An Interview with Charlayne Woodard
Also see David's review of Frozen
To borrow the title of one of her early career triumphs, Charlayne Woodard Ain't Misbehavin', and how could she be? Between the launch of ACT Theatre's production of her new play Flight on October 20, followed rapidly by her lead female role in Ariel Dorfman's world premier play Purgatorio at Seattle Repertory Theatre on November 2, Charlayne barely has time to sleep and eat. But you wouldn't know it from her exuberance and high energy during a phone interview, just a half hour after a full day's rehearsal at the Rep.
David-Edward Hughes: Welcome back to Seattle! Have you missed us as much as we have missed you?
Charlayne Woodard: I love being back here. It doesn't feel like I've been away so long, because I have friends here that I get to see from time to time. But it is good to be working here again. It's always good to be at the Rep, and now to be at a new theatre, ACT, it just kind of grand!
DEH: We all knew about Flight happening some months ago when ACT announced its season, but the Rep's season fell into place a bit afterwards, with David Esbjornson coming aboard as the new artistic director. What led to you accepting the two projects back to back?
CW: David had called for me to do the workshop of Purgatorio this past winter, and I couldn't because we were doing (the first production of) Flight. So, when they finished the workshop, and he knew he was putting it in this season, he asked me if I could do it, and I said, well, I think I can. I'm in the process of trying to do make that work. We shall see. It's outrageous isn't it? But as I'm really into Purgatorio now, I know that Flight is in good hands. Kurt Beattie (ACT's artistic director) and Valerie Curtis Newton (director) are there, so the cast is in good hands.
DEH: How has Flight evolved for the ACT production? Isn't this just the second production of the play?
CW: It is. I feel like when I do a play the first time it simply let's me know what I have to do. I do all the things, I make all the cuts, and I really see it for the first time. Also, it was initially commissioned as a children's theatre piece. It was to be a multi-generational play, which was very difficult for me, but we did that. And then I said, now that I saw that, it doesn't have to be completely for babies. Maybe I can make an adjustment so it's not just a baby show. I mean I LOVE babies, god bless them, it's good for them, but I also wanted the parents who come see the show to actually have some fun as well. I'm a godmother of all these children, and an auntie of all these nieces and nephews, and when I have to go to something it is such a relief to enjoy the same play as my twelve year old niece enjoys.
DEH: It's good to have shows that appeal to the children as well as the adults.
CW: And we can train us some new subscribers!
DEH: There you go. How different was it creating this than the solo shows you have written and performed, Pretty Fire, Neat and In Real Life.
CW: Seattle is seeing me doing something brand new. I have been doing other people's plays all my life, and even though I've been doing solo plays, that was just so other people could see that I could be the lead in their plays. When I first wrote Pretty Fire, it was just so I could get a job in a play where I didn't have to sing. And after Pretty Fire I started getting really good parts in other people's plays. I worked for Athol Fugard, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Lynn Nottage, doing all these other plays besides my own, but this is the first time in Seattle where I'm doing something besides my solo plays. I mean Ariel Dorfman's play is ... whoa, not even close to the kind of thing that I ever write! Flight is just some good old storytelling. When I did the research, when I read all those folk-tales, slave narratives, all that folklore. I realized these folks put these things to work, when they needed them, like for a wedding, or a funeral, or some horrible event on the plantation, they choose these stories for how they needed them. I set them in 1858, when an event happens, Sadie gets sold, and it traumatizes the community. The community needs these stories so they can get through the night, and come to a healing place. Healed enough so they can get back to their life of bondage, and get through that.
I also learned how they hungered for education. We take it for granted nowadays, that we get free education. That was major, that they didn't have it, and when they had it they passed it on with whatever they knew. After reconstruction, even if they only had a second grade education, they passed it on. The fact that everyone was hungry to learn to read and write was an amazing thing to realize. I learned a lot doing the research on this play. I really did. And the late Dr. Beverly Robinson, professor of folklore at UCLA, she inspired me to carry on with this. She was supposed to be our consultant, and she died before our first workshop. She told me that I needed to bring these stories to the stage. Pass them on. We have to keep telling them. It's not enough that they're written, and it's great that they are written down and we'll have them forever and ever and ever, but she said, it's just important that we tell these stories, to keep the oral tradition going.
DEH: We don't want to lose that.
CW: We don't want to, just because we can read and write. My Grandfather was like that. He would never say "Don't go to college, and do drugs, and have sex". He would tell us a story about a girl who went to school, and what happened to her. I remember that story; he told me and three other cousins, just as we were also graduating high school. He told the most scathing story! He got us, for the moment, and we were all like, now we won't use any drugs, Granddad. That's how he used to teach us. He would just be sitting in his chair and start laughing, and we'd say uh-oh, it's on! Because that story was just written all over his face. And finally he would give it to us.
DEH: And now you're sharing the same passion for storytelling that he gifted you with.
CW: I've got to. We've got to. And there is such a difference in the stories that came from when they were in Africa and the ones they told in America, where their lives were so much rougher. And they keep going back and forth between these two worlds, until finally they get to the dawn, and they are somewhat strengthened so that they can keep going. Didn't have time to have a nervous breakdown in those days! There was no therapist, no self-help section at the bookstore. That's what I use. I'm the queen of the self help section. I'm the only actress I know who has not been on the therapist's couch. Because I'm too cheap!
DEH: Well and there are better things to spend your money on.
CW: You know, that's right.
DEH: Had you ever worked with Valerie Curtis-Newton before?
CW: Valerie directed my workshop of Neat at the Rep, at the New Playwright's workshop, when Daniel Sullivan was there. Valerie was the director Daniel found for me. He was supposed to do it, but he had to have surgery. And she was a gift to me. And this kind of thing, folk tales? It's right up her alley, it's in that girl. I can leave this alone with her. When I told her I was researching folk tales, she had the books before I had the books. My library is very extensive, now, but back then I didn't have nearly the collection that Valerie did.
DEH: Must be a good feeling to entrust the play into such good hands.
CW: Oh my, yes. And my cast is lovely. So I'm ok.
DEH: And you are two weeks into rehearsal for Purgatorio?
CW: Yes. Ariel (Death and the Maiden) Dorfman the playwright was there the first week. He has another play in rehearsals at Manhattan Theatre Club, so he couldn't stay the whole time, But we had a week of table work with him. And I loved having that. It was a gift.
DEH: What can you say about your character in the play?
CW: It's two characters. Her name is Woman, he is called Man, and we are in purgatory. As the play goes on, you recognize what they're talking about, and that this particular woman is Medea, and the man is Jason, but it's never said. And we have to repent or we won't get out. I am his healer, he is mine. It is a brilliantly written play, I'll tell you the truth. I'm really, really honored to be asked to do it. It's extremely challenging. I certainly wish we had five weeks to get it together, like you used to have for an original play. But you know what? I'll do this any way I can. And I am working with a wonderful, wonderful actor, Dan Snook. He is the kind of actor who can make you become better by having worked with. And my David Esbjornson, whom I worked with at the Public Theatre, he's amazing.
DEH: It's a high-profile show for him, his first Seattle directorial job just weeks after he became the Rep's new artistic director.
CW: Isn't that something. He just comes right in, kickin' butt I guess! I probably would have laid low for a season. But some people are just brave like that.
DEH: You haven't exactly played it safe in your own career.
CW: You know what? You only live once. My life has never been easy. I can't think of one play I have done that was a piece of cake. Even when I do Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and play Sister Peg, to work with Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni, these guys are tough. Maybe it's because I'm a Capricorn, and Capricorns are mountain goats who have to go up hill. There's been nothing that was easy, but I have learned that if I go through, and go through, and go through, there's always something that makes it worth it. Sometimes it's the great reviews, sometimes it's a great new relationship that you made, sometime it's that your instrument has grown because you know you stepped that much further into the dark and came out unscathed. And at this point I have a lot of help. Valerie is taking care of Flight, David is taking care of Purgatorio, and we are all going to walk away with all the goodies we can get from it. And nothing is going to ever stop me from doing theatre. I love it. This is where I really live.
DEH: And we are so glad you do. Two final questions. First, and I have always wondered, do you and Alfre Woodard get mistaken for each other? Like Jean and Maureen Stapleton used to.
CW: They don't mistake me for Alfre. They think Alfre is my sister! Sometimes I can see I am on the brink of getting a gig, and they'll say "Oh I love working with your sister". And I've asked her, Alfre, can I say, "Oh yes, she's great." Can I claim you, to help me get the job? And she said "Absolutely, Charlayne!" Well, since I got her permission, no one has asked me. Now everybody seems to know. I took too long to ask her that.
DEH: Well, they may need her character on Desperate Housewives to have a sister ...
CW: Wouldn't that be great?
DEH: And in closing, any reflections as an actress and a playwright as to the theatre and the world's loss of the great playwright August Wilson? Is there anyone out there who can do what he did?
CW: I never say there will be "another" someone, or a "young" someone. August was August. There will never be another August Wilson. And thank god he gave us ten of his best. That's what he came for. We never know why we're on our journey. He came to this place for ten plays. And all the work he has given all these people, for the rest of our lives. The characters, the richness of them. Only August Wilson could do that. There will be no new August Wilson, as far as I am concerned. There will only be somebody who does what they do. And it's a much more encouraging, and exciting to me, in the theatre today. It's been very good to me, and we've got Suzan Lori-Parks, Kia Corthron. Lynn Nottage. (She laughs her hearty laugh.) And that's just naming some black women.
DEH: And with that, I will say goodnight and thank you Charlayne, for adding this chat on to your long day of rehearsal.
CW: Thank you David. It's always a pleasure speaking with you.For more information on Flight, visit www.acttheatre.org. For more on Purgatorio, visit www.seattlerep.org.