Talkin' Broadway


K. Todd Freeman
Airline Highway

Interview by Beth Herstein


K. Todd Freeman and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Airline Highway, which originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, is one of a number of excellent and acclaimed new plays on Broadway. In a shabby hotel called the Hummingbird on Airline Highway in New Orleans, the long-term residents, who've clung together as a family as a buffer against their disappointing lives and their heartbreaks, are throwing a party—or, to be exact, a funeral. The Hummingbird's beloved Miss Ruby, a retired exotic dancer who once had the hottest show in the local burlesque scene, is alive but dying, and one of her last wishes is to enjoy her funeral with her friends. As the folks at the hotel plan the party and then celebrate it, they are faced with their own mortality and revisit some of their demons in the process. That's a very New Orleans thing, the mix of celebration and mourning, and it's no surprise that playwright Lisa D'Amour, who captures the blend perfectly, is from New Orleans. Airline Highway is set against the backdrop of the immensely popular Jazz and Heritage Festival, of which all the characters are aware but which none of them attend—another sign of their insider-yet-outsider status.

Among the strong ensemble cast are two Tony nominees, Julie White and K. Todd Freeman. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with K. Todd Freeman by phone. Among other things, we talked about his nomination, the changing (and unchanging) faces of Broadway, and Airline Highway.

Beth Herstein:  Your last Tony nomination was in 1993, as best actor in The Song of Jacob Zulu. I noticed that several nominees from that year—including Michael Cerveris, Joe Mantello, and Chita Rivera—are involved in some of the big shows this year as well.

K. Todd Freeman:  It's good to see the longevity of people in the business, plus the fresh faces. People who were fresh faces back then, like Michael Cerveris and Joe Mantello, are established performers now. And, Chita's still around. She's never going away.

BH:  How have you changed or evolved as an actor since 1993?

KF:  I've always been a little weird and funky as a performer. The way I view things can be a little skewed ... But as I've gotten older I don't have to work so hard to do it. In the past, it was always so intense, more stressful. Now, I've gotten to the place where it's inside of me. Things are simpler. Simplicity is always the best way.

BH:  You've been asked a lot about your career choices, and the limitations on you because of your status as a black actor, a gay actor. When I look at the types of roles you've played, however, it strikes me that these are not your primary focuses.

KF:  I'll play everything. My roles are all over the map. The biggest question for me is that I look for the part that gives me something to chew on. Also, I look for contrast. Those are the determining factors for me.

BH:  I loved Airline Highway. What's it like being in such a big, messy, heartfelt show?

KF:  It's a beast of a play, and a real challenge. You have to think about what you're doing in so many different ways. There's so much going on onstage all the time, so many conversations. You have to act the scene you're in while you're listening to things on the other side of the stage so you get your cue right—without seeming to be listening.

BH:  How do you all meet that challenge? It must help that you have a great ensemble.

KF:  It does, because 99% of the time, everyone is really on their toes. Joe Mantello, too, has done a great job shaping what's going on in the play and rehearsing it with us. By now, we have the structure in our bones, so we don't have to worry about it as much.

BH:  You've known Joe Mantello since college, and you've acted with him before, in the production of Angels in America at Mark Taper Forum in 1992.

KF:  Yes, it's a great experience really. It's the first time we've worked together in a while. We work hard, but we also just sit around and make each other laugh.

BH:  That's a good kind of friend to have. He's also a great actor.

KF:  Yes. He's a powerhouse.

BH:  I grew up in New Orleans, where Airline Highway is set. You're from Houston, which is not too far away. How familiar are you with New Orleans?

KF:  I've been to New Orleans many times—even before I got this part. It's so close to Houston, and I've had friends move there. I love New Orleans. Also, as it's right down the road from where I grew up, I feel like both places have a similar feeling, and I'm trying to bring that to Sissy Na Na as well.

BH:  You played Sissy Na Na with Steppenwolf in Chicago. How has the character evolved since then?

KF:  I think the character is a little deeper, a little more intense as far as this day that we're getting through—this day being a funeral. The stakes are higher ... I kept reminding myself what it's like when you have a death in the family, what that day is like when you go to the funeral. Everyone's nerves are exposed, and everyone's trying not to show the frayed ends of their nerves. I'm trying to let that build inside and exhibit it more, just a slightly different arc. Just a slight shade to bump things up a little bit. I don't know if anyone who saw both could tell [laughs] but I do.

BH:  Sissy Na Na is a wonderful character, just a lovely spirit in the show. How did you latch onto the character?

KF:  Once Lisa told me that the character was loosely based on [New Orleans bounce star] Big Freedia, I went on YouTube to see who she was. The inspiration from Big Freedia for me, most of all, was how he dressed himself. Neither male nor female. I really loved that. And, I hearkened back to all these people I've known who are half-boy, half-girl, undefined, grey. They all reminded me of Houston, really, of the south. Like in North Carolina where I went to school [at University of North Carolina School of the Arts]. It had a real southern feel to me. That's what I do in the show. I wanted it to be a an homage to all those people, who are never represented in dramatic literature, and not to play it like a grand drag queen but like someone who is also other things.

BH:  I think you do that. It feels like an authentic person, and not like a caricature or a one-note character.

KF:  That was really important to me. Always trying to go back to the purity of that, and to remind myself not to get too carried away. Because I can get carried away sometimes. [laughter]. I try to put a reign on myself.

BH:  Now, you've been a member of Steppenwolf for a really long time. It is one of the great theater companies in our country. From what I've read and the people I've interviewed, it also sounds like a family, the kind of place you can always return to. What does it mean to you to be part of that kind of family?

KF:  As an artist, as an actor, you can feel so lonely. It's a solo thing. You are adrift; you're never attached to any job unless you happen to be in a series. But even that comes to an end. To have a theatrical home, a place you know you can always go back and work, a place where you know all the people over decades. It's someplace you can rely on, where you'll always be artistically fed. It's a blessing, it's a privilege, it's an honor. We bicker and fight, like any other family, but we're always working to support the same goal. It's a wonderful thing, and I'm so glad I'm able to be a part of it.

We go into rehearsal in New York, or anyplace that's not Steppenwolf, and you have to get to know the people. There's always that friction—well, not friction, but the unfamiliarity that sometimes can bleed into the work. At Steppenwolf, that's already been taken care of, years ago. I can get deeper into it from the start, working on the personal relationships on the stage, because you already have relationships off stage. It's a real gift.

BH:  I guess you know what's expected of you, and what to expect from the other people.

KF:  Exactly.

BH:  I'm disappointed that Airline Highway isn't going to be around too much longer. It's such a good play. What can you say about it to entice people to go before it closes?

KF:  One of the reasons I decided to do the play, and work with this playwright, is because it's ... not quite linear, in how it parses out the plot and delivers information. It comes at you in bits and pieces and slight, kind of randomly. She has so much overlapping dialogue, and so much happening on the stage. You don't know where your eye is traveling. But, Joe has focused the play so well that no matter which angle you focus on, you're getting the same overall story. I really like that, and the pseudo-naturalism that we're going for. It's interesting and vibrant. And I love the fact that we throw a party on stage every night, and we really enjoy trashing the stage. It starts off really pristine and nice looking, and by the end it's like—oh my God, it's like a train wreck up there.

BH:  I really liked that people are talking at the same time and talking over people, because that's how real people interact. What you call pseudo-naturalism—even though there's an artifice to it, it feels real and the characters seem like they could be people you might meet.

I know you have to get ready for the show. Is there anything else readers should know?

KF:  They really should come and see the play. People really dig it. Just come to the party. People who love theater—they get all the humor. That's it.



Airline Highway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W 47th St. For performance and ticket information, visit Telecharge.com.


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