Daphne Rubin-Vega
Daphne Rubin-Vega
This season's "Girl in the Yellow Dress" is Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Canary Mary in the new Suzan-Lori Parks play Fucking A. "A different kind of a girl in a yellow dress," the effervescent actress points out. "I'm a downtown girl in a yellow dress, and very proud to be wearing Canary's outfit. I love the character."

The play opened on March 16 at the Public Theater, and I spoke with Daphne during previews about her attraction to it. "When something rings true, you find there's more to know and explore," she says. "I had that feeling about Fucking A. It's like peeling an onion; there are so many layers." Though the play's setting is designated in the program as "in the middle of nowhere," it seems like a tropical island. "It's very Third World," remarks Daphne.

Canary Mary is a whore, the private property of the Mayor (played by Bobby Cannavale). He often gives Canary gold pieces, which she hands over to her friend Hester Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), an abortionist who's saving up to buy her son's freedom from jail. The women sometimes speak in "talk," a made-up language that's translated on screens above the stage. I ask if the "talk" was written or improvised, and Daphne replies, "We absolutely do not ad-lib. It's part of a language that Suzan-Lori created. 'Talk' is girl-talk taken to an extraordinary level." Well, if any of the actors go up on their "talk" lines, nobody will know. "Except for us," Daphne says. "We'll know!"

Daphne is most famous as the original Mimi Marquez in Jonathan Larson's Rent, and Fucking A happily reunites her with two members of that show's creative team: director Michael Greif and musical director Tim Weil. Parks's play features 10 songs -- some of them very short -- that add a Brechtian flavor to the offering. One of Daphne's numbers is "Gilded Cage." (She sings, "When you find out how much freedom costs, you just may give it up for a gilded cage...") Her fans should know that she will be singing a lot more next door at Joe's Pub on Friday, April 25. "I think it's going to be new material, maybe some old stuff, a lot of exploring music in Spanish," she tells me. "I haven't locked it in yet. Some of the influences are going to be from growing up. My brother recently died, over the holidays. We did a song together in Spanish, and I think that's pushed me to explore that kind of music more freely."

Mos Def and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Fucking A(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Mos Def and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Fucking A
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Daphne Rubin-Vega was born in Panama City, Panama. From ages three to six, she lived in Washington, D.C. with an aunt and uncle. At nine, she moved with her family to Greenwich Village. Growing up, her favorite performer was Julie Andrews: "In The Sound of Music, I saw her twirling on that mountaintop and said, 'That's it!'"

Her experience with Rent began with the musical's 1994 workshop. (She, Anthony Rapp, and ensemble member Gilles Chiasson were the only three who eventually made it from there to the Broadway company.) "It was still a work in progress and I knew that I wanted to do it again," she says -- but when the time came, she had to re-audition, even though "I had conversations with Jonathan [Larson] and he was gunning for me." At the time, Daphne was working with Michael Greif in La Jolla, playing Cinda in Randy Newman's musical Faust, and "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do the audition." But she did make it and sang a ballad. "Jim Nicola [artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, where Rent premiered] ran down the stairs after me. He didn't want to make me suffer any longer. He said, 'I just want to tell you, Welcome.'"

Following the invited dress rehearsal of Rent, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. "It was decided to not have an opening night but to have a sit-down sing-through for family and friends," Daphne relates. "Without makeup or costumes, we sat at tables and sang. Well, you can't perform 'Out Tonight' sitting down! By the end of the first act, we were standing on the tables. At the end of the show, we got a standing ovation. When we came out of the dressing rooms, the people were still there, applauding. They were just staggered."

When I first interviewed Daphne in the spring of 1996, she showed me two mementos of Jonathan Larson: an album of La Bohème that he had given her and a postcard that she received from him after the first workshop. She read: "'You walked into the audition and I was meeting Mimi for the first time. It was a remarkable thing to witness, and you brought an extremely complex person to life before our eyes. I can't thank you enough for all the humor, love, and emotion you brought to the play. Mimi is the heart of the play, and you gave her a big one. Love and kisses, Jonathan.'" Larson's death, Daphne says, "galvanized us. His life's work was to create Rent, and then he died after seeing it once. [The show's success] happened just the way he said, but he wasn't there to see it, so we had to be ambassadors of that experience." She notes that it was "very painful" for her to leave the show and adds that she and the other Rent cast members are "like close relatives."

Daphne Rubin-Vega in Rent
Daphne Rubin-Vega in Rent
Daphne received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her performance as Mimi. She went on to appear Off-Broadway in Gum and, at the Public, in Two Sisters and a Piano. In 2001, she returned to Broadway as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Show and had to deal with audience participation, a tradition established during late-night screenings of the cult movie version of the musical. "The interactivity was fun and it made the show unique," she says. "It was glorified heckling, which is a function of live theater. It seemed almost Elizabethan to me. If I were in one of those shows at the Old Globe, I'll bet you that the audience would be screaming back like that -- if not more."

Last September, Daphne married her longtime fiancé, Tommy Costanzo ("He's in real estate"). She's very enthusiastic about that and about her current theatrical project. "Man!" she exclaims. "It's great to be working again with Michael [Greif] and Tim [Weil], and with Suzan-Lori for the first time. And I love the cast. Everyone in this play raises the bar really high."