Rep Stage opening with `Anna Lucasta'

Melodrama: The 1940s tear-jerker found new life and Broadway acclaim with treatment by an African-American cast.

September 26, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Philip Yordan's play Anna Lucasta is a theatrical piece that transcends its time and its genre.

The play, which opens Rep Stage's 2002-2003 season at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre tomorrow night, began its life as a classic 1940s melodrama.

Originally composed as the tear-stained story of a young streetwalker from an abusive Polish immigrant family, Anna was anything but successful in its original format.

But it was quickly snapped up by the American Negro Theater, an acting ensemble formed in New York's Harlem to provide career opportunities for black artists unable to find work downtown in Manhattan's theater district.

Yordan's play, revamped to fit into an African-American context, became such a sensation that it would move to Broadway, where it would run for 957 performances over a three-year span.

During that prodigious run, audiences got to experience the revelatory artistry of gifted actresses such as Hilda Simms, Isabelle Cooley, Ruby Dee and Alice Childress, as the stature of the African-American stage grew exponentially in America's cultural consciousness.

The story of the rejected prostitute turned into a pawn by a scheming scoundrel out to capitalize on her checkered past would go on to become a hit in theaters across the world.

Yordan's play ran for a solid year in London. It also became a vehicle for Molly Picon, the darling of New York's Yiddish Theater, whose talents made the story irresistible to Jewish audiences.

Hollywood would claim Anna twice - in 1949 in an all-white film starring Paulette Goddard, and in 1958 in an African-American version with the sultry-voiced Eartha Kitt starring in the title role.

Rep Stage is clearly delighted to be opening its season with such a unique piece of theater history.

"When we looked at our programming in recent years," says Kasi Campbell, the company's associate artistic director, "we decided we wanted an African-American show that would capitalize on all the talent in our area."

A call was put in to Jennifer Nelson, producing artistic director of Washington's African Continuum Theatre Company, only professional black theater ensemble in the District of Columbia.

Nelson, who has worked in theater as an actress, administrator, playwright and director for three decades while teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles and several area universities, did not hesitate.

"I've been so fascinated with this play as a historical piece that it's been on my wish list for years," says Nelson. "Even doing the research for this production has been a delight.

"I've bought a couple of old Anna Lucasta programs on eBay, and the rest of the cast can't wait to share tidbits about the play that they've come across, either."

She will certainly have an accomplished cast to work with.

Deidra LaWan Starnes, who will play Anna, recently was nominated for her second Helen Hayes Award in African Continuum's production of Spunk. A veteran of shows at Everyman Theatre, Olney Theatre Center and other area houses, she is a faculty member of the Theatre Lab and director of its Summer Acting Camp for Kids.

Anna's sympathetic beau, Rudolf, will be played by J.J. Johnson, whose impressive stage credits include several Shakespearean roles.

Danny, the rapscallion seeking to exploit Anna's sordid past, will be played by Kevin Jiggetts, whose stage performances are augmented by a television resume that includes principal roles on As the World Turns and Homicide: Life on the Street.

Anna Lucasta runs from tomorrow through Oct. 13 at Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with an additional performance at 7 p.m. Oct. 10. Tickets are $10 for a Thursday performance, $20 for Fridays, $13 for Saturday matinees, $22 for Saturday evenings, $17 for Sunday matinees and $15 for Sunday evenings. Student tickets are $10 for all shows. Senior citizens receive a $2 discount on all full-price tickets. Tickets may be reserved by calling the Rep Stage box office, 410-772-4900. Information: www.howardcc.edu/repstage.

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