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A flashback to growing up black in the '60s

April 17, 2008|Amy Nicholson

A teenage girl in civil rights-era Chicago wrestles with popularity, bullies, Christian piety and a fluttering of lesbian feelings for her school nurse.

"It's universal," proclaims playwright and actor Michael A. Shepperd of April Sinclair's 1994 bestseller, "Coffee Will Make You Black."

Shepperd came across the novel 10 years ago and, three days later, he'd devoured it cover to cover and finished his first draft of a stage adaptation, which went on to run for seven months at Chicago's City Lit Theater Company. After a decade break during which Sinclair's saga of city girl Jean "Stevie" Stevenson's uphill climb through adolescence went from being banned from schools' libraries to being entrenched in their curriculum, Shepperd and director Nataki Garrett have brought the production back for a five-week run at Hollywood's Celebration Theatre.

Post-PC era, the impact of Stevie's blunt assessments of "good" skin and nappy hair and her churning homosexual desires appears to have lessened, but not because the issues are resolved. Rather, argues Shepperd, we mistake silence for acceptance.

These themes run underneath the dizzying novelty of the wide-eyed, big-mouthed late '60s and early '70s -- a time when anything (good and bad) was right around the corner.

"New clothes, new afros -- even the word 'black' was new," says Garrett, reminding her cast to share that sense of discovery.

Even the music mutates during the four-year span of the play, from Motown to the rebellious snarl of Jimi Hendrix, layered over a collage of speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Seale, and sounds from the riots that upended the Windy City in 1968.

What grounds Sinclair's novel, however, is that it captures a young girl blazing her own path just as her nation does the same.

"It's a dual coming-of-age story," describes Garrett. Diona Reasonover stars as Stevie -- smart, curious and painfully naive -- and guides the audience through their own memories of those awkward, miserable years between 12 and 16. We might not have all fought our momma for the right to wear our hair natural, but we've all done a public nose plant navigating those first painful crushes.

Cast member Charlene Modeste drew on her background as a Brooklyn native who understands the cramped city blocks that square off a teen's view of the world to play Stevie's gum-cracking, fast-talking best friend Carla.

"In three pages of reading the script, I was laughing in recognition," Modeste says with a chuckle. "I knew Carla -- I was warned about Carla as a kid."

Beyond the play's puppyish appeal, Modeste sees a through line that ties Stevie's childhood to today's audiences.

"Like then, we're at a moment in time on the verge of something else," she says. "And in 10 years, people will look back at us and go, 'Remember when?' "

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theguide@latimes.com

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'COFFEE WILL MAKE YOU BLACK'

WHERE: Celebration Theatre, 7051 B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun., ends May 25.

PRICE: $25

INFO: (323) 957-1884; www.celebrationtheatre.com

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