Broadway classic ready for Wilson County debut

Xavier Smith • Feb 17, 2016 at 7:00 AM

The Wilson County Civic League’s annual Black History Month event is set to kickoff this weekend with three nights of the Broadway classic, “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry.

Performances are set for Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Market Street Community Center. Tickets and information are available at brownpapertickets.com, or by calling 615-449-0719.

Watertown native Mitchell Vantrease returns to direct this year’s stage play after he directed and starred in last year’s production, “Soul of Broadway.” This year, Mitchell’s production features a completely different cast and different venue.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to direct this show,” said Vantrease, who starred in this production five years ago in Arizona. “I wanted to bring it back here for a reason. ‘Raisin in the Sun’ was the first play to be produced on Broadway that’s written by an African-American woman, so it’s an historic play that’s been around a long time.”

Past productions of the play have featured Sidney Portier, P. Diddy, Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington.

“We wanted to find a show that would impact the community here, specifically, and Mitchell has been talking about this space in the gym and its history,” said Brady Quisberg,

Vantrease said he wanted to create a community-focused production, with seven of the 10 cast members hailing from Wilson County. “I really wanted to find almost all local talent as much as possible. I really wanted to keep this local,” Vantrease said. “I really wanted this to be about the community and I really want this community to turn into an arts community.”

Vantrease said other talents are from Murfreesboro and Cookeville. He also noted majority of the cast members will make their theatrical debut this weekend with the production.

“Our vets are bringing out the best in some of our theatre newbies. They are bringing a lot to the table. It’s a six-week process and I intentionally chose six to seven weeks to rehearse this play because of that reason,” Vantrease said.

Ethan Jones, who plays Walter Lee Younger, is one of the veterans of the cast and said the historical aspect of the production is important.

“It’s a classic. A lot of people that are familiar with ‘Raisin in the Sun’ are familiar with Sidney Portier’s movie version,” Jones said. “It’s historical in that sense. It’s also historical in the time frame that it takes place in. Hopefully, when people come, especially younger people, they’ll look at that and say they’re looking at history. This is kind of what life was like back in the 1950s.”

“It’s still very relevant and relatable. All the topics that took place when she was writing this show, we can still see very present in the community,” Quisberg said. “Every member of the family is a real person. You can relate these characters to someone you know –friend or relative – in some capacity. The relevance of this show still blows us away.”

“This is some real heavy stuff and stuff that when she wrote it, probably didn’t realize it would still be as strong as ever, today,” Vantrease said.

Vantrease also stressed the importance and significance of having the production at the once Market Street Elementary School, which was one of the Julius Rosenwald Schools built for African-American students during segregation.

“It’s really the perfect place to have it,” he said. “It’s also the opportunity for people who have never been inside this building to come. I’m sure plenty of people have driven past this building on the way to work, school or whatever and have never been inside. So, this is an opportunity for that to happen.”

“A lot of buildings here are older than the state of Arizona. We don’t have the history in Arizona like we do here. There are no buildings that I know of in Arizona that are significant African-American schools or anything like that. There is no historical aspect of this kind of thing,” said Quisberg, noting his appreciation for the history of the center has grown.

“It’s bringing all the things you’ve heard about in history class. It’s kind of like ‘wow,’” Quisberg said.

The “Raisin in the Sun” cast consists of: Darlene Knight as Lena Younger; Gwendolyn; Rochelle Manning as Ruth Younger; Jenny Smith as Beneatha Younger; Jeremiah Marsh as Travis Younger; Turner Donaldson as Joseph Asagai; Christan McLaurine as George Murchison; Ken Jones as Karl Lindner; Kay Thompson as Mrs. Johnson and Jonathan Gross as Bobo.

Vantrease and Quisberg also praised Marsh, the cast’s youngest member.

“I’m really excited about Jeremiah because he’s coming out of his shell and it’s making me realize there really needs to be a youth theatre here,” Vantrease said. “He’s the perfect example showing why the arts are important to kids. He was definitely in a cocoon before we started,” Quisberg said.

The duo said they plan to start at community theater in Lebanon in the future.

“This is kind of our trial run of what we could do. We’re in the works of really ramping up. It’s been very encouraging with this cast to see a bunch of rookies turn things around and do some amazing things,” Vantrease said.

“I think this is going to be a big introduction to something. We want to provide community theatre for adults and children.”


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