Cherry On Top! Jonesin’ for the Stage

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Cherry On Top! Jonesin’ for the Stage

Two-time Tony® and Emmy award-winning actress Cherry Jones may well be on the road to her third Tony® when she takes stage at the Booth Theater on September 5th as Tennessee Williams' Southern matriarch Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. Directed by John Tiffany and joined by Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, Jones reprises the role originated last Spring at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) The production marked A.R.T.’s foray into the world of Tennessee Williams. Out and proud from the beginning of her professional life, Ms. Jones is a founding member of A.R.T., where she spent most of the 1980s appearing in Three Sisters, Sganarelle, The King Stag, As You Like It, The Serpent Woman, Life is a Dream, Three Sisters, Twelfth Knight, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Major Barbara, King Lear, and Love’s Labors Lost. A 1978 graduate of Carnegie Mellon, she is well known as a premiere theater actress and advocate for gay rights.

Recently, I sat down with Ms. Jones to discuss her portrayal of Amanda Wingfield and lessons learned from previous roles and fellow thespians.

If, like this writer, you cherished your grandmother for all the embodied wit, warmth, humor and human compassion, welcome to conversation with Ms. Jones, a rare combination of grace and gravitas. Quaint stories of growing up in Paris, Tennessee, a former railroad hub, county seat and home to the world’s biggest fish fry, are rendered in a slight husky drawl, as she speaks lovingly of a grandmother who encouraged her to act; Miss Ruby Krider, who instructed her in creative dramatics as a child, and Miss Linda Wilson at the high school, who directed young Jones in school plays and speech tournaments (for which she typically won first place). Whirlwind tour of her youth aside, Jones has proven what the wise already know: Real stars are made at home, not in the world. 

LaShonda: Who are some of your fellow actors from whom you have learned learned a great deal? 

Cherry: There are several actresses who I look to as guides. Julie Harris has been very important in my life.  She lives and breaths the theater; and has a nun-like commitment to it—more than I could ever imagine.  Every single script she’s ever been sent, including unsolicited scripts—and she must have received hundreds—she’s read because she has that kind of discipline and that kind of respect for the playwright.

I have this wonderful Australian friend, Trish Connolly [Patricia Connolly, b. 1933], who’s worked everywhere, from the West End and the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Guthrie for many, many years. Trish, too, has incredible devotion to the theater. Every time she talks about a role or a part, she’s really there.  She has this wonderful daughter who’s always giving her notes and one of my all-time favorite notes, which I’ve thought of a lot since, was given when Trish was playing my aunt in The Heiress. Trish’s part was a small part, I mean small, especially for someone who has played all the Greek drama-ramas. So, Trish was drawing out the scene because she wanted to be onstage a little longer, and she wanted to make her character a little more grand until her daughter said, ‘Mother, Miss Elizabeth Almond is a very busy woman. She has five children at home. She doesn’t have time for this nonsense. So she’s got to get on and get off. She’s got to say what she’s got to say then she needs to get the hell out of there and home to her children.’ And when you see that production—I think her performance is the best one in the production because it’s just so true.

All the women who’ve influenced me have also given me life lessons about opening up to other mediums because I was a theater snob. I didn’t want to do anything else and they said, Cherry, as a woman you have got to diversify. You’ve got to explore every medium out there or you’re not going to work and you’re not going to eat. 

LaShonda: There was no interest in television or film?

Cherry: Not really because those mediums, especially television, were not about ideas to me.  And, too often they lacked real language. If the work didn’t have great ideas or language and a universal truth, I just wasn’t interested. I could understand if you’re a photographer wanting to do film, but if you’re an actor and the language isn’t just lush, where is the joy in that? Of course now I appreciate both film and television because you get to work as a miniaturist. You get to focus on these little moments. But I am absolutely beside myself to be back on stage again. I’m so excited I’m spinning out of my seat just thinking about it. To be able to rehearse, where you actually have the opportunity to refine something before you do it, unlike television and film where you just do it. 

LaShonda: Well here is where I will start namecalling, you’re a craftmonger.

Cherry: Yes (laughter). I have to be. I’m slow that’s why I could never get a job auditioning.The thought that I had one shot at something was just beyond me. Unless I had four weeks of rehearsal, I knew I wasn’t going to get close. It’s why I think if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work at A.R.T. I probably would never have worked in the theater. I was a terrible auditioner and the jobs would’ve been too few and far between. 

LaShonda: Looking back over your work, I’ve noticed a penchant for a certain type of female character. Do you consciously decline all roles that aren’t strong, intelligent women?

Cherry: I think early on it was pretty clear with my representation what I wanted. In the first place, the early years of my career at A.R.T. were grueling. It’s like being in the army in a rep company. You just do what they tell you to do. So I grew in my craft, performing whatever roles they gave me. And then when I got out into the world in New York the parts that people knew me for were the heroines. I was typecast—to my mind—in the most wonderful way a woman could be typecast, and that’s as a heroine. I never had to do the Heddas and the Noras, all those parts that are wonderfully dramatic roles for women but at the same time are about women trying to get out of a bad marriage.  And the roles I’ve always been interested in, the women have a larger pallet, a larger world.

LaShonda: What about the roles where complexity lies in a woman’s own frailty? Here, I’m thinking of a character who wasn’t trapped in a bad marriage, in fact you could argue that the marriage saves her, but who is clearly riddled with issues, not least among them is alcoholism—Teddy’s wife Ruth in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Have roles like that appealed to you?

Cherry: The only woman like that—a sort of cast off from society—that I’ve ever played is Grace from Brian Freehl’s play Faith Healer with Ian McDiarmid and Ralph Fiennes. Ralph’s character has actually been killed when the play begins but he starts the show followed by Grace’s monologue and finally the manager has his monologue. Then it ends with Ralph’s summation. Grace is about this close to the edge of killing herself during her 45-minute monologue. You assume that at the end she’s going to take a bottle of pills. But even Grace was a very strong individual.