Diversity on stage

Gainesville audiences get a chance to enjoy six African-American plays over three weeks


Actresses Laurie Brown, playing Angel, and Sebrenah Phillips, playing Mother Jackson, share a tender moment while singing a mother and daughter duet in "Mr. Right Now."

ANDRA PARRISH/ Special to The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 9:37 p.m.

Brimming with soul-stirring, foot-stomping music and uplifting gospel song, African-American theater is set to explode in Gainesville.

Beginning Thursday with "Mr. Right Now!" and ending in mid-February with "The Ties That Bind" and "Black Voices," six African-American plays will grace the stages around Gainesville in the hope of fostering local black artists, bringing theater to an audience who would not otherwise experience it and laying groundwork for the future.

"Mr. Right Now!," the story of a single mother searching for love in all the wrong men, runs Thursday through Jan. 26 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center off Waldo Road. "The Ties That Bind," a play focusing on a young African-American girl struggling with HIV, will run Feb. 7 and Feb. 9.

"Black Voices," a collage of African-American writings from slavery through the Harlem Renaissance and up to present day, will be on stage Feb 6-15 at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre. "Fences" will be presented at the Gainesville Community Playhouse Jan. 24 through Feb. 9.

Meantime, two touring plays will also hit Gainesville in the coming weeks. In conjunction with the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and Carol Velasques Productions, Urban World Entertainment will bring the musical comedy "Love Should'a Brought You Home" to the Lincoln Middle School auditorium Jan. 25-26.

"Spinning Into Butter," a controversial play that explores the dangers of racism festering within political correctness, will run Jan. 23-26 at the Constans Black Box Theatre at the University of Florida.

"This may set the record," said University of Florida English professor Sidney Homan, who has been directing theater in Gainesville since 1985 and wrote and co-directed "Black Voices."

Homan said he couldn't recall a time when this many African-American plays were being performed at once. Neither can Carol Velasques, who has been producing African-American theater here in Gainesville since 1995.

But while the performance of six African-American plays within a three-week period points to the growing success of black theater, it has not typically thrived in Gainesville.

"Gainesville has surely gone through changes in African-American theater," Homan said. "At first it was only performed by a few splinter groups which were considered fairly radical at the time. Now many theaters are beginning to do them in numbers."

In the past, African-American theater in Gainesville has suffered from a lack of funding and exposure, Velasques said. That's why producing African-American theater in Gainesville is largely a labor of love.

As a result of a lack of funding and the steep costs of putting on a professional play, directors and actors must work without pay. Most work full-time jobs and rehearse as much as six times a week for three or four hours at a time.

"It's called determination," said Lauriah B. Brown, who plays the lead role of Angel in "Mr. Right Now!" "You don't have to have money to do something that you love to do. I enjoy this and I'm having fun doing what I do, so as long as I'm dedicated and determined to get the message out there, I don't need the money."

Despite the long hours and lack of pay, the actors in "Mr. Right Now!" have embraced the opportunity to showcase their talents and project a positive image of African-American culture.

"Through our plays we can really display the love we have for each other and the black community," said Ch DeAndre Reed, who plays Chance in "Mr. Right Now!" "It's opening the audience's eyes to the positives of black culture to see that we are talented, and people need to know that."

While Velasques appreciates the attention Black History Month generates, she believes African-American theater and other minority art forms are underappreciated and underexposed during the rest of the year.

"There are two times of the year when you're pretty much going to see stuff from minorities - that's Black History Month, and June, which is Black Music Month, and that's great," Velasques said. "I say celebrate that, because that's the time when people are going to be most aware, but it shouldn't be to the exclusion of other times in the year."

So why the sudden explosion of African-American theater?

Homan attributes the African-American theater's growing success to a heightened awareness of diversity in the community and a more inclusive attitude in the theater.

"When I came out of college in the '50s, I can't remember having seen an African-American play," Homan said. "The fact that we have this many plays opening during a month dedicated to African Americans by the United States government and a week dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. is proof that some progress has been made."

Homan said another reason for African-American theater's growth is that black actors have begun to assert themselves.

Velasques takes much of her acting talent directly from the community. She has discovered actors at local talent shows, in church and even at the supermarket.

"There is talent out there, and it's finally being recognized," "Fences" director Kristi Eberlin said. "I think that everybody has seen that African-American theater is working, and they are jumping on the boat before they miss it."

And Velasques is determined to see that no one misses out on the experience of African-American theater. Her hope is to bring theater to people who have never had the opportunity to experience it and to those who can't afford the relatively hefty ticket prices at the Phillips Center and the Hippodrome.

Despite the progress African-American theater has made in Gainesville, Velasques said that in order for it to continue to progress, black artists must bear much of the burden.

"We need to realize that we have talent," Velasques said. "That we can produce our own work, build our own theaters and we can finance our own shows. I think it's important for minorities to support their art forms because if you're not, it could die, and we cannot allow other people to be our voice for us."

FYI: AFRICAN-AMERICAN THEATER

Mr. Right Now!

  • What: A gospel play about a single mother who searches for love in all the wrong men.

  • When: Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday and Jan. 26, 3 p.m.

  • Where: Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center, 1028 NE 14th St.

  • Tickets: $5, at Omni Books or the door.

    Love Should'a Brought You Home

  • What: A musical comedy about single fatherhood.

  • When: Jan. 25-26, 3 p.m.

  • Where: Lincoln Middle School Auditorium, 1001 SE 12th St.

  • Tickets: $20.

    Spinning Into Butter

  • What: Set on a small college campus in Vermont, this drama explores the dangers of rascism festering within political correctness.

  • When: Jan. 23-24 at 8 p.m.; Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

  • Where: The Constans Theater, University of Florida.>

  • Tickets: $8 students, faculty, staff and senior citizens. $12 general public. Available at the University Box Office and Ticketmaster.

    Fences

  • What: A Pulitzer Prize-winning drama exploring the African-American experience in the 1950s.

  • When: Jan. 24-Feb. 9, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

  • Where: The Gainesville Community Playhouse, 4039 NW 16th Blvd.

  • Tickets: $8, at Omni Books or GCP box office.

    Black Voices

  • What: A collage of African-American writings spanning from slavery through the Harlem Renaissance and up to present day performed by choir-backed ensemble of actors.

  • When: Feb. 6-15. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

  • Where: The Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

  • Tickets: $7 general admission, $5 students, at Omni Books and Book Gallery West.

    The Ties That Bind

  • What: A drama focusing on a young African-American girl struggling with HIV.

  • When: Feb. 7 at 8 p.m., Feb. 9 at 3 p.m.

  • Where: The Martin Luther King Jr. Center, 1028 NE 14th St.

  • Tickets: $10

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