Maid and re­made: D.C. ac­tress shows how to mas­ter a dated racial role

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS

new york — It may have gone un­no­ticed by most peo­ple who have come to the Sa­muel Fried­man Theatre in the past few months to see the Man­hat­tan Theatre Club’s well-re­ceived Broad­way re­vival of “The Lit­tle Foxes.” But to Caro­line Stefanie Clay, one par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter de­tail gave her a pro­found sense of how her role could be es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful both to her and a mod­ern au­di­ence.

She plays Ad­die, the maid, in Lil­lian Hell­man’s 1939 melo­drama about a fam­ily of rich, ma­li­cious, schem­ing white South­ern­ers. Ad­die is the one char­ac­ter in “The Lit­tle Foxes” avail­able to a black ac­tress in any faith­ful ren­di­tion of the play; the plan­ta­tion’s valet, Cal, por­trayed here by Charles Turner, is the sole part writ­ten for a black man in a cast of 10. And the trait that proved so im­por­tant to Clay was one sug­gested by the di­rec­tor, Daniel Sul­li­van: that Ad­die could read.

“Dan’s in­sis­tence was that we see in real time that Ad­die is

lit­er­ate,” says Clay, a highly re­garded Wash­ing­ton ac­tress who works in both cities. “You see me read the Bi­ble. You see me read the la­bels on the medicine bot­tles.” Giv­ing Ad­die the dig­nity of lit­er­acy not only helped au­di­ences un­der­stand the depth of in­tel­li­gence of this sec­ondary char­ac­ter — through Ad­die’s and Cal’s re­ac­tions, we grasp the mag­ni­tude of the ve­nal­ity and men­da­cious­ness of the peo­ple they work for — but it also re­as­sured Clay that a part in a script con­tain­ing dated and some­times even of­fen­sive racial ref­er­ences was worth tak­ing on.

“I came in know­ing,” she says, “that I was in the pres­ence of a di­rec­to­rial vi­sion that would keep me safe, as a woman of color.”

It’s a fact of Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment that in plays and movies of cer­tain vin­tages about af­flu­ent whites, ser­vant roles of­ten were among the few open to ac­tors of color, a mir­ror of the so­cial and eco­nomic con­ven­tions of the times. But in 2017, such roles can seem an un­set­tling throw­back, a black ac­tor en­ter­ing a scene es­sen­tially to pour the cof­fee or open the drapes for white peo­ple. Clay, who also teaches act­ing at the Dis­trict’s Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts, is an ac­tress of for­mi­da­ble range. I’ve seen that range in her work as a gos­sipy English lady of means in Fol­ger Theatre’s “Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity” and as a sharp-tongued po­lice­woman in a fam­ily of em­bit­tered sib­lings in Ka­tori Hall’s “The Blood Quilt” at Arena Stage.

It’s also true that Broad­way roles are scarce enough for mi­nor­ity ac­tors: Ac­cord­ing to a new em­ploy­ment study by the Ac­tors’ Eq­uity As­so­ci­a­tion, be­tween 2013 and 2015, only 34 women of color — or 7 per­cent of the to­tal num­ber of ac­tors — ap­peared in prin­ci­pal roles in straight plays on Broad­way or in the na­tional tours. Their av­er­age weekly salary of $1,798 was slightly less than for men, or women as a whole. Op­por­tu­ni­ties, then, for a de­cently com­pen­sated job in a high-profile pro­duc­tion, such as this one, in which an ac­tress would ap­pear along­side, among oth­ers, Laura Lin­ney, Cyn­thia Nixon, Michael McKean and Richard Thomas, were rare.

So I won­dered what it was like for Clay to be play­ing a house­keep- er on Broad­way, and not for the first time. Her last per­for­mance there, in 2008, was in an­other re­vival by the Man­hat­tan Theatre Club of a clas­sic play, Ge­orge S. Kauf­man and Edna Fer­ber’s 1927 com­edy “The Royal Fam­ily,” in which she as­sayed the role of Della — the maid. It’s not that ser­vants can­not be re­ward­ing roles. Some­times, they’re ex­tra­or­di­nary. In Tony Kush­ner and Jea­nine Te­sori’s 2004 mu­si­cal “Caro­line, or Change,” the tem­pes­tu­ous, emo­tion­ally ex­hausted house­keeper, orig­i­nally played by Tonya Pink­ins, is the undis­puted star. And in the up­roar­i­ous meta-the­atri­cal satire “An Oc­toroon,” based on a 19th­cen­tury South­ern plan­ta­tion drama, play­wright Bran­den Ja­cob­sJenk­ins trans­forms the fe­male house slaves into a scathingly funny comedic tag team.

But be­ing of­fered Ad­die did give Clay pause. And it prompted her to re­flect, as a daugh­ter of ar­dent civil rights sup­port­ers, and whose late James Earl Clay, was an un­der­sec­re­tary in the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment in Jimmy Carter’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, about the im­pres­sions left on con­tem­po­rary the­ater­go­ers by a sub­servient black char­ac­ter. Com­pound­ing the is­sue in “The Lit­tle Foxes” is the pen­chant of the white Hub­bard fam­ily, in a play set in turn-of-the-20th-cen­tury Alabama, for toss­ing around the nword. Re­gard­less of the lan­guage’s his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy, of its in­ti­ma­tions of the racism that lin­gered long af­ter slav­ery, Clay says she wouldn’t have been able to take the job had the word re­mained. “The way it’s used in the orig­i­nal draft, I could not see my­self mak­ing it through the run with­out feel­ing dis­man­tled spir­i­tu­ally,” she says.

Even with the is­sue ad­dressed — the ep­i­thet, in all but one in­stance, has been al­tered — the role and the play re­mained trou­bling for some in her life. Sev­eral friends told her, she says, that they would love to have seen her but that they had no de­sire to sit through the play. Nei­ther, tellingly, did Clay have a de­sire for two of her for­mer Elling­ton stu­dents, now study­ing drama in Man­hat­tan at Juil­liard, to see her as Ad­die. “I don’t want the next gen­er­a­tion to have to con­tinue to grap­ple with th­ese roles,” she says. “It’s not about be­ing ashamed. It’s about hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to aspire to be­ing their high­est selves, in ma­te­rial that’s wor­thy of their ex­pe­ri­ences.”

That Sul­li­van was ea­ger to add as much rich­ness to the roles of Ad­die and Cal as pos­si­ble was a tonic for both Clay and Turner, a clas­si­cally trained ac­tor who has un­der­stud­ied James Earl Jones on Broad­way sev­eral times. “The won­der­ful thing about work­ing with Dan Sul­li­van is that we had a share in the process,” says Turner, who took it upon him­self to spend time in Har­lem’s Schom­burg Cen­ter for Re­search in Black Cul­ture, bring­ing to the re­hearsal room ma­te­rial on Re­fa­ther, con­struc­tion and plan­ta­tion life. “Stella al­ways said,” Turner says, re­call­ing the words of act­ing teacher Stella Adler, “know the world of the play­wright, and know the world you’re deal­ing with.”

“They’re the ones who see the truth,” Sul­li­van says of Ad­die and Cal. He points to a mo­ment late in the play when al­co­holic, ag­ing belle Birdie, played on al­ter­nat­ing nights by Nixon and Lin­ney, rem­i­nisces about her child­hood on her par­ents’ plan­ta­tion, where she claims they were so good to their slaves. The di­rec­tor has Cal stare back stonily. “His dead si­lence is ab­so­lutely im­por­tant,” Sul­li­van says. “For me, it sets up what has to be a kind of fic­tion that Birdie lives in, that that was a won­der­fully happy time for all.”

In Clay’s as­sertive, metic­u­lously ob­served per­for­mance, Ad­die emerges as one of the even­ing’s most in­trigu­ing char­ac­ters. In­ter­est­ingly, al­though Ad­die com­plies with the or­ders is­sued to her, her spine is al­ways ap­par­ent, es­pe­cially when mat­ters con­cern the well­be­ing of Alexandra, the daugh­ter of will­ful, nar­cis­sis­tic Regina, the star­ring role in which Lin­ney and Nixon also al­ter­nate.

Early in re­hearsals, she says, she played the maid as more soft spo­ken, ret­i­cent. “Dan said, ‘I have no in­ter­est in any of that. What I want is your au­then­tic tem­per­a­ment. Don’t make her palat­able or lik­able. Just tell her truth.’ ” And so, an­other, more re­silient, side of the char­ac­ter came to the fore. “She’s a woman of her time,” Clay says, adding, with a laugh, “Had Ad­die been born any other time, she would have been a CEO.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing her, which ends this week­end, has been more ful­fill­ing for Clay than she had imag­ined. Given the fa­vor­able re­cep­tions to her per­for­mance, she has man­aged to add new di­men­sions to a char­ac­ter au­di­ences as­sume they know.

“I have to be very spe­cific about how I choose to use my en­ergy,” Clay says. “Now, it’s in the ser­vice eight times a week of a woman who is wor­thy, whose jour­ney I did not al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate and at one time was a source of shame.” She sees Ad­die, ul­ti­mately, not as lim­it­ing, but ex­pand­ing her hori­zons. “We choose,” she adds, “to take back the images that have been used to den­i­grate us.”

In Clay’s per­for­mance, Ad­die emerges as one of the most in­trigu­ing char­ac­ters.

CHRIS SORENSEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Wash­ing­ton ac­tress Caro­line Stefanie Clay, who plays Ad­die in the Broad­way re­vival of “The Lit­tle Foxes,” at the Sa­muel Fried­man Theatre in New York. The pro­duc­tion closes this week­end.

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