by Mellissa Thomas
Imagine seeing a bevy of minority-written plays being offered all year round in Orlando, seeing historic and emotionally rich posters and flyers abound for more than two isolated occasions per year. Now, imagine the many business advantages that prospect presents: More plays being produced means more venue calendars get fuller sooner (and perhaps new venues opening), and more variety for residents and tourists alike wondering what in the world there is to do in Orlando besides Mickey Mouse or Universal and partying downtown (which both cost more than a pretty penny). Surrounding businesses would benefit as well: food, shopping, parking, and the like. More importantly, however, this prospect opens the door for local actors—minority actors, particularly—to gain more work and experience, and provide underserved youth another window through which to see the world and opportunities available to them.
Cultural Fusion Theater Productions (CFTP) is already working to make that happen with its inaugural play, “Having Our Say, The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” showing at 8 p.m. April 9-11, 2015 at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center-Mandell Theater.
Orlando’s “Broadway” is about to get a lot more colorful.
A Glaring Need and a Vibrant Dream
“Theater for African Americans and Hispanics wasn’t done on a consistent basis as it’s done everywhere else,” explained CFTP founder and “Having Our Say” Director Kenneth Brown in a recent interview with Florida National News. “…And we decided that needed to change.”
“Having Our Say” Stage Director Bob Poe added another observation. According to him, one of the first things Brown noticed was that Orlando’s community theaters only produced a play for Black History Month and for Hispanic Heritage Month. “[Orlando’s arts community] didn’t have…a consistent voice for the minority community,” Poe expounded. “So there weren’t opportunities for African American and Hispanic playwrights, and [therefore] African American and Hispanic actors.” Poe said Brown wanted to have a perpetual “voice for an underserved community.”
So in May 2014, Cultural Fusion Theater Productions was born.
Hitting the Ground Running
CFTP’s inaugural play simultaneously commemorates two of the country’s grandest occasions: Black History Month and Women’s History Month. “Having Our Say” chronicles the lives of sisters Sarah L. and A. Elizabeth Delany, “Sadie” and “Bessie” respectively, who lived to be 109 and 104 years old (also respectively). The play, adapted by Emily Mann from the sisters’ New York Times bestselling oral history as told to Amy Hill Hearth, follows their experiences across the century with wit and charm. “It’s a testament of the strength, courage, and tenacity of women,” Brown said of the play during its press party in March. “And not just African American women, I think this play represents women of all races.”
Sadie Delany was the first African American permitted to teach domestic science (home economics) at the high school level in New York public schools, and Bessie Delany was the second African American female dentist licensed in New York State. Their family made history in several other ways as well, and audiences will learn of them in the play.
Casting began in February for what Brown said has been an eight-week production process. Principal actress Yolanda Cade, who portrays Sadie Delany, was surprised when she was accepted for the part, given that she was initially invited to do a table read. “Their story is so powerful and so compelling,” Cade said of the book. “And when I read the script, I was so compelled by how much Sadie is like me. How close she was to her mother, how calm she was, versus her sister, who was more of a fighter.”
Cultural Fusion’s Future
Brown had been looking for venues in which to present plays since he began last May, and noted that the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center-Mandell Theater had opened up to present “Having Our Say.” “But we’re still looking for a permanent home,” he added. When asked if he would present any plays at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC), he optimistically replied, “Yeah, hopefully.”
Brown and Poe are friends and supporters of District 5 Commissioner Regina Hill, and according to her, were the very first people to believe in her when she started running for office. Commissioner Hill supports the project wholeheartedly, and has the same aspirations as Brown. “I want our African Americans to be able to have their events at DPAC…I’m hoping Mr. Brown will be doing future plays [there],” she told Florida National News during the press party.
Hill also offered a glimpse into organization’s future. “[Brown] mentioned that as Cultural Fusion grows, he’ll start to bring in youth from the community to act.”
While “Having Our Say” is the inaugural play, it is not Cultural Fusion’s only play. Brown revealed he already has a couple others in the production pipeline. The thirty-year theater veteran has experience in acting, directing, and play writing. When asked which role was his personal favorite, he admitted that for the moment, his favorite is directing.
For more information about Cultural Fusion Theater Productions and “Having Our Say”, visit culturalfusion.org.