Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Stage of Life: Sharia Benn reflects on her long career in theater—and looks forward to a big challenge ahead.

Screenshot 2017-01-31 08.19.37There’s no down time in Sharia Benn’s schedule.

She has a family and a full-time job, volunteers, serves on community boards and writes plays as a church youth director. She performs in many area theaters and now is helping to launch a new one.

The wonder is not only her energy but her centeredness.

Key to all these activities is the ability to connect with people, something she attributes to an “unusual” childhood.

“I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood and went to a Catholic school that was college preparatory,” said Benn, 50. “I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and religions and appreciate the diversity of my upbringing.”

Her mother and aunt took her to see live theater road shows. She was also exposed at a young age to dance and music, including tap, ballet and jazz. She parlayed these into performing, though not as the so-called “triple threat.”

“People assume I do musical theater,” she said. “I do not. I can sing and I can act and I can move a little, but I don’t do all of them at the same time.”

Her first real experience as a performer took place at the age of 8 or 9 in Baltimore’s Pumpkin Theatre—similar to Gamut’s Popcorn Hat Players—in a production of “The Rackety Packety House.”

Acting came so naturally to Benn that she didn’t realize she had auditioned.

“I had just read a few lines, and they said, ‘Here’s your rehearsal schedule,’” she said, laughing.

Locally, Benn’s appearances have included a number of August Wilson plays at Open Stage of Harrisburg. She had the title role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for which she won the “Best Actress Award” from BroadwayWorld.com’s Central Pennsylvania Awards.

In her day job, she is the director of underwriting initiatives at Penn National Insurance Co. This is a career choice that grew out of a part-time job she had in college.

Why not full-time theater?

Partly, it’s because Benn likes diversity in her life, but there’s a more practical reason.

“Life happens—and limited opportunity,” she said. “During our early years, my husband, son and I were a struggling young family, and theater presented very limited opportunities for me as a young, African-American woman to secure a role or position with stable income, benefits and hours supportive of building a healthy family. I believe that you launch where you land.”

Benn and her husband, William, have been together 35 years. They also have a daughter and a grandson.

To add to her full plate, she now is managing director of Sankofa, a new theater currently forming in Harrisburg in association with Open Stage of Harrisburg. In that role, she will be able to pursue her passion more fully.

“I knew that, some day, I would have the opportunity to do what I love and support my family,” she said. “I have been balancing my full-time job and acting/theater work for over 15 years, and I will continue to balance it with the launch of Sankofa.”

Indeed, it will mean an adjustment, as Benn shifts her time from acting on stage to helping lead a new theater and nurturing the talent of others. But she is nothing if not flexible in making life’s shifts.

In high school, Benn played the mother of the (white) entertainer/producer in “George M,” a play about the Broadway legend George M. Cohan. Recently, Gamut Theatre Director Tom Weaver cast her as Linda Loman opposite Clark Nicholson’s Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

“There were audience members who couldn’t get past that it was a mixed cast,” Benn admitted. “It seemed for them to change the texture of the play.”

Her own dream is to give more opportunities to actors of color in the area.

“Open Stage continues to do at least one African-American play a season, and there’s a place for that,” she said, “I thank founding Artistic Director Don Alsedek for making the plays authentic.”

But Sankofa, she said, will be an African-American theater company focusing on the African-American experience—the playwrights will be African American, and their works will be directed and produced by African Americans. Leonard Dozier will serve as artistic director for the new theater expected to mount its first play in February 2018.

“But we want the audiences to be inclusive,” Benn said.

Sankofa is a word in a Ghanaian language for a complex thought: “You must reach back to reclaim that which is lost in order to move forward.”

I asked about her first name.

“Fifty-plus years ago, my mom had no idea about Islamic law by the same name, which is a lower-case ‘s,’” she said. “She was being creative with the letters of her name and my dad’s.”

It was only during elementary school that, looking through an encyclopedia, she discovered that her name had Islamic and Hebraic roots and meant “leader of the right path, the path to light and goodness.”

“I’m trying to live up to that meaning,” she said.

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