Self-made playwright takes cues from serious themes


FROM MODEST beginnings as a would-be romance novel writer, Monalisa DeGross has reached a measure of professional success as the winner of this year's WMAR-TV Ninth Annual Drama Competition for Black Writers.

She is an ebullient woman, outgoing with an infectious sense of humor. "I had to have a good sense of humor with a name like Monalisa," she says, laughing. "My father was a Nat King Cole fan."

A graduate of Eastern High School, DeGross was born and raised in East Baltimore. She is the oldest of nine sisters and two brothers. Married and the mother of two grown children, she still resides with her family in the old neighborhood.

Although the secretary at the Central Branch of the Enoch Free Library has had no formal writing instruction, she is already an author of some note. Harper and Collins will publish her first children's book, "Donavan's Word Jar," this spring.

"It is about a little boy, named after my son, who collects words and puts them in a jar," DeGross explained before a recent taping session of her winning play, "A Relative Stranger," at WMAR-TV.

Her interest in writing was sparked by romance novels. "I started writing one with a friend. Then took it over since I was more interested," she said. "That got me started. But I wanted to do more serious work.

"I studied the plays of August Wilson and began writing 'Stranger' as a book. It was originally titled 'The Visitor.' Then the opportunity to enter this contest came up, and I decided to submit a condensed version.

"Last year's winning script featured two men. I thought a play with just women might work this year," she says.

WMAR will broadcast a 60-minute version of her play at 7 p.m. Feb. 23. The annual competition is part of the station's celebration of Black History Month. It offers black playwrights in Maryland an opportunity to have their works produced for television. The Best Play category carries a prize of $1,000.

Teen pregnancy, sexual abuse and suicide are issues confronting the central characters in DeGross' script.

Ironically titled, "A Relative Stranger" deals with a mother's rejection of her daughter and the daughter's pitiable attempts to find her own identity.

Set in Baltimore in the 50s, the play focuses on a favorite DeGross theme: mother and daughter relationships. "As a mother, daughter and a sister, I was always interested in this particular alliance and the dynamics of women interacting with each other.

"Lina has a tragically sordid past," she says, referring to the main character. "But she has successfully reinvented herself career-wise and is about to make an important marriage. She has crossed over the social barriers but discovers she can't escape her former life."

The "past" appears in the form of Oscina, the daughter Lina rejected as a molested teen-ager in South Carolina. Refusing to acknowledge their connection, she tells the young girl she can never be anything to her but a stranger.

"The tragedy is Lina," DeGross says. "She is so afraid. She doesn't understand that she might be able to accept her past as well as her future. Both mother and daughter are victims. The situation is set up for a suspenseful ending but we will never know what happens afterward unless I write a sequel," she says, laughing.

As she talks, actors begin arriving on the set furnished with authentic 50s pieces to create a pleasant ambience for Lina's upper middle class living room.

Director Greg Massoni consults with the camera crew while stage director Robert Russell coaches the actors in character interpretation. Harry R. Kakel Jr., production manager, sees to last-minute set details.

As Cynthia D. Francis-Forbes, portraying Lina, and Loretha Myers, as Oscina, rehearse an intense confrontation scene, DeGross stands nervously out of the camera's eye watching the action. "Hearing my own words spoken is humbling," she said later. "You think, 'did I say that right?' or 'I could have done a better job.'"

The script originally ran 105 minutes but had to be edited to 45. "That hurt," she says. "I had to cut a lot of significant dialogue. But this really has been an excellent learning experience and chance to look at writing from another perspective. . . . Watching the camera crew, the directors and the actors . . . the whole process."

A Teacher's Guide for students explaining the social ramifications of the story has been sent to all Baltimore city and county elementary and high schools (public and private). The guide was designed for student-teacher and student-parent discussions before and after the special Channel 2 presentation. (Copies are available at all Enoch Pratt Library branches).

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