Home-grown Plays Take Center Stage

Schedule: Theater Releases 1997-98 Lineup Full Of Promise, Power And Local Ties. Shakespeare's There, Too.

April 23, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Center Stage will announce today its 1997-1998 season, which includes a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera and three edgy, challenging works that deal with issues from racial tensions to incest and were written by women -- two of whom are Maryland natives.

Now entering its 35th season, the theater also will present a Shakespearean work and a sixth play that is yet to be chosen, says Irene Lewis, artistic director.

"It's just serendipity that two of the writers turned out to be from Maryland -- but still it's exciting," she says. "In choosing these plays, we were guided by what we are dying to do, not who wrote what, and some of these plays have been floating around in our minds for years."

The 1997-1998 season will include:

"Les Blancs," a historical epic written by the late Lorraine Hansberry that is set in a mythical African town and tells a story of revolution, racial struggles and the search for justice.

Earlier this month, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the theater $100,000 to be used for the production, which will be directed by Marion McClinton.

This is the first time that Center Stage has presented a play by Hansberry. Though the playwright died of cancer in 1965 at 34, she is considered a major American playwright. Her best-known works include "A Raisin in the Sun," for which Hansberry received a Pulitzer Prize, and "Picnic."

Lewis and Center Stage's resident dramaturg, James Magruder, chose Hansberry's play because they felt its themes would have relevance for American city-dwellers.

Written in the 1960s, "Les Blancs" was inspired by the violent struggles of colonial African countries to free themselves from European domination and describes residents of a fictional African nation struggling with issues of self-determination and personal allegiance.

"If you look at Rwanda or Uganda, you see the issues it raises are still current. It is about black and white relations and black and black relations. Instead of a family drama, Lorraine is writing on a huge canvas," Magruder says.

"Splash Hatch (On the E Going Down)" is a two-act play that deals with issues of love, childbearing and worries about the environment. "Splash Hatch" was written by Kia Corthron, a Cumberland, Md., native who is considered one of the nation's hottest young writers. The Center Stage production will be a world premiere.

"How I Learned to Drive," written by Paula Vogel and now being presented in New York, features a young girl and her uncle and grapples with issues of betrayal, guilt and incest.

In general, Center Stage tries to avoid producing plays that recently have appeared in New York, Lewis says. In the case of Vogel's work, however, both she and Magruder felt strongly that "How I Learned to Drive" was too important to be missed.

"I thought it might be important to Baltimore -- not just because it is written by a hometown playwright, but because it is set here and there is something to shedding light on dark corners," says Lewis.

Vogel's play, which takes place in rural Maryland near Baltimore, tells the story of Peck, a seductive and likable man, who is teaching "L'il Bit," the play's 17-year-old narrator, to drive. But as the lesson progresses and the tale unfolds, the audience learns through flashbacks bits of discomfiting information: that the man is much older than the narrator; that the teacher and student are related; that this relationship has been going on for some time.

Vogel herself initially was concerned about having the play produced on a Baltimore stage because it deals with such highly charged topics, says Magruder. "Because of the subject matter and because it was set in the area, she was concerned about her family," he says.

However, the play has since been presented in New York, her family members have read it, and "they're supportive of the work," Magruder says.

"H.M.S. Pinafore" is a rousing musical comedy by Gilbert and Sullivan in which love transcends Victorian class lines. It will be directed by Lewis.

Either Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "As You Like It," directed by Lewis.

A sixth play has yet to be chosen.

Because licensing rights for "How I Learned to Drive" are still being negotiated, an extra selection for the 1997-1998 season has been made: George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession," also to be directed by Lewis. In this play, Shaw sheds light upon social hypocrisy by telling the tale of the mysterious Mrs. Warren, a well-to-do woman of undisclosed profession.

Season tickets

What: Subscriptions to Center Stage's 1997-1998 season

When: Show dates are not yet final

Cost: $60 to $198 for six-play series

Call: 410-332-0033

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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