By Terry Dean
Maywood native La'ren Vernea knew she would pursue her dream to open her own theater company after visiting the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where Africans were trafficked in the transatlantic slave trade.
"It had a profound effect on me," Vernea, 22, recalled.
A year after that experience, Vernea launched Cape Coast Theater Company in February, based in Oak Park. The company's debut productions, Sisters and The Meeting, ran from late July through last Sunday. Vernea, who is the artistic director, plans to host productions in the summer featuring professional and amateur actors, including local youth.
Vernea launched Cape Coast while still attending Southern Illinois University. She graduated in May with a bachelor of arts in theater and also interned in Springfield in the Illinois House. She said she chose Oak Park as the base for her company because it was close to home.
"I'm very family and community oriented. I grew up in Maywood and the west suburbs. This is home to me, and I want to make sure I'm giving back to my community," she said.
Having a theater company is Vernea's dream. She wrote and performed in shows in college. While she likes to act, she most enjoys writing, and particularly enjoyed speechwriting while interning.
Cape Coast is housed at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St., where performances will also take place.
The Meeting is a fictional account and discussion between Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Sisters is about two women of different class backgrounds who become trapped in a high-rise office during a power outage on New Year's Eve. Each show is a two-person character study. Vernea is one of the performers in Sisters.
"I like shows that focus on understanding and uncovering who people are," she said, noting that she likes all styles of theater, especially those with a message.
"Theater tends to fall into two categories: pure entertainment or those with a strong message and hidden themes. I prefer shows with a positive message, shows that make you think about life or yourself and that change attitudes," Vernea said.
She's looking to host 2-3 shows during the summer, which is not the typical theater season. During the fall, she hopes to offer theater and education programs for the community.
Vernea's seven-person company includes former SIU classmates. The "arts," she says, run in her family. Vernea's brother is a musician and videographer. Her mother owns a community center in Westchester but is also a singer, actor and dancer, and encouraged Vernea to pursue her dreams. Her father is a 27-year police detective in Maywood.
Vernea started Cape Coast through a grant from the Self Employment in the Arts organization, which helps fund budding artists. She also plans to find full-time or part-time work while running Cape Coast. The summer shows, she noted, are a way to give college-age actors work.
Vernea visited the Cape Coast Castle during a trip to Ghana last summer. Seeing the castle and the holding cells where Africans were kept put her dream in perspective.
"From that point on, I knew I had to give my career dreams my all because so many died for me and this generation to have the privileges we have."