Angela Freeman had never acted before in her life. But starting this month she's taking a starring role in PassinArt Theater company's production of "Diva's Daughters Dupree" by Kim Euall.
That's nothing new for PassinArt, which for the last 26 years has worked hard to include new voices in their productions. Company members talent spotted Freeman, a vice principal in the Evergreen school district and an amateur singer, at "Say Hey," the social networking party that welcomes professionals of color who are new to the area.
For nearly a month now, Freeman has been rehearsing the role of Sarah, the middle child of three grown sisters.
"Sarah's an educated black woman who's passionate about what she does," Freeman says about her character.
In the play, the three Dupree sisters come together unexpectedly when they all return home on the 10-year anniversary of their parents' deaths. The sisters are not only separated by decades in age, they each grew up in a different financial period of their parents' lives. All of this has affected their choice in men, their view of money, and their relationship with each other, says Brenda Phillips, the play's director.
The African American theatre company will be showcasing this funny, poignant play in a larger space than they had for previous shows – The Imago Theater. Connie Carley, a co-founder of the company and board member, said the move from their regular space at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center was partly necessity and partly to help the company grow.
"There was an increase in requests for IFCC," she said. Demand for the IFCC theater space has been growing, and the cultural center's mission includes nurturing companies who are starting out. That used to be PassinArt, but now the company has established its artistic reputation, and is ready to move on.
Performing at a larger theater will have benefits, Carley said. People will come who have never seen PassinArt in action before.
"It will get people to talk about issues affecting African Americans," she said.
Ultimately, Carley says, PassinArt is about the community. Even with increased assistance from the Regional Arts and Cultural Committee, they will stay close to their roots. Actors with PassinArt regularly hold readings at local libraries; they use first-time talent; and the company chooses thought-provoking plays that deal with topics such as HIV/AIDS, the War in Iraq, the working class and African Americans in the West, as well as many others.
During a recent rehearsal, novice Freeman is performing her character with maverick grace. The dialogue, somewhat terse at times, reveals a family strained by different beliefs, class, religion and spouses. But most of all, director Phillips says the play is reminiscent of any family whose siblings espouse a wide diversion of opinions and lifestyles. In other words, most families.
Freeman says she grew up with six sisters and one brother, so she has no problem playing a character often at odds with those she loves the most.
"It's all normal family stuff," she said.
Shelley Mathers-Johnson, playing Billie the oldest sister, agrees.
"You always pull a lot from your own life," she says of acting. The hardest part, she says, is acting angry, sad and bitter – her character's main traits.
"It is my therapy," she says.
Phillips says most audiences will recognize something of their own families in the sisters, their love interests and their family dynamics. The oldest, Billie, who grew up in the ghetto, controls everything in her environment and obsesses about finances. The middle sister, Sarah, grew up in suburbia to become a Black studies professor who is dating one of her students. The youngest sister, Abbey, grew up wealthy and is a carefree bisexual who recently married an Israeli immigrant.
"You have to respect each others desires and wants," Phillips said of the characters. "We are a product of our own environments."
Clayton Pearce, who plays Uri, an Israeli immigrant married to Abbey (played by Shauna Dance), says the characters are larger than life.
"They have very clear intentions, specific desires and they all conflict with each other," he said. "It helps build the comedy."
The play is a product of its environment as well. Phillips said the set is a full working house, with separate rooms all visible to the audience and a working kitchen. The meals served during the dinner scenes will be eaten (at least partially). Phillips has directed several other plays for PassinArt, and when she's not in the director's chair, she acts. Phillips belongs to the Actor's Equity Association, putting her at a pay scale a small company such as PassinArt finds difficult to afford. Most recently she acted in the Portland run for "Menopause the Musical."
Freeman says working with students all day and practicing all night brings unique stresses. But is she nervous to be on the stage for the first time?
"I'm too tired to be nervous," she said.
"Diva's Daughters DuPree" runs from March 21 to April 13 at the Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. 8th Ave. Showtimes are Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Seating is $20 for general admission at the door or $17 in advance. Tickets are available at Reflections Coffee House, 446 N.E. Killingsworth or online at www.passinart.net/services.html.