No wonder they grabbed this lady right out of college for the original cast of Ain't Misbehavin'. She's got heat--that blaze in the gut that lights up everything within a five block radius. And she's not shy about putting it out there and sharing it, which is what she's doing on June 14, 15, 16, and 18 (no performance on the 17th) at the Skirball Cultural Center with her solo show Neat, part of L.A. Theater Works' "The Play's The Thing" live radio theater series.
Neat played the Mark Taper Forum a while back and garnered Woodard more of the rave reviews that have characterized her career. She started out in Albany, NY. After school, she and a group of friends, including actor Robert Townsend, headed to Broadway to turn the theater world on its ear. Within a year, Woodard was filling her nights racing around the stage in Tom O'Horgan's Broadway revival of Hair and her days rehearsing the film version Uptown and in Central Park under the guidance of director Milos Forman, and choreographer Twyla Tharp. Before the film was completed, Hollywood called, so she used her infectious charm and managed to get an early release."Milos was great," Woodard recalls. "He said, go! So I went. As a result, I was only in the "White Boys" number in Hair, but I got to work with him and Twyla. Wow!" Woodard headed west to star in Cindy on television, but she dashed right back to Broadway when she was cast in the original Ain't Misbehavin'. Her performance in that production earned her a Tony nomination.
"I learned a lot from that show," she says, "working with those great people: Nell Carter, Andre De Shields, Armelia McQueen, and Ken Page. They let me, know. 'Honey,' they said, 'when our kind of people do this kind of material, we can't just come out and sing, we gotta come out and SING!' " With that, she gives me eight bars of "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" with the sort of authentic Gospel inflection that lets you know what SINGING really means.
Woodard stayed with the hit Fats Waller revue for over a year on Broadway, in San Francisco, and finally in Los Angeles. Then she rushed back to New York for more hustle, more auditions, and more work: another revue with Maltby (Hang On to The Good Times), singing and acting for George C. Wolfe at Playwrights Horizons (Paradise), doing Twelfth Night and Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Shakespeare Festival for Joe Papp. And on and on. But, she says, "Doing the eight-a-week grind was getting exhausting. It left no time for being creative. And that's what artists have to do. Create!"
So Woodard took stock of her life and her career. She considered her earliest experiences growing up, which she would later dramatize in Pretty Fire (created in Los Angeles in 1992). She relived life as a teen who basked in the warmth of her mama's woman-child sister, Aunt Neat, an experience she would bring to life in Neat (created in Seattle in 1997, and now set to be taped for posterity here in L.A.). Finally, she came to terms with her dreams of making a name for herself in the theater, which will be chronicled in her mono-drama In Real Life at the Mark Taper Forum in 2001. The outcome? Woodard decided it was time to move to Los Angeles "to rest."
Woodard had been handed a real challenge. "Oh, my god!" she wails, "I didn't even have a script. I had nothing on paper. I knew I had the material, but it was all in my head. Stories of things that happened, family and friends." After five weeks of telling and re-telling her stories to anyone who would listen (and some who might not have wanted to), making notes, and typing furiously, she had clipped, snipped, shaped, and honed a raft of vivid tales from her early childhood into five episodes: "Birth," "Nigger," "Pretty Fire," "Bonesy" and "Joy." And she had a play. She called it Pretty Fire.
As fate would have it, there was an L.A. Times critic in the small audience opening night. Woodard remembers saying to herself, "I don't want an opening night! This is a work in progress. All new plays need time to find themselves, but 99-seat theatre in L.A. needs reviews for publicity. It doesn't give a thing time to grow, but it had to be done. I wanted most of my friends to stay away until I had this thing under control, but the one friend I did invite sat behind Mr. Critic and prayed. Right over the critic's head!"
Those prayers must have worked. The Times review was as they say boffo! The challenge had been met, and surpassed. And the ever practical Charlayne Woodard wasted no time faxing the tear sheets to a New York agent. On the cover page she wrote: "Tell Shepard and Fugard to move over. Here I come!" Within two weeks she was booked to do Pretty Time at The Manhattan Theater Club, and then across country.
When Dan Sullivan of Seattle Rep saw it, he booked it for his theater. Watching her work beguiled him, and listening to tell her stories (not the ones in Pretty Fire, the ones about her Aunt Neat) gave Sullivan an idea: He asked her to come back the next year and develop another show, something new, as part of SRT's New Works program.
The endearing tales of Aunt Neat and Charlayne's life as a teenager eventually came together as Neat. The show opened at Seattle Rep in March 1997. Soon thereafter, Woodard and her show dazzled audiences at the Mark Taper Forum. Now, Neat is back in L.A., set to be videotaped and broadcast around the world.