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Ep25 – Charlayne Woodard (Part 1)

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Hi, I'm Tonya Pinkins and you're listening to my podcast. You Can’t Say That.

[Music]

A friend of mine, once bought about 75 acres of land and her sister who worked for an old wealth family, told her boss about her sister's purchase. The patriarch responded, god so little to which the sister replied, well that's all that was for sale and the patriarch whipped, oh darling, everything is always for sale. There are certainly people in showbiz who think artists are and should be for safe. After all, isn't acting just another form of prostitution. I'm happy to say that I'm not for sale. I know my worth and it can't be bought. And when you come in the package of a Brown female body, where people who think everything's always for sale, the only thing they can say about you is that you are very difficult. Difficult, because not being able to have the will by manipulation or money is difficult for them indeed. My next guest and I have shared conversations about our perceptions by others in show business. Please welcome me and speaking with my dear friend and colleague Charlene Woodard, star of pose.

Tonya Pinkins: Hi, my name is Tonya Pinkins and you are listening to You Can’t Say That on the Broadway podcast network. And it is such a thrill for me today to be talking with my old, not old in that way, but that we've known each other a very long time, decades friend Charlene Woodard, who is a Tony nominated star of the original Ain't Misbehavin’ on Broadway. And she is a playwright and a director, and she is currently starring as Helena on the hit series pose.

Charlayne Woodard: That's true. That's true.

Tonya Pinkins: You looked at me like that was...

Charlayne Woodard: Helena Saint Rogers. You know why I looked at you like that? Because I'm also recurring on "Prodigal Son”. And I play Gabrielle Le Deux, a therapist. So that's what I’ve been coming back and forth to.

Tonya Pinkins: So even coming here to do prodigal son, not to do pose?

Charlayne Woodard: Exactly.

Tonya Pinkins: Okay. And so how do you like it being on TV Like this, you're in
series regular on something, and a recur another, how do you like it?

Charlayne Woodard: I'm actually learning how to do it.

Tonya Pinkins: Tell us about.

Charlayne Woodard: You know, I'm a theater person and it takes a different set of muscles to get used to that little audience, which is that camera and the people that you're playing with so close and it's so intimate, TV. And so it's taken me a bit of a, it's taken a while to learn a new thing like that, you know but I am very thankful you know to Ryan Murphy and then who just gave me pose, just sort of gave it to me like a gift.

Tonya Pinkins: Nice. Isn't that wonderful.

Charlayne Woodard: When people just, Oh, okay, let me see what's going to happen here.

Tonya Pinkins: And that is Dori Bernstein who just walked in, in the middle of our interview here and Dori and Charlene have never met each other. So Dori don't whisper. Don't tip toe, just say, hi. Dori is the creator of this podcast along with her partners. And Dori's going to sit in with us one right now. Shall we hold or should we keep going? So how do you remember us meeting?

Charlayne Woodard: I remember you in, I would be in auditions, this was back in the eighties, top of the eighties. And I'd finished ain't misbehaving. And I was just, I was doing all these off-Broadway shows. And I remember seeing you Tonya, come into a few rehearsals. I mean, a few auditions before I even met you. And you had come in with a big blonde wig and you just, like it was nothing. And then just go in the door and do your audition and come back out and, or I'd see you another time, maybe a purple wig, maybe whatever, the clothes that you wore and the way you got ready to go to work. And those auditions, and I always said, that's
a risk taker. She's taking a risk here. It didn't even occur to me to come like that for the audition, but this is a risk taker. And then we were doing George Wolfe had us doing the Bertolt Brecht.

Tonya Pinkins: Yes, that's what I remember. We were doing Caucasian chalk circle at the public in masks. We called it slaving In Gonave.

Charlayne Woodard: And I was playing Grusha and one of the actors left and you replaced her. And on the first day of your rehearsal, you said let's go have lunch. And we did. And we've been friends ever since.

Tonya Pinkins: That is my memory as well. That is my memory as well. One of my sort of fond memories of a conversation we used to have, and I still have it is we used to talk about, is there anyone who has the career that we wanted to have? Do you remember that? We would say, who has the career that we want to have?

Charlayne Woodard: Well, actually, you know it's a funny thing, because back then we had an idea of what that career would be. And what's happened with me is I’ve noticed that, I had been, at that time modeling my career on things that I had seen other people do and not having my career come from my gut. And we were thinking at that time, I know I was that people had to give me the opportunity to create, and I know that's what I felt like I needed to, because you know at the time, I was doing a lot of musicals.

Tonya Pinkins: But at this point you had already created your own place.

Charlayne Woodard: But that's what I'm saying as time went by and I changed my whole thing and realized I can create the career that I want, I can do that. And when I grasp that idea and turned it into a truth, my whole thing changed. Everything changes for the good and the career that I have now. I couldn't even imagine this career back in the day. And, but it's something of my own making. And it's incredibly exciting. I'm very glad to have lasted this long in the business. Because times have changed and anything goes, there's nothing you can't say.

Tonya Pinkins: You Can’t Say That. Right.

Charlayne Woodard: So, yeah. We did talk about this.

Tonya Pinkins: Yeah. So does anybody have the career that you want right now?

Charlayne Woodard: No.

Tonya Pinkins: Okay. So what is there still more that you want?

Charlayne Woodard: Well, I just, I am a playwright and I wrote, I just recently I have a play that's one year old. I'm giving birth to it right now. I've had three workshops. I wrote this play; it's called the garden. And it's a two-character play. And what I see for this play is that I run the regionals, get it in shape because a play is not a play until you put it in front of an audience and this play needs an audience. And I just finished doing a new stages festival at the Goodman. Because I wanted to use a specific actor and that actor said, I'm in Chicago 10 months of the year. And I said, huh, S. Epatha Merkerson is the person I thought when, this is a commission, the garden is a commission from the LA Jolla Playhouse. So I said, Epatha you would be the one I want to work with on this. So if Epatha says I am in Chicago, 10 months of the year, I said, then that means I’ve got to get it to Chicago. She says, yes. So then I asked my literary agent to send it to the Goodman. I know that theater, so I’ve never worked there. I've always wanted to, I said, send it to them, see if they'll give us some kindness, some kind of workshop or something, next thing you know, boom, Robert Falls has said, come on. And so we're in that festival. Then when we get there, then Epatha says, Oh, now I’ve got, I'm working on the TV show. I can only make one day of rehearsal. I'm like, everybody's in a tizzy. And I said, Hmm, let's do it on zoom. Let's rehearse on zoom. And so Epatha says what is zoom. You should see the two of us, I'm a council member of the dramatist Guild. And so all of our meetings are on zoom because people are all over the country. So I said, come on, we going to zoom this.

Tonya Pinkins: Now, are you the other character in the play?

Charlayne Woodard: Yes.

Tonya Pinkins: Okay. So it was, you and Epatha as the actors.

Charlayne Woodard: Yeah. And you know, I'd worked with Epatha years ago in raising in the sun at the Philadelphia drama Guild. She played Ruth and I was Benita and now I needed her to play this mother and me to play this daughter. Now she's an amazing, amazing actor. And I knew she could do it. I just knew it. And I was looking forward to working with her again, because we are kindred spirits. And so then she rehearsed, she and I four hours on zoom for three days. Just like, we would do in the room.

Tonya Pinkins: What would you have had if you'd been in the room?

Charlayne Woodard: it would have been the same thing.

Tonya Pinkins: Oh, you only had the three days, no matter what. So you just decided to do it on Zoom.

Charlayne Woodard: I also said, this character is not a character that you get in, but she's been, she's had the different rewrites and everything for like a year. And when we did the read through, I was just like, she's in the pocket. So then we, the next day I was directing, I decided I'm going to direct this workshop because I had all other times, I had left the directing up to everyone says, Charlene don't be the actor and the playwright, just be the playwright.

Tonya Pinkins: Why not? Why shouldn't you get to be all?

Charlayne Woodard: So I have these two workshops and it's like, I'm sitting there going, my hands are tied when you're in a rehearsal and you're the playwright and you know exactly how things you're supposed to be going. And the actor isn't quite, and then the actors asking question then the director, and you're just like, what is happening? This isn't working. So I said, I'm going to do it.

Tonya Pinkins: Awesome.

Charlayne Woodard: I'm going to be the other character, we're going to be like, bam, bam, bam. We worked like, Epatha came into rehearsal for that one day. And we had set it for an eight-hour day. Also I’ve got Shirley Fishman in the room, my dramaturg. And sure for those days we did do the three days of rehearsal that they give us. But that was so I could rewrite stay up every night and be rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, and surely just asking the good question. To the point where you could just say, shut up, Shirley, please leave me alone. But you know, playwrights probably don't like a dramaturg, but actors really do need that third eye. So I thought, and surely would ask a question that like the big question she asked me, Tonya, that made, I will always ask myself this question when I'm writing anything. When is there blood on the floor? Come on, when is there blood on the floor in your play? I had to get to work. And she asked me that after we did, I did it at Ohio. I gave birth to it really at the Ohio playwrights conference last year when it was me and an actress Michole, Michole White, And I played the mother and she was my daughter and we rocked and rolled. She's fabulous. But she's too
young, God bless her and she's fabulous. And I played the mother and she played. And that's when Shirley asked me after she saw that, first reading, when it was eight weeks old, that's what I love about, Ohio, they’ll call me up and say, what do you got? Robert Egan did that. What do you have? I said, Robert, I’ve been toying with an idea that Harris gave me, he said, why don't you write that story about the garden? Remember you talked to me about your mother's garden, my mother's community garden. And all these people from the community who were in that garden. I thought I'd do something about the four lives or the three lives of those people. But that was, I talked to him about that 10 years ago, 15 years ago. And then he remembered that, and he said the garden now, 15 years later, I'm concerned about other things. So now I started working on it while doing posts this season and decided it's a two-character play and it's about a grown mother and her grown daughter. And that thing that happens between grown mothers and grown daughters and alpha mother who raises an alpha daughter. And they meet in real time in the garden and it's an hour and a half. And I took it to Ohio. It was eight weeks.

Tonya Pinkins: And when was there blood on the floor, tell us about the blood on the floor.

Charlayne Woodard: They got to come.

Tonya Pinkins: You can't tell us about the blood on the floor.

Charlayne Woodard: I found the blood.

Tonya Pinkins: Okay, well, you got to go see the garden, to finally get to see the blood on the floor.

Charlayne Woodard: And I suggest any playwright when you're writing, think about Shirley's question.

Tonya Pinkins: When is there blood on the floor? Everything I write has a lot of blood on the floor cause I'm very fond of horror. So I just write a lot of blood on the floor.

Charlayne Woodard: I hear that you just wrote...

Tonya Pinkins: I just produced, wrote, directed a feature film.

Charlayne Woodard: And it's a horror film.

Tonya Pinkins: Of course.

Charlayne Woodard: Come on now, tell me about that. I don't know anything about that.

Tonya Pinkins: I’ll give you the log line. It's called red pill, red pill movie 2020. And it's the Eve of the 2020 election, a posse of progresses ride into red country, armed with their heart, humor and naivete.
They should have brought heavy artillery.

Charlayne Woodard: Come on.

Tonya Pinkins: So it's my black woman's “GET OUT” And my friend has been doing the press release for me. And he gave me this. He said, you is smart. You is kind, you is important. You is dead.

Charlayne Woodard: Yes. You is.

Tonya Pinkins: So it's really my take on how Progressive's get so full of themselves and all that they know. And yeah, that doesn't stand up to an AR-15.

Charlayne Woodard: No, it does not.

Tonya Pinkins: So I wanted to ask you, well, actually I want it to tell you something that I say about you all the time, but I’ve never gotten to say you. And so this is this glorious opportunity, but I'm going to ask you about it from your point of view. Do you remember some advice you gave me about “Jelly’s Last Jam”? Probably not.

Charlayne Woodard: I remember when you were, you did a production of “JELLY’S”

Tonya Pinkins: In LA.

Charlayne Woodard: Yes. And then they were about to go to Broadway, and you called me, you said, you know what? Do you believe they want me to come in here and audition? I said, what? After seeing your performance at the Mark Taper in LA, I said, they want and you said, forget it. I'm not going to. And I said, Oh no,
that's your show. And go get it, claim it, have it, all these other people are going to come in there, trying to do that thing. And you're going to show, you're going to walk in there. You're going to show them, this is how it's done.

Tonya Pinkins: And that is one of three times in my life that I recall that you gave me some advice. That really was a turning point in my career. I was like, I'm not going in there. I did this part. And you were like, girl, you better go in there and get your part and don't let them say she wouldn't even come in here and audition.

Charlayne Woodard: That's your part, you belong in the Broadway production.

Tonya Pinkins: And after that, I would always think of you, like when I had a difficult decision to make, I would think, well Charlene and I come from very different worlds and she has a very different lens on the world. And if I ask Charlene what to do in this situation, she's going to tell me something to do that my world of experiences would not even be able to think of that possibility. So do you off the top of your head, can you remember another time you did that for me?

Charlayne Woodard: Tonya it's crazy I did it again.

Tonya Pinkins: Yes you did.

Charlayne Woodard: It's funny because in all these years of us being friends, I had no idea that what I say actually means something to you. You always do what I say do, but not always, but you did. So this is flooring me today that you have come to recognize these things.

Tonya Pinkins: I’ve recognized. I've told many people about it, but I’ve never gotten to tell you about it.

Charlayne Woodard: But I remember was it, I was asked to audition for, was it wild party?

Tonya Pinkins: That’s one more time.

Charlayne Woodard: And I said, and Tonya just had a baby. And I was actually rehearsing another play here. And I called her up and I said, girl, there is a part for you in this wild party that they're asking me to audition for. But I told George that you have to call Tonya Pinkins. I'm not coming in for this. I'm not auditioning for this. This is her role. And you need to call her and get her here. And I have this real
memory of the two of us sitting outside of the time restaurant down from the public, right after you had done your audition.

Tonya Pinkins: My baby. And I have dressed.

Charlayne Woodard: And you had, and I am sitting there looking at, going look at her. She's like a big old lush, fertile garden. She is there looking like, where is the baby? Just stick it up there. And you were like, I was like, look at Tonya, just after having a baby. And you are just, you're very calm about it. You had just finished the audition. It was just like, yeah, I did it.

Tonya Pinkins: And there's one more. Do you remember the other one?

Charlayne Woodard: What's the other one?

Tonya Pinkins: I’ll tell you. If I'm not going to make you sit here. So the third one is Carolina change. When they were doing it at the public. And I had two little kids and my youngest son. So the two older ones and I was living in LA and they were going to do it in New York. And I couldn't afford to come. I couldn't afford I wasn't a New York hire and I couldn't afford to come. And you told me, well, you have to beg George. And I was like beg. And you were like, Tonya, you talk too fast. And it makes people nervous. You need to write it all down and you need to read it and you need to talk slowly and you need to beg George and tell him why you have to do this show and what you need to be able to do it. And so really “Jelly’s” last jam on Broadway and wild party and “Caroline or Change”, I have always attributed to taking advice from you. So it's my privilege to get to say, thank you to you for that.

Charlayne Woodard: Yeah. Well, I just believe that we make these careers and I feel like if I want something, I'm not waiting for someone to gift me with it. I go after it. So then I could say, I tried to get, I did everything I could to get that. And it wasn't in the stars. And all those wonderful opportunities kept coming to you. And I could tell that they belonged to you. And that your voice was going to carry that. So, but I knew it and it's kind of great when those things come and you go snatch it, and then it wasn't a mistake. It was not a mistake. I saw you in “Caroline or Change”

Tonya Pinkins: Thank you.

Charlayne Woodard: And it was brilliant. I saw you one day after rehearsal, and you were talking about the writer's brilliance, the brilliance of that writer, the music, and you said so intricate and it's so challenging. And that's what we want. That's what we want is some challenge. And some time to bake that bread.

Tonya Pinkins: Yeah. I know that's my frustration. I don't get to be challenged very often. I want to talk to you about how we came up in the theater and how we had people who we had to me mean, there was standards that were set for us by the other actors in the room that is very different. I think today it would be called harassment. The way we were treated as newbies coming into this theater was very different than people get treated today. I remember once I, when I came in to do, “A My Name is Alice” it was, I think it was Alaina Reed triple Scorpio, God rest her soul. And I forgot who the other one was after, you had left. So it was the woman who replaced you. And they were like, Hmm, we heard you already know the show. And so both of them took off in my first week. And I had to go in having understudied two people in one week. Cause they were like setting the standard of what I was going to have to do. And I did “Ain’t Misbehavin” in Allentown with Linnie Godfrey. And I think it was Jenifer Lewis maybe. And they were just like these divas, the divas were like, they reconfigured all the music and just gave me the songs they didn't want. So I know you have some of that in “Ain’t Misbehavin”

Charlayne Woodard: So you had to earn your position. You had to earn your place in the cast, in the family of actors who work like this. And they didn't give you any Slack at all. I was hosting this York Theater gala last week and we honored Andre De Shields with the Oscar Hammerstein award. And I said when I first met him on the first day of rehearsal, there was Andre walking around in that red jumpsuit, silver studded platforms and eating a peach or an Apple, just eating it. And he let me know by the end of rehearsal that he was perched capriciously on the precipice of the abyss. And I'm thinking, Hey, I’ve got to work with that. And then a couple of like a week later, I said, Andre, do you think we're going to be a hit? He said, darling, we are a hit. Don't fuck it up. Okay. I'm in the second week of rehearsal, I had three weeks of rehearsal to pull that thing together. They had already done it at Manhattan Theater Club They were a hit. Limousines were around the corner waiting for them, waiting to get into “Ain’t Misbehavin’” So now it's moved and I'm replacing the person who did it at MTC. And I came from drama school and I had only done one musical that was, in the summer I went and did, don't bother me I can't cope. Thank God for Vinette Carroll. But I did not know about, and it's all gospel music and I was the ingenue and it was kind of treacherous then. With all those singers and dancers. And I realized there's a whole culture going on there, that it was new to me, not like drama school, not like conservatory and there were
other rules. But when I got into inc, it's like, come on, rise up because we are going for it. We are going to win. And they told me that cast told me, we are going to win every award, a musical could possibly win in a season.

Tonya Pinkins: So you better not fuck it up.

Charlayne Woodard: You better come on. And at one point they took me aside and said, who was it? They said, don't bring any attitude on stage. We now see that you're the energy. And if you don't like being here, then just let that happen after or before the show. Because now we see you're the energy of the show. So don't come, don't be sad one day, don't be, it's like hit it. And I'm a say, they taught me what it is to be excellent. How excellent we have to be. They were not fooling around. We have worked hard. We'd come through the snowstorm, all that stuff for Manhattan Theater Club. Rise up to this. And I had to, I spent nights just trying to learn that. I said, this is not in my key. And they said, darling, we are all singing at the top of our range. Learn it! Rise Up It was that simple, it's like rise up. We're all in the struggle. And we are going to do something. What does Andre say? The audience loves to see you do what they cannot do. And so, and our audience came back over and over and over again. And so every time, you know ,it was about, it got to a point where you're trying to beat the audience, we’re going to stay ahead of them. It was a kind of thing that made you crazy. I became agoraphobic during Ain’t, because of the pressure. Now, I didn't know it was agoraphobia until I saw a Time Magazine article on it. I said, Oh, that's what I’ve got. I've got agoraphobia something, because I didn't want to leave the house and I'd get into a cab and get to the theater. I'd be having sort of an anxiety attack until I crawl up those steps and then sit there and the door man. And he'll give me my letters and have me read my stuff and I'd collect myself. And then I go downstairs and get my little bag in my, how you baby pumps and come back up and work out and get warm up and get ready for the show. And then, Harris would meet, meet my husband after he was my boyfriend then, and then we would all, and I'd come home with him, but I didn't know. Harris actually got me a Russian wolfhound puppy and brought it to the house. And we were living up on 80th, West 80th. And then he went to San Francisco for two weeks and left me with the puppy. And, the Capricorn is not going to let the puppy pee on her wood floors. So I had to go outside like eight times a day to train this.

Tonya Pinkins: So he knew, he knew you well enough to knew what was going to...

Charlayne Woodard: We didn't know the name of it right away, but then, and then I bring the dog to work with me and everything.

Tonya Pinkins: It would be like a comfort animal, what we call it now.

Charlayne Woodard: Exactly. But then I got over it. The dog, Shango, he brought me out of that agoraphobia and what it was also, I was learning how to do a musical, how to give a 110% at eight shows a week, how to go on vocal silence and be quiet and how to get out of a smoke-filled restaurant or loud restaurant and how to save myself after I totally swell your vocal chords by giving everything for two hours, then you get into that little vacuum and stay there. Oh, people in my neighborhood for the longest time thought I just could not speak. And they'd be, I just came into the cleaners with a note that said picking up for Charlene Woodard. And then, he'd write me a note and then I'd have to write, no, you can speak. But for the 15 years that I did musicals, I was on vocal silence because all I knew was one way to work. And I was self-taught as far as singing, I never had a class, a singing class. But so I would do silence. And 15 years of that, just preparing my whole day would be for the show, to prepare to get to the show.

Tonya Pinkins: I think people sort of imagine that you only work three hours a night or something, but it takes all day to prepare to do that three hours a night.

Charlayne Woodard: It's life and death. When you take that job, when I took a job, and I remember being when I first got into like old Broadway show, I'm like telling people, guys, if you just, I actually said to a friend in the cast, if you see how you're singing that in your head, take that out of your head and belt it. Those last three notes belt the daylights out of them. And then she goes, oh no, no, no, no, no, no Charlene, I lost my voice doing “Ain’t Misbehavin”. I'm never going to lose my voice again. If I belt that every night, I said, the audience is going to bring down the house. You've got the 11th hour show, belt that shit out and get us on Broadway. I was like, that I couldn't do it, like I know, and she said, I cannot do that. I said, yes, you can. She goes, well, I don't want to lose my voice. You go vocal silence. But we came up in a time.

Tonya Pinkins: That's what you did.

Charlayne Woodard: That's right.

Tonya Pinkins: That's what you did. They shamed you all day long. They're talking about you,They’d be rolling their eyes you had to step up.

Charlayne Woodard: That's right. That's where we came from. And it was all different. I remember doing, I was doing”A Raisin In The Sun”\ in Philadelphia and...

Tonya Pinkins: With Epatha.

Charlayne Woodard: With Epatha, Rosetta Carter played mama. And for the life of me in all, every day in rehearsal, she could not slap me. Cause I'm beneath it. Her hands start shaking and coming in.

Tonya Pinkins: She wasn't Claudia McNeil, who they says, slap the hell out.

Charlayne Woodard: And I said, Oh my God. And we tried fake slap, nothing, not one slap ever worked. And the director, old school brother. And he said, come on now. And I said, well, I can make it work because I did it in an audition without anybody slapping me for real. So I can just make it work. You're not going to move about and fall off. I'll do it. But we get to Thanksgiving Day, they give us a big dinner. And then it's the preview, it's the invited dress. And we all ate. Anyway, all the producer, the people are there, nice audience of people in the know and we're doing it. And we get to that part where she supposed to slap me. And it was like way far away. The director jumped up and said, ‘No, No, we cannot have this.’ And he came running down the...

Tonya Pinkins: In the preview?

Charlayne Woodard: The day before the previous, the invited dress. And he starts, he says, Rosannna, Rosanna this young lady is defiling your home. She's cursing your God. You've got to look her in the face. You've got to slap the shit out of her. And he slapped me, and I went flying across the stage and I went into the stereo system and I was down there like this and Epatha, and I remember all the cast come running towards me. And I was like, and then, I almost vomited. Cause my grandmother said, if anybody ever slapped, even a man, never put his hand on you KILL HIM you know and that's how I was feeling like all that Thanksgiving dinners coming out at you, I was just wanting to do that projectile vomiting and everything. And then they said, okay, just calm, everybody calm down. And then, if that happened and I remember you said like, let's start from the beginning. I said, no, we will start after the slap.

Tonya Pinkins: This is Tonya Pinkins. Thank you for listening to part one of my interview with Charlene Woodard. Part Two is coming up next.

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A friend of mine once bought about 75 acres of land and her sister, who worked for an old wealth family told her boss about her siter’s purchase. the patriarch responded “Why so little” To which the sister replied “That is all that was for sale” and the patriarch quipped “Oh darling, everything is always for sale”.

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