In the celluloid dreams of her own keeping, Latika Harris is watching her favorite movie, "Love and Basketball," and in this dream she has replaced actress Sanaa Lathan. She sees herself playing small forward, or maybe a shooting guard, alongside the handsome male lead of Omar Epps.
But last night at the opening of the 12-screen Magic Johnson Theatre in Largo, the 18-year-old Harris was working behind the popcorn stand cash register, not starring on-screen.
The doors opened at 6 p.m., and the first showing of the animated hit "Shark Tale" was a sellout minutes later. Lines stretched out the door.
"I've been upstairs in the production booth. I've been an usher, and I've been in concessions, and we've only been open 30 minutes," Harris says, beaming.
For Harris, it's a job about the little things: Popcorn. Ticket stubs. Spilled drinks. Paychecks, adding up over the weeks and months to a dream of a different kind.
"What I want to do is to someday own my own computer repair business," she says. "That's what this is about."
Scooping popcorn and punching tickets are just steps along the way. Hers is a modest, middle-class goal in a county where the black middle class is as prosperous as any in America, but even so there are days when it feels as far away as the moon.
The theater is a joint venture between Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers star, and Loews Cineplex Entertainment, and anchors the upscale Boulevard at Capital Centre shopping complex. Borders, Circuit City, Office Depot and Ann Taylor are also in the complex, along with several restaurants. There has been much to-do about What It All Means for Prince George's County, whose large black middle class has been long frustrated by a lack of quality retail establishments.
Harris, eager to shine, had been nervous all week.
"I mean, I'm good with people," she says during a midweek training session with 75 of her new colleagues. "I worked at Six Flags, but you know I didn't have to talk to anybody there. I was a ride operator. I punched the button. Away you went. This is different."
Harris has an angular face, bright brown eyes and is indeed tall enough to play a shooting guard. She's also thin enough for her theater-employee uniform of black pants, black vest and white shirt to be a little baggy around the edges.
Her grades at Charles Herbert Flowers High School were not the best, she acknowledges. Math "hurt my brain," she giggles, and history was boring beyond belief.
Now she's taking classes at Prince George's Community College to get her grades in shape before transferring next year to a bigger university. Then a degree. Then a computer gig. Hand over fist.
But there's the money. You got to have the money.
Harris and her mom, an executive assistant, live in Bowie. If she wants that college education she's got to help pay for it.
So at 8 p.m. Thursday, after college classes, she was fidgeting with an imaginary towel, pretending to clean Register No. 10, her station at the refreshment stand during a rehearsal for opening night. The trainer from Loews, Jamie Cox, has told the new workers to smile and stay busy -- and busy Harris will be, even if it's for pretend.
Little things. It's the little things that are going to get her ahead.
Half the staff are acting as if they are customers. The others, Harris's team, are ringing up tickets, making popcorn, practicing a sales pitch to move an extra box of Raisinets or a bigger soda, keeping a smile frozen in place when "customers" get testy.
"Welcome to the Magic Johnson Theatre," she says, over and over again, smiling brightly.
Midway through the drill, she discovers it's not as easy as it looks from the other side of the counter.
You have to make popcorn for 500 while explaining what a "Super Combo" is and why someone would want it, spell out the difference between your bucket, your regular and your value-size popcorn, pour a soda, pop a cap on the cup, make change and, in between, answer a question not likely heard anywhere else:
"How many calories are in a Goober?"
Harris makes it through the session fine.
Last night, at the opening, she was scooping popcorn, pouring sodas and bringing supplies from the back -- all while maintaining the all-important performance smile.
"I've got to do good tonight, because my mom and grandmom are here," she says.
Latika Harris is a budding star, says Cox, the corporate trainer.
"Latika is always asking questions, she's got the confidence she needs, and she has the fun in her," Cox says.
Overhead, in the entrance, there are two huge murals of Magic Johnson and then a smaller constellation of black entertainers and icons. Pam Grier, in full '70s blaxploitation glory. Tupac. Martin Luther King Jr. Dizzy Gillespie. Miles Davis. Angela Bassett.
People who made it, each and every one. Johnson's theaters, built in minority communities in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Cleveland, Harlem and now Largo, are designed to promote predominantly black communities that are, in real estate lexicon, "underserved."
Prince George's, with an average household income upward of $60,000, is a prime market. The theater, the stores and restaurants are also to provide jobs for young people. Building blocks for the next generation. The little things.
"Anyone would want to build here, but it's a perfect spot for us," says Loews president Michael Norris.
Maybe the theater and surrounding shops and stores will work out just fine. Or perhaps it will go the way of Landover Mall, the abandoned hulk a mile or two up the road.
Like that facility, the Johnson theater sits beside the Beltway, the county's north-south dividing line. Turn right, or east, out of the parking lot and you drive past miles and miles of planned communities and tract mansions. Harris lives in that direction. Her family has a farm with horses in southern Virginia, maybe 20 acres. She grew up riding ponies in the summers.
Turn left out of the parking lot, to the west, and you drive through increasingly poor neighborhoods until you hit the District line.
Two routes, two futures.
Harris knows her path. She can see it. Time, work and perseverance. Popcorn. Hot dogs. Ticket stubs. The little things.