Durham News: Community

Black actors gaining ground in Durham theater scene

Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey in “The Best of Enemies.”
Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey in “The Best of Enemies.” COURTESY OF ALEX MANESS

Actress Lakeisha Coffey has been part of Durham’s professional theater scene for several years, but she’s never had a season like this one

On Saturday, she’ll wrap up a powerhouse performance as Durham civil rights activist Ann Atwater in Manbites Dog Theater’s “Best of Enemies.” The play, by Mark St. Germain, depicts the real and riveting story of Atwater and C.P. Ellis, who was a local Ku Klux Klan leader when the pair met.

Easily two of the most polarizing figures in town, Atwater and Ellis reluctantly co-chaired a committee on school desegregation in Durham in the early ’70s, then went on to forge an improbable lifelong friendship.

Back in September, Coffey was among an all-black ensemble cast that performed Thornton Wilder’s classic “Our Town” at Little Green Pig, a Durham company known for experimental work, nontraditional casting and unconventional approaches to familiar plays.

And with roles in three more productions coming up between mid-January and early June, Coffey, 35, acknowledges that her steady run of strong parts is rare, “something you don’t hear of” in a single season.

That’s especially true if you’re talking roles with substance, which is how she describes each of the five: from Mrs. Webb in “Our Town,” to Atwater, to a Senegalese Olympic archer in Little Green Pig’s “Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo.” The latter will premiere in May as part of Manbites Dog’s Other Voices series.

“That is something that we (black actors) sometimes lack,” she said. “For a long time, the only roles we would be considered for were household help or slaves.”

Coffey, who lives and works a full-time banking job in Raleigh, doesn’t try to pinpoint one single reason for her breakout season. However, she does say that “now some companies are looking to do color-blind casting, so some roles that were (once) open to other ethnicities are more open to African-Americans.

“I think it has a lot to do with the quality of talent and the amount of talent” in the area, she added. “Sometimes directors and people who do the casting are willing to look past skin tone to get good quality work on their stage.”

Growing diversity

Coffey’s experience this season, and her reflections on both the quality and quantity of talent in the Triangle, point to a progression Jeff Storer sees when it comes to the presence of actors of color on Durham stages.

If you charted the numbers of minority actors, along with the diversity of audiences and playwrights whose works have been performed over the last 15 to 20 years in Durham, “you would see that growth over a period of time,” said Storer, artistic director at Manbites Dog and a theater studies professor at Duke.

“This is not a phenomenon that just happened this year,” but one he’s seen develop since arriving in Durham in 1982, he said. Not only are there more actors of color working in this area than there were 15 years ago, but more are graduating with MFAs or bachelor’s degrees in theater and theater studies, he said.

In addition, the more that companies like his “continue to explore the work of African-American playwrights or playwrights of color ... the more we prioritize telling those stories, the more naturally we’re going to start to incorporate more actors of color.”

That includes casting more Latino actors and drawing Latino audiences, Storer said.

“It’s something that has proven to be a little bit more difficult,” but a goal that Manbites Dog, founded in 1987, is committed to achieving. “It certainly is part of our mission to represent that diversity of the society we’re serving,” he said.

Beyond race

Little Green Pig and Durham Family Theater (DFT), a self-described arts/education nonprofit organization, are two other companies with proven commitments to theater that reflects the area’s diversity, including and extending beyond race.

Durham Family Theater’s mission statement, posted on its website, defines it as “a multi-racial, inter-generational, community-based theater company.” The site’s home page also includes the following statement on the company’s casting policy, most recently demonstrated in DFT’s production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” last month: “Durham Family Theater is dedicated to the practice of ‘Rainbow Casting’ – our casts are always multi-racial/multi-ethnic.”

Jay O’Berski, artistic director at Little Green Pig, speaks to the challenges of meeting that objective: “Even we struggle with certain projects trying to make them rainbowed,” he said of his company. But as he sees and describes it, it’s not color-blind casting that Little Green Pig is after.

“The way one looks and where one comes from are actually considered, but considered in a positive way – so it’s not blind, it’s respected,” said O’Berski, who has directed Coffey in past productions and will again in “Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo.”

At Little Green Pig, “we are constantly (weighing) when things should be all one race, one show, or should we rainbow, and usually the answer is (based on) who we have, the best people for the job,” he said.