HOUSTON -- TV buffs identify Denise Nicholas with her featured role in "Room 222." Movie buffs might recall that she co-starred with Bill Cosby in Ghost Dad.
But what about theater buffs?
Some may remember her stint as an apprentice with the Free Southern Theater, touring through rural Louisiana and Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. Others could have seen her in a number of Off-Broadway venues, including St. Mark's Playhouse, early in her career. And then there is her work in the first season of New York's prestigious Negro Ensemble Company.
But how many know Nicholas as a dramatist? The Ensemble Theatre rectifies this oversight Mar. 26 - April 26 when it presents her historically influenced dream play Buses. Initially workshopped at Crossroads Theater Company in 1990, and then given its first production at the same New Jersey venue during its 1990 - 1991 season, the rarely produced two-character play wonders who is the mother of Civil Rights, Rosa Parks or Mary Ellen Pleasant, or both?
Buses imagines a meeting between Parks, who played a pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, and Pleasant, who won an anti-discrimination suit against the Omnibus Trolley Company nearly 100 years earlier. For many, Parks is the more familiar: a humble but unyielding symbol of moral rectitude. But in Nicholas' interpretation, the secretary to the NAACP was as much precipitator against as reactor to racial injustice.
Pleasant was born a slave, a mulatto who "hid" her color at times. As a young woman she was trained by voodoo "priestess" Marie LaVeau and could have been a major religious figure in African emigrant culture. Pleasant amassed over $30 million in her lifetime, using her money and clout to advance her people. She smuggled slaves on the underground railroad and aided abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the "traitor" John Brown. Her personal life was also adventurous, and she embellished an already busy narrative with contradictory accounts. Through a host of problems, Pleasant died broke and defamed, in direct contrast with Parks.
In excerpts from a previous interview with former Crossroads dramaturge Synde Mahone, reprinted in the Ensemble program, Nicholas explained, "The metaphor of Rosa's waiting for a bus, and allowing a bus to go finally, has to do with my abhorrence of putting one's life on hold until one dies and goes off to experience a better life . . . ."
Nicholas continued, elaborating on her method and theme, "We as African Americans do or have tended to live an awful lot through our dreams. . . . We probably are a very dreamy people as a consequence of oppression. And that's where a lot of our cultural power comes from. It's like this thing that's constantly being pressed down and it just becomes more powerful as a consequence . . . . It drives some of our artists mad. At the same time, it keeps a lot of us sane."
Writing, Nicholas said, "exorcises my demons more than acting ever will. It gets the little demons out of their little boxes and lets them fly around. . . . When I'm acting, I have to control myself because I'm usually acting in things written by other people; and it's usually TV, which means it's really not always that deep. More often than not, it's going to be kind of slight; every now and then you'll get something swell. Writing is an opportunity to create something swell."
Buses opens at The Ensemble Theatre in Houston March 26 and runs through April 26. For tickets, $10 - $18, call (713) 520-0055.
-- By Peter Szatmary