Things are alive and thriving for Modesto's newest theater group, the Sankofa Theatre Company, which focuses on promoting black history, life and culture.
Sankofa staged its first production in February 2012 "The Piano Lesson" to great success (and raves from Bee reviewer Lisa Millegan Renner) at the Gallo Center for the Arts. Now, the troupe is readying for its next offering, also at the Gallo Center, "Looking Over the President's Shoulder."
The latest play is a one-man show starring local actor Dwight Mahabir that recounts the tale of Alonzo Fields, a real-life butler at the White House for four presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Based on Fields' memoir "My 21 Years in the White House," James Still's play offers a look at the country's presidents from the point of view of their staff.
Mahabir previously performed "President's Shoulder" with local company RiffRaff Productions (a show that also garnered raves from The Bee's Renner). The play offered Sankofa a chance to keep the momentum going from "Piano Lesson," according to John Ervin III, one of the co-founders and driving forces behind the theater company.
"We had (begun) to brainstorm about what could we do in a relatively short time span as a quality production," Ervin said in an email interview. "We had all known about Dwight's previous performance in 'Looking Over the President's Shoulder' and Greg Savage, one of our four co-founders, suggested we strongly consider it. We knew Dwight had done it before several years back with much success in a smaller venue. So, we approached Dwight and asked if was interested in doing it with Sankofa and he agreed. We also felt it would be a very dynamic and powerful history lesson that would appeal to everyone."
It also allows Sankofa an opportunity to return to the Gallo Center and take advantage of its larger audience base and production experience, Ervin said.
"We have learned a great deal from the folks at the Gallo Center in all aspects of theatre production. We could not have asked for a better start to our Sankofa Theatre Company," he said.
Attendance for "The Piano Lesson" was particularly positive: Sankofa sold out the center's Foster Theater for two of its three productions likely only falling short of a sell-out for the third because it fell on Super Bowl Sunday, Ervin said.
"I believe we could have sold out all three had it not been for that conflict," he said.
Reaction to that first show was "very positive," he said, with people asking not only when Sankofa would produce another play, but also wanting to get involved.
"We had many phone calls and inquiries about how people could be a part of our team and support our efforts further. We welcome all interest," Ervin said, adding they also have been approached by other communities such as Tracy, Stockton and Sacramento about collaborating on projects. "Someone from Sacramento attended our 'Piano Lesson' performance, the next thing I knew I had received a call from the Crocker Museum in Sacramento with a request to come do some scenes for the Black History Month Festivities. We went and performed and gained some followers in Sacramento it was great!"
Richard Mann of RiffRaff Productions will direct "President's Shoulder" for Sankofa, and Kathy Lindsey, also with RiffRaff, will handle stage managing duties. There will be some set and prop enhancements added to the show for the Sankofa production.
Another production is in the works for later this year, the play "Freedom Riders," which chronicles the college students who boarded busses in the north and rode to the south during the civil rights era to help register blacks to vote. The play will run at the Gallo Center in early November and will then hit the road for school performances, Ervin said.
Taking Sankofa to schools is just a part of the group's community involvement and outreach.
"We are actively searching and trying to develop young African-American talent so we can become an outlet and venue for young up-and-coming thespians to showcase their talents. We are striving to create opportunities for young people to be recognized in the world of theater locally so we can help cultivate their talent by providing opportunities," Ervin said. "My daughter, who was in 'The Piano Lesson,' has a role in the YES Company 'Ragtime' production (playing later this month at the Gallo Center). She got her start with Sankofa.
"Focusing on our young people will be a major goal of ours, and 'Freedom Riders' will be our first production with that focus."
But, first, comes "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which will be presented in three shows July 12-14.
"I am very excited already, watching Dwight and Richard Mann in action during rehearsals," Ervin said.
WHAT: "Looking Over the President's Shoulder"
WHEN: 8 p.m. July 12-13; 2 p.m. July 14
WHERE: Gallo Center Foster Theatre, 1000 I St., Modesto
CALL: (209) 338-2100