Homicide's `Georgia Rae'solo

Hazelle Goodman: Known for portraying powerful women, she had to make her own way in the acting profession.

October 27, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Hazelle Goodman is an actress with a penchant for portraying powerful women.

She's played evil Georgia Rae Mahoney, head of a drug empire, on "Homicide: Life on the Street"; Cookie, the hooker who was the voice of reason in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry"; the vicious Queen in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of "Cymbeline"; and even Miss Millie, a Caribbean immigrant determined to make it "To the Top, Top, Top!" in Goodman's one-woman show of that name.

Fresh from an off-Broadway engagement at Joe's Pub, Goodman's solo show -- originally titled "Ebonics" -- will be presented Saturday and Sunday as part of Center Stage's Off Center Festival.

Goodman plays characters of both sexes and various ages and ethnicities -- from the Caribbean immigrant to a Hispanic homeboy -- in her show, but Baltimoreans will probably always think of her as Georgia Rae on the former NBC television series. The tough-as-nails sister of drug lord Luther Mahoney, vengeful Georgia Rae showed up after the police gunned down her brother in cold blood as part of a plot that producer David Simon says was intended to seem "as much like a Greek tragedy as possible."

"Homicide" casting director Pat Moran admired Goodman's ability to convey Georgia Rae's malevolence. "Believe me, in order to step into the shoes of Luther Mahoney's sister, she had to turn into a dragon lady, which she did. She's a very, very good actress, as we all know. It also happens to be one of those roles any actress would love, and she made the best of it -- the ultimate bad girl in a Chanel suit, as it were."

"She was something, wasn't she?" Goodman says of Georgia Rae. Talking from her home in Queens, Goodman speaks in a voice both lighter and higher than you'd expect after hearing her taunt the Baltimore police in "Homicide."

Describing Georgia Rae as "a tyrant and diva," she says, "Yeah, she was evil, but as an actress, obviously I have to find what was good about her and to love her and justify her wrongs. For me what was special about her is she was a woman with power, who controlled her world."

If Goodman knows something about power, it's not because she was born into it, or even had it thrust upon her. Goodman is a woman who has made her own breaks, created her own power. Born in Trinidad, she moved to Brooklyn at age 8 to be with her mother, a Moravian minister.

In junior high, before her mother sent her to a different school, she was beaten up daily "because I was dark and had an accent." She faced further rejection when she failed the audition for New York's High School of Performing Arts.

But Goodman is a woman who believes, "Every adversity is a blessing if you look at it that way." In retrospect, she's glad she didn't get into Performing Arts. "I mean, I was devastated at the time. I just remember being so shattered by that.

"But I look back now and I think, oh, my God, I know having to go to an academic high school and having to find other parts of myself, forced me to look around and explore other parts of my talent and my being and then come back to my acting," says the actress, who changed her first name from "Hazel" to "Hazelle" when she was studying French in high school. " `Hazel' didn't go with my French homework," she explains.

Before coming back to acting, she made a detour into the world of fashion, studying at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and working in retail. But her desire to be a performer resurfaced, and she returned to college -- this time the City College of New York -- and graduated cum laude with a major in drama.

Even then, the voice of rejection spurred her on. Goodman will never forget the comment of a white manager she met early in her career. "She said, `Oh, you're very talented, but I'm sorry, you're not going to work in this business. You're too dark. They're not going to be able to light you.' That was a real blow. Thank God, I kept going on.

"The same day I left her office, I was walking, and there was this homeless shelter and these little black kids playing outside. I remember thinking, `If I give up, who's going to tell those black kids they can make it? How am I going to tell my son when he comes to me?' I remember making up my mind when I walked past that shelter, I was going to keep on."

"Keeping on" turned out to mean producing her own work. She rented a small theater near Carnegie Hall and sent out promotional packages. One of these attracted an HBO executive who gave her a contract for a one-woman special, which aired in 1995.

Goodman gained the most widespread attention, however, in 1997 when she became the first African-American to play a major role in a Woody Allen film -- "Deconstructing Harry." Though she was playing a hooker, Goodman points out that her character, Cookie, was not only a secure, confident woman, she was also the character who kept Allen's neurotic Harry grounded in reality.

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