A dream realized

Eugene and Nicole Sumlin • Actors

By Bob Abelman

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” penned in 1951, asks “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lorraine Hansberry attempted to address these questions in a play – her first to be produced – that debuted on Broadway in 1959 and was performed earlier this year at Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

The now-classic “A Raisin in the Sun” serves as a celebration of African American strength garnered through generations of personal struggle and slow-coming social change. And, for actors Eugene and Nicole Sumlin – who are husband and wife playing husband and wife Walter Lee and Ruth Younger in this production – performing together is a celebration of their shared passion, but it has not been a dream deferred.

“Nicole and I have been blessed to be in about five shows together, not counting vocal recitals. And we actually got to share the ‘Raisin’ experience with our son, Easton, which was truly magical and something I don’t think we will ever forget,” recalls Eugene. Easton played the Cleveland Heights couple’s on-stage son, Travis.

In addition to performing, Eugene, 43, is Compassionate Arts Remaking Education coordinator at Cleveland Play House and resident director at Heights Youth Theatre in Cleveland Heights. Nicole works as the Cleveland Play House’s academy and curriculum manager. Like most professional actors in this town, there is always the need for other, more stable employment to allow them to perform their art.

Nicole Sumlin and Eugene Sumlin as Adam and Eve in “Children of Eden” at French Creek Theatre. / Photo by Andy Dudik

“I’ve taught music for 17 years as a classroom teacher,” says Nicole, 38, “and I never even thought about pursuing my own performing on the stage. But I decided to try my hand at some theater after we saw Audra McDonald – one of my main theatrical inspirations – in ‘Porgy and Bess.’ When I first heard her voice, that’s when I knew there was a place for me.” 

Nicole’s first role was Sarah in “Ragtime” at Near West Theatre in 2012, a role that was played by McDonald in the original 1997 Broadway production.

And then came the opportunity to play Billie Holiday in this season’s Beck Center for the Arts’ production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a role that won McDonald her sixth Tony Award. “‘Lady Day’ never even crossed my mind. No, that’s Audra territory. That’s not for Nikki,” she recalls saying before Beck Center for the Arts Artistic Director Scott Spence cast her in what is essentially a one-woman show.  

“Sometimes it’s just that clear who should take on a certain role,” Spence told cleveland.com during the show’s rehearsals. “I quickly knew that Nicole would have that great combination of sheer talent, as well as dedication to the material and Billie Holiday herself. The commonality: Both Billie and Nicole are magical performers.”

Eugene’s dream role also came earlier this year. 

“I have been blessed to be a part of some amazing productions and do some dream roles in ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Porthouse Theatre and ‘Parade’ at French Creek (Theatre). And, with ‘Raisin,’ I feel like I had just been chasing that role for a long time – just waiting to be the right age and have the opportunity to give it a try. I believe that every African-American male actor should take a crack at the iconic Walter Lee.”

But then came “Ragtime” at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights and the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem jazz pianist who turns a personal injustice into a revolution. 

“I never thought I would play Coalhouse. I just held the role in such high esteem, I didn’t think I could do it. I was afraid, but when the opportunity presented itself, I knew that saying no out of fear would be something I would regret for the rest of my life.”

What happens to a dream deferred? The Sumlins are living proof of what happens when a dream is pursued and realized. CV

On stage

Nicole will perform in “Rastus and Hattie” by Lisa Langford, directed by Anne McEvoy, Oct. 5-26 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland; and “Breakout Session (or Frogorse)” by Nikkole Salter, directed by Beth Wood, from Feb. 22 to March 14, 2020, also at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Meet the Scene Stealers.