On Sept. 11, Linda Powell was in her Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side. Her father, the secretary of state, was in Lima having breakfast with the president of Peru. Colin Powell was handed a note. Linda Powell turned on her television. Their country, they both learned, was under attack. Plans changed.
The secretary of state was back on center stage, and Linda Powell's life took a dramatic turn as well.
Powell, a veteran stage actress, had committed to a London production of August Wilson's play, Jitney. This would mean leaving her crippled home of New York. The press then reported Powell pulled out of the production and that her father had banned his children from flying after the terrorist attacks.
"It was reported that it was security issues, but it was really me," Powell says. "I just wanted to be in New York and close to my family."
So, what brought her to Baltimore, where she is performing in Center Stage's A Raisin in the Sun? A twist of fate?
Powell's longtime director, Marion McClinton, called Linda after Sept. 11. McClinton, known to jokingly refer to Secretary Powell as "Linda Powell's father," asked Linda if she needed a role closer to home. I do need something to do, she said. How about something conveniently between Washington and New York - a role in A Raisin in the Sun at Baltimore's Center Stage? This feels very right, Powell thought.
There's even a back story.
"My father gave me the book this summer," she says. Out of the blue, Linda Powell's father sent his daughter a copy of Lorraine Hansberry's play. At the time, she had no plans to enter the world of Hansberry's Younger family and their dreams deferred. Then, the real world changed over breakfast Sept. 11, and she found herself offered the role of Ruth Younger in Baltimore.
"This is where I'm supposed to be," she said, "and I'm going to go do this."
Powell was back on center stage.
An early lunch
In Mount Vernon, Linda Powell appears for lunch at 2:10 p.m. She came from working out ("because I have to fit into my costumes"), and you never bother actresses before noon if they performed the night before. As Ruth, the weary, strong, loving wife of Walter Younger, Powell is on stage for much of A Raisin in the Sun - eight times a week. A 2:10 p.m. lunch might be rushing things.
She is dressed in post-gym apparel, her hair pulled back, and a scarf thing happening on her neck. What one really notices is her face -pretty, exceptionally so - and a striking resemblance to her father. Then again, others might swear she favors her Birmingham-born mother, Alma Powell, who it should be noted once played Emily in Our Town and had a radio show called Luncheon with Alma.
"My mother is fierce," Powell says. Fierce meaning fabulous.
What one sees in Linda Powell's face is bearing. She has a distinct sense of self, humor and confidence. One can imagine young Linda Margaret Powell - middle child, "a very good girl" she says - telling her parents, I'm going to be an actress. And she becomes one because she can't imagine doing anything else. She wants to move people, connect with them as if by magic. "But not a trick, you know? Real magic."
Betty Quirrin, Powell's sixth-grade teacher in Fort Campbell, Ky., gives her bright if stubborn student a part in Norton Juster's children's story, The Phantom Tollbooth. Powell plays the part of the "Spelling Bee." I can spell anything -a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Try me, try me!
"I was fabulous," Powell says. F-a-b-u-l-o-u-s. That was 24 years ago and to be unnecessarily factual, Powell turned 36 in April.
"She's getting old," says Quirrin, now retired in Tennessee. "Thirty-six. Hard to believe, my little girl."
They think of each other often and talk rarely. All you need to know about Mrs. Quirrin you already know if you had a teacher who took an interest in you in grade school. Someone who worked extra to make sure you weren't bored. Someone, in Linda's case, you could tell to get out once in awhile and see something modern and fun such as The Wiz.
"I made a point of seeing 'The Wiz,' " Quirrin says.
They kept in touch over the years, which were usually marked by Colin Powell's storied promotions. Quirrin, who still refers to him as "The General," was duly noted in Powell's best-selling memoir, My American Journey: Each child deserves at least one Betty Quirrin.
"She was important," Linda Powell says.
"To this day," her teacher says, "I love her."
A dialogue on politics
Reporter: I found your father's memoir at Barnes & Noble in a book display called "Heroes." Tours of duty in Vietnam, Korea. Served under three (now four) presidents. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during Desert Storm. The tough call not to run for president in '96 ... I now realize I have accomplished nothing in my life.
Powell: (Laughing) Don't compare yourself to him. ... I had to learn that also.
It never occurred to me that my father was ambitious, which sounds like a silly thing to say. He was always doing what he was supposed to do, what he had to do ... It's not like he was off down the street smoking cigarettes and drinking.
Reporter: Are you a Democrat or Republican?
Powell: Independent. How's that?
Reporter: (Laughing) Perfect. Who did you vote for in the last presidential election?
Powell: None of your business.
The 5-foot-7 woman
Roles for black stage actresses can be as sparse as roles for black screen actresses. Powell has, however, found steady stage work since graduating in 1989 from the Circle in the Square Theatre School in Manhattan.
"You just knew this was a genuine talent," school director Colin O'Leary says of Powell's 1987 audition. "She makes the most of her own presence."
Her stage credits came to include her Broadway debut in Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, Jitney (also in New York) and Seven Guitars at Center Stage. In a case of poetic injustice, Powell might have received more instant attention from one cable appearance. She appeared in a Sex and the City episode called "Attack of the Five-Foot-Seven Women." The 5'7" Powell waited 14 hours on set to deliver a line that can't be repeated without such tantalizing upper-casing as @#$*.
"Everybody's reaction to having seen me was almost as much fun as filming itself," she says. Sexy cable shows do get around.
Parents of actors must have to get over the fact their children, their babies, are in a profession where they might say @#$* in front of millions of people. They also might be cast as, gulp, prostitutes. At Kansas' Leavenworth High School in 1983, the black girls in the drama department decided to perform an excerpt from for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. The play is no Phantom Tollbooth.
The administration canceled the colored girls segment. Powell, cast as a prostitute, wrote an angry editorial for the school newspaper. Her father called the school principal (imagine that dialogue), and a compromise was reached. Instead of performing, the black students could discuss their feelings before the audience.
"It didn't make any difference that we were talking about it," Powell says. "It was just words."
On the last night, Powell acted out her part as the prostitute in the canceled play. The audience cheered. A half hour later, she didn't remember performing. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was real magic.
"I remember feeling afterward, 'Oh God, what did I just do?'," Powell says. "Then I had to worry about whether I was going to be suspended."
She wasn't suspended; she was liberated. "We were witnessing a young woman choosing her destiny," her father wrote in his 1995 memoir. (Secretary Powell was unavailable for comment. Something about being in Russia on business.) That night in Kansas, his daughter had put on quite a show.
"I do not know if Alma and I have ever been prouder."
"RUTH is about thirty. We can see that she was a pretty girl, even exceptionally so, but now it is apparent that life has been little that she expected, and disappointment has already begun to hang in her face. In a few years, before thirty-five, she will be known among her people as a 'settled woman.'"
From A Raisin in the Sun.
"I feel I should be a settled woman by now," Powell says. "I'm 36, you know." Then, comes the Powell laugh: disarming, fierce.
What's settled mean anyway? Powell is single. No pets - even hamsters unnerve her. She does collect flutes and can even play one. This year, she quit her day job as a grants administrator to settle full-time into acting. She didn't have to audition for the role of Ruth. But she did have to discover Ruth.
In the play, Mama wants to move her family out of the Chicago tenements and to a nice home where her grandson won't have to sleep on the couch, where she can have a garden. When her son Walter blows most of the money on a bad business deal, all their dreams appeared destroyed. His sister Beneatha had dreamed of going to medical school with the money from her father's life insurance.
But what do we know about Ruth? What is her dream deferred? We know Ruth is considering aborting her baby. We know she is in pain and her relationship with her proud husband is in a dark place. We know she loves her son, Travis, and that she wants to "GET THE HELL OUT OF" their ratty apartment.
The audience discovers Ruth's desire to be settled, to be loved, and to have her own space to grow. She feels it all slipping away ... life don't have to be like this. I mean sometimes people can do things so that things are better, Ruth tells Walter. Director McClinton, who likens Ruth to Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, says Ruth is the audience's way into the play. Well into the play, Powell came to discover something crucial in the heart of Ruth Younger:
"How much she loves Walter."
Walter finally comes "into his manhood" when he refuses money from a man trying to keep the Youngers from moving into a white neighborhood. Ruth is not surprised by her husband's action: she knows Walter will eventually do the right thing. She loves him, the audience knows.
On Dec. 23, Raisin will close at Center Stage. Powell will remember the Nov. 23 performance when her parents were in the audience - "which means I have to really work to stay concentrated" - and Powell will remember another November performance, one of the obligatory student matinees.
Young audiences can be antsy and noisy. Other days, they can be a gift. A high school group at one performance erupted in applause when Walter turned down the money. At the sound of those cheering teen-agers fresh off the orange school buses, the actress portraying Ruth cried. Powell didn't have to work at it.
In a few years, Linda Powell might be known among her people as a settled woman. Marriage? "Absolutely." Babies? "Absolutely." Until then, maybe there will be movies or just maybe a regular spot on a great TV drama. She's been on Law & Order a few times, but in blink-and-you'll-miss me parts.
Naturally, Powell will be in more plays. And if audiences are really lucky, there might be more attacks from five-foot-seven women.