Melissa Scott, 14, admits she's not the prototype Shakespearean actress. And when rejected this year for a role in her school's production of "Midsummer Night's Dream," the sophomore at Woodbridge High told her mother bluntly: "I'll never be tall, blond and skinny."
Melissa, who is short and stocky with skin a deep brown hue, nevertheless does plan to be an actress. Helping her and other aspiring black actors and actresses in the Prince William area meet that goal is Sojourn, the area's first all-black theater company and one of only a few in the metropolitan area.
The fledgling seven-member troupe was founded this spring by Tomette Herring, 28, who began studying theater at an early age, but didn't score a role traditionally cast as white until she was 17. Sporting a long brown wig, Herring played Rapunzel in a local production in New Jersey.
Sojourn offers a theatrical forum for black issues as well as black talent. Its first production, in which Melissa has several roles, offers a series of vignettes on the unraveling of America's black families.
"I probably wouldn't say that it's depressing: I'd say it's enlightening," Herring said. "It's a realistic look at what's happening to our families."
While Sojourn travels to several stages throughout the Washington area in the next several months, a taped version of its production will appear on the "Soul to Soul" show on Cable Channel 1 at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday in August.
When Herring moved to Manassas in 1984, she was dumbfounded by the lack of all-black theater. "There was nothing. I couldn't grasp it," said Herring, whose Woodbridge living room is currently Sojourn's rehearsal stage.
According to Kelsey Collie, who has been director of Howard University's Children's Theater for 20 years, the scarcity of a forum for black actors has been a chronic problem throughout the metropolitan area.
There are three all-black theaters in the area, including The Rep in the District, an offshoot of one of the city's first black theaters, the D.C. Black Repertory, which is now defunct.
Nationally, the push in the theater is for "non-traditional" casting, which allows minorities to perform roles traditionally reserved for whites. But that trend has not reduced the need for companies like Sojourn, Collie said.
"The more that integration comes about, much of the black aesthetics get lost," Collie said. "Just as there is Asian and Yiddish theater, there should be black theater."
This spring, Herring, who has performed several times in productions at the Hayloft Theater near Manassas, decided to take the lead in creating a local forum. She began by advertising for black actors in Prince William's first black newspaper, The Voice.
The responses came from all ages -- 14 to 38 -- but none with extensive theatrical experience. That suits Herring fine. Her 7-year-old son, Leonard LaMar, also performs with Sojourn.
"You don't have to necessarily be a student for 15 years to do this," said Herring, who also gives private lessons. "There's a wealth of feeling and emotion you can tap into."
Drew Brown, 22, a waiter in a local restaurant, is an example of what Herring calls a "closet" actor who has blossomed in his few months with Sojourn. Not only is Brown's first attempt at acting promising, but his first hand at dramatic writing produces one of the more riveting of the solo-performed vignettes.
Semi-autobiographical, Brown's vignette is about a young expectant father who has sought his long-absent father. "I don't know why I came here," says Brown hesitantly to the man, but then gushes painful tales of being a fatherless boy.
The other actors are equally natural in their performances. They include: a Fairfax County school administrator, Linda Brown, 38; a recent graduate of Osbourn Park High School, Angel Frazier, 19; and an aspiring model, Jeff Bond, 29. Herring, who wrote the rest of the vignettes, directs and acts.
The remaining seven vignettes, each punctuated by a chilling "Stop. Look. Listen," plunge into sensitive areas, such as the plight of the black male role model and teenage pregnancy.
A hard-working wife, acted by Herring, rips into her husband for providing her with only a "handful of bills and a mouthful of excuses . . . . Man," she coldly asks, "What man?"
Herring points out that many of the problems, such as child neglect, are pervasive among all ethnic groups.
In one bitterly funny scene, Leonard LaMar, clad in baseball hat and glove, begs for attention from his working parents, his teacher -- anyone. "If life is so short, why won't anyone give me any time," he says with exasperation.
At the end of the play, Brown boldly delivers a message directly to blacks: "Wake up black people, the hour has arrived for us to stop fighting ourselves . . . . Start loving now, for tomorrow is not promised to anyone."
Sitting in the dining room watching an improvisational scene in which her mother and Brown played a squabbling married couple -- both of whom were having affairs -- Herring's 4-year-old daughter, Manna, appeared to have absorbed the Sojourn message.
Punching the air with her small fist, the girl said in a stage whisper, "Get love! Get love!"