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A Tale of Two Beneathas

Pictured (left to right): Saundra McClain and Sarah Hollis. Photos by Brian Feinzimer.

By A Noise Within
March 22, 2018

Following a student matinee, cast members swarm the green room as they gather their things, exchange hugs, and poke fun at each other’s expense – much like they did as an onstage family. Sarah Hollis, who plays Beneatha Younger, talks about how during a Sunday performance she forgot her shirt onstage when she left to change, so she and a crew member scrambled to find a similar shirt. Saundra McClain, playing Mama Younger, claims that she had a perfect performance that Sunday, but Sarah replies, “You said you put $35 for a down payment on the house!” “Really?” says Saundra. Ben Cain, playing Walter Lee, adds, “Then in the next show you emphasized very clearly, ‘I put down $3,500 for the house!'” “It went perfect in my head,” says Saundra.

Although Saundra plays the powerful matriarch of the Younger family, she personally identifies more with Beneatha, much like Lorraine Hansberry did. She talks more about what both Beneatha and Mama mean to her:

Saundra: I’m an old Beneatha. When I was in school, I was Beneatha in Young, Gifted, and Black. Mama was a stretch because she’s old timey and I’m very urban. In past productions, I’ve never seen people bring the country side [of Mama Younger], but she says she comes from a line of sharecroppers. She has been played as different kinds of regalness. I didn’t see her that way. Plus, she had a husband that ran around, so I imagine she must have run around herself when she was younger.

I made [Mama] like my great-aunts and grandmother, who had so much energy and life. They would always be yapping and running their mouths. Mama has a sense of life about her. She had dreams, too. I didn’t see the movies, and I don’t see her traditionally, which is why Gregg hired me in the first place. I was going in such a different direction, I kept saying to him, “You’re not going to let me fall on my face, are you?”

Saundra first became involved at A Noise Within when she directed our Words Within free reading of A Raisin in the Sun in the summer of 2016, which she also discusses in more detail.

Saundra: When I’m directing, I feel in control. Acting makes me nauseous. I’ve directed at ICT, Main Street Theater, Sierra Madre, and regional theaters back east.  [At A Noise Within], Deborah Strang contacted me to direct the reading for A Raisin in the Sun. I thought she was just being kind.

I did Mrs. Johnson in the reading. She stops the show! I lobbied to play Mrs. Johnson [in this production]. Everyone thinks I’m kidding when I say that! 

By now, the other cast members have left, and Sarah joins the conversation. It’s been Sarah’s dream to play Beneatha since she was fourteen, when she read Raisin for the first time in her English class. She remembers being so compelled by the character’s desire to make something of herself, to dream a bigger dream, and become something extraordinary.  She wrote in her script that the only character she related to was Beneatha, vowing to play her one day.

Saundra explains how the two of them met before joining the cast for Raisin.

Saundra: I met Sarah when she was auditioning for a show I was directing five years ago.

Sarah: I didn’t get cast in that show, but we saw each other around later. Then she had me understudy for a sci-fi fest.

Saundra: She went on with one rehearsal and kicked butt!

Sarah: Later, she asked me to read for Raisin. The way our characters interact in the play is how we interact in real life.  She gives me a hard time, and I give her a hard time. I told her she was my adopted California mom, to her dismay. But at the end of the day, she’s a true softie. She’ll even come backstage and say ‘You know I say all these things because I love you guys.’ It’s that tough love. I’m the nice one, though.

Saundra: I’ve met few actors who will adjust their performance to make you comfortable. She really is the nice one.

Sarah: I appreciate women who blazed the trail for me to do different roles. Saundra has played so many roles.  You can see it in her bio and her breakdown, but she’s been around a long time. I have a lot of respect for someone who came well before I did and made it easier for women who look like me to go out and get a role that maybe I wouldn’t have been cast in originally.

Saundra: Okay, please stop singing my praises.

Sarah: I really do, I respect you. For me, if something is harder for Saundra to do, I’d rather make it easier for her. For me, it’s a show of respect.

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