Volume 79, Number 18 | Oct 7 - 13, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

THE NIGHT WATCHER
Written and performed, solo, by Charlayne Woodard
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
A Primary Stages presentation
Through October 31, at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th Street)
Call 212-279-4200 or visit www.TicketCentral.com

Photo by James Leynse
In-demand Auntie and Godmother Charlayne Woodard

Woodard’s new tale of old stories ‘well worth watching’

Take a kid; you both might learn something!

By Jerry Tallmer

The last time Charlayne Woodard counted, which was a couple of days ago, she was Auntie to a total of 25 nieces or nephews and, beyond that, a godmother 11 times over.

“People started giving me babies” — urging her to either (a) have a baby of her own, or (b) bring up somebody else’s baby — “the day I got married, and that,” she says, “was 18 years ago, though we’ve been together,” she and her guy, “since senior prom.”

People, for instance, like Charlayne’s mother, up there in Albany, New York:

“Charlayne, I am so disappointed in you and Harris…Adopt a child — not another dog. All the other stars are adopting kids — black kids even — while you and Harris are on your second white dog…You need to get a kid — any kid — kids right here in Albany need a home...”

Or people like silver-haired Rosa in the next chair at the West of Heaven beauty salon, Los Angeles:

“Listen here, Charlayne, do you want a baby? ‘Cause I got one for you. Yes I do! I don’t have enough hands to raise a newborn. My grandson, Jabar, he shouldn’t have had that baby in the first place, not with that wild girl. That girl’s not mother material..”

“Charlayne, come on, you and your husband — I saw that big tall white fella [attorney Alan Harris]. Take this baby. You raise her…”

Easier said than done, as hard-working “blue-collar actress” and writer Charlayne Woodard freely admits in “The Night Watcher” — her tough-tender, spare-no-prisoners, exhilaratingly human one-woman Primary Stages performance.

“Rosa,” she tells that grandma in the next chair, “Harris and I are coming and going on the wind…I never know when I’m gonna get work out of town. Harris can hardly take care of the dog…And you have to be a warrior mother to raise our kids. I know because I was raised by one…

“But I’ll tell you what. When the baby gets out of diapers, let me know. Maybe I could pick her up and take her off your hands — from time to time.”

From time to time indeed. Many, many, many. many times, and many children, most of whom are early-on damaged goods, like Indira (Charlayne has “camouflaged” all the real names), who is pregnant at 14 and doesn’t want to tell her parents; or like Nala, who is terrified of his own weird father; or Africa, who listens all day long to anti-female rap-crap but can neither read nor spell; or 11-year-old Benamarie, who on spotting some of Charlayne’s other godchildren — prospective playmates on the lot at Universal Studios, exclaims: “Auntie Charlayne, those are black kids!…Jesus Christ, I can’t hang out with a bunch of black kids!”

Thinks of herself, you see, as “mixed race.” Auntie bluntly enlightens her. “Bena, every black person in America is mixed race…Bena! You are black — colored — Negro — African-American…all of that!…I don’t want to hear this kind of talk from you ever again. Do you hear me? And stop calling on Jesus!”

A reflective Charlayne Woodard, these many years later, says: “We all go through that. I wanted to be a blue-eyed little girl with blonde curls — Shirley Temple tap-dancing down a flight of stairs, singing ‘Dixie.’ ’’

And Benamarie, the 11-year-old snob — who’d also turned up her nose at Charlayne and Harris’s apartment and even their Volvo — she’s okay today at 24.

One name which is not changed in “The Night Watcher” is that of childless Miss Ruby McGraw, Charlayne’s mother’s best friend, who two hours a day, three days a week, from the fourth through sixth grades, provided a quiet corner of her kitchen table, and peanut and jelly survival food, and help on homework, and the long-range advice: “Always ask why, Charlayne.”

Then there was Charlayne’s own Auntie Emma, who, when Chalayne was in junior high, took her upstairs to a walk-in closet from which she, Emma, dug out a huge megaphone and a garnet and grey pom-pom.

“Charlayne,” she said, “way back in nineteen and sixty-three. I was the first black cheerleader in Albany High School history. And that’s a big deal, young lady.”

The young lady forthwith became the second black cheerleader in Albany High School history — “though I never made it to Prom Queen.”

Charlayne Woodard, who seems never to stop working on stage somewhere and whose 47 (to date) movie listings range from “Hair” (1979) to “Medium” (2009), had done three autobiographical one-woman shows before this one.

“The first went from birth to age 12, the second was a coming-of-age piece, age 18, and the third was about coming out of the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, to a career as a professional actress.”

The Ojai Playwriting Conference, in California, where she’d tried out all those pieces in previous years, asked if she had anything new. She didn’t have. Well, they told her, you’ve got a month to work something up.

“Then I realized I have all these amazing relationships with kids. So I wrote it.”

But she didn’t exactly write it; she spoke it.

“My process is in the oral tradition. I’m not Tennessee Williams. I’m a story-teller. I’m an actor. I talk. Then I write it down.”

The story-teller’s new story, the one with all these kids and a few puppy dogs, was developed at Ojai and then at La Jolla Playhouse. “From page to stage,” under Daniel Sullivan’s direction. The official premier was last fall at Seattle Rep.

One odd little aberration. Sometimes, in years past, her name appears as Charlayne Woodard, sometimes as Chairlaine Woodard. What’s that all about?

“According to my mom, I’m Charlaine. But when I was Charlaine, people would call me Char-leen. So when I moved to Los Angeles, to be in movies — and thank God for movies, which enable me to do stage work — I said: ‘Not another ten years of Char-leen,’ and changed the spelling. So nobody calls me that anymore.”

Charlayne, Char-leen…her “Night Watcher” is well worth watching. Take a kid. You both might learn something.

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