By Sharilyn Wells/ParaglideFebruary 18, 2011
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - From the second you walk into the Gilbert Theater located above the Fascinate-U Children's Museum in downtown Fayetteville, you are taken back into a time when segregation was alive and kicking. Climbing the stairs up to the stage, signs labeled "whites only" and "colored only" are hanging on separated doors and water fountains. As America celebrates National Black History Month, Gilbert Theater audience members are quickly sent back to a 1960 Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in of college students who wanted equality for all.
Making her Fayetteville directorial debut, Army wife, Raqi Barnett, brings to life a sensitive subject of inequality that is both close to her and others' hearts who experienced segregation and prejudice. The play "Dateline: Greensboro," written by John Merritt with Paul Woolverton and Andra Hale, opened on Feb. 3 and will run until Sunday. The play tells the true story of the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-in as seen through the eyes of the local "whites only" newspaper staff.
"I met with John (the writer) so he could help me understand his vision," explained Barnett, who was handed the script about a year ago and asked to direct. "He wanted an all white cast and an all black choir to really have the audience experience how it was back then. Even in the props and costumes, we start off with very little color in the play and as the characters change, more color is added to the set."
Barnett, a drama teacher at Mary McArthur Elementary School, said she has always had a passion for theater. She has directed children's plays and AAFES fashion shows, but her most memorable play was when she directed High School Musical 2 in Stuttgart, Germany.
"I had a cast of 35 children and one adult," Barnett explained. "I feel like I use my directing skills to help actors grow, and they continually help me grow with my directing.
When she and her husband, Master Sgt. Stacy Barnett, who is currently deployed with the XVIII Airborne Corps, moved to Fayetteville in April of 2009, she immediately started looking for a theater to help out with. She found the small Gilbert Theater and fell in love with it's atmosphere.
"It's such a quaint, little theater, but it has a lot to say," said Barnett. "I like that."
She started helping out by working the lighting board, then she acted on stage while she was eight months pregnant, soon moving on to stage managing and now, directing.
"I'm a theater specialist because I've done a lot of back stage work, costume designing, stage managing and choreography," said Barnett of her jump into directing. "I'm a multi-tasker and I like to help people see the aspect that I was seeing while I acted. I wanted to be more involved with the vision of plays," she said.
"With this play, I used my personal experiences to bring the prejudice to life for the audience. The 'N' word is thrown around a lot and because we have such a young cast, I had them do research on this period of time so that they knew what they were saying, why they were saying it, and understand the history. But they really believe in the message (of the play) and that is main thing," Barnett explained.
Because the audience is immediately transported to the 1960s, some of the language can be quite the surprise. But Barnett, an African-American, has said that the audience has been very accepting of the play and her mother said that it took her back in time when she had to live with segregation.
"I wanted them to live in the moment," Barnett explained. "And I believe I really accomplished that. I wanted it to be a conversational piece for Families to talk about."
Jules "Ollie" Forde, plays the lead character, Lane, a news reporter who believes in what the college students want and helps them with their struggle for equality.
"I've been sort of desensitized to the whole situation, and didn't realize what the big picture was really about," explained Forde. "It didn't hit me until I researched it. The spirit Raqi brings to the play is great. She has helped me out a lot in discovering my character's role in the play."
Megan Tilma, also a Fort Bragg spouse, said that it was challenging to convey a woman in the 1960's and that it took a lot of work. Tilma plays a women's writer at the newspaper who at first seems timid and takes a lot of harassment in the workplace. But she soon grows into her own and fights for what she believes.
"(Barnett) has really helped me bring out my character," said Tilma. "She helped me out a lot in the last act. She's very passionate and dedicated to what she does, and it shows through her directing."
Barnett, a military brat as well, has dedicated the play to her husband, the XVIII Airborne Corps, and all other armed forces who are currently serving overseas. Barnett's crew will be filming one of their shows so that she can share in her experiences with her number one fan, her husband - Stacy, and the Soldiers who are deployed with him.
Barnett had not only helped with AAFES fashion shows, but she volunteers with Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers, Family and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation and the summer Acting Academy held at Albritton Junior High School on Fort Bragg.
"My roots are with the military," said Barnett. "And I just want to give back to them and show my support and thanks for all that they do."
"Dateline: Greensboro" plays until Sunday. Showtimes are Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Doors open one hour prior to the performance. Tickets are $12 per person and can be purchased online at gilberttheater.com or call 678-7186.
Reservations are highly recommended to guarantee seating. Military and student discounts are available for the Thursday performance.
Barnett said her directorial debut would not have been a success without the actors and crew members who helped make it happen.
"I have to give credit to my wonderful cast and crew for putting together this phenomenal set and the way the cast become their characters on stage. They helped me through deployment, sickness, snow days, and my baby," said Barnett.
"They are such a supportive crew and they have been my rock - couldn't have done it without them."