News Column

National Black Theatre Festival: N.C. natives bring 'Power Play' to festival

July 25, 2013


July 25--WINSTON-SALEM -- Two talented, small-town girls left North Carolina a few decades ago to pursue their dream careers in the performing arts.

Pauletta Pearson, a classically trained pianist who grew up in the Catawba County town of Newton, became an actress and married Hollywood leading man Denzel Washington.

Lorey Hayes left Wallace in eastern North Carolina to study theater at N.C. A&T -- also Pauletta Washington's father's alma mater. She became a playwright and Broadway, film and television actress, dubbed New York's "commercial queen" for her frequent appearances.

Washington and Hayes will return to their home state next week to perform at the National Black Theatre Festival.

They will star with Roscoe Orman of "Sesame Street" fame, Lia Chang, Marcus Naylor and Phynjuar in a staged reading of "Power Play," Hayes' award-winning play about passion, politics and the power of God.

In a staged reading, actors hold scripts but fully act out the play.

"It's a beautiful piece. I can definitely relate to it," Pauletta Washington said from Atlanta, where she appeared earlier this month in the play "Crowns."

Washington began to hone her artistic skills in Newton, where her father was a school principal and her mother a teacher. By age 10, she displayed her piano talent and training in competitions.

In 1970, she was the first black contestant and second runner-up in the Miss North Carolina pageant.

Piano studies took her to the N.C. School of the Arts, The Juilliard School in New York and graduate work at the University of North Texas. When she got a job in musical theater at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park during grad school, "I found that I really liked it," she said.

At the urging of Six Flags' musical director, she moved to New York. She had a thriving Broadway career by 1977 when she met her husband-to-be on a movie set. But after they married in 1983 and she became pregnant, she put her career on hold to raise children. She moved from New York to California, where Denzel was filming the TV show "St. Elsewhere."

"I had such an incredible childhood, having both parents there and having such a beautiful working relationship, and I wanted to do that for my child," she said.

She did some acting closer to home. But with their four children now grown, she returned to the New York stage in 2011, appearing off-Broadway in "Love, Loss, and What I Wore."

She has had a stream of work since, onstage and in the forthcoming TV movie "The Watsons Go to Birmingham."

Returning to acting "is even better than before because of the experience of having been a mother and wife and a homemaker," Washington said. "I am able to use some of the emotional battles and victories within the art."

"Power Play" features Washington as Lou Wright, wife to Roscoe Orman's Franklin Wright. Franklin Wright has been propelled to political stardom by his Asian American campaign manager (Lia Chang). He is three days from the election, hoping to become California's first African American governor.

Then he finds himself thrust into a scandal that threatens his career and marriage -- a scandal based on a secret that his wife harbored for years.

"Power Play" also focuses on the women caught up in the personal and political intrigue.

The 1991 festival featured a reading of an earlier version of Hayes' play. A cast brought it from New York to launch the festival's Midnight Reading Series.

Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre presented a fully staged production in 1996 in New York, winning the Audelco Award that honors excellence in New York African American theater.

"Fresh, risky and ultimately riveting," New York Daily News critic David Hinckley wrote.

The play has changed but is more relevant than ever, with political scandal a daily occurrence, Hayes said.

"Our country puts too much emphasis on politicians' personal lives and uses that to tear them down," Hayes said. "It disturbs me when the issues are put aside, and we have to find out who someone is sleeping with, instead of what they can do to build up our society."

Hayes first worked with Washington when she recruited Washington for a reading of another of her plays. Impressed, Hayes sent her the "Power Play" script.

After Washington read it, she told Hayes that she was hooked on the role of Lou.

"She really understood the depths of the character," Hayes said.

Washington and Orman did their first staged reading of "Power Play" last year at New York's Schomburg Center.

They "have a stage electricity that is exciting and fascinating," Hayes said. "They are so open and honest in their acting alone and together, they are the perfect two to lead the company in the show."

Washington knows well the challenges of a high-profile marriage and life.

She and Denzel grace the cover of Ebony magazine's August issue as they celebrate 30 years of marriage.

As the issue hit newsstands, the celebrity press published reports that Denzel was rumored to have been photographed kissing another woman and that the couple were headed for divorce, reports that Denzel Washington denied.

Although Pauletta Washington didn't get into specifics, she said: "I have heard so many terrible rumors, terrible rumors. But that's to be expected when you are in situations like we're in, when you are a high-profile person. I think the way that the mind-set is of the world, everyone feels they can nitpick at everybody."

"I can say this about Denzel," she added. "He never, ever and still to this day ever sought to be a celebrity. He sought to be a good actor, and that is his main goal today. He works very hard, and it has led him to have the status that he has. But he's still human, and he's still my children's father, and he's still my husband."

Washington looks forward to returning to North Carolina and to the theater festival, where she has visited twice but not performed.

She plans to see her brother and sister and their families in Newton and take festival friends to her sister's business, Zander's Coffeehouse.

"I am so proud that the festival is still strong," she said.

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 373-5204, and follow @dawndkane on Twitter.

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