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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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
was to remove `I’ from your vocabulary," she understands Bearing’s
authoritative position in a traditional old boy’s network. While
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
challenge she has met head on. "Vivian Bearing and I do share
one thing," she says. "We like a challenge."
— Simon Saltzman
New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the New Jersey
with performances through November 12. Many performances include
discussion with representatives from leading cancer organizations.
$24 to $40. Wednesday, October 18, 8 p.m.
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
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
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
by Otis Sallid, "The June Bug Cycle" by John O’Neal, the
"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
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
in part due to non-payment of vendors, including those for costumes
and sets, and the actors. Three performances were later added to the
The Newark Star-Ledger has reported that although the state
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
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
"We are committed to continuing the job that Dale [Caldwell]
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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