Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Halfway through the press party on the second tier of the Kennedy, Center's Opera House, four black men lined up and shouted, from the guts of their street experiences. "The mighty gents are coming! Get back, get back!"
The cheer was an annoucement, mainly, that a play, "The Mighty Gents," opens at the Center for previews on March 3 for a six-week run, and, secondly, a warning that everybody better be watching. The Kennedy Center is watching and is giving "Gents" extra hype because it is the first drama by a black American writer to play the Center and because of other factors, such as its known cast.
"The Mighty Gents" is a drama about a 1950d Newark street gang of that name whose members 20 years later try to regain their earlier status.
In the middle of rush hour Thursday, the Center's brass, including Chairman Roger L. Stevens, gathered with eight members of the cast, producer James Lipton, writer Richard Wesley and director Harold Scott.
The fear of empty seats during the run here was obvious. Wesley, who has written 11 plays and three movies, including "Uptown Saturday Night," gave three interviews during his brief visit here from New York. Most of the cast arrived on the afternoon shuttle from rehearsals in New York and were going right back. Stevens downplayed the special treatment. The play "is well-written and well-regarded," he said. "Its being a black play has nothing whatsoever to do with out putting it on."
But because "Gents" is a black play it presents the Center with a dilemma. To be successful, it has to attract the black audience - which traditionally comes to play from word-of-mouth recommendations and which also (in Washington at least) seems to prefer musicals - while at the same time not alienating the white audience.
Universality is not a word playwright Wesley likes, but that's what will bring the total community into the theatre, he said. "There's reality of life. At 30 most everybody goes throug a crisis period. It's also about dreams and power. I have just put it on the street-corner-level."
Getting "Gents" into the Center was something of a victory for Archie L. Buffkins, the Black Commission, which has been pushing for an overall greater black presence. "But it is a risk for the Center because it is not regular subscription, so there is not regular built-in safety valve. We are putting this one on because we believe in it." said Buffkins.
"We don't have a Henry Fonda, we are not superstars, so we must sell ourselves," said producer Lipton, who has backed the production with his own company (a subsidiary of the Madison Square Garden Co., which is a subsidiary of Gulf and Western), the Shubert Organization and Ron Dante, producer of singer Barry Manilow.
Though they are not stars in the James Earl Jones category, the cast members have substantial credits. The lead Dorian Harewood, appeared in "Streamers" and is under contract to CBS Television for a dramatic series; Howard E. Rollins Jr. did "Medal of Honor Rag" at the Folger Theatre and played Andrew Young on the NBC film "King"; Morgan Freeman did "Hello, Dolly!" and "Purlie" and Starletta Du Pois, attending nursing school locally, has appeared at the National in "What the Wine-Sellers Buy."