For Sandra Bowie, her starring role in the new "Powerhouse" television series for kids is a big break in a business where the breaks are rare. "That I could ever believe that a little black girl from South Carolina could be a TV star!" she said. "I needed that. I need what acting does for me . . . the feeling of being special, of being selected. It feels wonderful!"
Bowie, 33, is the head of the acting program at Howard University. As Brenda Gaines, she leads a multi-racial gang of inner-city kids in an action-packed, dramatic educational series showing on most of the nation's 250 public television channels.
The gang, working out of an inner-city clubhouse called "Powerhouse," chases down crooks, thwarts corrupt politicians, and generally battles the forces of evil. The flow of these adventures is interrupted by "uncommercials" urging kids to do things like "Eat a Variety." Although it comes close from time to time, all this doesn't cloy.
What makes this show unusual is that it was produced not in Hollywood or New York, but here in Washington by the Educational Film Center in Annandale. It features actors born or recruited in the Washington area.
The black male lead is Michael Mack, 20, born and raised in Washington. He auditioned for many EFC parts before landing the "Powerhouse" role of Kevin, an older-brother type who forms a stable center for the younger members of the gang. Mack studied acting at the Duke Ellington School of the Performing arts, a public District of Columbia high school that specializes in arts training.
Michael Wikes, 27, the white male lead who plays the hot-headed and streetwise Tony, went to high school in Silver Spring, where he was living and doing small parts in Washington theaters when he auditioned for "Powerhouse." Domenica Galati, 23, who plays Jennifer, a friendly female member of the gang, was a freshman drama student at Catholic University when she auditioned for the series. Jessica Prentice, 13, who plays the mischievous Pepper, lives in Northern Virginia. And Jason Kravits, 15, the precocious computer-whiz baby of the gang, is a high school sophomore in Rockville.
The "Powerhouse" series has 16 parts and is aimed at kids 8 to 12. Funded by a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, it was filmed largely in Washington's inner city. Scenes were shot at Dulles Airport, Laurel racetrack and Annapolis. It is being shown this week at 6 p.m. on Channel 26 here and is to be repeated at a later date.
EFC, the producer, churns out as many as 50 nationally televised educational children's shows a year. "Almost all of our series have had almost entirely Washington people," said EFC President Jack W. Hunter. "Everybody says, 'You can't do it,' and we say, 'Look at the programs!' We don't claim to be Hollywood on the Potomac, but there are wonderful, wonderful actors and actresses here if you look for them.
"In terms of location, this is a good area. It has fairly good weather, and within a day's shoot you can find anything from Spanish moss to what appear to be the lakes of northern Maine."
Perhaps more than anything else, the show is held together by the powerful personality of Sandra Bowie, with her husky voice and flashing eyes. According to those who know her, she is that way in real life, too--a woman who comes to live her parts, and who has provided an important role model for aspiring actors and actresses at Howard.
"A lot of actors who are animated tend to come off phony, but she has always maintained a kind of strength of character and an honesty that goes beyond the medium in which she works," said Geoffrey W. Newman, chairman of Howard's drama department. "She doesn't live on a kind of superficial theater level . . . She's really exciting and vivacious . . . She has that kind of control over her students that they look to her for more than just acting guidance. She provides a real positive role model for black actors, both male and female."
Bowie said it is "hard to find roles. I'm not an ingenue. I'm a woman. A black actress has a great deal of difficulty finding good roles. Cicely Tyson says it's hard--she's very selective about the kinds of roles she'll do. I'm proud of that. You're typed by the roles you do . . . A positive image for a black performer is not a goodie image. It's just a very human, honest, realistic characterization."
Her role in "Powerhouse," she thinks, fills that bill. "Michael Mack and I have become great friends. We talked a lot about this series and we were proud because it was a positive image. People could look at the show and say, 'I like these people.' Kevin is a strong, authoritative character. And Brenda is an intelligent, articulate, dedicated woman. A black kid can look at them and say, 'I'd like to be like that.' "
Bowie came to Washington six years ago at a time of personal crisis. She had been acting with a road company when nodules developed on her vocal cords. An operation was performed, and she lost her voice. "My sister lived here, and I said, 'Let's see what jobs there are in Washington.' " She landed a job teaching in the Howard drama department, and gradually her voice returned. It is now husky, the way it always was, a distinctive attribute.
She was raised in South Carolina by parents she loves dearly, "strong people. It was like 'Powerhouse.' They told their girls, 'You can!' When I went to college and they knew I was going into acting, they said, 'Well, okay, if you want to!' Now they're so excited. They've been waiting for this series . . . When she sees me on stage and performing, my mother cries. She's a loving woman who will cry at the drop of a hat.
"I really want to make them proud. They gave me everything--a beautiful home, a beautiful life, a belief in myself. And my sort of love for the soil. It keeps me stable. In this business, you can get treated like a very special person and it can make you forget who you really are. At other times there's so much rejection, so much disappointment. You go to an audition and don't get the role, then you have to be strong . . . I'm strong spiritually."
"Sandra is one of the few really good people I know," said Mack. "I have tremendous respect for her as a human being and as an actress. We did 'The Lion in Winter' together at Howard . . . She's a very special lady." Galati said Bowie was "very lovely to work with, very diligent, concentrated. I like her very much."
While Bowie's role is the foundation, or centerpiece character, of the series, the shows feature in turn the other actors, too. Kravits, for example, is central to one episode in which his character's embarassing personal problem (he is short) is dealt with. This is done when the gang stages a mock funeral to flush out a villain from among onlookers.
Ruth Pollak, head writer of the series, said that its production involved a "tremendous collaboration. For example, we planned a show on prejudice which was very difficult to write. When we thought we had it to a point where it made sense, we invited the cast in to talk about it. They got very involved and had extremely strong feelings. I rewrote about 40 percent of the script as a result."
Now the members of the cast are hoping their exposure will get them other jobs, launch them. Re'sume's are going out. Interviews are being given.
"Hopefully I'll get another break," said Kravits, the Rockville teen-ager who became interested in acting because of his father, Stuart Kravits, an IBM employe who also acts and is cochairman of the Montgomery Playhouse in Gaithersburg. Young Kravits says he plans to go to college in California and study film.
Wikes is now living in New Jersey and scouring Manhattan for jobs. That's tough, he says. "TV series or no TV series, I'm still new in this town. It takes a while to get established. I'll be working in a show off Broadway. I might go on the road to do something in Boston."
Mack said he doesn't necessarily plan to go to college. "I'm writing now, doing a show at the Studio Theatre 1401 Church St. NW . I play Jimmy in 'A Taste of Honey.' I'm auditioning. I'm looking. I sent off some re'sume's. Now I'm hitting the local casting agents here."
Galati is touring with the National Players, a national touring company affiliated with Catholic University, doing "The Taming of the Shrew" and "The Miser." She said she is "hoping to do an independent film in New York in October."
Bowie is teaching, of course, while sending out her re'sume's. She is hoping to resurrect a powerful one-woman dramatic dialogue of song and poetry that Newman arranged, "Reflections of a Woman." She plans to stay on the East Coast--familiar terrain. "I'm concentrating on New York and here. I look at the trade publications. If I see something interesting, I send my re'sume' to them . . . I haven't dealt with that Hollywood connection. I'm an East Coast person. I love it here."
Hunter of EFC hopes that "Powerhouse," which he describes as "state-of-the-art kids' action adventure fantasy," will set the stage for other shows of its type to be produced by his organization. Newman, the Howard University drama head, thinks it will. "The whole idea of 'Powerhouse' will be a leader in that kind of television programming for children, and there will be many spinoffs as a result of this," he said.