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Defying 'Neat' Definitions

Charlayne Woodard's one-person show at the Taper focuses on the actress' coming of age against the backdrop of the black pride movement of the '60s.

January 04, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

A simple office chair can barely contain the exuberance and vitality emanating from actress Charlayne Woodard as she talks about her latest one-woman show, "Neat," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum next Sunday, directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Raised in Albany, N.Y., and trained at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the petite actress-singer-writer--who doesn't give her age and indeed seems remarkably ageless--first made her reputation on the New York stage, appearing in the original Broadway company of "Ain't Misbehavin' " and in such off-Broadway productions as "Twelfth Night" and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1989, Woodard has not only appeared in film (most recently, as Tituba in "The Crucible") and on television (including a 1996 stint as a regular on "Chicago Hope"), but also continued her stage career at the La Jolla Playhouse and other venues.

Woodard's first autobiographical solo, "Pretty Fire," began at Hollywood's Fountainhead Theatre in 1992 and went on to earn acclaim at the Manhattan Theatre Club and elsewhere, becoming one of the most successful examples of one of the 1990s' most popular genres. "Neat," which premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997 and went on to Seattle Rep, also explores Woodard's family history--this time focusing on the actress' coming of age against the backdrop of the black pride movement of the '60s. In an interview in the Taper's office, Woodard spoke as she was about to go into rehearsal for the show.

Question: After the grueling success of "Pretty Fire" you swore off writing and performing autobiographical works. You were thinking about trying your hand at a play that other actors could perform. What made you change your mind?

Answer: Daniel Sullivan, my director [and] the [former] artistic director at the Seattle Repertory Theatre staged "Pretty Fire" at Seattle Rep. And while we were in rehearsal, I started telling him about how, when I was a little girl, there was this aunt who I just lived and died to be with. Then, when I became a teenager, she came up to live with us and I couldn't believe how all the things that made her different when I was a child made her awful when I was a teenager. "Look at her hair" and "look at her this and that" and "how does she walk?" and I was just, "Ahhh, she can't live in my house!" I told him this story and then we got back to work. Then he stopped the rehearsal and said "Charlayne, that story you just told me about your aunt. Write a play about that and we'll workshop it here." That was 1996.

So I said "great" and went away. I started talking about my story. I talk these stories. This is how I write. I keep telling it and telling it. I did [the film] "An Eye for an Eye" and I was telling it to people on the set. Then I got hired for "The Crucible" and I'm up in northern Massachusetts telling people this story and trying to talk it out.

I called Daniel and said, "I have it and I know who I'll need for this: I know I can get maybe Angela Bassett, Larry Fishburne . . ." He says, "Stop. No. You have to do this alone. This has to be a solo piece." And I'm thinking, "No, no, please, I'll never do that again. That's too hard, too difficult. I don't even want to ever do that again."

But when he said that, I just said OK. And then I stopped thinking about other people. I went back to being the storyteller and creating a solo piece.

I never expected to do this again. But I was tricked. Because by the time I talked to Daniel, I was in that world. It was too late. There was no turning back, no stopping.

Q: "Pretty Fire" was your first outing as a writer. How did your creative process change the second time around?

A: Even though I know how challenging and difficult it is--physically, emotionally, psychologically--bottom line, [I had] the knowledge of what's going to happen and how I could probably do it better. "Pretty Fire" was written over my whole life. Those were stories I'd told and heard told for years. And when it came time to do [write it down], I could choose five and put them up. But this was different. With ["Neat"], I just told Daniel this memory that popped into my head. Also, this is one entire story. It's not five separate stories that stand on their own [as in "Pretty Fire'].

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