Harrisburg Stagecraft, Part 1
Sharia Benn, Actor
For decades, only a handful of companies spun through the Harrisburg-area theater universe. Often bringing Broadway hits close to home or freshening up the classics, they gave local players the chance to strut their hours upon the stage or ply their talents behind the scenes.
But today, as actor Preston H. Schreffler puts it, there’s “a bustling scene” in area theater, “almost a renaissance.” From Shakespeare to new works, and proscenium stages to bars, the theater scene is whirling with an entropy that generates creativity and attracts 21st-Century audiences.
At the heart of this busily spinning world are people – people who create, people who rehearse, people who craft, people who give time and energy to staging works that spark introspection and discussion.
They include a “Shakespeare nerd” director, a third-generation actor who straddles traditional and non-traditional companies, an arts volunteer and actor devoted to uplifting those around him, an actor who derives strength from community-building and a volunteer whose constant presence has saved actors from bad wigs for two decades.
Sharia Benn, Actor
“Words, says Sharia Benn, “are powerful.”
She was 5 years old when she got a part in a public-service announcement because she could read the script. As an adult, she wrote a play about HIV acceptance for a church youth group, and it “just mushroomed” in popularity. Both experiences taught her that “words are powerful when they are read by someone.”
“That person feels them, interprets them and then speaks them,” she says. “It gets back to my roots. It’s about reading. It’s about thinking, and then taking that and becoming.”
Benn is an actor and a force for community change. Her local appearances include frequent roles with Open Stage of Harrisburg, portraying everyone from Tinker Bell in Peter, Hook, and the Darlings to Rose in Fences, one of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays spotlighting the 20th-Century African-American experience.
Benn relocated to Harrisburg from her native Baltimore in 1995, pursuing opportunity with Penn National Insurance, where she remains as underwriting manager. Though she missed Baltimore’s museums and diversity, she started discovering “little pockets of opportunity” in theater and in service for such community organizations as Bethesda Mission, the YWCA and YMCA and Bridge of Hope Harrisburg Area, a nonprofit serving homeless women and children she helped establish.
“For 20-plus years, I found I could make an impact in doing the things that I love, which is helping people,” she says. “There was such a need in the community. I kind of fell in love with the place. There’s still a lot of work to do, but this area, Harrisburg and the theater community, they’ve grown. I’ve seen the growth.”
Theater, she says, “is a safe place,” one she capitalized on when she wrote a play that prompted discussions of mental illness in the African-American community. Audience members arrive, expecting to be entertained and leave thinking, “I am changed. I want to talk about this.”
Benn takes the same journey of discovery with her characters. Playing against type as the cursing, tenacious Ma Rainey in Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she won a Broadwayworld.com Central PA Best Actress Award. As a historical interpreter, she introduces audiences to groundbreaking writer, abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
“I get strength. I get knowledge,” she says of playing her characters. “I have a sureness about who I am, that I’m OK being Sharia. These women came out of really hard times and situations, and they worked through it and came through to the other side and were able to say, ‘I am stronger than I thought I was, and I am OK in my own skin.’”
Working with a small core group, and with the support of Open Stage, Benn is helping found a local, professional African-American theater company.
“It’s important that we African-Americans tell our stories, direct our stories, own our stories and be part of the tapestry that weaves us all together in a very meaningful way,” she says. In an age of tense race relations, the company could “use that tension to make us better. Make us better people, make us better actors, make us better artists, make us a better community.”
The mother of two and grandmother of a baby boy relies on her husband, William Benn, for unwavering support. Benn urges her children, both artistically gifted, to pursue their dreams and “find your place where you are.”
“If you lead with your heart and find the opportunities where you land and do what you love when you can, you can have a good life. You still have to eat, you still have to have a roof over your head, you still have to survive in this world, even thrive. There’s a way to have both, to be able to sustain yourself and do what you love. That’s how I’ve arrived where I am.”