Lillias White and Chuck Cooper's excitement on seeing posters for The Life boasting of their Tony Awards for Best Featured Performance comes as a surprise. When Cooper bursts into White's dressing room with the news, she exclaims, "Let's take a picture!"
Their roads leading to the Cy Coleman/Ira Gasman/David Newman musical about life in the environs of Times Square back "then" (the seventies) were diverse. "And winding, too," quips Cooper, who adds they have "toured all over kingdom come." They met when Cooper was touring in The Tap Dance Kid and White had settled in San Francisco after starring in the Los Angeles company of Dreamgirls.
"I wanted to be the little wife and mom," she said, "but I kept getting work. It was supposed to be for six weeks in the Dreamgirls bus and truck, which turned into six months, a trip to Paris, living in Boston for a while and the Broadway revival."
Their paths crossed again seven years ago for the first workshop of The Life. "We thought it would go immediately," said White. "The book needed work, but there was enough to work with. Joe Layton [then director/choreographer] had a fabulous vision . . ."
"Radically different than what we have," said Cooper. "He wanted actors in your face, three-card monte as you come in, audiences onstage and cast members in the house." There were starts and stops. "For a minute, we even talked money." But The Life didn't have a life. White, Cooper and Pamela Isaacs, who plays Queen, were faithful to the show, doing, as Cooper puts it, "a gazillion, million backer's auditions."
"We took other jobs to survive," explained White, "but felt, since the roles were tailor-made for us, it was worth sticking with it."
"That rarely happens," said Cooper. Layton's death five years ago nearly took the wind out of The Life's sails. "We were devastated," said White. "It was his baby. Joe was a friend and mentor. He put me in Barnum and in a show which got the attention of Michael Bennett."
For a year, The Life sought backing and a director. "When I heard Michael Blakemore, this Brit [actually an Australian residing in the U.K.], was going to direct, I thought, 'Wait a minute! What does he know about the subject?' But he knocked our socks off. He was so insightful and accessible," said White. "He did his homework and had a fresh point of view and such a sense of humor that he added a new element to this dark piece."
"Michael focused several key plot points that heightened the relationships and honed the piece," observed Cooper.
The actor who plays Memphis got his Equity card his first week in New York after training at Ohio University. He's such an easygoing guy, you wonder how he makes the transformation into a menacing pimp. "It's called acting," laughs White.
"As an actor, I'm in touch with the dark side that's in all of us," explains Cooper. "There are places I try not to go, but I wanted to go there. In order to play him I have to believe his redeeming quality is that he excels at surviving in a screwed-up system. He not only survives, he thrives. He's a powerful, charismatic black man who doesn't care about anybody but himself. That scares white and black folks."
"He has the ability," says White, "to seduce your daughter, confuse her and turn her into a prostitute. I can imagine the smooth talk, him buying her something lovely, and stringing her along until he gets her where he wants. Once she's hooked, baby, it's impossible to break."
Cooper adds, "He smells those who don't have self-esteem. Like a hunter, he picks the weak animal, the one that's limping, and goes after it."
White isn't uncomfortable playing Sonja, the tired prostitute. "My job is to become someone else. I don't have a problem playing any role I can bring dignity to. Sonja's a great source of joy and release. Some actress friends wouldn't be caught presenting themselves as prostitutes. I don't have a problem if I can make you feel something."
How have her kids responded? "They love this show. I'm trying not to let my son (who's 11) see it as often as he'd like. Like violence on TV, you don't want your kids to see that every minute. They're proud of my work, the awards and the rewards. Mommie's working. That's great for them!"
With her inspired vocal talents, one might suspect White comes from a gospel background. "People think that about any black singer who gives you that chill. I got this voice singing on my grandmother's dining room table and in Mama's living room in Brooklyn! I went to Catholic Church, sang Latin, but I was never in the choir. It was all boys. I learned gospel at City College."
Have their Tony Awards advanced their careers? "It's too soon to tell," says White. "Moreover," adds Cooper, "who can tell if it's the Tony or the 20 years we put in?"
"Hello!" responds White. "I know people with Tonys who haven't worked since."
After a win, do producers think they have to pay you more? "Your price does go up!" they say in unison. "There are things you can't do anymore," notes Cooper. "Once you win," states White, "you're out of a certain loop. But a Tony does not a career make. It's an acknowledgement of your work . . ."
"A wonderful honor," adds Cooper, "but it won't pay the kids' tuition."
"I can't sit home and look at the Tony," says White. "My children and I can't eat Tony! In the end it's about the work!"