Me on the big stage? You must be joking. I only do church plays and very small community events. Sing? Sure. I can do that, but act outside of the four walls of my church – that ship has sailed. At least that’s what I thought before I had the opportunity to play Mama Lena Younger in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in early 2015. I have been on the move with theater ever since; it’s been quite a busy year.
Prior to playing Mama, I had been a youth pastor for my church for close to seven years. During that time I started a drama ministry and began writing scripts to keep our youth active. As time went by, I developed a character, a little old church lady, Mrs. Jones. She would show up in most of my plays, dropping nuggets of wisdom and encouraging everyone look at life with a little humor. The more I wrote and performed, the more I wanted to do it all the time. Telling a story, lifting words off paper and bringing them to life is, I realized, my true passion. Developing a connection with audiences by creating a character whose story touches people in a personal way is truly a breathtaking feeling.
Playing Mama Lena Younger was a dream role for me because I have so much respect for the older generation and Lorraine
Hansberry, the author of ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ was the first black female playwright to be produced on Broadway. The experience was truly an honor! That’s not to mention my admiration for the dynamic Phylicia Rashad who played the role in the 2008 movie adaptation. I am grateful for Director Jimmie Woody who saw my potential and believed in my ability to bring life to the character despite being new to community theater. Afterall, I did not look or sound like Mama when I walked through the door.
In preparing for my role, I watched the original 1961 movie with Sydney Poitier as Walter Lee and Claudia McNeil as Mama. I drew from both Claudia and Phylicia but, ultimately, Mama was created from my years of watching and listening to the women in my family, my church community and my neighborhood. That’s who my Mrs. Jones character was and that’s who my Mama Lena Younger became. I admired her wisdom, loved her courage and was in awe of her strength. Although she was stern, she managed to have a little sense of humor too. In order to communicate who she was, I leaned on stories I heard as a child from my family. Even then, I had to tap into my feelings of being a mother and always wanting the best for my children. When I talked about her deceased husband Big Walter, I tapped into the feelings of love that keep people together despite an abundance of obstacles trying to tear them apart. I tried my best to make Mama real and touchable to those who were watching.
Did I expect my first play outside of church to lead to being named “Best Actress” at the Weathervane Playhouse Chanticleer Awards? Not at all!
When I heard Weathervane was continuing the saga with ‘Clybourne Park,’ I knew I had to be a part of it and, luckily, Director Woody felt the same. I needed to complete the story and see what went on behind closed doors regarding the African-American family who moved into this all white community. I had questions: Were they welcomed with open arms or were they rejected and looked down upon? What was Karl Lindner really like? Was he just the messenger or was he the culprit behind it all?
It was a big change from the extremely dramatic ‘Raisin in the Sun’ to the fast-paced and quick-witted delivery of ‘Clybourne Park.’
In the first act, I play Francine, the maid for the Stollers– the family who resides in the home purchased by the Younger family. She is a middle-aged woman who, no doubt, migrated to the north with the hope of a better life. Proud, but not too proud to do what needs to be done to take care of those she loves, she, in her own way, challenges the standards of the day. Speaking with Director Woody about character development, Francine is a much softer character than Mama. Although I still pull from the same things to portray Francine as I did for Mama, these two women are different people with different reactions to some of the same situations. For the first act, rounding Francine out, making her aware but not too harsh, is the task at hand.
In the second act, we move into the present day. I become the niece and namesake of Mama Lena Younger. As the younger Lena, I am trying to hold on to the memories connecting me to the pioneer and pillar of strength I saw in my great aunt. I tussle mentally and emotionally with those who want to tear down and rebuild without any thought of the struggles that occurred within the community years ago.
Reflecting on some of my personal experiences as an educated African-American woman in today’s society has helped fuel my desire to explore current-day Lena’s character.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a whole lot of laughs in this production; however, they are built on harsh realities we all have faced at some time in our lives. ‘Clybourne Park’ brings to light a topic for discussion that has been around for quite some time and, although we have progressed as a nation, still exists today.
As opening night nears, I can say that it has been a thought-provoking journey. However, we have a wonderful cast who rises to the challenge of telling a story that will touch everyone who sees it. It is sure to leave people thinking about where they fit in the scheme of things.
Weathervane Playhouse is a remarkable theater with an extraordinary group of people; I couldn’t have asked for a better director and fellow cast members to work with for this project. The camaraderie of the actors during both shows has been incredible! I still keep in touch with members of the cast of ‘Raisin in the Sun’ and I look forward to the lasting friendships that have formed while working on ‘Clybourne Park.’ I’m so excited to be back and can’t wait to hit the stage in this comedic but reality-based production. ‘Clybourne Park’ – there’s always two sides to every story.
Thursdays — Jan. 14, 21 and 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Fridays — Jan. 15, 22 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays — Jan. 16, 23 and 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays — Jan. 17, 24 and 31 at 2:30 p.m.
PLUS Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 10 a.m.
For tickets, please visit www.weathervaneplayhouse.com or call 330.836.2626.