Trazana Beverley pours herself into 'Flyin' West' role

September 26, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When Baltimore-born actress Trazana Beverley attended Sunday services at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church as a little girl, she'd listen in awe to the moving speeches of Lillie Carroll Jackson, a civil rights leader who was also a member of the congregation.

"She was known to come to all the other churches first," the actress recalled while sipping ginger ale at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel earlier this week. "She would stand up -- she wasn't invited to speak, but when she stood up, people listened."

People also listen when Beverley takes the stage in "Flyin' West," now at Washington's Kennedy Center. One explanation may be that the memory of Jackson's fervor has helped inspire Beverley's portrayal of Sophie Washington, a tough-minded settler in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kan., in the 19th century.

Beverley calls shotgun-toting, pipe-smoking, log-splitting Sophie "the best role I've had since 'Colored Girls' " -- referring to her 1977 Tony Award-winning portrayal of the Lady in Red in "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf."

"For Colored Girls" is a 20th-century urban drama, but Beverley believes it has a lot in common with "Flyin' West," which focuses on a family of women in Nicodemus and co-stars veteran actress Ruby Dee. "The two plays run a very interesting parallel with regard to the need for female self-identification, self-respect, self-esteem," she says.

When she read the script, Beverley says, she felt a personal connection to her character in "Flyin' West." "I said, 'This is me.' If you know me personally, I have a lot of very, very strong feelings about communal effort. I feel very, very strongly about the position of black women in our society, our images and how we are portrayed in the media," she says. "I have a way, I believe, of seeing things kind of clearly. I can see the possibility in things. I'm always encouraging people, and that's what Sophie is."

Ricardo Khan, director of "Flyin' West," which is written by Pearl Cleage, also sees a natural bond between Beverley and Sophie.

"The vision of Trazana playing this role came to me the very first time I ever read the play," says Khan, who is also artistic director of New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company, where this production originated a year ago. "I do believe that Sophie is driven by an internal vision and Trazana has always been an actor of great strength."

Khan hadn't worked with Beverley before, but his sense of her appropriateness was cemented when he heard her speak in Winston-Salem, N.C., in July 1993 as part of a panel on women in the arts. "When I saw her on this panel, I was thrilled that she was, in person, a person with the same integrity and strength and vision that she seemed to be when playing characters."

Beverley's mother, Lois, agrees that her daughter bears a similarity to outspoken Sophie. "[Trazana] is very assertive, and she believes in being verbal about something that she really believes in. She will really put her best into it to see that something is done," she says.

As an example, Lois Beverley, a retired Baltimore city teacher who still tutors in the school system, cites her daughter's dedication to teaching drama. The younger Beverley has pursued this, on and off over the years, at institutions including New York University, Morgan State University and the Baltimore School for the Arts. "She knows that it's a hard field and she does whatever she can to help the young people who are aspiring to be actors and actresses," her mother says.

The actress, who lives in New York, is staying in her parents' northwest Baltimore home during the Kennedy Center run of "Flyin' West." Her father, William, owns a neighborhood grocery, which he runs with his son, William Jr. Her father is also responsible for her unusual first name, which he chose for its exotic sound when he was in the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Even when she's not performing in the area, Beverley -- a graduate of Western High School and NYU -- says, "I come back here often. I do. One, because it's home, and because I have a sense of peace. When I leave here, it's another reality, another world."

Beverley hopes "Flyin' West" will move to other cities after the Kennedy Center run. And director Khan confirms, "We have producers coming into Washington from all over. Certainly New York and Los Angeles are interested."

Whatever this production's future, however, Beverley has two original scripts she will continue to develop. The newer one, which she is reluctant to discuss, is a half-finished play for a full cast.

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