The history of Anna Lucasta is long and sometimes unclear. The play was written in 1936 by Philip Yordan about a Polish family and was later adapted by Abram Hill for American Negro Theater in New York. Yordan brought Hill’s adaptation to Broadway, where it ran for a record 957 performances at the Mansfield Theatre in 1944, amid controversy over crediting American Negro Theater and other contributors, and inspired two films, including the late-1950s version starring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr.
When I first saw that ’50s version, I was taken with it because of the performances of the actors and because some of the moments, even though filled with passion, were underplayed and at times didn’t support the text of the screenplay. The film was incomplete; even so, it stayed with me. It was clear to me its undeveloped moments or hesitancy or simple refusal to portray black characters fully in vivid emotional relationships and the results of those relationships was a sign of the times. This remains the case even today with so-called nontraditional or color-blind casting. Some of us are deemed colored or ethnic by Western definitions, and certainly, given this country’s historical treatment of people of any color other than Caucasian, we are still often reduced to one-dimensional characters. Not being recognized for who and what we are culturally and compelled by need and limited choices to accept what is offered by way of mainstream penance is unacceptable for myself and many artists of color.
Nevertheless, reading Hill’s adaptation of the play, it occurred to me this was a story about a black family that could possibly be any family, but of course it is more a story about one very specific woman, Anna Lucasta. This sealed the choice of Anna Lucasta as something right for the Robey Theatre Company. The central character is a black woman navigating a terrain for which she was completely unprepared. This terrain contains so many obstacles that would defeat a lesser person, leaving him or her to become one more casualty along the road, a metaphor for many intangible obstacles people of color encounter. I feel Anna embodies tremendous strength of spirit, integrity, innocence, instinctual intelligence, a savvy voracious impulse to protect her very tender and vulnerable human sensibility when seemingly at every turn there are attempts to strip her of that humanity. These resonate in most of us to a less dramatic degree, but this is theater, and Anna contains so much and is so adept and agile in handling her path, she is a heroic figure who not only survives but thrives and ultimately triumphs.
I felt the rehearsal process needed to create the sense of a true family, and the talented cast was up to it. Even though many of the 13-member cast had not previously worked together, their commitment and talent opened the door to a wonderfully creative discovery process, resulting in an ensemble rhythm. The script is a period piece written in three acts, but to its credit every moment moves it forward, always true to character, and again our cast investment in the stakes allowed me to find a way to move it along, needing only one intermission.
The title role of Anna Lucasta is the key, of course, and I’m fortunate to have Ashlee Olivia available for the part. Ashlee, a gifted talent and particularly right for Anna, brings the discipline of a meticulously prepared actor, coupled with a range of emotions and intelligent interesting choices, avoiding the ever-present pitfall of clichés inhabiting a 75-year-old piece wrought with melodrama, and offering an irresistible charm absolutely necessary to mine the rich character that is Anna.
I feel extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful group of artist to collaborate with. I’ve always known it is important to allow artists to feel the kind of freedom that enables them to peel back the layers and reveal what’s there in a true and theatrical manner. This is in accordance with the spirit that is the inspiration of the Robey Theatre Company, Paul Robeson.
Anna Lucasta, presented by Robey Theatre Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St.,through Dec. 9. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Tickets: $20-$30. 866-811-4111. www.robeytheatrecompany.com. www.thelatc.org.
***All Anna Lucasta production photos by Tim Alexander
Ben Guillory is co-founder, along with Danny Glover, and producing/artistic director of Robey Theatre Company. A theater, film, and television actor, he studied at the American Conservatory Theater, appearing in classical and contemporary works in the regional theater circuit.Â He also serves as a consultant with ABC and CBS on issues of diversity. Robey Theatre Company will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014.Print