Kerry Butler is officially more than just a Broadway beltress. It turns out that if you strip away her roller skates, hairspray, and eleven o'clock number, you find an honest-to-goodness actress. After appearing in her first Broadway play last year as Mabel Cantwell in Gore Vidal's The Best Man, Butler is now starring in Tanya Barfield's The Call at Playwrights Horizons (a coproduction with Primary Stages), in a role that is near and dear to her heart.
Her character is an artist named Annie who longs to have a child with her husband, Peter (played by Kelly AuCoin). After enduring unsuccessful fertility treatments, in vitro fertilizations, and a number of miscarriages, she and Peter make the decision to adopt a child from Africa before they have a chance to process the challenges that inevitably come along with interracial adoption.
As a mother of two adopted daughters from Ethiopia (the oldest is seven and the youngest is a year and a half), Butler seems to have been karmically destined for this role. She offered TheaterMania unique insight into her own experience with interracial adoption as well as her secret desire to be a starving New York theater actress.
How did this role come to you?
I read it and I thought, obviously, I know this part. And I went into the audition and Tanya (Barfield), who wrote it, just really thought of me as a musical theater actress — I think that there's a stigma against musical theater actors doing dramas — but as soon as I Ieft the room, [Tanya] said, "That's Annie." So that's how I ended up doing it.
So you auditioned for the part? I was sure with such a personal connection to the play it couldn't have been a coincidence.
It really was a coincidence…Kind of crazy. Adoption is something I'm passionate about so I cleared my schedule so I could definitely be a part of the show.
It seems like you've been transitioning into doing more straight plays recently. Is that intentional?
I definitely was trying to do it, but I still love musicals so I don't want to stop doing that. But I want to be a New York working actress. I don't want L.A., so I just want to have more opportunities available to me. The Best Man fell into my lap — they just offered me the part. I wanted to do plays but they didn't know that. It was like I was just putting it out into the universe and it came to me. But with Playwrights Horizons I've had to work harder because I've had to audition a bunch of times and now I've finally got something. But I do feel like I'm more of a legitimate actress now — We're working off-Broadway for no money! [Laughs]
Was your own adoption experience similar to Annie's?
Not exactly. I chose to adopt so I didn't go through the fertility process, but in other ways it was because I knew I wanted to adopt but I wasn't sure where...We didn't have the same issues as Annie but you always have unexpected things and it's always scary so I can relate to the whole process. It was very up and down for us, too, because things would fall through all the time so I could definitely relate to her struggles.
Did you struggle with the cultural obstacles of interracial adoption like Annie does?
I did more research than Annie had done on interracial adoptions so I already knew what to expect, more so — and I was always prepared for the hair thing. But just because I read about [these things] and was prepared doesn't mean they didn't happen. [Laughs] So I just knew they were going to happen, and they did.
Hair seems to come up a lot in the play. Is it true your husband wrote the song "I Love My Hair" for Sesame Street?
Yes, he wrote it for our daughter. He wasn't sure if [hair] was just an interracial adoption issue, but then he found out it was [an issue] with the whole African-American community. When he wrote that song, African-American women would write to him and find him on Facebook, crying, saying that that song would have made such a big difference when they were kids! So it was really popular among adults as well as kids.
Has your older daughter seen the play?
I wouldn't let her see it just because I wouldn't want her to think any of this is her story. We talk openly about her adoption and we just adopted our second daughter so my older daughter knows all the stuff that went into it but I think it would be hard — it would be hard for her to separate me in any play but I think this play would be especially hard for her. But she really wants to [see it].
What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing The Call?
I think adoption is such a great thing. For me, it makes the world a smaller place. I'm now connected to Africa, I'm connected to the African American community — because I have to be for my daughter. I just think it's a great option that people don't think about — even instead of giving birth. There is absolutely no difference in the love you feel for a child you've given birth to or a child you've adopted. I can't even fathom loving my girls more if I'd given birth to them, so I think it's an option that people don't really consider very often. It's usually something people go to as a last resort and I don't think it has to be that. [The play] touches me every night and makes me think "I need to be doing more, I need to help Africa more, I need to help those kids more."
How do you think people who have no experience with adoption will be able relate to the play?
I think it's about so many other things. It's about marriage, it's about how people get stuck in their lives — how fear affects people. It's about being courageous in your life, so even if you're not interested in adoption you can take something from the play.