Talkin' Broadway


Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Colón, and Liza Colón-Zayas
Between Riverside and Crazy

Interview by Beth Herstein

Also see Wayman Wong's interview with Zak Resnick of Piece of My Heart


Stephen McKinley Henderson and Elizabeth Canavan
I am sitting in a conference room at Boneau/Bryan-Brown when I hear the sound of female laughter in the hall. My interview subjects have arrived. Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Colón, and Liza Colón-Zayas comprise the female part of the cast of Stephen Adly Guirgis' wonderful new play Between Riverside and Crazy, currently extended at the Atlantic Theater Company through August 23. In the show, Walter "Pops" Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a recently widowed, embittered ex-cop fighting to stay in his rent-controlled apartment and suing the police department over an alleged racially motivated attack, is at a crossroads, though he doesn't realize it at first. Detective Audrey O'Connor (Canavan), his onetime partner and mentee, is a detective and daughter figure to Pops; Lulu (Colón) is his son Junior's girlfriend, who's living in Pops' apartment with his son; and Church Lady (Colón-Zayas) is a member of Pops' church who makes a seemingly innocent visit to minister to him in his apartment. Lulu's line—"I may look how I look, but that don't mean I am how I look."—is applicable to all of the characters, none of whom are what they seem on the surface.

We speak together for around a half hour. Their camaraderie, affection, and mutual respect is evident as they talk about the show, the cast, and their affiliation with the Labyrinth Theater Company, of which Henderson, Guirgis and others are also members.

Beth Herstein:  What has it been like working on this?

Liza Colón-Zayas:  It's been a blessing because we're all very in love with each other. To have that script and those actors. It's surreal.

Elizabeth Canavan:  Not only is everyone so amazingly talented. They're people you want to be around. Good people. We just love each other. I can't wait to get to the theater every night. We're savoring every last moment, and not taking anything for granted.


Stephen McKinley Henderson, Rosal Colón: and Victor Almanzar
Rosal Colón:  There's something about the words, about the play. I've commented on this to Austin [Pendleton, the director], but the more we do this play, the more we know what it demands of us. It only naturally demands that we get deeper and deeper and closer to who these people are. The beauty of working with people you love and respect so much is that we have a genuine desire to elevate each other in every performance.

BH:  The play has gotten such wonderful reviews and writeups.

EC:  The New Yorker ["The Family of Man," by Hilton Als, August 11, 2014 issue] talked about all of Stephen's [Adly Guirgis'] plays. I just thought that was incredible. Taking snippets from other plays and putting them into the review—it was so touching. It made me emotional.

BH:  It's been an emotional time for you all, with the losses of several Labyrinth members and friends this year. You don't have to talk about this unless you want to, but Elizabeth, I know you dedicate this performance to [Labyrinth Board member and former co-artistic director] Philip Seymour Hoffman.

EC:  This is the first of Stephen Guirgis' plays that Liza and I have worked on without Phil. Austin has been incredible to work with. He's a tremendous director. But, you feel so connected when you do so many plays with the same two people.


Stephen McKinley Henderson and Liza Colón-Zayas
LCZ:  In light of how recent these losses have been, we do dedicate every night to [Hoffman].

RC:  I'd never met him, and I don't think I've expressed this to either of you, but I do feel like you bring a little bit of him with you. What I get is this incredible sense of dedication and work ethic, and a desire to be great—not just for you the actor to be great, but for each other to be great, for the story to be great. And, that's been from rehearsals from day one. You bring him into the room.

EC:  I hear him. I hear things in my head, sometimes. "Phil would have said this." You know what he would comment on. [laughter]

BH:  What is it like working with the Atlantic Theater Company?

LCZ:  They've been great. Really awesome.

EC:  Neil Pepe and the whole crew really have our backs the whole time. Everybody knew we went through a lot of changes with rewrites, and everybody was so supportive. They knew what we were going through as actors, the fear of rehearsing a new part of the script in the day and then putting it in the show that night. They understood how scary that is.

BH:  I love Stephen Adly Guirgis' plays. They're complicated, and there's no clear moral resolution. They're kind of messy, and it feels more human that way. That's true about your characters too. How do you feel about them?

EC:  I love my character. I'm playing this daughter figure to Stephen McKinley Henderson. I have to think of him as a father, not a father figure. He's a father, I'm a daughter. When would that ever happen? When would we ever be cast as father and daughter? Also, she loves him as a father, she's in love with her fiance. She's ... caught between two lovers [laughter]. She's full of a lot of love.

RC:  I love my character's heart. A friend of Stephen McKinley's saw the play and he said that she wasn't the smartest person in the room but she's very wise. I connect with that on so many levels. She is so many girls that I know, sometimes myself. We overlook or dismiss them, and forget the totality of who they are, their complexity. There may be more to people intellectually and emotionally, even though they might not express themselves in the most eloquent way. I'm in constant pursuit of her still. That huge heart and the earnestness of her.

LCZ:  Somebody said to me that Church Lady is a game changer. I didn't think of her like that, but it's true. Everything changes because of her. I know that in Stephen's [Guirgis'] plays, everyone has to be approached without judgment. What she does in the play, we can easily judge. I love that Stephen makes it so that if you [as an actor] have the heart and the open-mindedness not to judge, you can create a character who can really change somebody's world, even if that's not the character's intention.

I actually didn't read the scene [with Church Lady] at first. My husband [actor David Zayas] got it in an email. At first, he said, "Here's Stephen's scene. Oh!" After he read it, he said [because of the sexual subject matter], "Ooohh." [laughter] Then he told me, "You should do it. Read it, but you should definitely do it." And I'm so grateful, grateful, grateful that I did.

BH:  Stephen McKinley Henderson is always so good. It's great to see him in a show that was written for him.

EC:  He deserves this. They don't get better than him.

BH:  What's it been like working with him on this show?

LCZ:  He's always on time, he's always in a good mood.

EC:  Always, always. No complaints at all. [laughter]

LCZ:  Always working tightly. Generous.

EC:  Always with a good story. He's got sayings for everything, quotes for everything.

RC:  If you need a pick-me-up, you go to Stephen. The immensity of his talent is matched by the bigness of his heart. He's this warm animal, but playful.

LCZ:  You should see him during vocal warmups. [laughter]. He's so silly.

EC:  He has that glimmer in his eye, that twinkle. And that face!

The only time he's not in a scene is Rosal's scene with Ray Anthony Jr. Pops is laying on the couch. That one little short time that he's not on stage, he could relax, but he doesn't. Every time he comes off the stage at intermission, he'll say, "Oh, Rosal! That was good." Or he'll make some comments about the scene. He always puts his two cents in—in a great way.

BH:  [To Liza Colón-Zayas] You did a one-woman show, Sistah Supreme in which you talked about being raised by women. You said that women were taught to be submissive in that era. But they also obviously were very strong. They were the support, the backbone of the family. I was thinking about that in the context of this play. It's a different era, and women have come a long way, but there's still some of that conflict.

LCZ:  Somebody said [Between Riverside and Crazy] is a play about a patriarchy. Within that structure, these three women survive. They are survivors. They are strong.

EC:  They are all strong. I'm strong. I face up to [Pops].

BH:  Also, [to Elizabeth Canavan] your character is successful in a male-dominated world.

EC:  Yeah. She's a cop. She tells that story [about her early years as Pop's partner] when she grabs that guy who has a knife in his head. She just grabs him!

LCZ:  We're all trying to survive within this very patriarchal world. And, I've thought, the Church Lady has con artist tendencies. But, what if she did survive some of the things she talks about. What if she had an abusive husband? What if she actually did volunteer? What if she was a prostitute and had to survive by her wits? That's what all three of them are up against.

RC:  It's true, and it's not necessarily acknowledged by the men. And yet, we still show up.

EC:  Oh, yeah. And we will show up. Also, we were talking about this, each of us takes care of Pop in our own way. Maybe we have different motivations, but we do take care of him. We had one lady call us "the three graces" on the street. "There go the three graces."

RC:  That is a gift that Stephen [Guirgis] gave us. I know I'm going to look back at this forever and think, "Wow. I got to play someone that complex. Like you said, he really doesn't wrap it in a bow for you. You really have to be a detective on a nightly basis. We all listen to each other's scenes, and I admire your characters' fierceness and strength and love. It can carry me through with my character's fierceness and strength and love through the play. It's there on the page, but it's great to hear it out loud.

EC:  We definitely affect each other. I come off, and I'm cooling down, and I hear [Liza Colón-Zayas] and I go, "Oh, she's going off!" [laughter] It's like a train ride.

BH:  Over time, as a viewer, I've learned to appreciate the importance of performers listening to each other, both on and off the stage. When you're on the stage not doing anything, you're actually doing something.

EC:  It's one of the hardest things. And you can't relax because if you do, you're in trouble. You always have to be active in some way. I do a lot of listening in both of my scenes, but I still have to be in it and listening to the scene or else I'll miss my cue! [laughter] It would be easy to check out, but you can never check out of one of Stephen's plays, ever. He does not allow it.

LCZ:  That's when it gets cheap, too. You can't phone it in. There are plays where the writing is hilarious but it can never be approached in that way. It has to be approached as life and death. Otherwise the characters become cartoon cutouts.

I've known Stephen [Guirgis] for a long time. He really does stand in awe of the women who have been in his life. He respects these strong women. Within our circle of [friends] who've known each other for so long, when things blow up, we're automatically there for each other. He reveres that.

There are easily so many other younger, sexier, better known actresses he could have cast in this part as the sexy Santeria. What I mean is, he's tried to break that stereotype and write this whole other side of the story. Even though the women aren't necessarily always driving the play, they're the force. They're the ones there.

EC:  In Judas [The Last Days of Judas Iscariot], Stephen wrote, "The women were there for Jesus." We always say that line. That's stayed with all of us.

RC:  It's a great way to put a light on women who get overlooked on a daily basis. He puts a bright light on them, and all their ugly, complex, nasty, virtuous qualities.

BH:  There is a strong sense of music in this play, and a musical quality to its dialogue and rhythms.

EC:  We were getting that a lot at the talk backs. People were talking a lot about music. Jazz and blues.

LCZ:  Stephen is working on a hip hop TV series [with Baz Luhrmann]. Next to the Rolling Stones, his favorite is hip hop. He has a real feel for the pulse and the soul of New York City, and also its music.

EC:  Definitely. Everybody has a different voice. All these characters have completely different voices. And yet we're all New Yorkers.

BH:  Though the play is part of the Atlantic Theater's season, I keep thinking of it as a Lab show also because the playwright and so many of the actors are members of the company. When did you join Labyrinth?

EC:  I was '93, and [to Liza Colón-Zayas] you're '92. Liza's original.

LCZ:  Right.

RC:  I became a member in 2012, actually, but my first show with Labyrinth was 2011.

BH:  [To Elizabeth Canavan] In one interview several years back you said that you came to New York to be an actor, but Labyrinth helped you stay focused and helped you persevere.

EC:  I always say that. I don't know if I would have had the strength to stay with it if I didn't have this family. My family is very close by in New Jersey, and I have a fantastic family. But to have a theater family is another thing. With some of the actors you meet, there is this competitiveness. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist in Lab, but it is not evident. You're just embraced. Everybody is routing for each other, pushing for each other. If I don't get the part, I hope Liza does. Being part of that community changed everything. However many times you move, you call people up, they'll be there. Something goes down in your life, they'll be there. You need to borrow a hundred bucks, they're there. They have your back. To have that support group—I can't imagine doing it without all my friends and family. Lab is family. My best friends are in Labyrinth.

BH:  [To Rosal Colón] You come from a different theater community, as your parents founded the acclaimed Pregones Theater Company [www.pregones.org].

RC:  I do. It's a beautiful thing to grow up in a trunk, traveling all over the country and going to all these international theater festivals. I went to Cuba when I was four. Getting to see the world from that perspective. I always felt really lucky, and I've said this before—even though we performed in the basement of a church at one point, and then on top of a place that killed chickens in the South Bronx [laughter]. When you're on top of a place that kills chickens and you're doing theater, it's because you love what you do. You love it. [laughter]. There is that same electric type of love and passion and drive [at Labyrinth], and solidarity that you are so lucky to find in this business which can be so devastatingly alienating. I feel so blessed that I came in a couple years ago and got treated like I've been there from jump. Stephen being so generous to put me in this show, and these women taking me in as family.

EC:  We've seen each other through marriages, divorces, babies being born, death—a lot of stuff. Just like I said about the cast—but even more so, good, good friggin' people, people that you want to be around.


Photos: Kevin Thomas Garcia


Between Riverside and Crazy through August 23, 2014, at Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W 20th St, New York, NY 10011, For more information, visit atlantictheater.org/.


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