Thursday, December 2, 2010

"African-American Shakespeare Company's production of 'Cinderella' enchants and delights"

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

San Francisco actor Khamara Pettus often plays characters that possess a sinister nature. She recently portrayed Ashley, a member of a chain saw touting, pool of office workers at the Cooney Lumber Mill, who collectively kill a lumberjack once a month, in the Crowded Fire Theater Company’s production of “The Secretaries,” a satirical comedy by New York’s The Five Lesbian Brothers.

For this holiday season, she’ll play the antithesis of such a personality when she stars as the endearing, ball gown and glass slipper wearing lead in the African-American Shakespeare Company’s new production of “Cinderella,” directed by Velina Brown and opening Dec. 3. This presentation of the classic fairytale promises to be magical, humorous, whimsical and with a soulful flavor.

“I actually do a lot of dark comedy work and a lot of character work, so Cinderella was a refreshing change for me personally,” Pettus says. “It gave me a different way of working on a character because my characters are usually so outlandish and Cinderella is sweet and charming and light—that’s what I like about her.”

Cinderella (Khamara Pettus) loses her glass slipper.
Photo by Lance Huntley

Featuring a 20 person, ensemble cast, the story shifts between the here and now and the magical kingdom of an African American monarchy where Prince Charming (Matt Jones) lives.

Cinderella (Khamara Pettus) finally meets her Prince Charming (Matt Jones).
Photo by Lance Huntley

“It’s been really fun to put on the dress; it’s been really fun to do the photographs, the whole process,” she says. It’s been a fairytale come true for me personally.”
Actor and director Velina Brown decided to direct this version of “Cinderella,” after L. Peter Callender, the company’s new artistic director, approached her about it. Fellow actors, the two have worked together throughout the years at the American Conservatory Theater and other companies.

“The basic tale is the same but with the African American Shakespeare Company they do the classic with color so that’s the main difference,” Brown says. “It’s with an African American Cinderella and Prince Charming and that is something that I’m really excited about sharing with the little ones.”

She changed up aspects of the production, adding Afrocentric elements to it, casting women as the two stepsisters and presenting them as attractive. In the past, the company has cast men and portrayed the siblings as homely. Brown is doing so to emphasize fortify the lesson of the significance of internal beauty.
“I decided that I wanted them to be women because I wanted to have the conversation about ‘pretty is as pretty does,’ and ‘ugly is as ugly does,’” she says.

The African-American Shakespeare Company presents “Cinderella,” Fri.-Sun., Dec. 3-19. Buriel Clay Theatre, African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco. $10-30; special gala event $50. (800) 838-3006,