Archive for July, 2022

R.I.P.: Mary Alice

July 29, 2022

I always considered Mary Alice, who died on Wednesday July 27 at the age of somewhere in her eighties, to be one of the great American actors of our time. And I already thought that when I interviewed her for the Soho News in 1980, my first year in New York. That was before she appeared on Broadway opposite James Earl Jones in August Wilson’s Fences (for which they both won Tony Awards) and opposite Gloria Foster in Emily Mann’s adaptation of Having Our Say, the best-selling oral history about civil rights pioneers Bessie and Sadie Delany. I will never forget her scorching performance at Shakespeare in the Park as Queen Margaret to Denzel Washington’s Richard III.

I’m reprinting here my entire Soho News column about her because I love the thoughtfulness and confidence with which she talked about her work as an actor.


When the Feminist Press celebrated its 10th birthday last month, it sponsored an evening of readings at Town Hall by such heavyweight actresses as Colleen Dewhurst, Jean Marsh, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Viveca Lindfors. But the highlight of the evening was the section on novelist Zora Neale Hurston performed by Mary Alice, who, though little-known, is one of the greatest actors currently working in New York. She received an Obie Award in 1979 for her performances in Athol Fugard’s Nongogo at Manhattan Theater Club and in the production of Julius Caesar by Joe Papp’s short-lived Black and Hispanic Repertory Company. I first saw her last year in Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7 and then again earlier this year when she gave a staggering performance of Judy Grahn’s long poem A Woman Is Talking To Death in a gay poetry reading at the Public. In both, her work was so intense it was literally frightening; with an apparent abundance of power in reserve, she seemed like a human bomb that could go off any minute.

An extraordinarily mercurial actor, Mary Alice has a lined, weary face that in repose suggests the blank mask of a dullard or stoic but can suddenly, unpredictably soften into reckless ebullience or tighten in profound rage. Her voice can slide from the most elegant of dictions to a streetwise slur, from a high and happy croon to a slow, penetrating snarl, in nothing flat. Even in as crude a play as Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign at the Negro Ensemble Company, in which she currently plays the mother of a 12-year-old girl slain by a stray bullet from a gang fight, she projects astonishing complexity. Seemingly paralyzed with grief, she will instantly snap into practical action, and she vacillates almost terrifyingly between numbness and bitter knowingness. But then at Town Hall, reading from “Notes on Colored Me” and Their Eyes Were Watching God, she created the perfect voice for Zora Hurston, one I’ll hear whenever I read Hurston’s writing: hip, funny, down-to-earth, educated and unapologetically black.

Born in Indianola, Miss., and raised in Chicago, Mary Alice (legal surname: Smith) went to a teachers’ college and taught elementary school for several years before tentatively trying her hand at acting with a community theater troupe. “Then in 1966 Douglas Turner Ward came to Chicago with two of his plays, Day of Absence and Happy Ending,” she recalled when we met recently in her Manhattan Plaza apartment. “Actor’s Equity in Chicago required that they hire at least one local actor. They wanted a woman, because they needed someone to do the laundry. So I was hired to do two or three small roles in both plays and to do the laundry. That’s how I met Doug, and he told me he was forming the Negro Ensemble Company and if I ever came to New York to contact him, which I did the following July. I wasn’t in the original company, but he did put me in Lloyd Richards’ acting class, and that’s where I really learned about acting. Lloyd Richards and Uta Hagen are the two teachers I’ve learned a lot from. Around October of that year, I got my first Off-Broadway play, Cynthia Belgrave’s production of two Wole Soyinka plays, The Trouser Brother Jero and The Strong Breed. I joined Equity in January of ’68, and that’s how I started this career.”

That career has taken her from Broadway (No Place To Be Somebody) to Australia (For Colored Girls), from film to television, from Grape Nuts commercials to teaching drama in Brooklyn’s High School Redirection program. Actually, she’s done only one film (Sparkle), and she would gladly interrupt her busy schedule of stage acting to do more movies; she find film work particularly valuable in improving her acting technique. When did you get good? I asked. “I’ve always been a very good actor. I won’t be modest; I’ve always been very good. I’ve gotten better in the last two years. I’ve done my best work. It’s been…clear.” She pulled her face into a thoughtful moue and adjusted the turban covering her tightly braided hair. “After I got the Obie, I brought it home and looked at it and tried to determine what it meant to me – not their giving it to me, but the work I had done to get it. It was around that time that I realized that I was an actor. This is, mind you, after about 12 years of acting professionally. But until then I don’t think I ever thought about why I was acting. It had something to do with ambition, with career, with being a star, and all that. But I didn’t realize until last year that for the last 13 years acting has been the best way for Mary Alice to express Mary Alice. Before that, it was teaching. When I knew that, I finally was able to appreciate the quality of my work, instead of needing approval from other people. After that, my work took on another meaning for me.”

Quote of the Day: WOMEN’S HEALTH

July 19, 2022


How this country understands birth, personhood and privacy — why its laws even presume to dictate what happens during an individual pregnancy — is deeply rooted in slavery. A couple of hundred years ago, the reproductive health of enslaved Black people literally decided the state of this country’s economy: More Black women able to bear more Black children meant that the plantation economy could prosper. But of course, the system of slavery — and the doctrine of anti-Blackness that sprang up to philosophically justify it — was predicated on inhumane physical, sexual and emotional violence. This entanglement of incentives left a cruel legacy that continues in today’s shocking racial health disparities.
–Kaitlyn Greenidge, reviewing Linda Villarosa’s Under The Skin for the New York Times Book Review

R.I.P. Lenny Von Dohlen

July 8, 2022

You might know Lenny Von Dohlen from Twin Peaks or the movie Electric Dreams. When Susan Shacter and I collaborated on creating the book Caught In The Act: New York Actors Face to Face, Lenny was still very young (26) and I don’t think I had seen him in anything onstage or in film. But Susan was a big fan, and when I met him for the interview he turned out to be a real sweetie pie, smart and funny and thoughtful and soulful. Also from Texas, like me. I was sad to learn that he died at his home in Los Angeles this week after a long illness, at the age of 63. I just posted Susan’s portrait and my interview from the book on my writing archive here.


July 7, 2022

Seeing God’s Fool, Martha Clarke’s exquisite music-theater piece about St. Francis of Assisi, which finished up its three-week run at La Mama ETC on July 2, reminded me of another Martha Clarke piece, Endangered Species, that opened (and quickly closed) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1990, which I wrote about for the Village Voice.

This is how my article began:

“The show opens on Sunday, the reviews appear Tuesday morning – another pan from Frank Rich! – and boom, the producer announces that the show’s closing at the end of the week. An all-too-familiar Broadway scenario, right? Except that this time the location is Brooklyn, the producer is Harvey Lichtenstein, and the show is Martha Clarke’s Endangered Species, which opened BAM’s Next Wave Festival and then closed October 14, two weeks into a scheduled five-week run. With typical journalistic sensitivity, I checked in with Clarke, her longtime producer Lyn Austin (whose Music Theatre Group developed endangered Species for the Next Wave Festival), and Lichtenstein to see how everyone was feeling.”

You can check out the rest of the piece here.

You can see pictures from the production on BAM’s online archive here.

Quote of the day: SOUND EFFECTS

July 1, 2022


Only twenty per cent of sounds onscreen are generated by the actual objects represented. This presents certain challenges: when a sound cannot be described by its referent, language starts to falter. Over time, [Foley artists John Roesch, Shelley Roden, and Scott Curtis] have developed a lexicon to describe what they want. Sounds are poofy, slimy, or naturale; they might need to be slappier, or raspier, or nebby (nebulous). They are hingey, ticky, boxy, zippy, or clacky; they are tonal, tasty, punchy, splattery, smacky, spanky. They might be described phonetically—a “kachunk-kachunk-kachunk,” or a “scritcher”—or straightforwardly (“fake”). Tools, too, have their own names. Shings make shiny metallic sounds—a sword being drawn from its scabbard—and wronkers give the impression of metal sliding across a hard surface. “Like, chhhrtz,” Roesch clarified.

–Anna Wiener, “Noise Makers,” The New Yorker, July 4, 2022

illustration by Yolande Mutale
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