C harlayne Woodard periodically breaks into peals of rat-a-tat laughter during a recent discussion of her latest autobiographical solo play, "In Real Life," which opens Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum. She laughs easily at herself, as well as the other characters in her life.
This will be the second of Woodard's solo shows to play the Taper. In 1998, "Neat" focused on Woodard's teen years in Albany, N.Y., and her brain-damaged aunt, who was nicknamed Neat.
The subject of the new show is Woodard's life as a fledgling actress in New York, where she was nominated for a 1978 Tony Award for the revue "Ain't Misbehavin'." The Taper and Seattle Repertory Theatre jointly commissioned "In Real Life," which opened in Seattle last winter.
Woodard's first solo, "Pretty Fire," covered her earliest years and premiered in Hollywood in 1992.
Question: How did "In Real Life" get started?
Answer: I wanted to write about New York City as it was when I first got there, my friends, and how we were all chasing a dream. But we bumped up against real life.
Q: Some actors might say that your experience was not "real life," because you were hired in a Broadway show fairly quickly.
A: It's all relative. The show was a musical. I had seen "For Colored Girls"; I had seen Cicely Tyson in "Sounder." I wanted those kinds of roles. Fame was never part of it.
Q: So at first you weren't interested in black musicals like "Ain't Misbehavin"'?
A: I didn't take them seriously. They looked like easy fun. I had no idea that those people had mastered it so they could make it look easy, in the same way that [dancer Mikhail] Baryshnikov leaps 10 feet in the air and comes down and makes it look so simple. Musicals seemed so simple and effortless, and I was consumed with events in the world, the state of African Americans, apartheid. I was very idealistic and involved in all that serious stuff. I didn't think our serious voice was being heard enough. I thought there was an imbalance.
Q: And now?
A: I've been blessed with some good roles lately. There's still an imbalance, but I've decided to be proactive. The complaining just gives you a bad stomach. I can't expect people who don't know me to tell my story. It's my turn. It's our turn, our generation. [The late actress] Beah Richards told me that. There are new classics to be made. There was a time when all I wanted to do was Chekhov or Shakespeare--for training, it doesn't get any better than that. But is that it? Is it over? No.
Q: There is a gap in your chronology between your graduation from high school at the end of "Neat" and your arrival in New York at the beginning of this play.
A: I didn't do the college years. There were no conflicts. I was in heaven at the Goodman School of Drama [in Chicago]. I had great, challenging teachers. I was totally immersed. A play about that time would be a love fest. I sucked the juice out of that school. I had a boyfriend, Harris.
Q: We learn that he moved to New York before you did and that once you arrived, you moved in with him. So he's a character in this play. You also mention that you knew him earlier.
A: Yes, I asked him to my high school prom. At one point I told the story of the prom as the opening of this show. But I start these rehearsals with three-hour plays, and then I have to fit them to what I can handle. I told [director Daniel Sullivan] "I'm going to have to cut the prom." He said, "I know." He was just waiting for me to figure that one out. "Let's just get to New York City."
Q: And today Harris is ... ?
A: We got married 10 years ago. We always said we'd be like Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett and never get married--who needs it? But then we grew up. I moved to L.A., I looked around and said, "Man, I've got a prize. He's wonderful!"
Q: What else got left out of the play?
A: Before I did "Ain't Misbehavin'," I did the revival of "Hair."
Q: That must have been interesting.
A. That was fun, because there was no pressure. I was in the tribe. There was a bunch of kids just like me who had just come to town, and we were all scooped up by [directors] Tom O'Horgan and Milos Forman. I did the "Hair" movie too. I was rehearsing the movie and the play at the same time. It was a glorious summer. Of course, I couldn't bring my family to see it. They wouldn't have approved.
Q: The prom, "Hair," what else?
A: One day I will take my outtakes and create another kind of evening. From "Neat," I took a wonderful voodoo scene out.
Q: Does it hurt to cut the good stuff?
A: My idea of theater is two hours with an intermission. I can't really tell these phases of my life in less time. You don't get the juice. You don't get to travel with it. And that's what I want the audience to do--take the journey with me. It's hard to cut that good stuff. But what they don't know doesn't hurt 'em.
Q: And if you trim, it leaves material for later shows.
A: Or movies. I've written a screenplay for "Neat." I'm just waiting for the right team. I don't want it to be a movie of the week.
Q: And you would be in it?
A: I'd play Neat. I'm also going to attempt to write a play with other actors.
Q: But producers like solo shows because they don't cost much.
A: What I'm working on has only four characters.
Q: Is it autobiographical?
A: I'm going to tell everyone it's not. I want to do what other writers are doing, pretending they're making it all up, that it's all coming to them out of the blue, when you know they're sucking in life and spitting it out and changing the names. I mean, why make anything up when life is so rich?
"In Real Life," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Opens Sunday, 8 p.m.; plays in repertory. Aug. 2. 4, 8, 16-17, 19, 21-22, 25, 29-30, 8 p.m.; Aug. 4, 12, 18, 26, 2:30 p.m.; Sept. 1, 4, 7, 9, 11, 15, 8 p.m.; Sept. 2, 5, 8, 12, 16, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 16. $30-$44. (213) 683-5700.