A SURGEON'S LIFE ON STAGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A drama about a neurosurgeon hardly seems the stuff of children's theater.

But the producers of "Ben Carson, M.D." were convinced that a play based on the life of the ghetto youth who grew up to be director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital would captivate youngsters.

The Columbia School of Theatrical Arts/Theatrical Arts Productions, in residence at Toby's Dinner Theatre, has presented the play to visiting middle and high school students from Maryland and Washington since January. The show will continue through the end of the month.

A benefit performance for the public will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday at Smith Theatre in Howard Community College.

"We were looking for an inspiring hero," said Toba Barth, educational director of the School of Theatrical Arts. "Dr. Carson is a hero to be worshiped as an intellectual as opposed to a sports or entertainment hero.

"He encourages children to develop their minds. He tells kids everyone is gifted in some way. They just have to find it and develop it like he did, and he did it even though he had failing grades.

"His message is, if you work hard, you'll achieve. If you believe in yourself, you could do great things. Kids are fascinated with that."

The 60-minute play, adapted from Dr. Carson's autobiographies, "Gifted Hands" and "Think Big," focuses on how the acclaimed doctor overcame poverty, poor grades and a violent temper to escape the ghetto and rise to the top of his profession.

A television movie based on his life is also being made.

The play, like his books, is geared toward youngsters, written on a level they can understand, whether portraying a violent scuffle, tender courtship or critical surgery.

"He was encouraged by his mother," Ms. Barth said. "She said, 'You've got to do better.' The story is as much about her and how she raises two boys in poverty in the ghetto and how she gave them confidence to believe in themselves that they could achieve what they want. The appeal is that he's real and his story really happened."

The famed neurosurgeon, who performs 500 to 600 operations a year, pioneered modern hemispherectomies, the successful removal of one part of the brain. He was the primary neurosurgeon in 1987 on a 70-member team that separated the 7-month-old Binder twins from Germany who were joined at the back of the head.

"I didn't intend to write a book," said Dr. Carson. "I started speaking after I performed intrauterine surgery on a set of twins in 1986. It generated a lot of interest in me and publicity, then again after the surgery on the Siamese twins in 1987. Eventually, I started talking about my philosophies about success in life. Then publishers were after me. After the 10th offer, I agreed."

Dr. Carson, who lectures to inner-city youths, encourages youngsters to develop their academic potential, even if they intend to pursue athletics. "There's nothing wrong with a career in entertainment or athletics, but you need to have something you can be in control of," he said. "Make sure you have something solid you can bank on. Kids should prepare for the long run, not the quick buck."

The play was conceived two years ago after Ms. Barth approached Columbia writer and director Carole Graham Lehan.

"Last year, when developing the season, we decided I would write an original play about Ben Franklin," Ms. Lehan said. "Then Toba called a couple of weeks later and said, 'I think we're doing the wrong Ben.' "

Last year, Ms. Barth contacted Dr. Carson, who has lived in West Friendship with his wife, Candy, and three sons since 1988, to get permission to produce the play.

"I explained to him our goals of theater for young people," Ms. Barth said. "We explained that our work is value-based and we try to present theater to children that is meaningful, plays that touch the mind as well as the heart."

Dr. Carson met with youth theater director Toby Orenstein, Ms. Barth and Ms. Lehan. He agreed to the production providing he would have approval and that it would be tasteful and accurate, and not sensational.

"I am in favor of anything that can be done that can inspire our young people to do something for themselves," Dr. Carson said.

"If someone wants to be an engineer, if you have normal brain, you can learn advanced calculus. People don't believe they can do it. Most occupations, including a physician, is something anyone can attain. You don't have to be special to be a doctor, lawyer, judge or journalist."

Dr. Carson is opposed to those who call themselves victims as they offer excuses for having never succeeded. He points out that his life had many of the obstacles others have used to justify poor performance.

He said people should focus on what they can achieve rather than their limitations. "Those are the kinds of stories we need to emphasize, not the 'poor me,' boo-hoo-hoo stories. It doesn't mean I'm not compassionate. But I believe in instilling a can-do spirit rather than a 'what can you do for me?' spirit."

The show uses five actors to portray 50 roles -- and uses the questions of young audience members to improve the script.

Sunday's benefit performance, which will feature a catered reception, will begin with a musical tribute by the Young Columbians, the Columbia School of Theatrical Arts' professional performance class.

It will be the first time Dr. Carson has seen the play.

Proceeds will benefit the Theatrical Arts Productions and Dr. Carson's "USA Scholars Scholarship Program." The scholarship is being designed to help youngsters who show early academic achievement attain higher education.

Dr. Carson wants intellectual achievement to be given the same recognition as athletic accomplishments.

"I would like to see Nobel Peace Prize winners on cereal boxes rather than people who jumped some silly hurdle. You can't encourage them to be good students while all the other messages say something else."

A benefit performance of "Ben Carson, M.D." will be presented by the Columbia School of Theatrical Arts/Theatrical Arts Productions at 3 p.m. Sunday at Smith Theatre in Howard Community College. Tickets are $35. Information: 730-8311.

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