Raisin in the Footlights 

A Henrico church takes on the real world of the theater.

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When Jacqueline Manning takes the stage playing Momma in “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Henrico Theatre on Sept. 26, it will be the first time she's ever performed onstage.

Since February, Manning and her fellow cast members have been rehearsing weekly at Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church for this, the second production in the eastern Henrico church's new drama ministry. Like Manning, most of the cast has no acting experience; her prior public performances consisted of reading Bible stories aloud in church as a child.

Yet Manning's inexperience is nothing compared with the challenge she faces performing the lead female role of “Momma” Lena Younger after being recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“It's been great because it's keeping me focused,” Manning says at a recent Sunday night rehearsal. She acknowledges that “the last few days have been really hard. … Some days when we're here practicing, I might wind up limping, but it can be very convincing because Lena is an older lady and she has aches and pains.”

Tony Cosby, a Richmond stage veteran who attends the church and who has appeared in productions at Theater IV and Barksdale Theatre, directs and stars in the play. At Sunday night rehearsal, Cosby is busy instructing his amateur cast on how to project both their voices and emotions. “Because we're just three weeks away, a lot of this stuff is going to have to come from inside. You gotta feel this thing, you gotta live it!” Cosby exhorts. Indoors at 7 p.m., he sports large, dark glasses that don't quite hide the nearly baseball-sized lump on his right cheek; he fell face-first off his bicycle the day before.

Incredibly, a wounded director and actor, an inexperienced cast and a leading lady with MS aren't the production's greatest challenges. That would be believability. At age 54, Cosby has cast himself as Walter, playing the son of the 58-year-old Manning. “I'll just black my hair up some,” Cosby says, dismissively. “I've played this role lots of times.”

He takes it on faith that it will work.

And faith — and family togetherness — is what “Raisin” is all about, says Rising Mount Zion's pastor, the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper III. “One of the biggest reasons we chose it is because we feel it exemplifies faith and it exemplifies community,” Cooper says. “It shows what can happen when families stick together, when they work together, when they try to achieve together.”

The 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry focuses on the Youngers, a black family struggling to decide how to spend an insurance windfall following the death of the family patriarch. Momma Lena wants to buy a house in a white neighborhood; her son, Walter, wants to invest it in a liquor store; daughter Beneatha wants to go to medical school. Meanwhile, Walter's wife threatens to get an abortion.

The play's worldly themes and its message of tough economic decisions speak to the community today, Cooper says. “We live in a real world, and I think we cannot hide from real issues,” the pastor says. “One of the things we seek in our faith is that we have to stand up and we have to speak out and up when it comes to issues that affect our community: drug addiction, alcoholism, abortion.”

For Manning, the play is an act of love and devotion. Her performance, she says, is a tribute to the strong black women in her life. “I felt like I had lived with this woman all my life in the person of my great-grandmother and my grandmother and my mother and my aunts.” (A grandmother of three, Manning's young grandson, Andrew Manning, plays her grandson Travis in “Raisin.”)

Before she had to take disability leave, Manning, a registered nurse, worked as director of the operating room at Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital. She conserves her energy the day of rehearsals so she can give it her all. Her doctor will be at the theater on performance day, and the two have thoroughly plotted out how Manning will manage the demands of the two performances scheduled that day. “If I didn't think I'd be able to do it, I would never have signed on,” she says, adding that she doesn't want her illness to color the audience's view of her performance. “I don't want people coming to the show and saying, ‘There’s the lady with MS.' I just want them to see Momma.”

Manning has watched videos of both the recent Phylicia Rashad-Sean Combs version as well as the classic 1961 film with Sidney Poitier. She considers hers to be “a more old-school Momma,” like Claudia McNeil, contrasted with Rashad's “soft-spoken” and “spiritually strong” performance. Yet in rehearsal, Manning's presence is understated, subtle, filled with a quiet strength, as compared with the actorly performance of Cosby, who kneels on all fours and wails loudly as the emotionally wounded Walter.

Manning, a member of Rising Mount Zion since 1988, says that her faith in God keeps any stage jitters at bay. “I have actually prayed for boldness,” she says. “I know that it's a work for God and I don't want to be timid about it. I want to be bold, outspoken, and do my very best — and I try to pull the very best out of everyone else too.”

As rooted as Manning is in her faith, Cosby has an equally firm footing in the secular world. He is a tireless — and shameless — promoter, both of this production (“I guarantee [the show is] going to sell out and that's hard for any theater company to do. … I don't know anybody in Richmond now that … can sell out two 400-seat theaters. That's a Michael Jackson thing”) and himself (“I've been doing shows for 30 years. A lot of people know Tony Cosby. When I talk about Tony Cosby, it's almost like a person I don't know”).

This “Raisin” will be lively, featuring modern R&B music between scenes, including tunes by Michael Jackson because “the world's still mourning the King of Pop,” Cosby says. The show will end with “We are the World.” He's booking it at a location in Goochland County in October and says, “It's bordering on a national production. … Tyler Perry is sending one of his representatives to see the show because he's gotten some rumors that the show was professional.”

Cosby plans to continue Rising Mount Zion's drama ministry next year with a production of August Wilson's “Fences.” “From there, the sky's the limit,” he says. With the church's congregation as a base, Cosby figures that selling out local shows is a fait accompli. “We're going to be the mega African-American theater company” in Richmond, he says confidently. “After ‘Raisin,’ nobody will be able to touch us.” S

“A Raisin in the Sun” runs at 3 and 7 p.m. on Sept. 26 at Henrico Theatre, 305 E. Nine Mile Road in Highland Springs. Tickets $12. For information, call 643-0715.



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