She is burning up the Kreeger at Arena Stage as Wiletta Mayer, a feisty and assertive and frustrated actress who, like Peter Finch did in the movie Network, gets to finally let it out “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”
E. Faye Butler is a force of nature, always giving 200% when she is performing. If you watched her as the spunky Aunt Eller up the hallway from The Fichandler, and now in Trouble in Mind, you can’t help but wonder where she gets her boundless energy. She’s a passionate actress, a singer with gorgeous voice, and one of the nicest people I know in the theatre. When she is on the stage you can alway see that she loves what she does. I’m a big fan of E. Faye Butler and I am so glad she agreed once more to interview with me. Local theatregoers will be talking about her blazing performance as Wiletta for years to come.
Joel: What does the title “Trouble in Mind” mean?
E. Faye: Alice Childress probably called it that because of the name of the blues song “Trouble in Mind.” It was a very popular song in the 50s and many women recorded it, from Ma Rainey to Dinah Washington to Ella Fitzgerald.
What troubles you? What troubles your mind?
What is Trouble in Mind about from Wiletta’s point of view?
It’s a chance for her to become a big Broadway Star. She’s always been the one who did the specialty number. This is her first chance to be a star. She wants to do it right, the best that she can. She initially came into the job and she didn’t want to think. And then he [the director] started making her think – that she must justify everything she does. he tells her that she must understand why she does it. And then she explored and tried to justify what she was doing. “‘Wait a minute. There’s a lot of things here that don’t ring of the truth – they’re not true!” And that’s where her dilemma comes in.
She just wanted to have a big hit on Broadway – that’s all she wanted.
It’s everybody’s dream regardless of what color you are.
You’re right. It doesn’t matter. Initially, all she wanted was to be in a hit on Broadway. If he would have just let her do what she knows, cause every time she did something, he’d say, that she needed to know why she was doing it.
He just wouldn’t leave her alone. A total control freak.
Exactly! What happened was that his control made her think and normally – he didn’t want her to think. So when she was starting to think he said, “Stop that thinking!” So she said, “I can’t stop now!”
This is the 3rd time you have played Wiletta? Why do you keep coming back to this play and this role?
Because it’s a story that very few people have ever heard. The show was written in the 50s, and most people thing it was written now. It’s about society and how far we haven’t come. So this story needs to be told. I live with this and with what I do – and in this business – it’s still happening in 2011.
Alice Childress tells so many different stories in this piece. She speaks so well for so many different people. She speaks well for whites as well as blacks, for women as well as men, for all those people who are disabled and for people who are sick. She speaks for cross-cultural America. And that’s why when you see this piece – everyone walks away with something that speaks to them. It allows you to have a dialogue and a conversation that we as a country need to be having- about how we are as people – more than anything. That’s why I keep going back to it because we still need to have this conversation.
It doesn’t matter what color you are.
It doesn’t have anything to do with it. They always want to make this play about race. Yes, there is race involved, but that is not what the underlying theme is: “What troubles your mind? How do you live and how do you allow other people to live? How do we treat one another? How do we move through this life? Will you sell your soul for anything and by any means necessary?”
These are all questions we need to continue to discuss. And that’s the brilliance of Alice Childress. And that’s why I continue to go back.
And unfortunately, we will always have this conversation.
Exactly. That’s why people are surprised that this play was written in the 50s. People ask, “Who was thinking like this back then?” Alice Childress was.
She was way ahead of her time.
She was extremely way ahead of her time. People who see it are shocked. That’s why I will go back to it as long as I can. I think it has a lot to say. It shocks the person who has never read it or seen it, and when they see it they say, “Wow!”
After about five minutes I turned to my friend who was with me and said, “Wow! This lady has balls!”
You’re right! You cry and you laugh within the same minute. You’ll be laughing at a humorous situation and then be quiet and moved at the same time. And to think that it was supposed to be the first show written by an African American that was going to be produced on Broadway – and it didn’t make it –for the simple fact that she wouldn’t change it.
How sad is that?
They wanted her to change the ending and have Wiletta and the director get along, and say, “I apologize. I’m sorry.” She wouldn’t do it. And that’s why this show never made it to Broadway.
This piece deserves a Broadway run. It’s such an honor to be in this piece.
It’s always an honor watching you perform on the stage,
That’s so nice of you. You are always so supportive of my work.
I just really really like you!
I don’t know how you have all the energy to do this role.
Well, I just keep going. I keep moving!
You have appeared in two other productions of Trouble in Mind. Where were these other productions?
CenterStage was the very first time I did it in Baltimore, and the second time I performed it, it was at Yale Repertory Theatre, in New Haven.
You have worked with Irene Lewis before at CenterStage in Baltimore.
Yes. She directed me there and at Yale Rep.
How would you describe her style of directing?
She is extremely, extremely smart. She knows she can’t tell your story for you, but she can help you tell your story the best way she knows how. She makes sure you look good. She’s an artist at framing things. She makes great pictures. She allows you to be the artist you are – she never impedes on you. She never tries to force what she wants on you. She allows you to be who you are.
Her brilliance to me is in her casting. Once she casts something she allows you to explore and do what you need to do. She keeps you on track. She is a very, very giving director. She makes you feel like an artist. You have a say in it, we have discussions about it, and we collaborate and for that reason – she’s a great director for me. That’s why actors love working with her, because she makes you feel OK with what you are doing.
People who know you have told me that Wiletta is E. Faye and E. Faye is Wiletta. Are they right? And How do you relate to Wiletta?
You know Joel, sometimes I’ll go on an audition or be in a show – and I hate to say this and I must say this – and it happens more with male directors than women directors – and they will try to tell me how to be black.
No! You have got to be kidding!
Or how to be a woman! And I’m like, “Oh, God!” it’s a very slippery slope and a very fine line, and I try to politically correctly tell them, “You can’t tell me who I am. I am a woman. I am black. So you are going to have to step back with the way you are talking to me right now.”
“If you would just listen to me – you might learn something.” You know what I’m saying, Joel?
You are absolutely right.
A lot of them think they have the right because they are a director. You go into an audition and a director says to me, “Oh, that was a good reading, but you need to be blacker!”
No! Come on!
Oh, yeah! And now the new thing is, “Can you be more urban?”
Oh, come on! This is so ridiculous!
And you look at them and you say, “Well, what does that mean? I can’t play urban!”
You just ended a long and successful run as Aunt Eller in OKLAHOMA!
Are there any similarities between Aunt Eller and Wiletta?
All I can think is that they are both hardworking women. Trying to keep my head above water. The cast of Oklahoma! kids me that Wiletta is Curly and Laurie’s daughter, and she went up to New York to become an actress, and she looks a lot like her Aunt Eller.
That is hysterical. You know, you do look a lot like Aunt Eller.
How has your performance of Wiletta changed since you first performed her?
It’s been four years since the first production at CenterStage, and I have become a little older and wiser, and with new life experiences it makes it richer going back to it. Alice has written it so well that every time I go back to it – it gets better and better, and you understand more and more. It’s the circle of life- just growing and becoming a little wiser and rediscovering it so it becomes new to me.
You sings some songs and psalms. Why are these songs/psalms so important to the story and to Wiletta?
They are so important because in the African American culture one of the first things that we all remember is that first speech we had to give at church, and usually those speeches have quotes from the Bible, and there usually is a psalm or a passage. The psalm is important to Wiletta because it is why she does what she does, because she was guided by the passages she read at Church. I think Alice Childress put it there because Wiletta has come full circle at that point.
She goes back to Henry – I love Larry O’Dwyer in this role- who is a doorman – and he takes her back full circle and makes her remember why she is doing what she’s doing, and who she is. We always come back to what we know best.
Wiletta has been in show business for many years and you are also a veteran of the stage? Why do you think Wiletta stays in the business despite being forced to play degrading and stereotypical roles? And why do you stay in the business?
Because you love it! Regardless of how hard a role can – you never want to give up on it. You are always looking for the bright side and always hoping. There’s highs and lows, and like in my career, sometimes you get some high-highs and then some lo-lows. You don’t give up. You have to persevere. You have to stick with it, because that’s what makes it a career. I can honestly say for myself that it’s been a great career for me. I’ve enjoyed it and it keeps me happy. I’ve had some difficulties – but that’s life! Everything is not rosey! Wiletta works through everything. She loves what she does. She really loves the theatre. It’s instant gratification. And that’s why I continue to do it too.
Talk about working with this brilliant cast.
There are six of us who came back. Starla Benford and Thomas Jefferson Byrd who I love working with. And then there’s Larry O’Dwyer who has worked at Arena Stage, and we have worked before at CenterStage. He was in The Fantasticks at Arena, and he’s about to play Burrus in You, Nero here at Arena Stage later this season. There’s Daren Kelly, who most people know from his work on the Soaps – he was on All My Children for years. And then there’s Marty Lodge and I love him! He’s not afraid of the role, and that’s a hard role he has. And he ‘works’ it. I love that!
I have worked with other actors who were afraid of this role – Manners (the director), and Marty’s not afraid of him. And then there is Gretchen Hall – a wonderful actress, and Brandon Dirden – a wonderful young actor, and his brother has worked before at Arena Stage.
The cast is brilliant and it all goes back to Irene. Irene can put a group together and she just hits the mark with it. Everybody in this cast is strong. I forgot Garrett Neergaard. Garrett is just adorable and is such a funny guy. I love everybody in the cast. And we’re all just having such a great time, and it makes it even better. It’s always so nice when you like the people you are working with, and here it’s such a plus.
What has surprised you about the audience’s reactions to the play?
I am not surprised by their reaction, but I think they are surprised at what they are seeing. I love the fact that they want to participate. It’s lovely to hear their ‘vocal’ reaction. The Washington audience is a very intelligent audience. They are very insightful. I think the audiences have responded just like I thought they would.
What are you going to do after this? Will you finally take a vacation?
Not quite! I am doing The Washington Ballet here and singing in The Great Gatsby while the ballet is going on from November 2-6, 2011 at The Kennedy Center.
You mean you’re not taking a break after this show?
Well, I do go back to Chicago after that and I start another show in December, so I’ve got 3 or 4 weeks off, so my husband and I are trying to squeeze in a mini-vacation in that time.
After all these years, is there still a role that you are dying to play?
Yes! Mama Rose in Yes! Mama Rose [in Gypsy].
Why the hell haven’t they hired you to do it? I’ll put something on my facebook page where most of my ‘friends’ are in the theatre – that you want to play this role. Have they ever hired an African American to play that role?
I don’t think so – No! I But I would love to do the role. It’s such a meaty role.
I would love to watch you have your nervous breakdown at the end during “Rose’s Turn.”
That’s the one I want to do.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Trouble in Mind?
That they should be true to themselves, and live their lives.
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing “Trouble in Mind.”