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Release: Immediate

'A Raisin in the Sun' production celebrates 30 years of Black Action Theatre

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University Theatres Mainstage series will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the University of Iowa Black Action Theatre (BAT) with a production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" Feb. 25 through March 7 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the UI Theatre Building. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Feb. 25-27 and March 3-6, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 28 and March 7.

In addition to celebrating the BAT anniversary, the production will mark the 40th anniversary of the play's landmark Broadway premiere. "A Raisin in the Sun" was the play that, more than any other, established black domestic life as a fitting subject for mainstream American theater. Ruby Dee, who starred in the original Broadway production, visited the UI Department of Theatre Arts in December with her husband, Ossie Davis, to help launch the BAT anniversary.

"A Raisin in the Sun" portrays the struggles of African-American family members in 1950s Chicago as they strive to realize the American dream. The UI production will be directed by Harriette M. Pierce, the UI faculty member who teaches the Black Action Theatre class jointly listed by the African-American World Studies Program and the Department of Theatre Arts.

Other artistic contributors to the production include set designer Margaret Wenk, costume designer Kaoime Malloy, lighting designer Bryon Winn and sound designer Lindsey E. Kem.

Iowa ranks among the most monochromatic, least racially diverse states in the union. And yet, primarily through the visionary work of the late Darwin T. Turner and the trailblazing African-American World Studies Program, the UI is acknowledged as a pioneer in African-American studies. In a 1997 article, Wilfred D. Samuels, president of the African-American Literature and Culture Society, identified Turner among the handful of prominent leaders "whose foresight and contributions we must preserve and celebrate."

An enduring evidence of that tradition, BAT specializes in studying and producing works from a rich body of dramatic literature that was long marginalized. BAT's founding combined the support of faculty in both African-American World Studies and the Department of Theatre Arts with the talent and commitment of black students, many of whom had been enabled to attend the UI through a new minority scholarship program.

Oscar Lee Brownstein, who was a member of the Theatre Arts faculty and directed the Iowa Playwrights Workshop through most of the '70s, taught the first BAT course in the fall of 1969, after producing an enthusiastically received summer touring company that year.

Brownstein recently wrote, "What ought to be a part of any BAT history derives from the very special character of tolerance and openness of the university and the people of Iowa, which I -- long since departed -- have never forgotten."

The founding of BAT was consistent with a long tradition of openness at the UI. The UI began admitting men and women on an equal basis in 1855, and it admitted black students on an equal basis with whites from its earliest days. The UI awarded the nation's first law degree to an African-American in 1879, and the UI later awarded the nation's first African-American doctorate in history and the first doctorate to an African-American woman in chemical engineering.

But the name Black Action Theatre also echoes the militant attitude of students in the era of civil rights demonstrations, Black Power manifestos, Vietnam War protests, political assassinations and Jesse Jackson's "I am somebody!" speeches, when the consciousness-raising of young African-Americans was a call to action.

The late '60s was a time of both growing opportunity and burgeoning militancy on college campuses. The tenor of the time was illustrated when the black students in the BAT class -- a minority of those enrolled -- converged on Brownstein's office to protest being graded on black theater by a white professor.

"About a year later Jim Lincoln (who was one of the students) told me that the 'coup' had been a mistake," Brownstein wrote. "However, I suspect that now he -- as I do -- believes that BAT had to evolve as it did. With good new leadership and an internal dynamic that demanded excellence, BAT became an important instrument of the African-American community at Iowa."

Lincoln, who was BAT's first graduate assistant director, is now the vice-president for student services at DePauw University in Indiana. He explains that BAT provided a valuable artistic opportunity for black students at the UI: "For me it was great way of expressing the kind of frustrations and experiences we were having. BAT developed as agit-prop theater; it was about message. BAT was used as theater to educate, especially in the early years."

Cedar Rapids resident Julie Goodlett, who founded the UI Black Genesis dance company in the same period, became the director of BAT after Lincoln's graduation. "More than anything, we wanted to see ourselves," she says. "There were plays going on, but there were so few African-Americans on campus at that time, and we also wanted to see plays about us.

"It was a wonderful outlet for African-American students to be able to get involved with something other than just going to classes. We were not excluded from other plays, but we didn't feel comfortable auditioning for 'Macbeth'," says Goodlett, who is now the president of Jesus Christ Apostolic Academy, an accredited Bible college in Des Moines, and a drama teacher at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids.

BAT was always a serious scholarly and theatrical enterprise. Lincoln says that a rude awakening was in store for students who registered for BAT on the assumption that it was a slough course. "Some students saw BAT as a potential blow-off course -- they expected it to be easy -- and when people found it wasn't that way, there were some rough times. We studied 20-25 scripts each semester."

The rigorousness of the course was reflected in the ambition of the productions, even though many of the students had no theatrical experience and most of the shows were staged on a shoestring. "We felt we would be held to the same standards as theater majors, and we tried to come up to those standards," Lincoln says. "We had some great performances from people who weren't trained in the theater, but had commitment."

As a fledgling, student-run organization, BAT boldly took one of its early productions on tour, performing at traditionally black colleges in the East and Southeast.

Philip Hubbard, who is now retired after many years as the UI vice president for student services, was BAT's "angel" in the early years, providing both budgetary support and an advocate in the administration.

Over the succeeding years, BAT has produced many of the most famous plays in African-American dramatic literature, but it has also brought forgotten treasures to light and developed original scripts written individually or collectively by UI students.

For most of its existence, the BAT courses were taught by graduate assistants, but the African-American World Studies Program now supports a visiting faculty line to teach the BAT classes and direct BAT productions.

Faculty member Harriette Pierce says that one of her current focuses is looking to the future by bringing African-American theater to younger audiences. The class developed "A Chil'rens Tale" in 1996, putting an African-American twist on a familiar folk tale. This season BAT is touring "God's Trombones" to Iowa communities through the UI Arts Share Program.

"This focus is crucial for our future," Pierce says. "I'm looking forward to the 60th anniversary of BAT 30 years from now. It's so important that out here in the Midwest there is a beacon of African-American theater. It is a precious thing to me, but I have also learned that it is precious to and appreciated by people throughout the country."

Procter and Gamble and USWest are corporate sponsors of BAT.

Tickets for "A Raisin in the Sun" are $15 ($7 for UI students, senior citizens and youth). Tickets may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be on sale one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. Box office personnel prepared to offer assistance with handicapped parking, wheelchair access and seating, hearing augmentation and other services will answer this number. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

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