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Woman acts on her dream, but can she fill a theater?

Rashida Strober's sneakers squelched as she hurried along the sidewalk in a downpour. She pulled a flier from her backpack and handed it to a young black man in a doorway.

"It's for a play," she said, "that deals with the relationship between dark-skinned black women and men."

He nodded. "I'll give it to my mama," he said.

Rashida, 35, moved along, stuffing fliers in doorjambs.

She has a master's degree in political science, a husband and two kids, a substitute teacher job. But for the past few months, she'd spent much of her time promoting her play, A Dark-Skinned Woman's Revenge.

It had taken her four years to write, another year to memorize and rehearse. She planned to perform it at the University of South Florida's 700-seat Oval Theater in Tampa. It would cost her $1,500 to rent the space, the equivalent of a month's salary. She was delivering 20,000 color fliers by foot, mostly in black neighborhoods such as this one in Clearwater.

"I don't have a ride," said a deaf woman, taking the limp square of paper.

Rashida was not deterred. "This is about me holding on to my dream of being a big performer," she said, hopping a puddle.

She was late on her car payment, car insurance and other bills. She owed $100,000 in student loans. She had borrowed from her aunt, her husband, her stepdad, her brother. She owed one friend $1,300.

In 28 days, she was convinced, the theater would be full and people would cheer, just like they did that time years ago in eighth grade when she got on stage and won a statewide prize for her monologue. If she could fill a theater again, she could make the audience understand what she had overcome. They would see that the stage is where she really belongs and that she never should have left.

//

Rashida and her five brothers grew up under meager circumstances in predominantly black neighborhoods in St. Petersburg.

Her mother, a Pentecostal, spoke in tongues. Her father was affiliated with the Nation of Islam. They split when she was 5.

They moved a lot in Rashida's early years and relied on food stamps. Sometimes the lights didn't work. Sometimes there was no water.

Rashida's mother administered harsh discipline, according to Rashida and her brother. Rashida was often sent to the bathroom to get on her knees and "call Jesus."

Out on the rough and tumble cobblestone streets, girls fought with their fists and Rashida brawled.

But she remembers one of her middle school teachers encouraging her to participate in a speech contest, which she won. Another teacher suggested she try out for the school play. Rashida earned a superior at the middle school district thespian festival for a monologue about a young black girl talking to her mother. Only Rashida's mother wasn't there.

Zachary Christopher, a fellow acting student in middle school, remembers Rashida was reserved, troubled. But Christopher, 33, saw the effect that prize had on her. It was as if she'd finally discovered she could act.

A few months later, they both performed their monologues at the state competition. Rashida seemed sad. But she earned superior marks again. No one from her family was present for that either.

Rashida won a scholarship to study acting at Ruth Eckerd Hall. But her mother didn't sign the paperwork. Rashida said her mother told her that acting was "devilish" and "worldly," not something she wanted her daughter involved in.

Soon after that, during one argument, Rashida said her mother handed her all her belongings, her acting trophies and her speech medals in a bag and told her to leave.

In a recent interview at her home, Rashida's mother acknowledged she didn't think Rashida should pursue acting. She said she never kicked her daughter out. She said Rashida left because she refused to abide by her rules.

"I didn't befriend my child," she said. "I wanted to be the mother that God called me to be toward my child."

Whatever happened, at age 14, Rashida began to drift. She dropped out of high school. She stayed with a cousin and then her father. She slept on a friend's couch. She slept in an abandoned house, on a park bench and at the home of a deacon who wanted sex as rent.

She was raped twice.

//

SOME PEOPLE would NOT OVERCOME these circumstances. But Rashida did.

She took a job at Wendy's, got her GED, worked as a nurse's aide, had a son, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida in history, got a master's degree in political science, taught a government class at St. Petersburg College.

But she pined for acting. So, in 2005, she moved with her son to Los Angeles. She took acting classes, got an agent, sat for head shots, worked as a telemarketer.

She got a role as a survivor in a play about the Rwandan massacre.

Two agents told her she needed to change her hair, which she wore in poofy sister locks. Rashida resisted. She didn't want to change who she was.

Her credit card debt piled up, but the acting credits didn't. Her son wanted to leave Los Angeles so she returned to St. Petersburg.

She continued to pursue acting with minimal success. A bit part as the mother of a missing girl in TruTV's Forensic File. The role of an AIDS patient during an acting showcase. Sojourner Truth in a small play.

In 2006, she decided to write her own part. It was a one-woman play about her life. She gave her protagonist the name Tandis. It was 40 or so angry pages that spared no detail about Rashida's childhood, the poverty, the homelessness.

She performed it at the Wildwood Recreation Center in St. Petersburg. Her audience included her brother, her cousin, her aunt, her grandma and several friends.

She found that people identified with the part of the script that dealt with skin color. She rewrote the play, focusing on that theme, and performed it at the historic 100-seat Royal Theater in St. Petersburg. She charged $10 and drew about 80.

She submitted a video of her performance and won a Best Actress award at a North Carolina playwright festival.

Now, two years later, she had the moxie to rent a 700-seat college theater in Tampa and expect that she'd fill it.

//

In September, Rashida walked into the James Weldon Johnson Library in a predominantly African-American neighborhood 2 miles south of downtown St. Petersburg. She veered left to the community room where she often rehearsed. Her performance was less than three weeks away.

She was on a juice diet and she set that day's concoction — a blend of kale, green tea, mangoes and strawberries — on a table as she busied herself setting up her computer. Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Toni Morrison stared from pictures on the walls.

Her play featured five loosely connected female characters, each played by Rashida, each drawing something from Rashida's bleak childhood.

A family friend, Jerry Coleman, was playing her dead father's spirit, a nonspeaking role. He waited in a corner for his cue to enter.

Rashida's father died in 2001. He had been good natured and always happy to see her. But he hadn't always been around. She called their relationship "fuzzy."

Rashida began to run through her characters. Almost all of them grappled with a subject that Rashida says is not often discussed outside the black community: The darker your skin, the less you are respected.

Sassy Shareefa was losing her NFL football-playing husband to a lighter-skinned woman. Djoma struggled with confidence because growing up, black boys had called her "ugly," "tar baby" and "street monkey." Delphanie's high school crush had belittled her because of her dark skin so she'd married a white man. Now she forbade her mixed-race daughter from dating a black boy.

Rashida, tall and lanky with dark chocolate skin, said the topic of skin color sprang from her childhood. Her peers let her know that girls with dark skin, like hers, were less attractive.

She slipped from one character to another with the flip of a switch. Abrasive woman. Insecure woman. Angry woman. Sad woman. Unloved woman. Her performances were overwrought, but her pain and anger seemed real.

She sighed heavily as Coleman missed his cue for the third time.

"If you do that when I'm on stage," Rashida said testily, "I'm going to be very upset."

//

Twelve days before her play, Rashida picked up her 19-month-old daughter, Lauryn, from her aunt's house and headed home to the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her husband and children.

She had spent the day handing out fliers in St. Petersburg. Her husband was out driving his cab. Her 15-year-old son was with his friends.

Lauryn crawled all over her lap as Rashida started up her computer and scrolled through her email.

"Ohhh! Another ticket sale."

Ticket number 36.

She'd handed out 17,000 of her fliers, posted on Facebook and Twitter, called dozens of people, borrowed $1,300 to rent the theater. All for 36 tickets?

Rashida talked about it like she had no other choice. She compared it to waking up and eating.

"I will keep doing it until I perfect it," she said.

The world is full of stories about people who get praised for their sacrifices once they have achieved their dream. But we don't spend as much time with the dreamers when the outcome of their quest is still very much in doubt, when chasing their dream can look an awful lot like a series of bad bets.

Rashida's husband didn't want to talk about how he feels about Rashida's dogged pursuit of an acting career. Rashida says he is, for the most part, supportive. She also says he had no choice.

"This is who I am," she said. "I have to do this."

She started cold-calling from a stack of business cards she'd collected.

Her daughter pulled a plastic garbage can over her head.

"Miss Lauryn," Rashida said. "Put it in the corner."

The little girl complied and then toddled over to a stack of books and began looking through one: Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust. Most of them related to degrees Rashida had earned at USF, degrees she no longer really used.

Rashida was on the phone, pitching her play. A woman told her she was going to be out of the country. A man said he had choir rehearsal that day.

"I'm not worried," she said. "They will come."

//

The day of her play, Rashida borrowed money to put gas in her 2005 Nissan Sentra. She drove to Clearwater to pick up a man she'd met delivering fliers.

She'd distributed around 50 tickets in advance, but about 20 were comped to her family and friends.

By 7 p.m., four of her cousins were there. She'd heard her stepfather might come and that meant her mother might be there too.

The play was supposed to start at 7:30 p.m. but with 10 minutes to go, Rashida's cousin looked into the audience and counted 26 people.

Rashida's optimism crumbled.

"I need to fill that theater to get my money back," she said.

Her friends and family stood around awkwardly.

She held the curtain for 40 minutes, hoping to draw more paying customers. When she took the stage, there were about 70 people in the audience — a tenth of the capacity. A woman said she might have seen Rashida's mother, but it wasn't her.

The play began clumsily. Someone put on the wrong music. As Rashida had feared, Coleman missed his cue.

A professional critic wouldn't have been kind.

Rashida would have been knocked for overacting, for a script that was confusing. The audience laughed when it was serious, and no one could understand Coleman's role. But she received a standing ovation, and the small number of people who stuck around to discuss the play afterward said they loved her.

And that was the review Rashida embraced.

//

The day after her play, Rashida sat in a Dunkin' Donuts drinking coffee and making a to-do list.

The turnout had been disappointing, a failure even by her standards. But she had ideas about the next performance.

"I got to do something different," she said. "Instead of 20,000 fliers, maybe I need to do 100,000."

She had called the friend to whom she still owed $1,300. She asked if she could pay $200 now, the rest in December.

A week later, with $50 in her pocket, she drove to the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival to perform two shows in a much smaller venue. A friend, a reformed addict who had self-published a book called The Crackhead Poet Anthology, went with her and borrowed money for their motel room.

Fifteen people came to see Rashida the first night; another 20 showed up the next. None of the equipment in the theater worked so she had to improvise. She received a portion of the door sales but it wasn't enough to cover her expenses. The fact that she was paying to act was not important to her.

"They loved me," she said. "That's important to me."

//

Rashida has surmounted so much instability. Why wasn't she content with what she'd achieved already?

Her brother, Keith Burnette, says Rashida found something at an early age that she loved and her mother didn't approve of it. "Now it's just, 'Well, I'm going to show you. I'll make it without your approval,' " he said.

Rashida's mother, who asked to be identified by her first initial and last name, R. Harris, is actually much more charitable on the topic of Rashida's acting these days.

She had heard Rashida's first play in 2006 had profanity and she wanted no part of that. She heard from relatives her recent play was much better, plus it had Jesus in it.

Every girl should have the opportunity, Rashida's mother said, to pursue her dreams. She said she might go see Rashida the next time she performs.

//

When Rashida returned home to St. Petersburg from Atlanta, she began planning another performance. Maybe she would do three nights this time. She emailed the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which had an opening in April.

"I would really love to rent the space," Rashida wrote. "However, I assume that I would have to pay the monies up front to hold the date?"

The woman sent her a contract. All they needed, she said, was a $300 deposit.

Times staffers Carolyn Van Houten and Bill Duryea contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8640.

Woman acts on her dream, but can she fill a theater? 10/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 31, 2013 1:57pm]
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