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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 4, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Solo Flights Lift Off at Passage

Rites of passage often become flights of fancy in Passage Theater’s

annual Solo Flights Festival. New York actor Cecelia "Cece" Antoinette

is one of the artists sharing her story in a one-woman show,

"Watermelon: Git It While It’s Hot!" that opens the fourth annual Solo

Flights Festival on Thursday, February 5.

Solo Flights has expanded this year to include three theatrical

one-person shows, each running in repertory over the festival’s

four-week span, plus four one-night-only music shows, playing February

5 through Sunday, February 29.

Antoinette’s "Watermelon: Git It While It’s Hot!," directed by Chuck

Patterson, plays Thursday, February 5, Friday, February 13, and

Saturday, February 21, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 29, at 5 p.m.

The festival also features "Downloaded and in Denial," written and

performed by Cynthia Adler, opening Friday, February 6, and playing

Saturday, February 14, Sunday, February 22, and Friday, February 27.

Jewish playwright Robin Hirsch returns with a new one-man show, "The

Man Who Danced with Marlene Dietrich," on Saturday, February 7, with

performances Sunday, February 15, Thursday, February 19, and Saturday,

February 28.

On the music front, the festival presents the well-known singer,

songwriter, and comedienne Christine Lavin on Thursday, February 12.

Also featured in concert is Yuri Lane, "The Human Beatbox," the Vince

DiMura Trio in a jazz tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell and George

Harrison, and an evening with renowned jazz pianist JoAnne Brackeen.

Antoinette’s "Watermelon: Git It While It’s Hot" is an entertaining

and exhilarating look at the author’s rite-of-passage from her

semi-Southern roots in an all-black suburb of Dallas into contemporary

womanhood. Antoinette has appeared on "The Chris Rock Show" and in the

sitcom "Sex in the City," and was featured in the film, "Hurricane,"

starring Denzel Washington. She has also performed on Broadway in

"Mulebone" and has played dramatic leading roles as Rose in "Fences"

by August Wilson, Berenice in "Member of the Wedding" by Carson

McCullers, and Miss Yolanda in "Mitote" by Maisha Baton.

She says her "big ol’ indoor picnic" – set at a "big ol’ outdoor high

school reunion picnic in Dallas" – introduces the audience to eight

characters who have had an impact on her life’s path. These range from

a female pastor to a charm school coach to the Queen of the Wild

Frontier – all of whom have helped Antoinette find the strength and

humor to make her way from Negro girlhood to empowered independence.

That girlhood began in Hamilton Park, Texas, "a community of single

family homes built from the ground up for colored families or

otherwise" in Dallas, explains Antoinette in an interview from her

home in New York City.

"Growing up we were called colored, then Negro, and then black, and

then African American – there was a whole sense of empowerment," says

Antoinette, who describes her play as "a soft history of Hamilton

Park."

Hamilton Park was founded in 1953 and its first homes were built and

occupied in 1954. Thus the segregated community began life the same

year that the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education decision

began to desegregate America’s schools.

"This was a community of two-parent working households," she says. "In

Dallas, Texas, at that time the only areas where black people could

live were the projects." There were no integrated neighborhoods in

Texas – considered part of the South.

Her father worked for Texas and Pacific Railroad as a laborer and

foreman. Her mother started working as a domestic, then became the

first woman to integrate the work force at Texas Instruments.

Antoinette and her brother, who have an older sister and a younger

brother, were "born on Thanksgiving, in the land of turkey and

dressing."

"I’ve gone around the world and not seen anything like Hamilton Park,"

she says. "Some people call it segregation, I call it education, and I

would put mine on the line with anyone."

Antoinette’s mother integrated the work force at Texas Instruments,

introducing her African-American community to on-the-job-training and

"a wonderful benefit package." She later went on to integrate Braniff

International Airlines in Dallas where she worked as a reservation

agent.

"My mother was also an actress in Dallas. Back in the day they had a

group of actors they called the Rounder Players. They worked at Dallas

Theater Center. My mother remained true to her artistic roots

throughout her life. She took Curtis King under her wing and guided

him at DTC." The main auditorium at the Black Academy of Arts and

Letters is now named for Antoinette’s mother, Naomi Bruton, who died

in 1995. Her father, Cicero Hamilton Bruton Sr., still lives in

Dallas.

After high school, Antoinette left her sheltered home to attend the

University of Oklahoma in Norman, where she majored in communications.

Culture shock hardly describes the experience. "I went from a

graduating high school class of 66, to a campus of 18,000 – with about

150 black people in that campus community."

Her first visit to New York came after college and it set the terms

for her future.

"I had an uncle, my father’s brother, who lived in New York City.

After college we went and visited my uncle and he took us around to

all the sights. He took me on my first subway ride. There’s a picture

of me there on the subway, wearing a dress. I’m so excited you can see

right up my dress to my underwear."

Before long Antoinette eagerly returned to New York to help a college

friend who was living there and having her first child. On this trip

Antoinette attended her first Broadway show.

"I just happened upon ‘Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,’ directed by

Vinnette Caroll, the first black female director, and written by Micki

Grant, who still has the distinction of being the first black female

to write and compose a show for Broadway," says Antoinette. A classic

of the 1960s, "Don’t Bother Me" was revived at Crossroads Theater in

1997. One of the stars of that original Broadway production was Chuck

Cissell, a University of Oklahoma graduate whom Antoinette knew. "This

is how I stumbled, how the bug bit me," she says.

"I majored in communications in college because I liked writing. But

you can only resist destiny so long. I went back to Dallas because I’d

run out of money, but I returned to attend a black theater festival at

Lincoln Center directed by Hazel Joan Bryant, where I got to see the

work of theater companies from around the country."

"So how are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen

a theater festival? I went back to Dallas and got rid of my apartment

and my car!" says Antoinette with gusto.

Antoinette got her Equity card in Dallas in 1983 in a production at

Theater Three, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the

Rainbow is Enuf," and was able to begin working in New York.

Her first play was a one-woman choreo-poem inspired by the genre of

"For Colored Girls," titled "Brown Gal’s Rising," first produced in

1990. She first presented "Watermelon" in 1999 with a cast of just

three characters. Since then it has grown to portray eight characters.

"These characters from the Hamilton Park time are composites of the

all the people who have had an influence on my life," she says. "These

are the people who weave the tapestry that allows you to leave and

become a productive citizen."

Antoinette met June Ballinger at the Ensemble Studio Theater last year

through Elizabeth Van Dyke, author and lead player in "Zora Neale

Hurston," which has also been shown at Passage Theater. Ballinger

invited Antoinette to show "Watermelon" here.

"I’ve had a vibrant career in theater, I do national commercials, some

film, and TV. But I honestly believe that it took doing this show –

‘Watermelon’ – to empower me as a performer," says Antoinette. "It

presents me in the kind of light I want to be in, telling the stories

that I want to be telling, living the characters that I want to see

brought to life. And it gives me the opportunity to investigate who I

was, who I am, and who I’m going to be."

– Nicole Plett

Watermelon – Git it While it’s Hot!, Passage Theater, Mill Hill

Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. The

fourth annual Solo Flights Festival opens with a one-woman show by

Cecelia "Cece" Antoinette. All seats $20, or $50 for series. Thursday,

February 5, 8 p.m.


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