Cheryl Freeman is tough -- or at least watching her in the theatre, she seems it. Whether tottering across the St. James stage as a strung out, drug-addled prostitute in The Who's Tommy or taking the lash proudly as a slave woman in The Civil War, she commands attention.
And attention she's getting in the new Frank Wildhorn-Jack Murphy Gregory Boyd musicalization of the war between the states. With the show's opening still in sight, Freeman has already been nominated for both the Outer Critics' Circle and Drama Desk Best Featured Actress Awards.
Just rewards, indeed, for the "tough" woman who rushes to talk about her work companions, the "theatre dogs" Dempsey and Romeo; the woman who has lent her voice to a comic muse of tragedy in Hercules; and the woman who can't think of a single credit on her resume she was ever ashamed of.
What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
CHERYL FREEMAN At the St. James Theatre when I did the Acid Queen, there were some swings on one day [swings usually replace regular ensemble actors who are out]. They would place these tires that I would dance through. I went to walk through the tires and there was this move that I did, sort of a contraction down and my foot got stuck in the tire. So I had to lay on my stomach on the tire -- it's a wild, crazy number -- and my foot is stuck in the tire and I'm lying on my stomach. I'm wiggling my foot to get it out of the tire -- okay, the foot comes out, but the shoe remains. I pull it out, but I have elastic around my ankles, so the shoe is dangling from my foot. And I'm still singing, right? So, I threw off the shoe and then other one and I finished the number like that. It felt like it was about an hour, but it was like five minutes.
Pete Townshend was there that night. He came backstage and said, "You know what was really horrible about it?" And I said "WHAT?" and he said, "That there weren't more people there -- it was hilarious! And you kept on working...You were so good!"
The stage crew guys who are there for Civil War were there for that show and they were just talking about it last week. It was hilarious, but what could I do? That was embarrassing, but you just keep on going. Who would you say is your favorite person working in theatre today?
CF: My current director, Jerry Zaks. He is probably the best director I have had, mainly because he respects you as a person first and, of course, as an actor. He is very flexible with what my ideas are, making sure that I'm comfortable. And not just me, but everybody. And he is so funny! He has turned this whole show around. I feel very fortunate to have him in my life right now.
What is your favorite moment in Civil War?
CF: I think a release point is "Someday" because that's my moment to say, `let's give up the garbage and let's be free.' A happy moment for my character is when I meet with my husband [in "River Jordan"]. If I could just scream in that moment, I would scream, but that would pull attention from Lawrence [Clayton]. (laughs, screams) But that's how happy I am that I am actually back with my husband. That's a big moment.
Did you do any special research for this show?
CF: I didn't need to because I live it every day.
What would be your dream project?
CF: Outside of a strict recording career, [Civil War] is my dream project. This is very special for me. I'm hoping that my participation in it will show how it was during that period of time for my race of people, where it is now and how much we still have to do.
And it's not just my race. It's the entire population. Look at the piece, The Civil War -- it's about loss, about total disregard for other human beings -- look at the brothers who are fighting on opposite ends...
And we fought the Civil War and it's supposed to be the United States now, right? Is it really? Look at all the madness still.
It's still so hard to catch a cab, being black, you know that? A friend of mine, a black male, he goes out to catch a cab, it passes by. He says the way he catches cabs, he buys flowers. He has flowers in his hand, people think he's a good person. Isn't that something? And people don't think about that.
To just open up what it was like then and where we are today is very special to me, to be a part of that kind of project. It will hopefully make an impact on the population -- to stop being mean to each other, to stop all the garbage and just be one.
-- By Christine Ehren