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Interview: Liza Colón-Zayas Is Between The Bear and Riverside and Crazy on Broadway

New York theater mainstay Colón-Zayas reprises her role in Stephen Adly Guigis's Pulitzer Prize winner at the Helen Hayes.

For nearly three decades, Liza Colón-Zayas has been one of off-Broadway's most treasured actors, thanks in part to her performances in the works of her friend Stephen Adly Guirgis, including Our Lady of 121st Street, The Little Flower of East Orange, and Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, for which she received an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and an Obie Award in 2020.

For some theatergoers, though, her most memorable role was as the "Church Lady" in Guirgis's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Between Riverside and Crazy which played the Atlantic Theater Company in 2014 and then Second Stage Theater in 2015, and — ais now on Broadway at Second Stage's Hayes Theatre.

TheaterMania recently spoke to Colón-Zayas about her long career, revisiting the play, and what starring on the hit FX TV series The Bear means to her.

Liza Colón-Zayas in Between Riverside and Crazy off-Broadway
(© Carol Rosegg)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You've been acting in New York theater for almost 30 years, yet this play is your Broadway debut. How does that feel?
I gave up getting too excited about this milestone a while ago, but now that it's happening, it feels surreal. I grew up in the South Bronx, and when I was a kid, we would see commercials for a Broadway show and I didn't even know what they were. We went to Times Square sometimes to see a movie, but I didn't get to go Broadway until I went with my high school to see Ain't Misbehavin'. It was so exciting that I immediately knew I wanted to be in this world, but I didn't see a place for me in it. I wasn't a singer or dancer, so I thought I'd always be an outsider. For both me and my husband [actor David Zayas, who just starred in Cost of Living] to be making our Broadway debuts this season is incredible.

You first did this play off-Broadway eight years ago. How does it feel to return to this material?
It's been a combination of feeling familiar with the play and still knowing we have a lot of work to do to get it right. So much has changed in the world, and so much has changed with all of us since 2014 that a lot of the time it was like we were starting from scratch. We're not throwing out baby with the bathwater, but we are finding more subtleties in the play. And because of what's happened in the last eight years, from Ferguson, to the increase in police brutality, to Covid, this play feels timelier than ever. I have to stress there has been no actual rewriting; that's the brilliance of Stephen's writing. The jokes stay relevant, the issues are still relevant, you just have to excavate his words and you find deeper meanings. That's why he's my favorite playwright.

Everyone who did the original production of the play has returned, except the great Ron Cephas Jones, whose role of Junior is now being played by Common. Can you talk about working with him?
No one can really replace Ron, but Common is a bright light from another universe. He walked into rehearsals on day one with his entire scenes memorized, and I have never seen him reach for his script. He is super humble, open, curious, generous, and vulnerable, which are all wonderful qualities in an actor and a person. He has fit into our company like he's always been there. And most importantly, he knows how to best serve the play. Since he reads a little younger than Ron, I also think we're going to see a slightly different Junior than we did before.

While this is not a production of the famed LAByrinth Theater Company, which you've been part of since the mid-1990s, it features many of their other members. How does it feel to be part of this unique artistic family?
It is just beautiful. I am so grateful that we have survived as a company after so many near-fatal situations and that something keeps us together and inspires others to write for us! More importantly, LAByrinth accepted me when I first started out and let me believe in myself. They had an ad in the back of Backstage which said, "seeking excellent Latino actors." I wasn't sure I was good enough, but I went in anyway. They not only gave me a career, but it's how I met my husband. I hope they survive another 30 years.

You need to leave this production in January to film the second season of your TV series The Bear, which has been a big hit and really increased your visibility as an actor. Has it been a great experience?
Yes! The show is so fun, yet it's so dark and truthful that I thought it wouldn't appeal to a lot of people. I can't believe we're now viral memes and the inspiration for Halloween costumes. As for me, it's not to the point that I can't go out and do anything without being bothered, but it's great to feel seen and appreciated, especially when you're a Latina actress. I get such a wonderful response from young women who watch the show. I represent what they can become. They see someone from the 'hood who didn't go to Yale or needed to use a British accent to be successful. I am so proud I didn't have to strip myself to make it. I hope other Black and brown women, especially those who come from the projects, see me on Broadway or on TV and realize they don't have to strip themselves of their identity either.

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