Audiences during a recent performance of A Streetcar Named Desire got a glimpse of what actress Daphne Rubin-Vega calls her "commando Chihuahua" mode, when she walked up to a theatregoer in the first row, reached out her hand and silently demanded the woman give up her phone.
"She was engaging in what I call Blair porn" — trying to photograph the actor playing Stanley, Blair Underwood.
The irony is not lost on Rubin-Vega that she took away the phone while playing Stella — indeed, that the confrontation began during a scene when her sister Blanche all but calls Stella a doormat.
"I don't think of Stella as a doormat, although I understand why people say that," Rubin-Vega says in her dressing room at the Broadhurst, where the Tennessee Williams classic is slated to run through July 22. "She's a fighter, but she's also a forgiver." Stella has her flaws, the actress says, but for her fifth role on Broadway, "it's nice to be a character who doesn't have a drug or alcohol problem." Daphne Rubin-Vega debuted on Broadway at age 26 originating the role of Mimi, the drug-addicted stripper with AIDS, in Jonathan Larson's Rent, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Tony. People still recognize her on the street from that part 16 years ago. "I was very proud that we brought in both the blue hairs and the pink hairs" — a diversity of audiences that Rubin-Vega says is also the hallmark of her current show.
"Those are the jobs I get offered," she says simply.
"She hasn't received the notice she deserves," says Emily Mann, who directed her in both Streetcar and Anna in the Tropics. Rubin-Vega says of her career: "It's been a bumpy ride."
What characters would she want to play?
"I'd love to do The Rose Tattoo. Anna Magnani is one of my favorite actresses." Magnani's only child was named Luca, the same name as Rubin-Vega's seven-year-old son. Tennessee Williams said of Magnani: "I never heard a false word from her mouth." Rubin-Vega says about herself: "I like to tell the truth. I'm a bad liar. That's why I like to act, because it's a way of telling the truth."
There is another character she would like to play, she says: "I am in the process of writing her."
The actress has been putting together a solo show with original songs, Frequently Unanswered Questions, that will be produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company.
"I started writing it after finding a letter that my mother had written when she had been in this country for a year." She keeps several pictures of her mother, Daphne Corina, on her dressing room table — one as a young mother newly divorced, having brought her two-year-old daughter Daphne and her older children to the U.S. from Panama. Daphne Corina died when her daughter was 10. "I'm older now than my mother ever was," says Rubin-Vega, 42, her face a lesson in sorrow.
"How did I get here?" is the central question Rubin-Vega hopes to address in her solo show.
Streetcar, which is having a longer run than originally intended, has pushed aside that solo show for the moment. " Streetcar's my heavy lifting, aside from being a mom," says Rubin-Vega. She lifts both together by running lines with her son — not yet including the most famous and most challenging scene, where Stanley stands at the foot of the stairs and yells "Stellaaaaa!" She laughs in delight as she plays back one such session that she recorded on a cell phone. (Not the phone she confiscated from the stage. That one was eventually returned.)
(This feature appears in the July 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)