Having the opportunity to play the first black female writer to be produced on Broadway is quite a coup. For South Florida actress Karen Stephens, who is receiving rave reviews for her portrayal of late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “it is both rewarding and a challenge to play a real person with all of the complexities of human nature.”
Stephens stars as Hansberry in Chitterling Heights, running through Aug. 28 at the Women’s Theater Project in Fort Lauderdale.
Ann Morrissett Davidon penned the play that is set in 1962 and brings together two of the country’s most promising black writers: Hansberry, who was still floating from the success of her play A Raisin in the Sun, and novelist and activist James Baldwin. A frustrated Hansberry seeks advice from Baldwin on her newest work, inviting him up to her country house where she and her husband, with whom she has a conflicted relationship, are staying. Baldwin brings along his Southern Belle protégé who adds an interesting mix to the weekend’s dynamics.
Davidon used what she learned from a similar weekend that she spent at Hansberry’s get-away to infuse the play with a strong foundation of truth.
Stephens said portraying Hansberry has afforded her the chance to get to know the late playwright a little better.
“There is not a lot written about Lorraine and very little film footage, so I had to fill in the blanks with the information I had and the info that the playwright provided.”
What she has learned, she said, is that she and the playwright have some things in common.
“Lorraine was a very conflicted person, dedicated to the plight of her fellow man and sought to affect social change through her writing. In the process of developing this character for the play, I leaned that Ms. Hansberry was a flesh and blood artist awash in human foible just like anyone else, and that she constantly struggled against her own personal demons to do the right thing.” Stephens said. “I learned that I share many of the doubt and insecurities about myself and my art that she did.”
Stephens, named the 2011 Best Actress by Miami New Times, takes a spiritual approach to preparing to take the stage.
“I just try to open myself up to the divine creative energy that is inside of me and all around me to create multi faceted, dimensional characters and truth on stage.”
She is hopeful that Chitterling Heights will whet audiences’ appetite for Baldwin and Hansberry, who died in 1965 at the age of 34 from cancer.
“I am just a vessel for the playwright's voice and what she hoped to say with this play is something I can't know, since she is no longer living. However, I believe audience members will get a more rounded view of an artist that we've held near and dear to us for a long time but never really knew much about.”
South Florida theater-goers will get the chance to see more of Stephens when she repeats her Carbonell-nominated portrayal in Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel next month at the Willow Theater at Sugar Sand Park in Boca Raton – moving her closer to her dream of “working on stage full time with enough work to make a living and doing film.”
Renee Michelle Harris may be contacted at RMHarris15@Bellsouth.net
Photo: Karen Stephens in Chitterling Heights