Posts Tagged ‘mary alice’

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.”

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