Backstage at Ragtime, every day is Mother's Day for Tony-nominated actors, Marin Mazzie and Audra McDonald. Both play mothers in the Tony-nominated musical. Playbill Backstage visited them at the Ford Theatre and discussed motherhood and the inspiration for their performances.
Mazzie's character is simply called "Mother," an upper middle class New Rochelle wife and mother living at the beginning of the 20th century. This role is quite different from some of femme fatale roles Mazzie previously portrayed, especially in Passion, where she was nude for the first 10 minutes of the show. In Ragtime, she's prim and proper and covered to the neck.
A two-time Tony Award winner for Carousel and Master Class, McDonald plays Sarah, an African-American woman struggling to survive. Sarah, an unwed mother, is tormented by the birth of her child and consequently abandons the baby in a garden.
In Ragtime, the two mothers meet and develop a poignant and powerful relationship.
"To me, it's been a blessing to play this part." Mazzie said, " I feel I've learned a lot from this woman, not only about being a mother, but just about being a strong, compassionate, courageous human being--traits I think mothers embody. "When she finds this baby in her garden, she makes such a motherly decision," Mazzie said, "that she must care for this child and the child's mother. That completely changes her life and moves her in a forward direction, taking her on this journey that changes her life forever. It's quite extraordinary."
"My character, Sarah, is very much a reluctant mother," said McDonald. "In my eyes, she's in complete denial. Motherhood is so very foreign to her, actually forced upon her. In a way, it's backwards when you think of how they become a family. The baby's born first, then Sarah accepts the baby, then Coalhouse, the father, comes to the house, and then the family is formed."
During this process, Mazzie's character Mother enters becomes a surrogate mother both to Sarah and Sarah's baby, while Sarah learns to be a mother by watching Mazzie.
Mazzie takes her lead from the strength in her own mother and grandmother. "I think the great thing I got from my mother is the support and love from her always, even in the little things that we do together. And my grandmother was quite an adventurer. She was born in 1907, a year before Ragtime begins. She had three husbands, panned gold in the American River and loved to travel. She just continually moved forward. She was so positive. That's the thing about both my mother and grandmother -- my father also."
Her grandmother's life inspired the development of McDonald's character in Ragtime. "That she's from Arkansas and had to just leave her home because there was no money or food. So she's gone up to New York to work. My Grandmother was actually abandoned by her own mother, who left her child behind for six years when she went off to work in California.
"Although in this character, my grandmother influences me more my mother does, my mother has certainly influenced every step of my life, " said McDonald, "especially by stressing the importance of independence. She taught me to never ever rely on anyone else. If you want something, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything for it. If you want it that much, you have to be willing to study and work as hard as you possibly can. She stressed education so much. She used to say -- I'll never forget this -- `Because you're a minority, because you are African-American, and because you are a woman, you've got two strikes against you.' I remember hearing this when I was like 10. `Therefore you have to be twice as good as everyone else which means you have to work twice as hard as everyone else.'"
Will McDonald tell her own children this?
"I will. I don't think I'll tell them when they're like 10. But I'll tell them."
"I think this role," Mazzie added, "has made me less afraid of motherhood. I wasn't always sure that I wanted to be a mother. I wasn't one of those women who were desperate to have a child, although I love children. But since I've been in this show, I'm thinking about being a mother myself. I think about having a child, watching that child grow, and having an unconditional love for that human being for their whole life."
Six months ago, Mazzie took the first step. She married actor Jason Danieley. So are they working on having a baby?
Mazzie laughed, "Not quite yet. We're just practicing."