NEW YORK, NY.-
On the Max series And Just Like That
, Nicole Ari Parker plays the elegant documentarian Lisa Todd Wexley. New York audiences will soon see her in another guise, as a great-grandmother living off the grid in Southern Illinois. Her go-to accessory? An ax. This is Early, the woman at the center of Nathan Alan Davis The Refuge Plays, directed by Patricia McGregor and produced by Roundabout Theater Company in association with New York Theater Workshop.
What the theater gives me, Parker said, is the feeling that Im using everything.
At a recent rehearsal, she had bounded onto the stage in a pink jumpsuit and makeup that aged her several decades. At the start of the first play, Early is in her 80s. The subsequent plays revert her to her 40s, then her 20s. This is Parkers first stage role since she played Blanche DuBois on Broadway a decade ago, and previews begin Saturday. Asked in a warmup exercise how she felt, Parker had a one-word answer: Ready.
McGregor, artistic director of New York Theater Workshop, had wanted to work with Parker since seeing her turn in Streetcar and marveling at the fragility and ferocity that Parker brought to it. Early, McGregor felt, would be an ideal role for her, allowing her to embody qualities beyond sophistication and glamour. Shes a mother and an intergenerational caretaker, McGregor said of her star in a phone interview. Some of the things that are deeply rooted in what Earlys journey is, she has in her bones.
Will this shift from statement bags to washboard and tub surprise audience members? Maybe, Parker said. Im surprised!
We spoke over breakfast the next morning, at a restaurant near the apartment that Parker, 52, uses while filming And Just Like That
. Because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, Parker declined to chat about that project or any of her previous film and TV work. (She referred, glancingly, to the Showtime series Soul Food as the show where I met my husband, actor Boris Kodjoe, that we cant talk about.) Across the table, she appeared ageless and effortlessly chic. She wore a hat, a scarf, two necklaces, two watches, five rings and a bracelet and yet somehow looked as if shed simply woken up like that.
Over coffee and omelets, she discussed, with passion and precision, her love for the theater and the secrets that age makeup can reveal. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: When did you know that you loved performing?
A: At a very young age. And Im really upset with God that he did not give me a singing voice, because in my head, Ive been a Broadway musical star since I was born. I would watch Shirley MacLaine in Sweet Charity over and over. I would watch Judy Garland in A Star Is Born over and over. I got into NYU as a journalism major. But second semester, I remember calling my dad and telling him that I wanted to transfer to Tisch. NYU is very expensive. My dad paid for my college tuition. And he said, You cant give up. Youre about to enter the business of no. And you have to keep going. And you have to be strong. I always hold that in my heart.
Q: What was your training?
A: It was pretty comprehensive voice, movement, scene study. But while I was studying Shakespeare, I wasnt going to play Juliet. I played the maid in The Little Foxes. I played all these small subservient roles in the classic plays. The sadness around discrimination is that its missing humanity. Its missing that if you and I leave this cafe right now and theres a thunderstorm, were both going to get wet equally in the rain. The sunshine doesnt discriminate, and neither does love, loss, death, pain, joy. We all have those things that are in these beautiful classic plays. So you and I both could be up for a role. Its not about washing clean or ignoring diversity. Its about, what does it add? And what doesnt it add? What just is.
Q: You moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Did you always hope to come back and do theater?
A: I just kept booking jobs. I did let my agents know, but the timing wasnt always right. Then I got a call saying that Emily Mann was doing a production of Streetcar, and she was coming to LA to meet just a few people. On the day I met her, I sat in the parking lot, and I said a prayer: God, if this is the closest I get to Blanche, being on a shortlist, Im grateful. But a 40-minute lunch turned into a three-hour lunch. She asked me if I was more of a Stella or Blanche. I was like, Emily, I can play Stanley. I was bursting at the seams to be maximized.
Q: Are you an avid theatergoer?V
A: I am a passionate theatergoer. Ill go by myself. Ill drag a friend. Ill see two shows in a day. I stay for the talkbacks. I buy the good seats. Last year was on fire, with Between Riverside and Crazy, A Strange Loop, The Piano Lesson, The Lehman Trilogy. Death of a Salesman I saw that three times.
Q: How did The Refuge Plays come to you?
A: I had really wanted to work with Patricia McGregor. When I saw her production of Ugly Lies the Bone, I thought, this is magnificent. I met her after, and we just stayed in touch, looking for a journey that we could take together. She sent me the play. And the breakdown said Early, matriarch of the family, early 80s. I called my agent, and I said, Im a grandma! He said, Read the play. And then I was lost in the magic.
Q: Who is Early?
A: Her given circumstances are pretty loaded. She was violated. She made a bold choice to go on her own with her newborn. She killed a bear. She built a house. She can see ghosts. This is the kind of play where you cant leave any of that out.
Q: How did it feel yesterday to see yourself in the age makeup?
A: So cool. As women, were told to panic about wrinkles. And I just felt so beautiful with that age makeup on. Everything that was drawn on my face, contoured into my face, I felt like I knew a secret in advance. Like, dont waste any time fearing something that could be so glorious.
Q: This is a play about family. Has it made you think about your own experience of family, legacy, inheritance?
A: Both of my parents were born in the 40s. I feel so lucky to have both of them right now while doing this play, to have an immediate family thats chopped wood or used a washboard. A lot of the details of Early are in my family. I feel honored to represent that. I said to my mom, Do you know how to kill and pluck and cook a turkey? She said, Yes, baby. You have to boil it first to get the feathers out. And dont let the gallbladder split because that bile will make the meat bitter.
Q: How does it feel to be experiencing so much success, so much fame, at 52?
A: I just did what my dad asked me to do. I fell down, but I kept getting back up. In order to be resilient in this business, you had to feel like youd made it even when you were just living off of bagels. This moment that Im having in my career is extraordinary because its opening more professional doors. But on the inside, the feeling has always been there. I just have slightly better clothes right now, better face cream.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.