Friday, July 21, 2017

The Legacy We Leave Behind: lunch with Cherry Jones

My first job in New York was working as a Broadway usherette.  I wore a scarf and a name tag, and I reminded people that flash photography wasn’t allowed.  It was an ideal job for a theatre kid.  I subbed around to different theatres, filling in where I was needed, seeing shows in the process.  I wrote my first play by flashlight while sitting in darkness in the back of the house; Broadway became my master class.

When I was a freshman in college I was assigned to the Cort Theatre.  The show that was playing was a revival of The Heiress, the 1947 stage adaptation of the Henry James novel, Washington Square. Begrudgingly I went, convinced that it would be dated and dull.  But soon after the show began a woman appeared at the top of the stairs and seemingly floated, effortlessly, to the bottom.  The actress was Cherry Jones.  I was captivated.

Her work in The Heiress earned her a Tony Award.  It was a well-deserved affirmation for an actor who was also a Tony-nominee for Our Country’s Good and had worked consistently in regional and off-Broadway theatres for more than 15 years. Cherry went on to win another Tony Award for Doubt and an Emmy for her portrayal of the President on “24”.  Along the way there have been movies as well, but she always returns to the theatre. 

Born and raised in Paris, TN, she still has a hint of an accent.  She too was inspired by a moment in the theatre: She often tells the story of seeing Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten when she was 16.  It proved to be a transformative experience. Encouraged by her parents, she went on to study theatre at Carnegie Mellon before moving to New York. 

Sometimes there are people who live in our periphery, just on the outside, but are seemingly always present in some way.  They are people we cross paths with in the moments when we need them most.  For 20 years, Cherry flowed in and out of my life - at moments when I was somehow questioning my own work - always asking about my writing and offering encouragement along the way.  There was an embarrassing fangirl moment at New York Theatre Workshop and an afternoon hanging out in her trailer on set.  Then ten years passed and we ended up on top of a mountain in Tennessee together where we talked about theatre, how we missed our mothers, and growing up in the South.  We kept in touch and soon this person who I had always admired began to feel like a friend.   

We meet for lunch in the theatre district while I’m on break from rehearsal.  At a cozy table tucked away in the corner, she tells me about her recent London run of The Glass Menagerie, a remount of the same production she starred in on Broadway.  Gracious and unassuming, Cherry is easy to talk to.  She asks about my daughter and my work saying, “Elyzabeth, I always want to know your trajectory.”  The sound of her Southern accent feels familiar and comforting, and I soon hear my own accent rising to meet hers. 

Theatre is meant to be a transformative experience: for the characters, for the audience, and at times, for the actors who bring the stories to life. Cherry has made a career out of telling other people’s stories, but in the process she has written her own story; it’s the story of a person who has spent a lifetime doing what she loves. 

It’s been a remarkable journey so far.  Her legacy will not come in the form of trophies and awards, though there have been many earned over the years, but rather by the people she’s inspired. Now the roles have shifted, and there is a new generation of young women who will grow up and tell the story of the time they saw Cherry Jones on stage and how it inspired them to be artists. 

-Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

If you've enjoyed this post share it with a friend and follow along on Facebook.

No comments:

Post a Comment