Actress dies after matinee at Everyman

Death: Elauna Griffin, appearing in `Blues for an Alabama Sky,' died Saturday at age 28.

April 02, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Actress Elauna Griffin, 28, who played the role of a bright, hopeful social worker in Everyman Theatre's current production of "Blues for an Alabama Sky," died of an acute asthma attack between Saturday's matinee and evening performances.

The Baltimore native, a member of the resident acting company at Everyman, where she had played several major roles, was planning to move to New York in August to further pursue her career.

Her mother, Dale V. Griffin, manager of visitor services at the Walters Art Museum, said she felt her daughter especially identified with her previous role, that of Veronica Jonkers, an aspiring singer in rural South Africa in Athol Fugard's "Valley Song" at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

"To me that was her part because that was her," her mother said yesterday. "She was really Veronica - yearning."

Mrs. Griffin said her daughter - whom she described as a "born actress" who performed in plays from the time she was at Campfield Elementary School - was diagnosed with asthma at age 2. "She was scrappy. She never let it get the best of her. She was really the show-must-go-on person."

During Saturday's matinee, Griffin used her inhaler four or five times offstage, according to Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi, who drove in from West Virginia after learning of her death. After the performance most of the cast and crew went to a crew member's house for dinner.

Before they could eat, Lancisi said Griffin stepped outside for air and said she might need to go to the hospital. She then asked one of her colleagues to call an ambulance and lost consciousness. CPR was performed by both fellow actor Jefferson A. Russell and crew member Julian Lazarus, at whose Waverly home Griffin fell ill. Company members reported calling 911 three times before an ambulance arrived to take Griffin to Union Memorial Hospital.

Russell, who knew Griffin for several years, described her as an actress who "brought such genuineness and purity to not just the role but her approach to theater."

A graduate of Owings Mills High School and Howard University in Washington, Griffin studied with acclaimed actor Al Freeman Jr. Reached at his Washington home yesterday, Freeman, who called the death "devastating," remembered his former student as "very sweet and very determined ... one of those who certainly had an enthusiasm for [acting] and an ability, certainly."

After graduating from Howard in 1995, Griffin moved briefly to New York, where she was an observer at the Actors Studio. She returned to Baltimore in 1996 and volunteered for the Baltimore Theatre Alliance and in the Everyman box office, while acting on the side.

Lancisi recalled, "We were looking for an actress for `The Trip to Bountiful.' The play actually called for a white actress. It called for a young newlywed, a young woman abounding with beauty and innocence. I remember looking across the lobby at her bright eyes and broad smile, and I thought, she's the picture of innocence." Lancisi asked her to audition; she won the role and became a member of the theater's resident company after the run of the show.

But though she was paid for her work at Everyman, Griffin was not averse to returning to community theater for a good role. Donald Owens, who directed her at Arena Players the year she graduated from college and in Fell's Point Corner's February production of "Valley Song," said, "She had that something that you can't put your finger on, but it's something that you're born with. You can teach people about acting, but you can't teach people how to act unless it's in them, and it was in her."

Before rehearsals began for "Blues for an Alabama Sky," Griffin met with the play's Alabama-based playwright, Pearl Cleage, at Arena Players. Recalling that meeting in an interview five weeks ago, Griffin had remarked on how warmly she was received by the playwright, who hugged her and said she was glad Griffin was portraying the optimistic social worker. "The best part for me," Griffin said at the time, "was just being able to sit there and talk to her like she was this old friend."

Cleage saw Griffin perform the role at Everyman last Wednesday and asked for a copy of her publicity photo after the performance. Learning of the actress' death yesterday, the playwright commented, "She was so vibrant and young and alive and lovely. ... I remember thinking that this was an actress I wanted to watch, to see grow, to work with again and again."

Griffin augmented her stage appearances with work in film and television, including small parts on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Homicide: The Movie."

Everyman canceled performances Saturday night and Sunday. In addition, Lancisi said, "In respect for Elauna's memory the theater will be dark for one week. To celebrate her spirit, the cast has unanimously decided to continue the run." Performances are expected to resume April 11 and continue through April 22. For ticket exchange information, call 410-752-2208.

In addition to her mother, Griffin is survived by her father, Alonzo Griffin, an insurance executive; a sister, Raekesha Griffin; and a grandmother, Marjorie Parker, all of Baltimore. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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