Most people who live in the Bradenton area know the story of Henry Lawrence. He was star football player at an all-black high school in the '60s. After integration, he ended up at a predominantly white high school, where the coach refused to let him play.
But Lawrence went on to a distinguished career in the NFL. In 13 seasons with the Oakland Raiders he appeared in two Pro Bowls, and his team won three Super Bowls.
His story is the basis for a play by prominent local playwright Bernard Yanelli that gets its premiere staging beginning tonight at Players Theatre in Sarasota.
Yanelli teaches history at Saint Stephen's Episcopal School in Bradenton, and his plays have often taken top honors at area playwriting competitions. He was inspired to write about Lawrence after seeing the documentary "Through the Tunnel," which centers on Lawrence's story.
The idea of a play based on Lawrence's struggle with racism occurred to him immediately. Not long afterward, he saw Lawrence across the room at a function. "I said to my wife 'I think that's Henry Lawrence,' " Yanelli said. "I went up and introduced myself and we've been friends ever since."
Yanelli said he consulted with Lawrence while he was writing the play, which is titled "Not Our Time." It ended up winning the 2014 Players New Plays Festival, where it was presented in a reading. Every year, the winning play from the festival gets a full production as part of the Players' next season.
It's a fictionalized account, but Lawrence said it tells his story accurately.
"It gives a brief summary," he said. "You can't do the whole thing. There's only so much you can do in a play."
Lawrence saw the reading and has seen some rehearsals of the new production. It felt odd seeing an actor play a version of himself, he said, but he's pleased with the play and the process.
"It's a start," he said. "I'm sure we'll keep tweaking it. There's talk of turning it into a screenplay."
Details: Aug. 20-23, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $15. Information: 941-365-2494, theplayers.org.