In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, however, many displaced New Orleans evacuees came to know Berry as a friend.
When thousands of New Orleanians flocked to Houston seeking food, water, clothing and shelter, the New York-based Berry and her cousin dropped what they were doing and flew to Texas to offer their services. Volunteering at the Astrodome and at the Shrine of Black Madonna, they assisted evacuees of all ages.
Now, Berry is back in Houston and starring in a new stage production based on the stories of the hurricane's survivors, "Katrina: The Bridge." Produced by the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance, the play makes its world premiere Oct. 3 at UH's Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre.
Written by Nathaniel Freeman and directed by Steven Wallace, "Katrina: The Bridge" tells the story of a group of Katrina survivors who are stranded on an overpass in the days following Katrina's wrath. Berry plays Beverly, a woman who has tried to do the right thing all of her life but finds herself in a hopeless situation.
The dialogue and situations presented in this production are inspired by "Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston," a project overseen by UH English professor Carl Lindahl that documented interviews with the hurricane's survivors.
Berry recently learned firsthand about storm survival after riding out Hurricane Ike in Houston. She, however, has been developing the character of Beverly through her memories of the many Katrina evacuees whom she helped at the Astrodome and Shrine of the Black Madonna.
"It was the hardest work I have ever done," said Berry of her volunteering experience. "I did things that I never thought I'd do in my lifetime, and I am glad that I could lend a hand. Now, three years later, I was approached to do this play. I knew I was supposed to be in it."
Berry has long been attracted to plays with social and historical significance. She's been featured in regional productions of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" and "Fences" and Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's "Gee's Bend." In 2001, Berry received an Obie Award for her one-woman play "The Shaneequa Chronicles: The Making of a Black Woman." Berry authored this poignant, energetic performance about the complexities facing an African American woman growing up in 1960s America.
She also is the founder of Blackberry Productions Theater Company in New York, which presents original works and engages in community outreach to connect with audiences from all ages and backgrounds.
"We try to give people access to cultural and educational experiences," she said. "Blackberry reaches out to students, seniors, adolescents and others who would not have the opportunity to engage in the arts."
Berry has appeared on television and in several films including 2007's "The Invasion" with Nicole Kidman and 2000's "Finding Forester" with Sean Connery. Stage work, however, occupies much of her schedule and presents her with some of her most engaging and rewarding roles.
"I love doing plays that inspire audiences and illustrate the human spirit," she said. "When I can perform in plays that illustrate a political or social concern, I feel that acting becomes a ministry. On stage, I then am able to inspire people to think or perhaps change. I don't necessarily want to impose my views or opinions, but rather hope to push buttons and get people to take a look around and see how they can improve themselves and the world around them. "
Performances for "Katrina: The Bridge" are at 8 p.m., Oct. 3, 4, 10, 11 and at 2 p.m., Oct. 12. For ticket information, contact the Wortham Theatre box office at 713-743-2929.
The UH School of Theatre & Dance offers bachelor's and master's degrees in theatre and teacher certifications in dance. Its graduate program consists of a master of arts in theatre and masters of fine arts in theatre with specializations in acting, directing and design. Each season the School of Theatre & Dance produces five plays performed in the Wortham Theatre and the Jose Quintero Theatre, two dance concerts, student productions, the New Play Festival, the Houston Shakespeare Festival and the Children's Theatre Festival. The school has benefitted from notable star faculty such as Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Sir Peter Hall and Jose Quintero. Among current faculty are Houston Shakespeare Festival founder Sidney Berger, Tony Award-winning playwright Medoff and Tony Award-winning producer Stuart Ostrow.
For details on UH's School of Theatre & Dance, visit http://www.hfac.uh.edu/theatre/.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.