The General's Daughter

Connecting veteran stage actress Linda (daughter of Colin) Powell and 'A Raisin in the Sun' took a strange and scary set of circumstances.

December 10, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

On Sept. 11, Linda Powell was in her Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side. Her father, the secretary of state, was in Lima having breakfast with the president of Peru. Colin Powell was handed a note. Linda Powell turned on her television. Their country, they both learned, was under attack. Plans changed.

The secretary of state was back on center stage, and Linda Powell's life took a dramatic turn as well.

Powell, a veteran stage actress, had committed to a London production of August Wilson's play, Jitney. This would mean leaving her crippled home of New York. The press then reported Powell pulled out of the production and that her father had banned his children from flying after the terrorist attacks.

"It was reported that it was security issues, but it was really me," Powell says. "I just wanted to be in New York and close to my family."

So, what brought her to Baltimore, where she is performing in Center Stage's A Raisin in the Sun? A twist of fate?

Powell's longtime director, Marion McClinton, called Linda after Sept. 11. McClinton, known to jokingly refer to Secretary Powell as "Linda Powell's father," asked Linda if she needed a role closer to home. I do need something to do, she said. How about something conveniently between Washington and New York - a role in A Raisin in the Sun at Baltimore's Center Stage? This feels very right, Powell thought.

There's even a back story.

"My father gave me the book this summer," she says. Out of the blue, Linda Powell's father sent his daughter a copy of Lorraine Hansberry's play. At the time, she had no plans to enter the world of Hansberry's Younger family and their dreams deferred. Then, the real world changed over breakfast Sept. 11, and she found herself offered the role of Ruth Younger in Baltimore.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," she said, "and I'm going to go do this."

Powell was back on center stage.

An early lunch

In Mount Vernon, Linda Powell appears for lunch at 2:10 p.m. She came from working out ("because I have to fit into my costumes"), and you never bother actresses before noon if they performed the night before. As Ruth, the weary, strong, loving wife of Walter Younger, Powell is on stage for much of A Raisin in the Sun - eight times a week. A 2:10 p.m. lunch might be rushing things.

She is dressed in post-gym apparel, her hair pulled back, and a scarf thing happening on her neck. What one really notices is her face -pretty, exceptionally so - and a striking resemblance to her father. Then again, others might swear she favors her Birmingham-born mother, Alma Powell, who it should be noted once played Emily in Our Town and had a radio show called Luncheon with Alma.

"My mother is fierce," Powell says. Fierce meaning fabulous.

What one sees in Linda Powell's face is bearing. She has a distinct sense of self, humor and confidence. One can imagine young Linda Margaret Powell - middle child, "a very good girl" she says - telling her parents, I'm going to be an actress. And she becomes one because she can't imagine doing anything else. She wants to move people, connect with them as if by magic. "But not a trick, you know? Real magic."

Betty Quirrin, Powell's sixth-grade teacher in Fort Campbell, Ky., gives her bright if stubborn student a part in Norton Juster's children's story, The Phantom Tollbooth. Powell plays the part of the "Spelling Bee." I can spell anything -a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Try me, try me!

"I was fabulous," Powell says. F-a-b-u-l-o-u-s. That was 24 years ago and to be unnecessarily factual, Powell turned 36 in April.

"She's getting old," says Quirrin, now retired in Tennessee. "Thirty-six. Hard to believe, my little girl."

They think of each other often and talk rarely. All you need to know about Mrs. Quirrin you already know if you had a teacher who took an interest in you in grade school. Someone who worked extra to make sure you weren't bored. Someone, in Linda's case, you could tell to get out once in awhile and see something modern and fun such as The Wiz.

"I made a point of seeing `The Wiz,' " Quirrin says.

They kept in touch over the years, which were usually marked by Colin Powell's storied promotions. Quirrin, who still refers to him as "The General," was duly noted in Powell's best-selling memoir, My American Journey: Each child deserves at least one Betty Quirrin.

"She was important," Linda Powell says.

"To this day," her teacher says, "I love her."

A dialogue on politics

Reporter: I found your father's memoir at Barnes & Noble in a book display called "Heroes." Tours of duty in Vietnam, Korea. Served under three (now four) presidents. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during Desert Storm. The tough call not to run for president in '96 ... I now realize I have accomplished nothing in my life.

Powell: (Laughing) Don't compare yourself to him. ... I had to learn that also.

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