Witt met Butler in the early 1990s when both were working at Chicago's Court Theater. Though he always enjoyed her performances, he says she didn't strike him then as out of the ordinary. That changed in late 1999, after she was cast as jazz chanteuse Dinah Washington in a production of "Dinah Was" directed by David Petrarca.
"It was startling to see the difference," Witt says. "She was performing in this huge, 950-seat theater, and she just held the place. Her performance was riveting. You could see the evolution. In those few weeks, a star had been born."
Butler credits her breakthrough moment to Petrarca, now a producer and director of such TV shows as "Drop Dead Diva", "Big Love" and "True Blood."
"I was in rehearsal ,and I was having a hard day," she says.
"Without knowing it, I was relying on all the techniques I had learned in musical theater. David let me go through the whole first act without stopping. Then he said: ‘That was really, really boring. You need to get in gear and put away your little bag of tricks. Now, go outside, take a break, and do what you need to do. Cry, or have a cigarette. Then come back, and bring a character with you. Leave E. Faye out in the hall.'
"I was angry, I was frustrated, and I was humiliated. I didn't know at first what he was talking about. But that's the moment I started listening on stage."
Something must have clicked; to date, Butler has won six Joseph Jefferson Awards and one Helen Hayes Award, the quivalent of the Tonys in Chicago's and Washington, respectively.
Julianne Franz, who produces the cabaret series for Center Stage, says that Butler knows exactly what she and her voice are capable of.
Butler was scheduled to perform her cabaret act Valentine's Day weekend — or the same three days in which the second of the February snowstorms hit Baltimore.
"These guys in the band trudged in from the county, and we worked them to the bone," Franz says.
"Musicians are taught not to overpower singers, so at first they held back. But E. Faye has tremendous confidence in her own vocal instrument, and she told the saxophonist: ‘Give me everything you've got.' She knew she could handle anything they threw at her."
Butler doesn't merely perform at Center Stage. She helps shape the place.
It was Butler who proposed that Center Stage launch an annual series of the intimate, nightclub-style cabarets that have proved popular and profitable. The current season was planned, in part, to showcase her skills. She is not infrequently asked to vet plays being considered for upcoming seasons.
"I feel like an artist when I'm working at Center Stage," Butler says. "Everyone on the staff has great integrity, and they appreciate you for who you are."
So sturdy is Butler's self-confidence that it's tempting to speculate that she has been magically sheltered from life's trials. But nothing could be further from the truth..
"My father died from an aneurysm when I was 6 years old," she says. "Life changed for us overnight, and in a big way."
The little girl missed her father terribly. But she somehow managed to avoid the deep-rooted insecurities that often afflict young children who have undergone the loss of a parent. She is, she says, as happy as she seems.
"If I have been affected by that experience," she says, "it's that it instilled in me the importance of having a family and a life. What people might not know about me is that I'm a homebody. I love to cook, to garden, to attend family events. It's why I won't live in New York or L.A."
So she didn't hesitate to drop out of Center Stage's 2004 production of "Sweeney Todd" — Butler had been cast in the plum role of Mrs. Lovett — after learning that her mother was dying of breast cancer. Instead, she picked up a less-demanding job with a Chicago troupe that would allow her to continue paying the bills while tending to her mother.
"The day my mother died, she literally sent me back to the theater that night," Butler says.
"She said, ‘You know what will hurt my feelings? If after I close my eyes, you don't go to the theater tonight. It's all right. I'll be there with you.' "
Butler's mother was — and continues to be — as good as her word.
"I feel her all the time," she says.
"The other night, before ‘Ma Rainey' opened, I said, ‘Well, Ma, let's go to the theater. It's another opening night.'
"I could almost hear her say, ‘Have a good show, Baby.' And I knew I was going to be OK."
If you go
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" resumes at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., and runs through May 9. Tickets cost $10-65. For additional showtimes, call 410-332-0033 or go to http://www.centerstage.org.
No Swift Picks
Tim Swift is on assignment. His column returns next week.