All Eyes On Albright’s Stage

Mesmerized by an engaging cast and surprising effects — such as the smell of breakfast wafting from a working frying pan on stage — audience members offered multiple standing ovations during on-campus showings of “A Raisin in the Sun,” last fall.

And months later in New Jersey, crowds stood again during invited Kennedy Center Mid-Atlantic festival performances, for which the crew methodically tore down and rebuilt their entire intricate set out-of-state.

So it was not a complete surprise that, in April, the Domino Players learned that out of 52 productions from all eight geographical regional Kennedy Center festivals across the country they been chosen to receive an astounding nine national awards, including the Kennedy Center’s highest national honor — making it the troupe’s third national title since 2007.

“Without a doubt, Albright has had an enormous amount of success in the last 15 years,” says Gregg Henry, artistic director of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). “I’ve been around the block, and have seen all of the festival productions since 2000. And I look forward to what Albright brings to festivals each year, because they set the high bar for others.”

KCACTF is a national theatre program with a network of more than 600 academic institutions and many thousands of college students throughout the country, offering opportunities for theatre departments and student-artists to showcase work and receive outside assessment. The organization aims to encourage, recognize, critique and celebrate the finest and most diverse work produced in college theater programs while providing opportunities to develop theatre skills and program quality. Annual festivals in January and February showcase the finest of each region’s entered productions while offering attendees a variety of workshops and activities. And since its inception, more than 16 million theatergoers have attended approximately 10,000 Kennedy Center festival productions, nationwide.

“It was just surreal,” says cast member Sania Fontaine ’20, who won a distinguished performance award for her role as Beneatha Younger. “If you had asked me in my freshman year if I ever thought that would be my reality, I would have laughed. But, the cast of ‘Raisin’ connected on an amazing level, and because we did, we created a beautiful piece of art, and even more beautiful friendships.”

A meaningful message

Written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959, “A Raisin in the Sun” depicts a few weeks in the life of a financially-troubled African- American family, living in a Chicago apartment. When the family receives an insurance check, family members become divided over what they would like to do with the money.

The masterpiece, one of four different “social justice” themed productions offered throughout Albright’s 2018-19 theatre season, is noted for anticipating the issues that sparked the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s, as well as struggles over economic justice and systematic racism that persist today. According to the New York Times, it’s a classic “that changed American theatre forever.”

“This is one of those great American plays that’s been around for 50 plus years,” says Henry. “So the fact that [the Domino Players] made us sit up and pay attention to it speaks volumes. The college’s extraordinary acting ensemble made a real impact, especially given that the majority of the cast members were undergraduates.”

“It was a really powerful experience and clearly shows the power of the faculty and the strength of the college’s theatre program,” says Henry who singled out Jeffrey Lentz, M.M. ’85 as a leader and an artist-to-watch for other Kennedy Center participants.

A senior artist in residence for theatre and music, as well as co-chair of music, Lentz directed Albright’s last two KCACTF national award-winning shows, “Waiting for Godot” (2006) and “Clybourne Park” (2015). He is also an active member of the college’s Council for an Inclusive, Thriving, and Equitable Community (CITE-C).

“CITE-C focuses on issues of inclusion and equity and making sure those issues are covered comprehensively on campus,” Lentz explains. “So the themes of our shows this past season directly addressed and explored those issues.” For business administration marketing major, Khansa Stewart ’21, the productions were lessons in how to treat others, overcoming challenges and understanding the possibilities and limitations of humanity. It is her hope, she says, that audiences take those lessons to heart.

“I sincerely hope that those who saw our productions learned about empathy and the power of being able to have difficult conversations,” says Stewart, who worked behind the scenes on all four 2018-19 shows. “This season was about social justice, but it also was about humility and humanity.”

It takes a village

For some, participating in Albright theatre can be a powerful experience.

“This year’s season taught me that theatrical art truly can be effective in communicating social problems,” says theatre/psychology major Autumn Blalock ’20. “It proved to me that what I desire to do with theatre is not only possible, it is very much needed.”

While the social justice season was remarkable on many levels, it was in no way atypical, says Wayne E. Vettleson, M.F.A., technical director and associate professor of theatre. The department’s success, explains Vettleson, is based on an outstanding work ethic and dedication to the program.

“We are a very small, liberal arts theatre department,” Vettleson says. “But, we keep chugging along and that’s why we’re so successful and have been recognized so many times at the national level.”

Julia Matthews, Ph.D., an associate professor of theatre who was honored for directing “A Raisin in the Sun,” agreed.

“It’s a lot of hard work to put these shows together, but everyone dives in and does what needs to be done,” Matthews says. “It’s always a pleasure to work with students who give everything they have to a show. It’s neat to see them grow and develop.”

“It’s changed the way I interact with the world and with other people,” says Miranda Holliday ’20, a political science/ theatre major who has been accepted into the National Theatre Institute in Connecticut for the fall semester. Holliday credits faculty members with much of the theatre program’s success.

“It would be difficult to talk about the theatre program without talking about the professors,” she said. “The department wouldn’t be as good — or as beautiful — as it is, without them.”