"I believe in Konstantine Gavrilovich. He's got something!" says Dr. Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn toward the end of The Seagull. "Irina Nikolayevna," the doctor asks, "are you glad to have a son who's a writer?" To which Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, celebrated actress and mother of the rebellious, tormented Konstantine, replies: "Imagine, I haven't read anything of his yet. There isn't time."
"Josephine," says Dr. Eugene Dawn toward the end of Drowning Crow, "doesn't it make you happy that your son has turned out to be a famous writer?" To which celebrated actress Josephine (named for Josephine Baker) Ark, whose career began as an ingenue with the Negro Ensemble Company, replies: "I have to admit, I've never read his work. Internet plays? I don't have time . . . When I think of Jimmy Baldwin . . . Now his was a voice . . ."
"My God," says Alfre Woodard — over lunch, two weeks into rehearsals of Drowning Crow — "James Baldwin was a voice, and not just compared to hip-hop but to most American literature. A voice for the ages."
Alfre Woodard, a star of screen, stage and televison who is indeed beautiful enough to be glamorous, if she weren't too sensible to be glamorous, and who is the mother of two sub-teenagers in her own right, has come back to New York to play Josephine in the Manhattan Theatre Club production directed by Marion McClinton at the Biltmore. The scene now is not provincial Russia but Sea Island, Georgia, a historic black enclave. Anthony Mackie is the play's Constantine, who shoots down a black crow and lays it at the feet of Hannah (Chekhov's Nina), portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis. Peter Francis James is Trigor (Chekhov's Trigorin, a famous novelist not quite as good as Turgenev, now a TV scriptwriter not as good as Spike Lee). Trigor, who plucks up Hannah, then throws her away like a dead crow.
"I love Chekhov. When I first opened the Drowning Crow script that [MTC's] Lynne Meadow sent me," says Woodard, "I had a good Arkadinian reaction. I thought: What is this? All those spoken words: hip-hoppy things. We in the company respond to it the way the characters do. The younger actors are laughing when they do it; they believe in it. The rest of us are laughing at it.
"But as I read on into the script it became obvious to me at every point just where I was in The Seagull. Regina, who once was my understudy, a baby, in David Hare's A Map of the World at Joe Papp's Public Theater [in 1985], has found Chekhov's truth wherever it was and transformed it into unforced truth of the present. Unforced — I really like that.
"She's given C-Trip all of Konstantine Treplev's nihilism and self-centeredness. Our conceit [the cast and director's] is that C-Trip really does have talent. It's like the uncle says" — Arkadina/Josephine's 80-year-old brother Peter (Paul Butler) — "Even though what C-Trip writes is just noise to Peter, he says: 'The boy still has feelings.'"
Josephine's own manner of speech lapses into out-and-out black slang from time to time. "I'm allowing that to happen a lot more in different places," says Woodard. "Wherever you are from" — she's from Tulsa, Oklahoma — "when you get emotional, your speech will go to that place. Josephine grew up on Sea Island and went to New York, then entered the whole theatrical world, but at any moment she can turn on you and a different language will pop out. Within a single speech she might phonetically visit three different places. I see it a lot in California" — where Woodard has lived ever since graduation from Boston University — "because everybody in California is from somewhere else. The 300 kids in my kids' school are from 114 different countries or cultures."
Woodard has also done something else with Josephine/Arkadina: "It's a treat to play somebody I'm the right age to play, instead of a kid playing a grown-up like, oh, Medea."
Whatever the case, Arkadina/Josephine is a grown woman. "I only go to work [i.e., take a part]," says she who plays her, "if there's maybe something somebody else won't think of, might not do. So after thinking about Arkadina, I'm adding that on top of this celebrated actress of the theatre" — more exactly, underneath — "there's a self-involved, self-centered teenager. Everybody in the play seems to be stuck in a particular time [of their lives], even down to the way they dress. Josephine needs to be noticed at every moment, just as teenagers need to be. They don't mean to be selfish or cruel. It's just that their vision is very different. They don't have peripheral vision." Likewise, Josephine.
Alfre Woodard, who comes back east every three years or so to do a play on or Off-Broadway, has an awful confession to make. "I'd much rather see a good play than be in one. You get to enjoy the feast but don't have to prepare the feast every day."
And that's not called eating crow, either.