Adepero Oduye: Actors Are Bountifully Empowered

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Good luck comes to those who are prepared.

In the case of Adepero Oduye, one might add, to those who deserve it as well.

After many years of hard work mastering her craft, Broadway came knocking on Oduye's door when she was tapped to replace Condola Rashad in the role of Thelma on the critically acclaimed play, The Trip To Bountiful, without having to compete for the role through audition.

"It was an offer," Oduye tells The Black Star News, in a recent interview. "It was a bit shocking and surprising to me. It wasn't something that was on my radar."

It was clearly not shocking to the people who've been following Oduye's work. Last year she was seen in "Steel Magnolias" the Lifetime Television movie opposite Queen Latifah and directed by Kenny Leon. People who know talent also recall her 2011 Sundance breakout performance starring in "Pariah," Dee Rees' short film. She will also be seen this fall in Twelve Years A Slave, a film by Steve McQueen, also starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt. The film is based on a true story about a free Black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery.

Oduye landed the role after Rashad left to prepare for the upcoming Broadway play, Romeo and Juliet, opposite Orlando Bloom. Now Oduye displays here skills on stage, alongside Cicely Tyson, a TONY-award winner for her own role as Mrs. Carrie Watts, the elderly lady who just wants to make it back home one more time. The much-praised play's run has now been extended through October 9 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

She admits that she was nervous on the day of her first performance.

"You can feel the energy from the audience even in the back of the stage," she says. But, she quickly adds, "there's a difference between being nervous and not knowing your lines as opposed to being fully prepared," which she undoubtedly was, judging by a recent performance.

As for stepping in for Ms. Rashad, she says it wasn't about "copying anything," rather "I find the areas where I relate to. Where do I meet my character in terms of ideals?"

Oduye recalls how she grew up watching Cicely Tyson's films, and now says it's "wonderfully inspiring" to be working alongside the screen and  Broadway legend.

The stars include Vanessa Williams, as Jessie Mae Watts, daughter in law to Mrs. Watts and wife of Ludie Watts, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.

WIlliams' sparkles in her role as the beautiful but bratty and petulant Jessie Mae Watts, and while Gooding holds his own as the husband with a soft-spine, the women's performances overshadows his so that even when he develops a little up-right posture late in the play, it's way too late. You still relate more to his hated (or perhaps hateful) wife, thanks to Williams' superb talent.

Tyson is in a league of her own in this play. Elderly in real life, she bounces around the stage with remarkable speed and energy as when she makes a quick move to hide her social security check so Jessie Mae won't take it from her, and later, when she's singing a spiritual to lift her spirits when it seems that things couldn't get any worse for Mrs. Carrie Watts.

The play has a simple plot. Elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts has tired of living in the cramped one-bedroom apartment in the city with her son and his domineering wife. She longs to return to idealic Bountiful, where she can see the splendid picturesque house again, touch the grass, walk by the stream, and hear the birds.

Her daughter in law, a city girl, thinks that's a waste of time. She wants Mrs. Carrie Watts around because the social security check helps her get along, including with her beauty parlor appointments. So the daily routine includes: Ludie Watts going to work; Ludie Watts trying to break up arguments between his mother and his wife; Jessie Mae Watts demanding to know whether the social security check has arrived and if Mrs. Carrie Watts is hiding it; and, Mrs. Carrie Watts waiting for Jessie Mae to go to the beauty parlor so she can make her break.

Mrs. Carrie Watts eventually does sneak out with her battered suitcase to the GreyHound station. That's where she meets Thelma, played by Oduye, for the first time. The pair's interaction includes the brief time they spend together at the station, then on the bus, and finally when they arrive at the last stop before Bountiful. The chemistry is very good; with the elderly vulnerable Mrs. Carrie actually offering strength to the young Thelma who still has her whole life ahead of her, with words of wisdom.

One of the best scenes in the play occurs when Mrs. Carrie Watts is told by the station manager at the last stop before Bountiful that most of the people she knew were all dead, including the friend whom she'd traveled to see. What was the purpose of going on? What was Bountiful without the people?

The acting by Tyson is so powerful that some in the audience can be seen choking up. That's when Tyson starts the powerful spiritual and within minutes most of the audience joins her, singing, or humming, along, in welcome momentary relief.

Tyson then gets on her feet and swings gently, but with energy. She motions to Oduye, playing Thelma, to join her, and she walks her through some dance steps as they sing together.

A touching and wonderful moment.

What happens after that? Does Mrs. Carrie Watts still make it to Bountiful?

That's for readers to find out, or to attend the play and watch Tyson's remarkable performance.

Oduye is in awe of Tyson's tremendous energy. "She takes care of herself very well, and eats right," she says. "I need to learn from her so I can have that kind of energy when I grow older."

She says during private moments, in between sets or while backstage, Tyson is constantly offering her quick words of encouragement. "She says 'good job; good job.' To get such affirmation from a person of her stature..." she says.

Oduye, who has been acting for about 10 years now, hopes this opportunity leads to more Broadway roles. "I hope to do more work and to continue working with amazing actors," she says.

Oduye acknowledges the challenges that many performers face through the years.

"There are moments when you doubt if what you're doing is right," she concedes. "When you're struggling and you can't pay bills."

These are the times when each actors' own convictions, confidence, and willpower have to take over.

But how does the performance artist know if she or he should continue?

"You have to be persistent," Oduye adds. "You can have it on your own terms. When you know deep in your heart that I'd rather not be doing anything else,'" apart from performance acting.

"Sometimes we think others are in control. But you know yourself. You have to play the roles that you want to play," she says. "We are empowered. We don't have to accept roles. You don't have to wait for someone to give you purpose."

Off stage, Oduye calls herself a "citizen of the world" and closely follows socio-political issues and current affairs such as the debate over Stop-and-Frisk, NYPD practice which was recently ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. District Judge.

Oduye is a Cornell University graduate. Her parents are from Nigeria.



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