Kelli Foster Warder is the wonder woman of Twin Cities theater.

A highly respected choreographer and leader, she has been a godsend for the theater community at a time of introspection and reckoning. The associate artistic director of Theater Latte Da and consultant at Artistry in Bloomington also makes compelling art, and her production of "Jelly's Last Jam" makes its regional premiere Saturday at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.

But don't tell her any of that.

"I'm a mom, a pastor's wife, a supporter and an opportunity provider," said Foster Warder, who has crafted dances to advance story lines in "Annie" at Children's Theatre Company, "Chicago" and "Ragtime" at Minneapolis' Latte Da and the Ordway's cabaret.

In fact, for the past two years, much of her work has been in helping the field find a way forward.

"Kelli is singlehandedly changing the face of Twin Cities theater," said Anita Ruth of Artistry. The resident music director was planning to retire but decided to stay when she found out that Foster Warder was joining the theater in temporary leadership. "I have nothing but complete admiration and devotion to her."

At Latte Da, Foster Warder has been instrumental in how the organization practices equity as a core value.

"Kelli has helped that process with grace, vim and vigor," said Latte Da founder Peter Rothstein. "I'm grateful for her empathy, wisdom and ferociousness."

Foster Warder has choreographed shows at Latte Da for years, but "Jelly's" is the first time she has added the title of director at the theater. And she still is getting used to the idea.

The cast was stumped by a tricky transition during a recent rehearsal. By force of habit, Foster Warder walked over to the director's chair where Rothstein, her longtime collaborator, usually sits. She looked at the empty seat, then caught herself.

"It was a moment of doubt, but it was fleeting," she said. "I said to myself, 'Everybody in this room is counting on me to solve this problem, and I'm equipped to do it.' And I did."

Deeply personal show

"Jelly's" is the rare show about a biracial character that Foster Warder relates to. Written by George C. Wolfe, it features the music of Jelly Roll Morton, the stage name of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, self-proclaimed founder of jazz.

In Wolfe's story, a Creole man disavows his heritage in life but admits to the truth of his heritage in death. Morton is a complicated figure, said Reese Britts, the actor playing the role.

"The show deals with a lot ... that we need to talk about, like colorism and accepting one's history," Britts said. "Jelly ... is not the nicest person. He says some ugly things so it's a challenge to make him likable."

Britts wants to shine in the role not just for himself but also for Foster Warder. She gave him his big break, choosing him as a Triple Threat (dancing, acting and singing) winner in the Spotlight awards program when he was a high school senior. She chaperoned him to Broadway.

"I owe my career to her — she really got me started and was the main catalyst in my journey," Britts said.

Britts' appreciation also stems from the way Foster Warder works. In the rehearsal room, where 10 of the 11 performers are taking the stage at Latte Da for the first time, she's known as "Mama Kelli."

"She really is caring and looks out for all of us," said veteran performer Andre Shoals.

Foster Warder works in an open manner, encouraging everyone to have a say.

"The process to me is as important as the product," she said. "In theater, we're really good at the product. Amazing things happen [on stage]. But if the process burns people, forgets people, negates people, hurts people, abuses people — then what are we doing?"

She lives by that ethos outside of work. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's death, Foster Warder teamed with actor Maureen Sherman-Mendez, her former student at Eastview High School, for a series of backyard conversations attended by more than 200 theater folks. Those were eye-opening and built strong bonds.

"Kelli is really great at knowing how different people need to hear things, and that comes from growing up between worlds," Sherman-Mendez said.

Bridgebuilder and artist

If bridgebuilding and performance are what some would describe as her secret powers, she comes by them honestly. Foster Warder was born in St. Paul to white mother Sharon and Black father Billy Foster 50 years ago — only five years after interracial marriage became legal.

Her father grew up tap dancing in Atlantic City.

"A dance teacher saw him on the street performing and said, 'I'll give you free lessons,'" Foster Warder said. "I have his certificate from that class hanging on my wall."

Billy Foster also composed music, sang and played piano for a band. He met his future wife at a performance at a bar in Hastings. When Foster Warder and her sister Kasha (an associate producer on "Grey's Anatomy" and "Station 19") were in sixth grade they performed in "Holiday Inn." It was all in the family as their parents were on the board of Mixed Blood Theatre then.

Foster Warder studied dance with Judith "Dyan" Ferrell, a former Rockette. Her son, the late Michael Matthew Ferrell, a gifted choreographer in his own right, became her friend and mentor.

"Jelly's" is a step in the direction Foster Warder seeks. Its cast is diverse and its story is resonant. That, for her, is what it means to lead with both art and heart.

"It's incredibly restorative for me," Foster Warder said. "It's about Black and brown folks with dance at the center and great music. In the rehearsal room, we're laughing and crying. There's a lot of joy in that, and gratitude, too."

'Jelly's Last Jam'
Who: Book by George C. Wolfe, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and music by Jelly Roll Morton and Luther Henderson. Directed and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 8.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
Protocol: Proof of full course of vaccine or negative test within 72 hours. Masks required.
Tickets: $35-$53, 612-339-3003 or