Arena Stage's inaugural season at the Mead Center opens with three productions featuring three powerful leading ladies: Butler will play Aunt Eller in a multiculturally-cast Oklahoma! in the company's renovated Fichandler Stage; Rashad will star in the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's Every Tongue Confess in the new 200-seat Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle; and Anna Deavere Smith is featured in her one-woman play, Second Stage's production of Let Me Down Easy, which begins its national tour in the newly refurbished Kreeger Theater.
"To open the Mead Center with amazing casts including actors like Phylicia, Anna and E. Faye is just one of the many ways we're introducing audiences to the breadth and strength of this new center for American theatre," artistic director Molly Smith said in a statement. "These distinguished African-American women, whose illustrious careers precede them, along with the cast members joining them, embody the diversity that is integral to Arena’s mission."
Oklahoma!, directed by Smith for a run Oct. 22-Dec. 26, will feature award-winning DC-area favorite Butler (who has toured in Mamma Mia! and Ain't Misbehavin'), plus Valisia LeKae (Broadway's Ragtime and 110 in the Shade) as Laurey; Nicholas Rodriguez (Arena Stage's The Light in the Piazza, Broadway's Tarzan) as Curly; Cody Williams (making his professional debut) as Will Parker; and 16-year-old DC-area native June Schreiner (discovered in last summer's Arena Stage Academy Musical Theater Training Company) as Ado Annie.
Choreography for the musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is by Parker Esse, with musical direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar.
Here's how the play is billed: "In the backwater town of Boligee, Alabama, the summer heat is rising higher, driving the townsfolk to distraction and conjuring the spirits of the past to walk the earth. Wrapped in the combustible music of a Deep South juke joint and the sweat-soaked gospel of a revivalist church tent, intergenerational stories of loss and redemption collide. Playwright Gardley blends ancient myth with magical realism, Biblical allegory with the local TV news to create a fiery theatrical furnace in which some will be saved, some will be purged and the truth cannot escape."
The company includes Jason Dirden as Shadrack, Crystal Fox as Sister/Reporter, Autumn Hurlbert as Benny Pride, Jim Ireland as Stocker Pride, John Earl Jelks as Blacksmith/Bobb, Eugene Lee as Brother/Jeremiah, E. Roger Mitchell as Deacon/Tidings. The role of Bernadette will be announced at a later date.
Let Me Down Easy, directed by Leonard Foglia for a run of Dec. 31, 2010-Feb. 13, 2011, stars Baltimore native Smith (author of the documentary stage plays Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles and House Arrest). The solo-actress play has Smith assuming many roles as she explores issues of health, mortality and the human body.
For more information, visit www.arenastage.org.
Founded in 1950 by Zelda Fichandler, Thomas Fichandler and Edward Mangum, Arena Stage was one of the nation's original resident theatres and has a distinguished record of leadership and innovation in the field. With the opening of the new Mead Center for American Theater in 2010, Arena Stage becomes a center for the production, presentation, development and study of American theatre.