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There has been a nice display of locally-grown talent for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's last two productions — Avery Clark in the title role in "Hamlet" and Jason Harper and a host of kids in "A Christmas Story" — and this happy trend continues with the upcoming production of Lorraine Hansberry's masterwork "A Raisin in the Sun."
Phyllis Yvonne Stickney calls herself "bi-coastal," with homes in entertainment capitals New York and Los Angeles thanks to a healthy movie career that includes roles in "Malcolm X," "What's Love Got to Do With It?," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and others. But Stickney, a 1998 inductee to the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, is returning to her native city to take on the role of matriarch Lena Younger. It wasn't a part the small-framed Stickney immediately considered a great fit.
"Oh no, I wasn't going to audition," says Stickney. "When I walk in the room, I don't know that you physically see me as Lena Younger. I thought they would want a different body type, a bigger woman. That's who has played this part in the past. But then the fact that Phylicia Rashad was cast and she's not that type and the fact the play was in Arkansas made the difference."
"Raisin in the Sun" is also a homecoming of sorts for the director, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Maharaj lives in New York but over the past several years he's developed a close relationship with Little Rock and the Rep. His high-profile projects at the Rep include his founding of Voices at the River, a new play festival featuring African-American and Latino playwrights, and the production of his play "Little Rock," a docu-drama about the Central High crisis. He has also directed "Dreamgirls" and "Intimate Apparel" for the Rep.
There is also a Central High connection to the production of "Raisin in the Sun": Spirit Trickey, playwright and daughter of Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown-Trickey, is on board as assistant director. Hansberry's play, which debuted on Broadway in 1959 and has been frequently revived, most recently with Rashad and Sean "Diddy" Combs in the cast, is a domestic drama, in which the Younger family struggles to improve their lot in life by way of an insurance check. Trickey sees the play as dealing with the issue of civil rights in a way that isn't as stark or direct as the way the Central High battle unfolded.
"You see the struggle in a different light," says Trickey. "It's not about soldiers walking kids so they could go to school but it's a different insight to a different form of struggle. It's a snapshot into this era. The great thing about this era is the resistance of the people and the tactics they used to resist."
The actors in the "Raisin" cast agree is that the play is an emotionally charged experience.
"All of the characters here hit bottom at some point in the play," says Lynnette R. Freeman, who plays Ruth Younger. "But that's what the play is. It brings up those feelings. My acting teacher says if it's done right you shouldn't feel spent but at the end you should feel clean."
"A Raisin in the Sun"
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Performances: Friday, Jan. 21, through Sunday, Feb. 6, with performances 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A preview performance on Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 19-20, will follow a pre-show discussion with director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj at 6:15 p.m.