New Federal Theatre is celebrating Women’s History Month with an online reading series featuring Cassandra Medley’s Ma Rose, directed by Eileen Morris, and starring Denise Burse, Elain Graham, Nambi E. Kelley, Lizan Mitchell and Kim Sullivan. The reading is free and accessible on NFT’s website, Saturday, March 20 at 7:00 PM and will stream until March 21.
Ma Rose premiered at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1986.
The title character in Cassandra Medley’s Ma Rose is an aged matriarch who finds her mind and her life slowly slipping away. She considers her wandering mind and her contact with ancestors an opportunity to gain wisdom and make amends. Stubbornly she wants to hold on to her independence, but she is surrounded by relatives determined to give her a final push. The play is the story of Ma Rose’s battle, and it is also about the conflicts among three generations of women who seem destined to repeat one another’s mistakes.
Playwright Cassandra Medley is an ongoing teacher in New Federal Theatre’s Playwriting Workshop. This play was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Drama (1988). Reviewing the play’s first incarnation as a one-act at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1986, the New York Times (D.J.R. Bruckner) wrote, “Miss Medley reveals the complex ties among the women so naturally and subtly that the great range of history she surveys – of American families, blacks since the Civil War and women in the last 100 years – becomes a simple story.” The San Francisco Examiner wrote, “Ma Rose is a larger than life figure who at times approaches the stature of a black Queen Lear.”
Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre has produced over 450 mainstage plays, an astonishing and influential record of achievement, sending multiple plays to Broadway and launching numerous minority and women playwrights and actors into prominent careers. Its alumni are an honor roll of artists of color from the 1970s through today.
Several early successes brought NFT to national prominence: “Black Girl” by J.E. Franklin, won a Drama Desk Award, “The Taking of Miss Janie” by Ed Bullins moved from NFT to Lincoln Center and won the Drama Critics Circle Award; “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” by Ntozake Shange performed on Broadway for ten months (co-produced with the late Joseph Papp) and was nominated for the Tony Award before embarking on a three-year national tour. It has subsequently been performed regionally and around the world and was revived Off-Broadway in 2019.
Among the performers who benefited from early successes on NFT’s stage are the late Chadwick Boseman, Debbie Allen, Morgan Freeman, Phylicia Rashad, Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Issa Rae, and many more.