Frances McAlpine Sharp's routine won't
change much for the rest of the month. The actress and Weaver High
School drama coach frets about her script, checks the voice mail
often and watches as many shows and rehearsals of "A Raisin
in the Sun" at Hartford Stage as she can.
Sharp, a Hartford resident in her 26th
year teaching English in the city, is the understudy for Lynda Gravátt,
who plays family matriarch Lena Younger in the acclaimed play. It's
a leading role.
The show has been among the most successful
in the 43-year history of the Hartford Stage. The theater has added
eight shows to the scheduled run of 34. More than 17,000 tickets
have been sold.
What's made the show a smash here is
that it is attracting an ethnic audience - mostly African Americans
and West Indians - and students in addition to Hartford Stage's
older white subscriber base. With this play the theater has scripted
a primer for what a business has to do when its core clientele is
Instead of resisting the emerging demographics
in its back yard, Hartford Stage is embracing it - or at least trying
to. And whether it's a corporation, a theater company or - ahem
- a major metropolitan newspaper, providing products that appeal
to your new market is the way to stay relevant.
Lorraine Hansberry's 1956 play is about
a Chicago working class black family striving for a better life
- and how stress over money, relationships and race adds drama to
their ambitions. It's a mostly black ensemble, but the story line
"Families dealing with situations
with love and caring, and people trying to reach self-actualization,"
Sharp said. "Some of the things they were talking about 50
years ago are still happening. From the first reading, I knew it
was going to be excellent because the actors are wonderful and the
director is excellent. If you do shows that are relevant to people's
lives, then folks who might not ordinarily go are going to come
to the theater as well."
I attended Thursday night's showing
with my wife, mother and mother-in-law. (Thankfully, the bar was
open.) I'm not much of a theater guy. But after this 2-hour and
45-minute play, I'm reconsidering. Good acting. Good story line.
What are underplayed in this production
are the local connections.
Khaleef Pemberton, 11, a fifth grader
at Annie Fisher Magnet School in Hartford, plays Travis Younger,
the son of Walter Lee and Beneatha Younger. Khaleef's understudy
is 12-year-old Marcquille Johnson of Hartford, who attends Plainville
Middle School. Both are students at the Artists Collective in North
Billy Eugene Jones, who plays Walter
Lee, is a Yale School of Drama alum. Crystal Noelle, who plays Beneatha,
is a graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington.
Dollie McLean, co-founder of the Artists
Collective, said at their best the arts have always provided an
outlet for young people to learn about themselves, their culture
and how others deal with adversity.
"A Raisin in the Sun" makes
you think. It holds your attention. It's generating attention.