Serendipity Players tackles area black history in white America

Theater scene's lack of diversity with play that takes unflinching look at black experience in U.S.

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoSerendipity Players cast member Calvin Kyles, portraying black nationalist Marcus Garvey, extols the virtues of returning to Africa.

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photoAs genteel Southerner Eliza Andres, Deborah Brown mourns the loss of the slaves who used to make her life comfortable.

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photoActress Maima Fahnbulleh flexes some muscle while rehearsing the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech of escaped slave Sojourner Truth.

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Serendipity Players' 2013 season

Here's Serendipity Players' schedule for the rest of 2013. "No one has put on a season like this in Vancouver," Artistic Director Tony Broom said.

"Proof," by David Auburn, March 8-24. Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning study of genius, mental illness and family ties.

"Fuddy Meers," by David Lindsay-Abaire, May 31-June 23. Mystery-comedy about amnesia and unreliable, shifting truths.

"The Laramie Project," by Moises Kaufman, July 26-Aug. 18. Theatrical collage focusing on local reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shephard.

"The Only Way Out Is Through," by Miriam Feder, Sept. 6-15. Winner of Serendipity's New Play competition will be musical dinner theater at El Presidente restaurant. Two women's lifetimes of joys and challenges, from friendships to businesses and divorces to natural disasters.

"Veronica's Room," by Ira Levin: Oct. 4–27. Mystery thriller exploring the thin line between fantasy and reality.

"Inspecting Carol" by Daniel Sullivan, Dec. 6-22. Christmas comedy that peeks backstage at a chaotic community theater production of "A Christmas Carol."

Serendipity Players is a nonprofit, tax-exempt theater company always interested in funding partners and sponsors. Also, Serendipity is eager to hear from American Sign Language interpreters interested in exchanging services for a course in shadow interpreting. Email: serendipityplayers@yahoo.com.

If you go

What: "In White America" by Martin B. Duberman. Directed by Bridgette Fahnbulleh.

When: 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 15, 16, 22 and 23; 2 p.m. on Feb. 17 and 24.

Where: 500 Washington St.

Cost: $15, general admission; "pay what you will" on Feb. 17 matinee only.

Information:http://serendipityplayers.org or 360-834-3588.

Related story

'In White America' seasoned with local recollections

Barriers to theater are the same as barriers to mainstream American life. If your skin is dark or you don't speak the King's English, if you're disabled, or older, or gay, or otherwise "different" — you may find the curtain essentially closed.

Enter Serendipity Players, formed by husband-and-wife thespians Tony Broom and Sandra Geary, who moved here from Portland in 2009 and quickly came to view the Vancouver theater scene — and, frankly, the whole regional theater scene, Portland included — as lacking something crucial: diversity.

"The audiences are mostly white and the players are mostly white," said artistic director Broom. "You don't see people of color, you don't see people in wheelchairs. You don't see the deaf or hard of hearing. You just don't see people who are 'different.'"

Great theater, they decided, includes everybody. That's the Serendipity motto, and after a year of groundwork — pulling together a board of directors and incorporating as a nonprofit, hunting for real estate and getting it permitted — Serendipity Players is open for business at 500 Washington St., and ready to unveil its offering for Black History Month.

"In White America," by Martin B. Duberman, is a series of dramatic monologues drawn directly from the bitter underside of American history — the cruelties of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and slavery in the United States, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, black nationalism and black women's liberation. The play won a Vernon Rice/Drama Desk Award for Best Off-Broadway Production in 1963.

Letters, speeches and other real documents made up the bulk of "In White America," but Serendipity has both edited down and spiced up its 45-minute version of the play by inviting local African-Americans to tell their own stories at the end.

A number of Vancouver folks have risen to that challenge, and five or six true-life storytellers will rotate through the several productions of the play, Geary said — contributing their own versions of black life in white America.

Pain and pride

Letters, speeches, court transcripts and other texts drawn directly from American history are the source material for "In White America."

"This is documentary theater," said director Bridgette Fahnbulleh. "The stars are the words, not necessarily the people."

But the multicolored, richly costumed cast taking the stage to speak the words of historical figures both famous (Thomas Jefferson, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey) and not-so-famous (a ship doctor appalled at what he saw during the Middle Passage, a black mother stripped and whipped by the Ku Klux Klan) certainly bring star power to the production.

"Ain't I a woman?" thunders Maima Fahnbulleh, playing escaped slave and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth with the requisite intelligence and force. "Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?"

"The message of this play is really important," said Fahnbulleh, the director's daughter. Her opinion — unlike Broom's — is that Portland has a much more diverse theater scene than Vancouver, and "In White America" will help "open the Vancouver community to that kind of diversity too. People really need to hear this."

And if the multicolored cast and serious subject matter of "In White America" didn't already fulfill the inclusive mission of Serendipity Players, here's actress Deborah Brown's addition: Brown auditioned and won a part in the show without anybody realizing she has suffered a stroke, and struggles at times to get her words out.

Perhaps it's fitting that Brown plays Eliza Andres, a genteel Southerner struggling with the loss of slaves who used to do her housework. That work, Andres says, is "a waste of time for people capable of doing more" — white people like herself — and she ponders training apes from Africa to replace the liberated slaves.

It's an example, director Fahnbulleh said, of virulent racism that mustn't be removed from the play, no matter how offensive. Get ready to hear the N-word, she said. "It's difficult for the white actors. But we couldn't not say it," she said. Historical accuracy, in all its ugliness, is the point. "There's pain and difficulty, there's joy and triumph, there's ending slavery. This country has a lot to be proud of," she said.

By coincidence, white actress Brown and black actress Rubi Williams — who plays Ku Klux Klan victim Mrs. Tutsono — grew up on opposite sides of the tracks in the same Deep South town, Sumpter, S.C. They didn't know one another.

"Most of the black kids worked in the cotton fields while the white kids went to school," said Williams. But her family sent her to school too, and when they were questioned why, the answer was simple enough: "My father didn't own a cotton field. So I had to go to school," Williams said. "Other black kids didn't have the opportunity."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.