Finding her voice

Arts

December 07, 2008|By Ericka Blount Danois | Ericka Blount Danois,Special to The Baltimore Sun

For E. Faye Butler, it's still a little surprising when she belts out songs onstage and receives the audience's warm response. She's a classically trained actor who built her career on musicals, but singing was never part of the plan.

The Chicago native was more interested in performing Shakespeare classics, but after graduating from theater school, Butler found jobs for black actors were limited. She was often offered parts as maids and washerwomen, roles that she wasn't interested in. So she began singing in musicals, the bread-and-butter of the theater industry, and hasn't looked back since.

Butler is starring in the title role of the Center Stage production of Caroline, or Change, a Tony Award-winning musical that opens Wednesday and continues through Jan. 18. She plays Caroline Thibodeax, an African-American housekeeper for a Jewish family. The musical, written mostly by Tony Kushner, takes place in November of 1963 and mixes blues, gospel and Jewish melodies. Butler says she owns this part, even though it is the role of a housekeeper, something she would have turned down when she started her career. But she says the story is a reflection of the times - the turbulent '60s - when the country was on the precipice of change. It's a theme that Butler says she can relate to the present day.

In a recent phone conversation with Butler, who had just arrived in Baltimore to begin rehearsals for the production, she spoke, among other things, about her career and about how Caroline, or Change reflects current events.

How are you enjoying Baltimore, so far?

I love Baltimore, I love the culture, the architecture. A lot of my in-laws live in the D.C. metro area. It is a very familiar area. [Baltimore] is one of my favorite cities on the East Coast, and it's a hidden gem. I love the homes. I love how warm the people are. There are some things that are just totally Baltimore. There are some things that I don't even eat until I get to Baltimore: crabs, Tastykakes, Utz potato chips, the Berger cookies, crab cakes.

You are a classically trained actress who never had any intentions of singing, but essentially you have built your career on performing musicals.

I went to school and was trained classically, but they weren't hiring. Especially during that time in the '70s, they just weren't hiring black girls to do anything besides be the maid and things of that nature. Someone asked me did I sing, and I didn't sing. I sang in the choir, but never as a lead singer.

I found I could work a lot more and make money if I worked in musicals than I could in straight plays. There weren't as many roles that people were willing to cross over with than there were in musicals. So I began to do musicals, and it has become the thing that has sustained me all these years. I do plays, and I enjoy doing them a great deal, but I don't get to do them as often as I would like.

Were you initially nervous about singing?

Oh yeah, I'm still nervous about singing; it's not anything that I take lightly. It's not something that rolls off of my back. It's different when you train to do something. You know that's the thing you want to do, so ... you do it. And when you go into another realm of it, you can be blessed with a gift but not necessarily have the confidence. I sing and I appreciate the gift, but I know how difficult it is to sing.

What are some of the challenges about this play? What about it appeals to you?

It's a chamber opera, not an opera in the true sense of what most people think it is. A chamber opera is different in that there's very little text to it at all. The text is found within the song, so if you don't listen carefully you won't hear the story, because 99.9 percent of it is sung, and there are one or two spoken words here and there. It has different styles of music in it, from gospel to swing to traditional musical theater to classical music to '60s music. ... It's a very unique piece.

You mentioned before that you didn't want to take roles as a maid, but for this play, you are playing a maid.

I don't think the focus is so much on her being a maid, as it is on her being a woman in 1963. [That year] was a major change for our world, especially our country. [The play] was set in November in 1963. We know what November of 1963 was - President Kennedy being assassinated, pre-civil rights, before the four little girls were killed. A lot of things were happening in our country. Young African-American people were feeling something that older people weren't quite ready for and didn't understand. They didn't understand this new guy Martin Luther King and his preaching in these churches and getting our children excited and telling them they should march.

How is this play different from what you've done?

I think [it's different] because it does speak to things we don't like to think about. I think it makes everybody look at themselves, no matter what your color or status in life is. One of the biggest things in the show, too, is this little Jewish boy who basically becomes [Caroline's] best friend - him losing his mother. The father trying to get over the fact that he's lost his wife is [also] one of the biggest things in the show. It's learning how to lose things or to let go. We all have to learn that. It's a piece where you do not walk out of the theater without having to stop and think and search your soul. That makes it such a poignant piece, especially during these times. One of my favorite lines is, "Change comes fast, change comes slow, but change comes."

IF YOU GO

"Caroline, or Change" opens Wednesday and runs through Jan. 18 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Call 410-332-0033 or go to center stage.org.

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