Two-time Tony® and Emmy award-winning actress Cherry Jones may well be on the road to her third Tony® when she takes stage at the Booth Theater on September 5th as Tennessee Williams’ Southern matr
Two-time Tony® and Emmy award-winning actress Cherry Jones may well be on the road to her third Tony® when she takes stage at the Booth Theater on September 5th as Tennessee Williams’ Southern matriarch Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. Directed by John Tiffany and joined by Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, Jones reprises the role originated last Spring at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) The production marked A.R.T.’s foray into the world of Tennessee Williams. Out and proud from the beginning of her professional life, Ms. Jones is a founding member of A.R.T., where she spent most of the 1980s appearing in Three Sisters, Sganarelle, The King Stag, As You Like It, The Serpent Woman, Life is a Dream, Three Sisters, Twelfth Knight, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Major Barbara, King Lear, and Love’s Labors Lost. A 1978 graduate of Carnegie Mellon, she is well known as a premiere theater actress and advocate for gay rights.
Recently, I sat down with Ms. Jones to discuss her portrayal of Amanda Wingfield and lessons learned from previous roles and fellow thespians.
If, like this writer, you cherished your grandmother for all the embodied wit, warmth, humor and human compassion, welcome to conversation with Ms. Jones, a rare combination of grace and gravitas. Quaint stories of growing up in Paris, Tennessee, a former railroad hub, county seat and home to the world’s biggest fish fry, are rendered in a slight husky drawl, as she speaks lovingly of a grandmother who encouraged her to act; Miss Ruby Krider, who instructed her in creative dramatics as a child, and Miss Linda Wilson at the high school, who directed young Jones in school plays and speech tournaments (for which she typically won first place). Whirlwind tour of her youth aside, Jones has proven what the wise already know: Real stars are made at home, not in the world.
LaShonda: Who are some of your fellow actors from whom you have learned learned a great deal?
Cherry: There are several actresses who I look to as guides. Julie Harris has been very important in my life. She lives and breaths the theater; and has a nun-like commitment to it—more than I could ever imagine. Every single script she’s ever been sent, including unsolicited scripts—and she must have received hundreds—she’s read because she has that kind of discipline and that kind of respect for the playwright.
I have this wonderful Australian friend, Trish Connolly [Patricia Connolly, b. 1933], who’s worked everywhere, from the West End and the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Guthrie for many, many years. Trish, too, has incredible devotion to the theater. Every time she talks about a role or a part, she’s really there. She has this wonderful daughter who’s always giving her notes and one of my all-time favorite notes, which I’ve thought of a lot since, was given when Trish was playing my aunt in The Heiress. Trish’s part was a small part, I mean small, especially for someone who has played all the Greek drama-ramas. So, Trish was drawing out the scene because she wanted to be onstage a little longer, and she wanted to make her character a little more grand until her daughter said, ‘Mother, Miss Elizabeth Almond is a very busy woman. She has five children at home. She doesn’t have time for this nonsense. So she’s got to get on and get off. She’s got to say what she’s got to say then she needs to get the hell out of there and home to her children.’ And when you see that production—I think her performance is the best one in the production because it’s just so true.
All the women who’ve influenced me have also given me life lessons about opening up to other mediums because I was a theater snob. I didn’t want to do anything else and they said, Cherry, as a woman you have got to diversify. You’ve got to explore every medium out there or you’re not going to work and you’re not going to eat.
LaShonda: There was no interest in television or film?
Cherry: Not really because those mediums, especially television, were not about ideas to me. And, too often they lacked real language. If the work didn’t have great ideas or language and a universal truth, I just wasn’t interested. I could understand if you’re a photographer wanting to do film, but if you’re an actor and the language isn’t just lush, where is the joy in that? Of course now I appreciate both film and television because you get to work as a miniaturist. You get to focus on these little moments. But I am absolutely beside myself to be back on stage again. I’m so excited I’m spinning out of my seat just thinking about it. To be able to rehearse, where you actually have the opportunity to refine something before you do it, unlike television and film where you just do it.
LaShonda: Well here is where I will start namecalling, you’re a craftmonger.
Cherry: Yes (laughter). I have to be. I’m slow that’s why I could never get a job auditioning.The thought that I had one shot at something was just beyond me. Unless I had four weeks of rehearsal, I knew I wasn’t going to get close. It’s why I think if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work at A.R.T. I probably would never have worked in the theater. I was a terrible auditioner and the jobs would’ve been too few and far between.
LaShonda: Looking back over your work, I’ve noticed a penchant for a certain type of female character. Do you consciously decline all roles that aren’t strong, intelligent women?
Cherry: I think early on it was pretty clear with my representation what I wanted. In the first place, the early years of my career at A.R.T. were grueling. It’s like being in the army in a rep company. You just do what they tell you to do. So I grew in my craft, performing whatever roles they gave me. And then when I got out into the world in New York the parts that people knew me for were the heroines. I was typecast—to my mind—in the most wonderful way a woman could be typecast, and that’s as a heroine. I never had to do the Heddas and the Noras, all those parts that are wonderfully dramatic roles for women but at the same time are about women trying to get out of a bad marriage. And the roles I’ve always been interested in, the women have a larger pallet, a larger world.
LaShonda: What about the roles where complexity lies in a woman’s own frailty? Here, I’m thinking of a character who wasn’t trapped in a bad marriage, in fact you could argue that the marriage saves her, but who is clearly riddled with issues, not least among them is alcoholism—Teddy’s wife Ruth in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Have roles like that appealed to you?
Cherry: The only woman like that—a sort of cast off from society—that I’ve ever played is Grace from Brian Freehl’s play Faith Healer with Ian McDiarmid and Ralph Fiennes. Ralph’s character has actually been killed when the play begins but he starts the show followed by Grace’s monologue and finally the manager has his monologue. Then it ends with Ralph’s summation. Grace is about this close to the edge of killing herself during her 45-minute monologue. You assume that at the end she’s going to take a bottle of pills. But even Grace was a very strong individual.
I have to say, LaShonda, I don’t miss playing the other parts. I do love heroines. I just do. They’re so interesting. It’s like you’re an arrow being shot from a bow. You don’t know where you’re going; you don’t know what obstacles you’re going to run into. You don’t know where you’re going to end up, you’re a projectile through space and time. It’s just incredible. All of the people on stage with you usually are the obstacles. And it’s a different kind of acting than character acting, which I’ve had to learn now. In classic works like The Glass Menagerie there’s character acting which is a horse of another color because the heroine is just moving through at a clip, you don’t have time for a lot of the detail.
LaShonda: You’ve said that you absolutely worshiped the part of Mabel Tidings Bigelow from Tina Howe’s Pride’s Crossing because the character gave you such energy. What about that character appealed to you so much?
Cherry: I think her love of her family was the first thing. Also, she reminded me of so many great elderly people I’ve known, both male and female. I got to celebrate them all by bringing Mabel’s character to life, absolutely blatantly copying different movements and gestures and expressions from living elderly people I knew and adored.
I so appreciated her KBO spirit, keep buggering on! (laughter) Nothing was going to stop her, not heartache, not illness, not infirmity. She just kept going and expected those around her to do the same. So, her vitality was another thing that made me absolutely love the part. Plus, she had had such a difficult relationship with her mother. I believe that no matter how difficult your surroundings are if you have a loving mother you can get through, but if you haven’t had a loving mother circumstances must be made twenty times more difficult. Yet Mabel overcomes all of that, making her someone I greatly admire. That role was also the most physical role I’ve ever played and I have played many physical roles, but Mabel was just non-stop physicality. Jack O’Brien directed it and he just did a magnificent job.
LaShonda: In 1993, you performed in Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven, a comic exploration of LGBT family life where lesbian lovers Anna and Ruth and their gay roommate Peter await the arrival of their newborn child (but first must rid the crowded apartment of their three imaginary children). You told The Advocate in 1999, and I’m quoting you, “It was the biggest disaster I ever had in my career.” Looking back on that moment, I wonder if you could talk about any career lessons that you took from that experience because I’ve come to realize that the moments we perceive as personal failures often turn out to be our greatest lessons; it’s a matter of perspective.
Cherry: Well, I think I learned that sometimes roles simply aren’t a good fit. Or that you’re unable to do the work that you should do for a particular part for whatever reasons, personal reasons or whatever. There are a lot of reasons and variables within the reasons why we sometimes experience the disasters we experience as artists. With And Baby Makes Seven there was just a whole confluence of things going on with me.
When I feel a little lost with something I can get very scared. And I get panicky, as I think many performers do. And I think that’s what happened with Baby, I just got panicky. I have had since then one other extremely difficult, paralyzing experience with a role. The difficulties with the parts usually have more to do with personal issues than with anything else. This is one of those things that we don’t want to talk about in the theater because we don’t want to give a name to it, but I think most everyone who’s had a life in the theater has had moments like these. You know at the end of the day, LaShonda I probably learned that it was just a play, and in the grand scheme of things very small potatoes. You just try to be healthy and prepared and know what it is that you need as an actor to try to get to the truth of a character.
LaShonda: In discussing the role of the spinster Hannah Jelkes from Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, you said you didn’t know how to find her greatness as a human being. I’m wondering if it has been a challenge for you to find Amanda Wingfield’s greatness?
Cherry: I feel like honestly LaShonda, and I’m sure many actresses who have played this role would say the same thing, learning this and learning it to the point where you can do what’s required physically with this part IS. A. Bitch! This is a very difficult part to learn.
LaShonda: Is that why you were drawn to it? Do you thrive on difficult parts?
Cherry: (laughter) I wasn’t drawn to it. I never ever wanted to do it in my entire life. I only said yes because John Tiffany, who is brilliant, was directing and he wouldn’t let up until I said yes. And I wanted to work with him. Plus, so many people have loved this play throughout the years; it is considered one of the great American classics of the 20th century. I just thought it was time, at this age, to explore Amanda Wingfield. Quite honestly, the older you get the fewer great roles there are and I just thought if I don’t do this, I bet I will always regret it. Then we did our first reading of The Glass Menagerie and I thought, I know these women, the prototypes of Amanda Wingfield because I grew up with them in the South. They were very old when I was very young. But I loved them and I knew that their lives were fleeting and that their kind would never be seen or heard from again. So, in the end I was drawn to do the play for that reason more than any other—to pay homage to the women I had known and their sisterhood with Amanda.
LaShonda: Cherry, you know how Southern people call those who bend the truth just a little or embellish too much as those who “put on.” Well, Amanda puts on an awful lot, doesn’t she?
Cherry: Yes. It’s the way Tennessee has written her; there is an artificiality built in to much of the way that Amanda expresses herself. Coming from the South, I see women all the time who behave in such a way that leaves me thinking, They have got to be kidding. (laughter) It’s so put on. I’m trying to honor that put on-ness of Amanda (laughter), the artificiality of the woman; and also portray the very three-dimensional woman who chooses to present herself in a more artificial way from time to time. And then there are those moments when you feel she’s putting on but within that there’s such a genuine charm you experience another part of her depth. As with all of Tennessee Williams’ women, Amanda is not a purely heterosexual woman. I could play a heterosexual woman. I could play a homosexual woman. I could play a hetero or homosexual man. It’s difficult as a lesbian to play a heterosexual woman that’s written by a gay man. That’s one degree removed too many. She’s hyper-heterosexual because she’s written by Tennessee.
LaShonda: Do you believe everything Amanda says? Memory is idiosyncratic for the best of us. Do you think there were really seventeen gentleman callers in one afternoon? When Bates was shot, did he really have a picture of her on him? (laughter)
Cherry: It doesn’t matter, she thinks he did and I bet he probably did. (laughter) And lets say she had fourteen gentlemen callers, I have a feeling seven of them were gay. Don’t you?
LaShonda and Cherry: (laughter)
I mean, think about it, on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon where would you want to be if you were a gay man in Mississippi? I’d want to be with thirteen other good-looking men. I’ve come prepared to defend her. I am in love with Amanda Wingfield. I only see her strengths.
LaShonda: She is much more than the worn Southern belle she is often depicted as?
Cherry: See, I think people put too much stock in that Southern belle thing. And, most people are struck by her flaws which really are front and center on the page—there’s no digging. Yes, she is flawed but she is fierce! Here she is this white Southern woman in the north—and I mean for a Mississippian St. Louis is about as northerly as you can get—with two children, who is abandoned in the 1920s. Then she gets to 1930 and the depression hits! She’s trying to feed and cloth and house her children with very few skills except her wiles and her charm. Sure there’s this side to her that puts on, but there’s the other side, too.
LaShonda: Well, I always appreciated the performative aspect of Amanda because I feel it’s true of so many Southern women of the class to which she was born, and those women who parent. There is a performative aspect to parenting, especially when in protection mode, like Amanda is for Laura. But, like you I’ve always thought Tennessee gave her short shrift in that any woman rearing two children alone in an urban metropolis with few resources would have to come by some kind of street smarts in order to survive. There are but a few references in the play of the various odd jobs she’s held—modeling bras, selling magazine subscriptions.
Cherry: And those things are just what she’s done recently. Her husband’s been gone sixteen years. God knows where or how she has earned a living during those years. I think she’s a very clever woman. I don’t know how brilliant she is, but you can’t deny her cleverness. Until Tom was old enough to have a job, she kept the roof over their heads and something in their bellies. How did she do that? I think part of the reason Tennessee doesn’t talk about what Amanda has sacrificed, what she has cleverly pulled off to keep that family together is because he was in so many ways writing about his own mother, Edwina; and the fact of the matter was his mother had a husband. As wretched as that marriage was, there was someone bringing home the bacon. So he puts Amanda in the situation of head of household but in no way honors what that would entail. One of the great discoveries of this part is that there is much more depth to Amanda than what Tennessee himself put on the page. I do think she still has a sexuality about her. I think she has intensity. I don’t think she’d ever be with another man, but I think she fantasizes and she has her nights in bed alone when she thinks about what they did under those dogwoods on those picnics in the afternoon. Now add to her desire anger. I think she probably has real anger issues. To me the most devastating moment of the play is after the gentleman caller leaves; she doesn’t go to Laura and say, Sweetheart, don’t you worry.
LaShonda: She doesn’t console her child.
Cherry: No. She goes and says, Tom come in here. I want to tell you something awfully funny. All of the betrayal she’s felt comes bubbling to the surface because she knows Tom is just like his dad, and he is out of there, leaving her alone with nothing but worry. Amanda is like any other mother living today who has a mentally-impaired or severely handicapped child and they don’t know what in the world they are going to do with that child knowing that they are going to be dead one day. Who will protect their child? That’s where Amanda is at the end of the play, Who will protect my child?
At this point, I should write where fans can find Ms. Jones on the web, her url or twitter handle. But here’s the thing, similar to the old guard we once called Acting Royalty who cherished privacy, you won’t find Ms. Jones on the net chatting about her social life but rather on stage and screen: next spring in Sarah Treem’s new play, When We Were Young and Unafraid (Manhattan Theater Club), where she portrays an owner of a 1970s bed and breakfast that is also a women’s shelter; in Terrence Malick’s upcoming film Knight of Cups; and in just a couple of weeks on stage at the Booth Theater (222 W. 45th Street) as an Amanda Wingfield you’re not likely to forget.
Cherry on Amanda Wingfield.
Credits: Ms. Jones’ Broadway credits include Doubt (Tony®, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, and Obie Awards), The Heiress (Tony®, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards), Prides Crossing (Drama Desk Award); The Baltimore Waltz (Obie Award); Faith Healer; Flesh and Blood; Imaginary Friends; A Moon for the Misbegotten (Tony® Award nomination); Angels In America; Our Country’s Good (Tony® Award nomination); and Roundabout Theater Company’s productions of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Major Barbara, and The Night of the Iguana. Her filmwork includes The Beaver, Mother and Child, Swimmers, The Village, Signs, Ocean’s Twelve, Cradle Will Rock, The Horse Whisperer, The Perfect Storm, and Erin Brockovich; and on television she was appeared in the popular Fox series 24 as President Alison Taylor (Emmy); What Makes a Family, and most recently as Dr. Judith Evans in the series Awake.
LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Ph.D., lives and writes full time at home on Manhattan. Her short fiction appears in numerous anthologies and literary journals; her books include Callaloo, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft and Off The Record: Conversations with African American and Brazilian Women Musicians (Spring 2014, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers). Visit her online at: lashondabarnett.com and twitter.com/lashondakatrice.