Celebrating its 20th year, Passage Theater in Trenton is playing its part in the revitalization of the city, as well as providing a theater home to a number of playwrights who want to see their brand new plays professionally produced in a space away from the scrutiny of the New York press. The bonus for Passage audiences is the opportunity to be the first to see exciting work by some of the best emerging and established writers. The theater is also noted for its visionary work with young people of the community. Artistic director June Ballinger pioneered the State Street Project for Passage, built on the model of a similar project she had developed in New York City. “Performing arts can give young people an arena to find a feeling of success that, whether they continue as performers or writers or not, can translate into feeling good about themselves in life.”
Passage Theater lives and performs in the historic Mill Street Playhouse. Their anniversary season continues with a production of “Love To All, Lorraine,” a one-woman play inspired by the life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, written and performed by Elizabeth Van Dyke. In performance Tuesday, March 9, through Sunday, March 26, it is presented in association with the National Black Touring Circuit founded by Woodie King Jr. as part of the nationally-known New Federal Theater.
Ballinger promises that Van Dyke transforms herself on stage to give the audience a portrait of the artist who, with “Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, became the youngest playwright and the first African American to have a play produced on Broadway.
Capping the season will be a new play by Trenton native William Mastrosimone, “A Stone Carver,” May 4 through 28. Both plays mark returns to Passage Theater. Van Dyke performed here in a production during the 2000 season, portraying another important African American writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in a work by Laurence Holder. Mastrosimone has premiered a number of his plays at Passage, most recently “The Afghan Women” during the 2003 season.
Once a busy actress working on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional theatres, and on television, Ballinger married and moved to Princeton and admits that she slept in Princeton but spent every day in New York. Little by little, this began to change. Part of the change was precipitated by the birth of her son; she didn’t want to be away from him for extended periods. One day, a friend was performing at Passage Theater, and she made her first trip to Trenton to see the play and was amazed by her discovery: “It’s a city. And so close.”
Beginning with the youth project, she became more and more involved with Passage, eventually accepting the job of artistic director. Working with her board of directors, she has built a financially viable arts organization that has gone from a $135,000 budget to a $500,000 operating budget with no deficits hanging over them. It doesn’t hurt that Ballinger’s husband is a former member of the McKinsey Management Consulting Firm and has lent a bit of his expertise.
Always wanting to present new plays that celebrate the resilience of the human spirit, Ballinger has recently started looking in unusual places for new writers and has found a number of poets whom she has lured into writing for the theater. And she reconnected with avant garde theater artist Ann Bogart, who was a college chum, to talk about “ways to expand the horizons of her theater audience and build a creative community enriched by new and varied theatrical fare while celebrating experiences we all have in common that transcend culture and race.”
Van Dyke, who spoke to me from Lowell, Massachusetts, where she was appearing in a production of “Intimate Apparel,” says she is delighted to return to Passage Theater, as she considers it one of her “artistic homes.” She has only praise for Ballinger, whom she describes as “a wonderful human being who has a passion for the community, for the arts, and for diversity.”
As a young woman bound for college, Van Dyke traveled east from Los Angeles, where she had lived with her mother, to New York University to begin her theater studies. Since then she has made New York City her home base. After earning an MFA, she has continued to study with different teachers and still has sessions with noted drama coach Alice Spivak.
Ballinger describes Van Dyke’s performances as mystical in that she seems to be totally transformed into the character she is portraying, whether it is Zora Neale Hurston or Lorraine Hansberry. “I’m an only child,” says Van Dyke. Though Hansberry was not an only child, “the aloneness in the solitude of her writing, I found fascinating. And she’s so smart — not that I’m nearly that brilliant — but as an actress, I was often in my head.”
She credits acting teacher Sanford Meisner for setting her free. “All acting methods are the same, just articulated in different ways, but Meisner had a different approach.” She says he got her “totally out of my head. He helped me to realize that there is no right or wrong way in acting, only more effective and less effective. Human behavior will do any and everything.” She describes her current technique as “totally organic.” Her intense commitment to a spiritual life that prompts her to annual trips to India also plays a part in her “method” of performance.
Van Dyke is a very private person. She will not tell me anything about her husband, only that she has one, nor the date she graduated from college. Instead she asks me when I decided it was OK to tell my age.
She is also very protective of her subject matter. When she was writing “Love To All, Lorraine,” she had the unique opportunity to read Hansberry’s diaries. But when I ask her for any piece of information gleaned from them, she says, “I don’t know that I should say.” And wouldn’t. However, she does admit that the surprising information in the diaries did help her to see Hansberry as a real person, not as her earlier romanticized vision.
Van Dyke has worked consistently as an actress, always remaining steadfast in her devotion to the theater with forays on east-coast-based television, like the New York actor’s mainstay, the Law and Order empire, and for a time playing a recurring role on the “All My Children.” “I never did the LA thing,” she says.
As a way to create an acting job for herself, she began writing “Love To All, Lorraine” 15 years ago, and has been re-working and re-writing over the years. It was seen for the first time at the New Federal Theater, then later at the American Place Theater, both in New York City. She has toured her one-woman play to theaters and campuses across the country.
She has found performing as Hansberry actually easier for her because “she’s a human being who’s lived, rather than a character invented by a playwright. The answers to an actor’s questions are right here — on the record.” No searching the script for clues about the character as one would in portraying a part in a Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Mamet play. “Biographical information exists. Sociological information exists.” And, after all, she did write the script herself.
Van Dyke says: “This is not a period piece; it always has resonance.” She feels that the political unrest of today makes the life of Hansberry even more relevant. She was living at a time when all around her activists were fighting for civil rights.” Van Dyke says that Hansberry was actually very upset, feeling that her life of social events, television interviews, and association with the “smart set” of the New York intelligentsia, and then her declining health, kept her from being as active in the civil rights movement as she would have liked to have been. In “Love to All, Lorraine,” Van Dyke has Hansberry leaving a civil rights meeting upset with herself because her “articulation has been lessened by the pain killers” that she has taken to help her through her cancer symptoms. Yet with her one major successful play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” exemplifying the universal theme of search for freedom and a better life, she certainly made an impressive gift not only to the American theater, but also to the African American experience in this country. But she didn’t live to really see that. Hansberry died in 1965 at the too-early age of 35.
Van Dyke hopes that audiences will be inspired by the life of Lorraine Hansberry as she has been. “I pray that the experience in the theater will be transcendent, special for each person, that you will discover a person who you like, who opens your heart. Especially in this day and age of divisiveness, we need inspiration. There are so many ills in our society.”
Love to All, Lorraine, Thursday, March 9 to Sunday, March 26, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. New play written by and featuring Elizabeth Van Dyke based on the life of playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry. $25. 609-392-0766.