For Now, Crossroads Goes Dark

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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 11, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Challenge of `Wit’

It isn’t every day that an actor prepares for a stage

role by training for the triathlon. And it’s hardly a prerequisite

for a woman preparing to play the role of a 50-year-old professor

of 17th-century poetry who has just learned she has fourth stage

metatastic

ovarian cancer. But Suzzanne Douglas, who plays Vivian Bearing Ph.D.

in the New Jersey premiere of Margaret Edson’s play, "Wit,"

met the challenge, as she says, "head on."

"Wit" opens Wednesday, October 18, at George Street Playhouse,

with performances continuing through November 12. Douglas is known

for her stage work as well as some 14 movie credits, including her

role as Angela in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." She is

also part of the WB Network TV series "The Parent ‘Hood."

Also featured in "Wit" are Helen Gallagher, who appeared in

George Street’s premiere of Anne Meara’s "After-Play," David

Wolos Fonteno, Scott Andrew Harrison, and Jodi Somers.

In our phone conversation during a rehearsal break at George Street

Playhouse, Douglas tells me that she got the role without a formal

audition, but rather after an informal meeting with Ted Sod, the

play’s

director. She says Sod, who is also George Street Playhouse’s artistic

associate and director of education and outreach, made the decision

to cast Douglas because of her depth of understanding of the

character.

"Wit" is Margaret Edson’s first play. It opened Off-Broadway

in 1998, where I reviewed it as "a stunner." It went on to

win the Pulitzer Prize and enjoy a run of close to two years. Whether

or not you followed it then, it’s important to know that "Wit"

is far from a morbid reflection of a single, middle-aged woman who

has been given a negative prognosis. Nor is it out to exploit the

pain, regrets, and sorrows that may be perceived as inevitable

reactions

to illness. There is at the core of "Wit" the indomitable

force of a willful individualist determined, at all costs, not to

become a victim. It shows Bearing preparing herself for what she knows

will be a torturous ordeal, and addressing the inevitable pain with

both wit and hubris.

An established African-American actor with a career that spans 25

years, Douglas’s Broadway credits include "Into the Woods,"

"The Wiz," and "Threepenny Opera" (in the Lotte Lenya

role opposite Sting). Her movie credits include "The Inkwell"

and "I’ll Do Anything," and she earned an NAACP image award

for her performance opposite Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines in

the movie, "Tap."

She trained as a classical actor at Illinois State University, along

with fellow students, and now professionals, that include John

Malkovitch,

Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, and Gary Sinise. Her decision to leave

the university just 30 hours short of a degree also distinguishes

Douglas as a unique individual, and — although there are marked

differences — as uniquely individualistic and purposeful as the

academic character she portrays in "Wit."

While Douglas agrees that the role is markedly different

from anything she has played before, she says that she sees Edson’s

play as "a very smart text, and written by a very bright

woman."

Notwithstanding Edson’s own college degrees in history and literature,

it was Edson’s experience working in the cancer unit of a research

hospital that inspired her to write what most critics agree is an

incredibly moving and perceptive play.

Responding to my question whether she found it necessary to draw on

any personal experiences to help her understand what Bearing is going

through, Douglas answers "Yes, it’s what all actors do. I’ve known

people with metatastic cancer, and my husband is a physician. But

mostly I have to draw on that wonderful tool that actor’s draw upon

— the imagination."

Beyond the use of personal imagination, Douglas refers to the scholar

who is working with the cast to get inside the John Donne poems that

resonate so strongly throughout the play. As an impassioned devotee

of the poet, and in particular his Holy Sonnets ("Death be not

proud"), Bearing is perceived as a stiff-necked, self-sufficient

and word-intoxicated teacher. That she is also a priceless wit and

a qualified spokesperson for Donne’s metaphysical exploration of the

eternal interplay of life and death makes her, certainly in this

author’s

care, a woman of unusual resources.

In contrast to the character she plays, Douglas says she personally

finds Donne and his tortured existence "tedious," and the

reading she has done of his works has not, like Bearing, led her to

become a devotee. "I find it interesting that Edson uses Donne.

However, he’s so right on target for this character," says

Douglas,

as she emphasizes a very different frame of reference for her life.

She sees Bearing as a woman who has been "completely myopic in

her thinking, living her life through Donne, and literally tortured

as much by his words as by her ordeal."

Although Douglas says "I grew up a Christian home where the

thinking

was to remove `I’ from your vocabulary," she understands Bearing’s

authoritative position in a traditional old boy’s network. While

Douglas

says that the insights provided by an oncology expert are an aid to

her understanding of Bearing’s illness and treatment, it was looking

in the mirror after she shaved her head that made things clearer.

"It’s funny that when I’m on the street, people who don’t know

me must think I am recovering from something.

"Although at first it was foreign, alien-like, I realized looking

in the mirror it was me, and my hair or lack of it is not me,"

says Douglas. She makes a point of emphasizing one of the play’s more

pervasive issues: "Living a life and having a complete life."

"Vivian Bearing becomes so obsessed with Donne and becoming a

scholar, that she forgets to get out and live her life," says

Douglas.

"When you die, Simon," Douglas tells me in a philosophical

aside, "no one cares who you wrote for, but who did you touch,

who did you love, in whose life did you make a difference?"

Throughout the play, Douglas, as Bearing, will be seen wearing a

hospital

gown and a baseball cap over her hairless head, and, as often as not,

pulling an IV unit around the stage as she shares with us the last

excruciating eight months of her life. This, as flashbacks reflect

on this unusual and valiant woman who fell in love with words, but

whose salvation is ultimately filtered with a memory of a former

student’s

unwittingly dispensed wisdom, and the transporting affection she earns

from an equally stern teacher, played by Helen Gallagher.

Throughout the drama, which follows Bearing through weeks of radical

experimental treatments, radium, and traditional chemotherapy, Bearing

gives us a running commentary on the callous yet conscientious

hospital

staff and the discouraging on-going procedures.

Douglas reflects for just an instant before establishing the fact

that the role "is the biggest challenge of my career, but not

of my life." She says the everyday challenges that arise for her

as the wife of a neurological radiologist at Morristown Memorial,

as the mother of five-year-old daughter, Jordan, and as a participant

in the triathlon, "enable me to do a role such as this." A

Maplewood resident for the past 11 years, Douglas took part in a

triathlon

last July to raise funds for breast cancer research.

The fact that Douglas didn’t know how to swim a single stroke before

training for the triathlon, gives us a clue to the kind of human being

that she is. It may also be a clue to the kind of actor that she is.

"I never learned to swim growing up in the projects in

Chicago,"

she says. "There was no pool in the back yard." Douglas then

quotes Louise Hayes, a metaphysical cancer guru, "Feel the fear

and do it anyway." "It’s hard," she says, remembering

her goal in the swimming part of the triathlon was not to reach out

for help. "It’s too easy to ask for help. The hard thing is to

look within and know you are capable of getting to the other side,

alive. I did it, and now I can say it was one of the most monumental

things I ever did in my life."

Douglas may want to add her role in "Wit" as the next

monumental

challenge she has met head on. "Vivian Bearing and I do share

one thing," she says. "We like a challenge."

— Simon Saltzman

Wit, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the New Jersey

premiere,

with performances through November 12. Many performances include

post-play

discussion with representatives from leading cancer organizations.

$24 to $40. Wednesday, October 18, 8 p.m.

Top Of Page
For Now, Crossroads Goes Dark

One week before the projected opening of the 2000-2001

season, Crossroads Theater Company, winner of the 1999 Tony Award

for Outstanding Regional Theater, has canceled its season, closed

its doors, and changed the locks. The goal, say the theater’s

administrators,

reportedly burdened with $1.7 million debt, is a complete financial

and operational reorganization and to reopen in fall 2001.

Citing the increased demands of his job as executive director of the

Newark Alliance, member of the New Brunswick School board, and the

health of his father, board president Dale Caldwell announced his

resignation on Saturday, September 30.

Caldwell has handed the reins to a newly-elected board of trustees

that includes attorney Rhinold Lamar Ponder of Princeton, who is

serving

as interim board president. Ponder, who specializes in debtor/creditor

relations and civil litigation, served as board attorney beginning

this summer. Other board officers include vice president Vaughn McKoy,

secretary Elnardo Webster III, and treasurer Steve Richard, a CPA.

The 2000 season, marketed only to "Early Bird Subscribers,"

was to have opened with Samm-Art Williams’ "Conversations on a

Dirt Road," on Thursday, October 5. It also included

"Spiritual"

by Otis Sallid, "The June Bug Cycle" by John O’Neal, the

musical

"Ain’t Misbehavin’," and the 12th Annual Genesis Festival

of New Plays.

This month Crossroads won one of only seven grants awarded nationally

by AT&T, for $80,000, to produce "Las Meninas," a Lynn Nottage

drama that had a staged reading at this year’s Crossroads’ Genesis

Festival of new plays. The full production was scheduled for March,

2001. The Star-Ledger reports that grant will be forfeited.

Co-founder and artistic director Ricardo Khan, who took a sabbatical

leave to work in Trinidad beginning in January, 2000, announced in

July that he would not return to his former role, but rather that

his immediate goal was to return to support Crossroads in its need

for a major fundraising effort.

"It’s about doing what it takes to help get Crossroads financially

health again," he said in July. "That’s the impact I would

like to make on the current situation, knowing that artists and

theater

practitioners who choose Crossroads as a place to work and dream will

one day not have to deal with the insurmountable financial challenges

that have barraged us daily for most of our 20-some years, and nearly

burnt me out."

Last December, immediately prior to Khan’s departure, five preview

performances of "Play On!" starring Leslie Uggams were

canceled

in part due to non-payment of vendors, including those for costumes

and sets, and the actors. Three performances were later added to the

run.

The Newark Star-Ledger has reported that although the state

Legislature

passed an emergency funding bill worth $500,000 this summer, and the

New Jersey State Council on the Arts has reserved $350,000 for the

theater’s fiscal year 2001 operations, both grants require an

acceptable

debt-reduction plan and as yet no money has been paid.

The new board leadership announced that its priorities would include

drafting Crossroads season subscribers to assist in the financial

revitalization of the theater through participation in special events;

meeting requirements for funding set forth by the New Jersey State

Council of the Arts; and the reduction of debt and reorganization

of the theater’s business structure to ensure that it opens with

renewed

strength.

"We are committed to continuing the job that Dale [Caldwell]

started,"

says Ponder. "There are a lot of tough decisions to be made, and

the first was temporarily darkening the theater, which will allow

us to focus on getting Crossroads back on its feet. I’m confident

that if we take this time to restructure theater operations, get our

financial house in order to created an environment that will encourage

and allow our supporters to help us, Crossroads Theater can resume

its role as one of the nation’s pre-eminent regional theaters."

— Nicole Plett


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