Black History Month. Black Herstory Month. Black Mystery Month. Black Morestory Month.
February promises to be a landmark four weeks in Charlotte theater: Four mainstream companies will do local premieres of plays by prize-winning authors, dramas that define black life across centuries and continents and cultures.
Each begins in the past, somewhere between the late 1890s and the early 1970s. One introduces us to Martin Luther King Jr. on the last night of his abbreviated life, one to female pioneers settling Kansas after Reconstruction, one to South Africans trying to stay alive despite the constraints of apartheid, one to an actress trying to stay sane despite the constraints of Hollywood.
Nobody coordinated this remarkable lineup; the plays simply showed up together by a happy chance. Here’s what participants in each had to say:
What it’s about: Katori Hall’s drama shows Martin Luther King Jr. on the last night of his life in 1968, meeting a maid with an unusual agenda at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The skinny: Lou Bellamy directed a four-city tour for Arizona Theatre Company. (If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he has mentored Charlotte’s Quentin Talley, head of On Q Productions, for 18 months.) Blumenthal Performing Arts took a hand in the 2011 Broadway production, which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Bellamy ran across Blumenthal president Tom Gabbard, who encouraged him to bring the Arizona production here.
“Broadway cast it for star power, and that inhibited (the audience),” Bellamy says. “I think two good, evenly matched actors fare better, and we have that. Katori has reworked the script: She reveals the big surprise earlier, which makes the story stronger.”
King still has a roving eye and finds the maid attractive, but that’s downplayed now. Says Bellamy: “The main thing is that she makes him human. He smokes and curses and has holes in his socks. The play allows us all to feel we can be something more: If he has his feet in the mud to that extent, it’s possible for any of us to do something great.”
King gets moments of fine oratory, too, including one that gives the play its name. “When he launches into this speech, it transforms people,” Bellamy says. “He squarely says, ‘You take it from here,’ and audiences are lifted by that.
“So many kids tell me, ‘Your generation had leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Where are our leaders?’ And I say, ‘You can be one.’ ”
What it’s about: This Pearl Cleage drama is set in 1898 in Nicodemus, Kan., where pioneers settle an all-black town after leaving the racism of the South. They’re led by 73-year-old Leah, the eldest among them born into slavery.
The skinny: Karen Abercrombie is getting closer to her own middle-age self; local audiences last saw her as 285-year-old Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at Actor’s Theatre in 2008.
She has developed her career as a jazz singer under the name Karyn Elyse, recording the album “Matters of the Heart” and basing a one-woman show on it, “Alice in Wonderland in G Minor.” (To learn about her jazz side, go to karynelysejazz.com.) She also has been busy in films: “Trinity Goodheart,” “My Name Is Paul,” the upcoming “Mountain Top.” So what pulled her back to a major stage role for the first time in six years?
“I was overwhelmed by emotion at the way my own experiences tied into my character’s,” she says. “Miss Leah gave birth to 10 sons, all sold at the auction block; now she waits and waits for the opportunity to become a grandmother. I understand that because I waited a long time to have my son. There was a void all those years, as I went to the christenings and baby showers.”
The title suggests these characters are flying away from trouble but flying to opportunities on the prairie. Abercrombie reminds us “these women could hoe and plow and shoot, sometimes better than men. Kansas was a place to reinvent themselves.
“I feel deeply connected to the people who had these experiences because they’re in my DNA. And the struggle is not over. It would be great to believe the negativity of that time has been banished by now, but we know it hasn’t. I have a positive outlook, though. My reaction to everything nowadays is love.”
‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’
What it’s about: Athol Fugard wrote this drama in the 1970s with actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani. Sizwe takes a work seeker’s permit off a corpse but can stay afloat only by giving up his identity.
The skinny: Devin Clark plays two key roles in “Sizwe:” a photographer named Styles, who helps Sizwe with a false I.D., and Buntu, a pal who advises Sizwe. Clark graduated from Wheaton College in 2012 and was born just before Nelson Mandela left prison to lead an integrated South Africa.
“I didn’t grow up under segregation or apartheid, but I can get into Buntu’s shoes,” the cheerful actor says. “At Wheaton, we had a chapel where minority students went for music, dance and prayer. We got a lot of racist comments and tweets and ended up feeling judged for the way we expressed ourselves. So we banded together, as Sizwe and Buntu do.
“My mother taught me that, on some level, the world will always remind me that I’m a black man. That’s true of the characters in this play. But it’s not only about the black experience: Many people have had to sacrifice dreams to feed their families or have given up everything to start over.”
Clark played an aspiring hip-hopartist last season in CAST’s “How We Got On.” Fugard’s play lets him employ more of his training; he and co-star Ron McClelland will use South African cadences and accents, and Clark gets multipage monologues as the gregarious Styles. He’s been breaking huge speeches down into individual beats to master them.
“Styles is a natural storyteller, and I am, too,” Clark says. “He’s so present in life; he takes so much out of every moment that playing him reminds me I should do the same.”
‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’
What it’s about: In Lynn Nottage’s play, Vera begins as a 1930s film actress reduced to playing the only roles she can get – maids and slaves – and spends the rest of the play reflecting on her life and career.
The skinny: Brandi Nicole Feemster commutes from Greensboro to tackle this part, her second at Actor’s Theatre. She played dual roles in ATC’s 2012 hit “Clybourne Park.”
She can identify with Vera: Since 2009, she has worked in four films with 19th-century settings, playing servants and slaves. On the other hand, the 2007 Duke University graduate also played a merry, mischievous Portia in Charlotte Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” two summers back.
“I haven’t found current black characters to play, especially with films shot in the South, so Vera’s roles and mine have been similar,” she says. “She’s also my age at the start, though she gets much older. I often play older characters; I feel connected to them. Maybe it’s an old-soul kind of thing.”
Nottage’s play gets described as a comedy, but Feemster knows “all comedy has an element of pain, and ‘Vera Stark’ can make you uncomfortable. When you feel you have something to give to the world, and the world makes you doubt your worth as a person, as it does with Vera – all actors go through that (rejection).”
Feemster wants audiences to feel empathy for Vera that goes beyond race. “We’re all struggling in some way,” she says. “I hope people go away understanding how complex it is to live in America as a woman, a black person, a young person, an old person. Everyone has some situation that makes the world difficult to navigate.”