WMU News

Von Washington stars in new PBS movie airing nationwide

April 1, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- On any given day during the school year, you might find Dr. Von Washington working with the stars of tomorrow. But for the moment the Western Michigan University theatre professor is in the spotlight as the star of a new movie being shown nationwide on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Washington, director of the multicultural theatre program at WMU, plays the lead role in "China," an original drama airing coast to coast on PBS. The movie is being shown from New York to Los Angeles and Alaska to Texas. It began airing in February, hitting such major markets as Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Detroit, Miami and San Francisco along with a long list of smaller cities. In March, it is being broadcast in New York and Philadelphia before being aired locally April 1 on WGVU, Channels 35 and 52, at 10 p.m. The program will repeat on WGVU at 5:30 a.m. Thursday, April 3.

"So many times I've been involved in film projects and they don't actually get anywhere," Washington says. "In this case, it was left up to the discretion of others as to when it would be shown, so I was pleased when I saw the broadcast schedule. It's been very rewarding in that respect."

Washington says it also was very rewarding in another sense. The production team was very diverse all the way around. So often in such productions, the actors might be minorities, but the team working behind the scenes is composed predominantly of white males.

"It was really great," Washington says. "I've been in the business for so many years, but seldom, if ever, have I worked with a crew that from top to bottom was totally diverse."

Directed by Jeffrey C. Wray and based on a story by Charles Johnson, "China" is a thoughtful, quietly moving drama about an older African American couple. It was filmed on location in July 2001 in Lansing, Mich., and tells the story of Rudolph and Evelyn Jackson, whose lives radically change when Rudolph suddenly decides to take up the martial arts.

Washington says some of the people in Lansing involved in the project recommended him for a part. He was given the impression that he was auditioning for a supporting role, but when they heard him read Rudolph's lines they decided to cast him as the leading man.

Washington, who has directed and/or performed in more than 300 theatrical productions, is the founder, along with his wife, Fran, of Washington Productions Inc., a professional theatrical and educational video company that has produced historical dramas on civil rights leader Rosa Parks and the Underground Railroad. In "China," Washington stars opposite Sheila Stewart as Evelyn. Stewart performed as a chorus girl for 13 years at the famous Club Harlem in Atlantic City, N.J., then worked 20 years in the legal field before returning to her first love, show business, and pursuing an acting career.

Together, Washington and Stewart bring to life Rudolph and Evelyn, a couple married for more than 30 years and living a settled, if unexciting, life. Rudolph is a mailman trying to make it to retirement as his health and spirit spiral downward. Evelyn's attempts to take care of him include making his favorite foods.

One day, they spend an impromptu afternoon at the movies. Rudolph is captivated by a trailer on an upcoming martial arts festival and decides to sign up for classes. Undeterred by his initial failure, Rudolph works harder and is consumed with his training. He makes new, young friends, rejects Evelyn's soul food for health food and is drawn into a new, disciplined life. As Rudolph continues to find himself, Evelyn becomes more lost, angry, confused and displaced.

"He basically develops a new outlook that goes against the philosophy he has used all of his life," Washington says. "The film is about how he and his wife are turning a new page in his life at age 58."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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