Dickenz in the 'Hood

By Hughes, Leonard | American Theatre, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Dickenz in the 'Hood


Hughes, Leonard, American Theatre


When you rip your heart out of your chest in the Fichandler Theatre at Arena Stage, you don't just yank it out and drop it on the bed--especially if you are the ghost of Jacob Marley and you've been dead for seven years, and it's Christmas Eve. And even though the stage directions only say, "Marley takes his heart out and shows it to Scrooge," you have to pull it out with a flourish. "Show it to the Arena," says actor Henry Strozier, holding the koosh-ball "heart" and brandishing it to the four walls of the rehearsal hall. Strozier has logged 11 years with Washington, D.C.'s premiere theatre-in-the-round and has landed the role of Marley in Cornerstone Theater Company's brand-new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, running through January 2. He knows what to do with a heart at Arena Stage.

But that doesn't stop 11-year-old D'Vaughn Spencer from making a gruesome suggestion. "You should get some of that goopy stuff from a toy store--red--and let it run through your fingers," he says with authority. Director Bill Rauch approves with a grin.

This may be the 10-billionth adaptation of Charles Dickens's well-worn tale of skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge's encounter with a pack of ghosts on the night before Christmas--but this one is unlike any that went before, not only because it is set in 1993 in the southeast Washington neighborhood of Anacostia, but because A Community Carol is a unique collaboration of people from that struggling neighborhood, from the highly polished Arena Stage, and from Cornerstone, the distinctively populist company that specializes in bringing live productions to theatre-less communities around the country.

This production is unusual, even for Cornerstone. It's the first time the Los Angeles-based traveling company has forged a partnership with a major resident theatre, enlisting its seasoned professionals as collaborators and basking in its long-respected footlights.

On this Veterans Day weekend, two weeks before opening night, about half of A Community Carol's 35-member cast gathers in the production's "rehearsal hall," a warehouse room on the ground floor of a parking garage across the street from the theatre in Washington's upscale southwest waterfront neighborhood.

Strozier, who has just wound up a critically acclaimed performance as Malvolio in Arena's production of Twelfth Night, swaps quips with Al Freeman Jr., the Emmy-winning soap-opera star who left the cast of One Life to Live in 1988 to become a theatre professor at Howard University and is now starring as Ebenezer Scrooge, a black businessman who has walled himself away from the needs of his community. They are being coached by Rauch, who founded Cornerstone in 1986 with like-minded cohorts from Harvard, from which he graduated two years earlier.

"We kicked around the idea of starting our own company that would interact with the community and work with nontraditional casts," Rauch says. "We thought it was not only a great thing to do, but that it would help us develop more deeply as artists, pushing us in new directions." In tandem with Harvard history graduate Alison Carey (who contributed to the writing of A Community Carol and is playing minor characters in the show), Rauch launched the venture with an interracial production of Our Town in Newport News, Va., then moved on to hammer out a Wild West version of Hamlet in the tiny town of Marmarth in North Dakota (and helped launch a community theatre there after the Marmarth Hamlet closed).

Perhaps the most dramatic project came in the winter of 1988: In Port Gibson, Miss., where segregation survived in earnest, the company reworked Romeo and Juliet as the story of a racial feud, casting a white company member as Juliet and a black local high school student as Romeo. The story of that production caught the eyes of Hollywood producers and has been sold to Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment for a possible film production in late 1994.

Cornerstone's accomplishments notwithstanding, it took some fast talking to convince the board of directors of the 43-year-old Arena Stage, and some of its company members, to undertake a production where half the cast has little or no acting experience and to offer it as a regular part of Arena's subscription series. …

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