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Play to open conversation about domestic violence

Lawrence Pierce
Local playwright Cindy Wilson and nationally known producer, director and playwright Shelly Garrett stand Thursday in front of the Charleston Civic Center, where Wilson's play "Battered but not Broken" will debut in July. The inspirational show about domestic violence will go on to a 50-city national tour after the new year begins.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local playwright Cindy Wilson is about to see her play about domestic violence come to fruition.

Rehearsals begin in two weeks for "Battered but not Broken," the story of a little girl who grows up witnessing domestic violence and becomes a victim herself. The play will debut in Charleston on July 5 at the Civic Center Little Theater, then go on a national 50-city tour in 2013.

Playwright, producer and director Shelly Garrett was in town this week with his wife, Doris, and several cast members, making arrangements for the show.

Garrett, who wrote the nationally touring plays "Barbershop" and "Beauty Shop," signed on to help Wilson take the show to national audiences after reviewing a script. Both Garretts were immediately struck by the quality of Wilson's show and the importance of her message.

"My mother was battered," Shelly Garrett said Thursday. "[Doris'] sister was shot, and still has a bullet in her. Cindy told me her story, and I was on board."

With help from the Garretts and local sponsors and friends, Wilson is holding a fundraising gala at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Center to help raise money for the production. She said about 1,500 invitations were sent out for the fundraiser, and hopes about 1,000 people attend.

Wilson, who was a domestic violence victim herself, decided to write an inspirational play about the subject after burying her niece, Na'Lisha Gravely, gunned down by her boyfriend in a Charleston Taco Bell restaurant in 2008. She stood by while friends buried Starlena Pratt, who was burned to death by her boyfriend the same year. This year, Carol Rhim was killed and dismembered by her boyfriend, who shot himself when police came to his door.

"There is such a community here where people are used to the status quo," Wilson said about writing the play. "This isn't going to resolve the issue of domestic violence. But it's definitely going to promote positive conversation about it."

Proceeds from the show will go to help domestic violence victims. Eventually, Wilson said, she hopes to raise enough money to build a domestic violence shelter.

Those who are behind the project are supporting it wholeheartedly.

"I believe in it, big-time," said local real estate magnate and longtime performer Jon Cavendish, who has put about $1,000 of his own money into printing and other costs to promote the fundraiser. "If this play takes off, it's going to go viral. No one has ever done anything like this."

Wilson is disappointed -- but not especially surprised -- that some people in the local community still don't think the play is going to go anywhere. "I've been told forever what I can't do," she said. "I'm used to the naysayers."

Shelly Garrett said he was told the same thing in the 1980s, when he was trying to sell the idea of a play about some black folks at a beauty shop.

"They said nobody would ever come to a show called 'Beauty Shop,' especially men," he said. "It went on to do $33 million [in revenue]. It's the largest-grossing African-American play in history.

"The important thing is to surround yourself with positive people."

In 2002, the movie "Barbershop," adapted from one of Garrett's shows and staring Ice Cube, hit theaters. An adaptation of "Beauty Shop," starring Queen Latifah, hit the screen in 2005.

The local debut of "Battered but not Broken" has been cast. Garrett picked Atlanta-area actors Byron Mims and Trabrien Jones for the lead roles. The theater has been booked, and ticket prices were to be discussed and set this week.

Tickets go on sale Tuesday. The Charleston debut will run July 5-8.

The national tour will probably be set to begin in February 2013. "I want to let people relax from the elections and relax from the holidays," Garrett said. "We'll start advertising it in the middle of January.

"This is not community theater we're doing here," he said. "This is going to be -- and it is -- a national touring show."

After 26 years in the theater industry, Garrett knows a thing or two about writing and staging plays. Unlike many domestic violence efforts -- which are either preachy, bad, boring or all three -- "Battered but not Broken" combines an inspirational message with a serious theme, music, some comedic relief and audience participation, he said.

"You've got to grab people in the first five minutes," he said. "The show is shocking. But it's also 100 percent entertainment."

To find out more about Saturday's fundraising gala, email Wilson at info@milkywayproductions.net.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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