Veteran American Stage director Bob Devon Jones says having an African-American cast brings different nuisances to “Steel Magnolias,” the story of the friendship through good and bad times among some strong Southern women.
“It’s a lovely play, funny and touching at the same time,” says Jones, adding that there is a universal sense of community and love among these women that transcends color. “They remind me of the way my mother would have would have behaved with her girlfriends,” Jones says.
American Stage’s version opens Friday and runs through June 15 at the Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third Street N. in downtown St. Petersburg.
Set in a rural parish in Louisiana, the story revolves around a group of women who frequent a small town beauty parlor. They share triumph and tragedy as well as laughter and tears. One of the women, Shelby, struggles with diabetes and failing kidneys and faces a life-threatening pregnancy.
Playwright Robert Harling, who is from Natchitoches, La., wrote the play following the death of his sister from diabetes in 1985, recalling how she and her friends could be as delicate as magnolia blossoms and as tough as steel.
The play was made into a successful 1989 movie starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, and Daryl Hannah. A 2012 Lifetime movie featured an all-black cast, including Queen Latifah.
“These women are as strong as they are Southern,” says actress and playwright Fanni Green, a University of South Florida faculty member who has taught acting for more than a decade.
Green plays Mary Lynn “M’Lynn” Eatenton, a doting mother who donates a kidney in an effort to save her daughter Shelby (played by Whitney Drake fresh off her performance as Dorothy in “The Wiz”).
“These women know how to make good and how to make better,” says Green. “This play has universal appeal because it focuses on the indomitable spirit of women, especially Southern black woman. It’s lovely to celebrate that.”
Also in the cast is Perri Gaffney as the neighborhood “grouch” Ouiser Boudreaux; Tia Jemison as beauty shop owner Truvy Jones; Brandy Grant as newly hired beautician Anelle Dupuy-Desoto; and Erica Sutherlin as family fiend and former mayor’s wife Clairee Belcher.
Green and Gaffney are making their American Stage debuts. Green, is a St. Petersburg native who has taught voice and speech at the Yale School of Drama, the Julliard School and the Actors Center in New York. Her television and film credits include “Law & Order,” “Third Watch,” “The Object of My Affection” and “Drunks.”
For USF School of Theatre and Dance, she directed “The Trojan Women,” “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” “What the Heart Remembers: the Women and Children of Darfur” (an original production, co-authored by Green and USF Dance Professor Jeanne Travers), and “In the Next Room” (or the “Vibrator Play”).
Among Gaffney’s credits are television shows such as “As the World Turns” and “Law and Order” and stage productions such as “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry” at USF; “The Waiting Room” and “Another Part of the Forest” (both off Broadway) and numerous others from “Macbeth” to “The Music Man.”