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A Living Work in Progress : Charlayne Woodard has been through the mill of TV and movies. She came out battered, but wiser. The wisdom seems to have helped her tackle her complex role in 'Good Person of Setzuan.'

August 21, 1994|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a Times staff writer

LA JOLLA — Charlayne Woodard perches on the edge of her chair, her bright yellow silk skirt draped between dancer's legs. Her toned arms make sweeping gestures, her smile and eyes are impossibly wide and her laugh is an infectious cackle.

She's almost got the Spunky Girl Heroine persona down cold. But then, ebullient as she may be one minute, she's contemplative the next.

That yin-yang comes in handy. These days, Woodard plays two characters of different temper and gender in the Tony Kushner adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "The Good Person of Setzuan" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

The parable tells the tale of a prostitute named Shen Te --whom the gods deem the one good person on earth--and her alter ego, a male cousin she masquerades as named Shui Ta. Woodard spends most of the play's three hour-plus running time onstage.

"I needed somebody with a larger-than-life personality who was giant onstage, has power and could grasp the humor," says director Lisa Peterson of her lead actor. "She has a huge presence. She's a perfectionist. She actually transforms her worries into positive things."

Yet as much of a positivist as Woodard may be, she's never been carefree. "Theater was my life, my church, my everything," says the veteran actress, who appeared in the original Broadway company of "Ain't Misbehavin'," of her New York days. "I was obsessed. I didn't have the capacity to be a good friend, a good sister or the kind of daughter I would like to be and do my jobs."

All wasn't solved when Woodard took the trek west five years ago. "When I moved to Los Angeles and went to the first auditions, I thought I would slit my wrists," she says. "The mistake that I made was that I complained a lot."

The problem here hasn't been a surfeit of work, but a dearth of the right stuff. "Rarely do you get something that makes you say, 'I have to work on this,' " says Woodard. "The roles for me that are wonderful are so few and far between, and they tend to (cast) the same people over and over again."

And while roles are even fewer for actresses of color, Woodard is loath to blame it on race. "One thing I've never done is that thing of saying that because I'm black, this is not given to me," she says. "I always feel that my being an African American woman is an asset and that's what I take into my meetings."

What's unusual about Woodard is not her predicament but her remedy. "I said, 'No more lamentations, Charlayne. Create for yourself. Join your theater groups. That's the thing that drives you to write.' I will never stop doing theater, never. The new challenge is, 'Can I make a living in film and television?' It's a different animal altogether. And I've stopped beating that animal. You've got to get on it and ride it."

*

Woodard is best known to L.A. audiences for her 1992 one-woman show "Pretty Fire," which premiered at Hollywood's Fountainhead Theatre, went on to run at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club and is about to be published by Penguin Press.

An autobiographical solo focusing on the first 11 years of the actress's life, "Pretty Fire" was Woodard's first writing venture. She did not, however, set out to create a long-running show, nor even one for public consumption.

Her motive was anything but showcasing. "I did the one-woman show because of my frustration, because I realized that I'd been in L.A. and I hadn't worked," says Woodard. "I had jobs. I made enough to support myself. But I didn't feel like I'd gotten a workout."

So Woodard cut a deal with the Fountainhead, a 99-seat house on Hollywood's theater row, that in return for her appearance in a play, she would have the chance to use the theater for her own purposes later on. On closing night of the play, "Out of Our Father's House," she reminded the theater of their agreement and found that the calendar was wide open.

"They said, 'Show us your play and we'll talk,' " says Woodard. "And I didn't have a play! So in a week I put together my stories. Then I started rehearsal. I had the keys to the theater and worked around the clock. It was an incredible experience. I still can't put it into words."

Woodard didn't even want press coverage. "I did it as a work-in-progress, only for my own personal workout," says Woodard. "I even told the Fountainhead, 'No critics.' But after a few performances I said, 'OK, just promise me you won't read anything to me.' It never occurred to me that people would get into it. But it worked, to my absolute surprise and shock."

"Pretty Fire" details the actress's Albany, N.Y., youth, from her precarious, premature birth through girlhood. In it, the actress, who refuses to reveal her age, portrays not only a younger version of herself, but also an array of other characters, including her own parents and sundry neighbors.

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