A Keen Sense of Direction, Well Shared

The late Lisa Rose Middleton was a director and teacher, and also a mentor for young black artists in the theater.
The late Lisa Rose Middleton was a director and teacher, and also a mentor for young black artists in the theater. (National Conservatory Of Dramatic Arts)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

"Any playwright knows that when you find a good director who really gets what you're trying to do, you hold on," says Caleen Sinnette Jennings. "We were just in sync," she says of Lisa Rose Middleton, who died Oct. 22 at 43 after a long battle with breast cancer.

Since the 1980s, Middleton had directed in small professional theaters here, mentored young African American theater artists, taught at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Georgetown and was an adjunct professor and adviser for Georgetown University's Black Theatre Ensemble.

She also helped usher many of Jennings's new works onto the stage, including "Inns & Outs" at Source and "Playing Juliet/Casting Othello" at the Folger.

"She was always the second person who read my script. First was my husband, and the second was Lisa," Jennings says. "She was just really smart, and she was so low-key and laid back that sometimes people didn't catch on for a while," notes the playwright.

"I think all of us have been in denial," she says of Middleton's death. ". . . You always fool yourself into thinking there's time."

The Rev. Rachel Foley, who acted under the name Rachel Spaght, was Middleton's friend and colleague since 1988. "She gave me a shot" at the stage, Foley recalls. "I went on and became an actress . . . largely because of Lisa . . . because she saw my potential."

One of the young talents Middleton nurtured was David Lamont Wilson, who has performed at Woolly Mammoth, African Continuum Theatre Company and in Jennings's "Inns & Outs." Middleton first cast him in Judlyne Lilly's 1991 play "The Pearl" while he was still a college student.

"To this day, I don't even know why she cast me in that role because I thought it was so far above my capabilities, but she did," Wilson says. "For some reason, she just wanted to help me grow. . . . And we've been kind of linked from that point on."

As Middleton's illness progressed, Foley often drove her from her Woodbridge home to rehearsals. "She wanted to work, and theater was her whole life," Foley says. "What I knew for certain was that if people took that away from her, then she would die, surely. . . . I would drive her home and I would be praying and she would be screaming because she would be in so much pain."

But at rehearsals, "you wouldn't see the sign of weakness until everyone left," Foley says. It was indicative of Middleton's "strength of character and wanting people to be compelled to do their best."

Wilson recalls: "Lisa used to always tell me, 'David, you cannot walk onstage wearing a mask and expect to put on another mask.' . . . What she was saying to me was that you always have to be honest -- that you have to bring honesty to the stage.

"I kind of take that into everything that I do outside the theater. She used to say that to me all the time."

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