At a Forestville restaurant known for its lackluster service, the constant queries--"Everything okay here?" "Need anything?"--have crossed the line between hospitality and harassment.
Metropolitan Ebony Theatre founder Cheryl Collins doesn't seem to notice.
Then the waiter passes her a message scrawled on a piece of notebook paper. "I think I'm in love," it reads. She dismisses it with a roll of her hazel eyes.
The restaurant crew probably has no idea that Collins is a rising star in the local theater scene or that her new company's debut production was to open soon. But she's already getting the star treatment.
The play of which she is both director and star, Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West," opens tomorrow at Prince George's Community College. Her troupe, Metropolitan Ebony Theatre, operates in conjunction with the school's theater department and functions as a conservatory much like the one at the University of Missouri at Kansas City where Collins received her MFA in directing.
The college had been searching for a resident African American theater company for some time, says Jane Richards, a theater professor at the college.
"I believe in the symbiotic relationship between a professional theater company and a college," Richards says, noting that such relationships exist between George Mason University and the Theatre of the First Amendment and Howard County Community College and the Rep Stage theater company.
"We can offer so much to each other. [Collins's] proposal and willingness to work for us was outstanding. . . . She had done some directing on campus before, so we knew what a consummate professional she is. She had a model that fit like a glove for us," Richards says.
In addition to providing the company's rehearsal and performance space, the college has donated money to provide small stipends for its actors. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission also donated $1,500 to help publicize the company's first show.
Metropolitan Ebony Theatre will be one of only two black professional theater companies in the Washington metropolitan area; the other is the D.C.-based African Continuum Theatre. The fledgling troupe will bring black theater to a community from which it has been conspicuously absent in the past.
"There definitely is a void, particularly in black theater," says Leslie Pelzer, the assistant director of the Prince George's Arts Council, noting that the same is true of the Washington area in general. "I think Prince George's County is strong in other areas such as music and visual arts, but the theater program is weaker, especially when it comes to African Americans. I would love to see what becomes of this program."
It was a void Collins did not expect to find when she moved here five years ago from her native Kansas City, Mo.
"I had no misgivings about moving here," Collins says. "I thought, 'I'm moving to the Chocolate City, there's going to be a theater on every block.' "
Instead, she found a situation nearly identical to the one in her Missouri home town 10 years ago: a few struggling black theater companies, virtually no permanent venues, and too many black actors fighting for the scraps offered at major theaters.
"The only roles for women were maids or prostitutes, or for men, a criminal or butler," Collins recalls.
In Kansas City, the solution to that problem was starting a new theater company. With the help of five other actors, Collins founded the Metropolitan Ebony Theatre in 1988. The well-respected company became a launching pad for talented black performers in Kansas City.
Its success garnered her a variety of television and movie roles. Then, in 1994, the divorced mother of an 18-year-old son moved to Forestville to get married. The relationship didn't work out, but she fell in love with the area.
By reconstituting the Metropolitan Ebony Theatre (the original troupe changed its name after she left Missouri), Collins says she hopes to raise the profile of black theater in the area.
The choice of "Flyin' West" as a debut production is a tribute to Collins's Midwestern roots and her admiration for people who have her do-it-yourself spirit. It's based on the true story of the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kan., which was founded by freed slaves who took advantage of government land grants for people who settled in the West. The play depicts the struggle of four women and two of their suitors as they fight to maintain their land and their independence.
"The sisters have to go through extraordinary means to save the land from developers," Collins says. "It just seems like for young people who take so much for granted . . . killing each other, putting crack vials into their mouths, they have to see the price that was paid before."
At one point in the play, the oldest character tells stories about slavery and remarks that there is no need to write those memories down because black folks will never forget what it was like to be slaves.
Collins just shakes her head as she remembers that line. "We did and we do."
"Flyin' West" opens tomorrow. Performances are Thursday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Prince George's Community College Hallam Theatre, 301 Largo Rd., Largo. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 301-681-2345.
CAPTION: In a scene from the play "Flyin' West" are, from left, Willette Thompson as Fanny Mae Dove, Caroline Pleasant as Miss Leah, Darryl Harris as Frank Charles, Damion Johnson as Minnie Charles, Hugh Staples as Wil Parrish and Cheryl Collins as Sophie. The Pearl Cleage play will be performed beginning tomorrow at Prince George's Community College by the Metropolitan Ebony Theatre.
CAPTION: In "Flyin' West," Caroline Pleasant, playing the family matriarch, fixes the hair of Damion Johnson.