The makings of a new 'Mama'

Assertive Trezana Beverley will smash a beloved character's stereotype in Center Stage's production of 'A Raisin in the Sun.'

Theater

November 11, 2001|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

No doubt about it. As Lena Younger, the matriarch in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Trezana Beverley is not going to be another mama on the couch.

That's one reason director Marion McClinton cast the Tony Award-winning, Baltimore-born actress in Center Stage's production, which begins performances Thursday.

"You're not going to see Mama, you're going to see Lena. That's about the best way of putting it," says McClinton. "Mama has become a stereotypical character that crosses many other black plays. I think [Beverley] gives her her individuality."

The phrase "mama on the couch" comes from a parody written by George C. Wolfe in his 1986 play, The Colored Museum. The spoof is a sincerest-form-of-flattery sendup of a groundbreaking 1959 drama that has achieved the rank of a modern classic.

In the process, it has become increasingly difficult to break the stereotype of Mama as a hard-working, churchgoing, tough-love kind of woman who will do anything for her children -- and who's always right.

But set aside those images of pious, hefty Claudia McNeil in the original Broadway production and 1961 movie, or indomitable Esther Rolle in the 25th anniversary production, which played the Mechanic Theatre in 1988 and was televised a year later.

At 56, and with a physique that reflects her belief in the cross-fertilization of theater and dance, Beverley is a leaner, younger Lena Younger. Nor will her Lena be a saintly paragon.

"We're not going to see St. Trezana, and I'm so glad because the other approach is so much more interesting, so much more provocative, and so much more fun to play," the actress explains. "She's not a preacher. She's more spontaneous. We see that she has questions. We see that she can be vulnerable."

Not only that, but according to McClinton, Beverley portrays Lena, flaws and all. "She doesn't sentimentalize her," he says. "You can dislike aspects of Lena as much as respect her."

A watershed production

Beverley won her Tony Award in 1977 for her charged portrayal of the Lady in Red in Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. McClinton owns a videotape of the 1982 American Playhouse telecast of colored girls, but he has never seen Beverley on stage.

He did, however, see a production of colored girls that she directed at Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theatre in the early 1980s, and it exerted a lasting influence on him. "She directed one of the watershed productions in Minnesota theater history," he says.

McClinton was so impressed with Beverley's production of colored girls, he saw it five times. "It affected me a lot as a director," he says. "I had not directed before I had seen that. It was emotionally just devastating and powerful. You laughed. You cried. You were elated in the end."

Beverley was unaware of the impact that production had on McClinton, but when he called her about playing Lena Younger, she jumped at the chance. "It was something I could not refuse. How can you refuse a role like that? It's one of the great roles," says the actress, who last appeared at Center Stage in 1979 when she played the title role in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.

Although Raisin takes place in a South Chicago tenement in the 1950s, Beverley believes the play's universality is one reason it has become a classic. Hansberry "shows us that everybody pretty much wants the same thing in life," she explains. "Even with all [the family's] conflict, at the end you see them working together. They came together and they got out of there ...

"I think that's a wonderful, wonderful statement. I think there's something in the play for everybody, especially young men, young women and mothers who are heads of homes and who have become the matriarch, the head of the home. My mother certainly is now. My dad passed away three years ago."

Beverley's mother, Lois, a semi-retired teacher who still lives in the West Baltimore home where Trezana grew up, is one of the actress' models for Lena, particularly in terms of the character's sense of courtesy and politeness.

"I can feel comfortable with that," acknowledges her mother, who has seen just about everything Trezana has done on stage and will be attending Raisin with a group of 23 friends and family members.

She's a little less comfortable with her daughter's recent decision to change the spelling of her stage name from "Trazana" to "Trezana." "I had too many people who were calling me 'Tarzan-a,' " the actress explains. "I couldn't take it anymore." It's a name, however, that was created by her late father, William, when he was in the U.S. Merchant Marine. "That's very significant to me," says her mother.

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