Taking center stage

Chicago actress E. Faye Butler makes a theatrical home for herself in Baltimore

April 18, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The actress and singer E. Faye Butler blazes away on stage like a human campfire. Audience members want to draw close, sit shoulder to shoulder in a ring around her and warm their hands.

This is true when Butler is playing characters who are likable, such as the legendary blues singer Ella Fitzgerald, or as the African-American actress battling racial stereotypes in Alice Childress' "Trouble in Mind."

But it is equally true when she's playing a role less likely to draw the audience's sympathies, such as the dour maid and title character Butler portrayed in Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," or the at-times ruthless diva at the center of the production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" now running at Center Stage.

"There's an ebullience that E. Faye has and a bursting energy," says Center Stage dramaturge Gavin Witt, trying to put his finger on that elusive quality, star power. "Her spirit is larger than life. She's bountiful. She has more than enough to go around, and the audience can't help wanting to take a sip."

Butler is a bona fide local favorite, performing not just at Center Stage, where she is an associate artist, but also with such prominent Washington-area troupes as Signature Theatre and Arena Stage. It seems that about every second week, her fans can find her standing in the footlights somewhere in the region — if not as part of a play or musical, then performing her floor show.

So it's a surprise to be reminded that Butler is not, in fact, one of Baltimore's own, but a Chicagoan. It was in the Midwest where she and her hairstylist husband raised two children, now grown, and to the Midwest that she will return next month to celebrate the 100th birthday of the woman she lovingly calls "Granny Good Witch."

She's thinking of relocating one day to Baltimore, but it almost doesn't matter, because wherever Butler goes, audiences instantly claim her as their own. Seemingly without effort, she persuades folks from widely divergent backgrounds that she is part of their tribe.

"I've been performing since I was a kid," she says. "I love it so much. That's the gift I was given. I've known how to take people with me on my journey, so they can feel what I feel."

She doesn't need a paying audience to cast her spell, and she doesn't need a large crowd.

"She'll come by the admin. bay at Center Stage, and a crowd will start gathering around her," Witt says.

"I saw her do it just the other day. She told the same joke four times, and it was hysterical. When she told it the first time, the punch line got a chuckle.

"It was like, ‘Oh, look, I have an audience, and they liked that story.' You could see E. Faye get a whiff of something and go after it. It was like a little shot in her veins.

"So she backed up and added a bit of context and told the joke again, and this time it got a bigger laugh. What began as a conversation between equals morphed into a performance.

"I sat there watching it, and it was kind of amazing. I mean, who tells the same joke four times? I finally had to close my door and put my headphones on to get any work done."

Some people simply have more to say than others while standing on a stage, and Butler is one of them. Her brand of charisma has something in common with intelligence, with talent and with her willingness to be emotionally transparent in the footlights. But not even that potent combination of qualities fully explains her Pied Piper appeal.

In a way, Butler comes by her performing skills naturally; her godmother and mother's best friend was the Mahalia Jackson. The famed gospel singer provided a real-life example of success, but the drive was Butler's own. From her earliest days, Butler didn't merely seek the limelight. She wrestled it into submission.

She likes to tell the story of the business venture she embarked upon at age 13. At the time, she was living temporarily with her grandmother while attending school.

"I asked for money, and my grandmother told me I'd have to earn it," Butler says.

"So that summer, I opened a spook house in my grandmother's basement, which I called ‘the dungeon.' I got all the other kids on the block to come over. I could always talk them into anything.

"Granny didn't know about the spook house, so I'd wait to open it each day until she went to work. I charged 50 cents admission, and I took the money from that and bought popcorn, oil and butter, and began selling concessions out of my bedroom window. With my profits from the popcorn sales, I bought candy, then Kool-Aid, and then hot dogs.

"Granny didn't find out until one little boy got nightmares. His mother came over that night and knocked on our door.

As she tells the story, Butler lightly raps the table with her knuckles and laughter bubbles from her like helium.

She studied theater at Illinois State University and the Goodman School of Drama, though she dropped out of graduate school to pursue her performing career.

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