised at how serious he was about the whole process. He was just very zeroed-in."

Tough love and theater

By the time Hallie was 10 or 11, Marlon said, he and his wife were pretty sure their daughter was destined for the arts.

"I've always had a thing for the dramatic," Hallie said with a laugh. "When I was a kid, I used to film little short films with my dolls and create all these different characters with them and post them on YouTube. … I've always just liked pretending to be different people."

Hallie, a graduate of Topsail High School in Pender County, has a college-bound younger brother, Benjamin, and two older brothers from her dad's previous marriage.

These days, Marlon, a native of Arkansas, is a writer and businessman. He was on the community advisory board and did business development for MARBIONIC, a workforce- and product-development arm of UNCW's Center for Marine Science program. He writes and publishes newsletter The Journeyman, which "explores the intersection of the economy, politics and anti-Black racism," and he and his wife recently started a plant business called Solstice Botanicals.

In part because of his professional background, he said, he initially steered his older sons away from the arts. One son, who's now an actor, rapper and voice-over artist "had gotten into the theater conservatory at Rutgers (University) and decided, 'I'm not going to do it,'" after conversations with his dad.

Ultimately, Marlon said, "I learned my lesson about trying to tell people which way they should go. … Hallie benefited from that."

Hallie-Claire Weems and her father, Marlon Weems.
Hallie-Claire Weems and her father, Marlon Weems.

For her part, Hallie said, she sees her father as both tough on and supportive of her.

"It's challenging having him as a father because with everything that I do, it's like, everything matters," she said. "I think there's a lot of tough love in our relationship."

As one of four sons, Marlon said, and with just one daughter out of his four children, he's had to chart a different course when it comes to parenting Hallie.

"I guess my tough love is, I try to be more along the lines of giving the kinds of advice I wish I would have had," he said. "It's definitely been a learning process to sort of balance that toughness with, 'Hey, I'm not trying to crush this young lady's self esteem.'"

In some ways, father and daughter "think very similarly," Hallie said, something that can lead to conflict.

Marlon said he hears from his wife, "She's just like you. … We're (both) stubborn. We're always right."

"We always have to have the last word," Hallie added. "I always have some kind of pushback: 'I don't know if I could do this. I don't know if I have the skill set for this.' But he's always, 'Well, number one, you don't know if you don't try.' Nine times out of 10, whenever I actually do the thing, it's like, 'Oh, that kind of made me a better person.'"

Hallie-Claire Weems as Sandy Cheeks in Thalian Association's production of "The SpongeBob Musical."
Hallie-Claire Weems as Sandy Cheeks in Thalian Association's production of "The SpongeBob Musical."

Earlier this year, for example, Hallie did a fundraiser with the Thalian Association in which she was asked to mentor younger performers.

"I was like, 'OK, I don't know if I'm at mentor status yet,'" she said. "But that was also another thing that my my dad talked me into doing. Working with the kids was such a great experience."

For Marlon, seeing his daughter succeed has been gratifying in a way that has sometimes surprised him. Hallie said she was apprehensive going into "The SpongeBob Musical," but decided to give her first significant musical role a musical a shot after encouragement from her parents and from the show's musical director, Amanda Clawges.

"I knew how she almost didn't try out for this play," Marlon said. "I'm biased, but the whole play was so well done, and it just got me. ... This was really the first thing that she's been in that made me cry."

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Wilmington, NC, theater bonds father and daughter

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