Charlayne Woodard isn’t a mother, but she has more than 43 children.
Her kids include 30 nieces and nephews, 13 godchildren, plus the offspring of some of her closest friends.
“I call them all my kids,” says Woodard who, this month, is celebrating 20 years of marriage to her husband, Harris. “They range from three months to 35 [years]. They are rich, poor, middle-class, Asian and Latino. They are all of that. They represent the lifestyle I have created in my life. I have a rainbow lifestyle.”
As long as she can remember, children have held a special place in Woodard’s heart ““ going as far back as when, as the oldest of five siblings, she assisted her parents by helping them with her younger brothers and sisters.
To pay homage to the children in her life, this veteran of several solo plays will, once again, take the stage unaccompanied – to talk about her relationship with kids in her latest theatrical entry, The Night Watcher, directed by Daniel Sullivan and set to open at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, Nov. 20.
Through a variety of stories, Woodard waxes about how for the last 20 years she has positioned herself in the role of friend, advisor, confidant and sage to the young people who call her auntie or godmother. This, Woodard says, is her way of acknowledging her role in the life of her children, but mostly it’s about how they, in turn, have affected, shaped and enriched her life.
Woodard, who wrote the play, is mum regarding what the show’s title actually means.
“I can’t tell you why it’s called that because of the way my stories are structured,” says Woodard, who hails from Albany, NY.Â “I am a storyteller. My stories are structured in a simple way. To tell you what the title means gives away an entire story. I love that everyone is going to come expecting (she pauses for dramatic effect)”¦.The Night Watcher“¦.hmmm”¦. that’s mysterious. I want them to wonder why it’s called (another dramatic pause)”¦..The Night Watcher. Within one of the stories, it’s answered.”
Getting It Write
It’s only moments after a long rehearsal. Woodard, who developed the show at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and La Jolla Playhouse’s Page To Stage three years ago, says she is in the midst of “finding it again and breathing life” into the show, which was previously produced at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Primary Stages in New York.
Visibly full of energy, she’s looking chic in her vintage cat glasses; flat, red shoes; diamond earrings; black tights; black sweater; exquisite African-themed necklace and her curly mane arranged up and off her neck and face.
An upbeat actress with pronounced dimples, a toothy, infectious smile and big, bright childlike eyes, Woodard, who, when asked her age will only say, “I’m grown,” came up with the premise for her current show in 2008.
“I have developed plays at the Ojai Playwrights Conference,” says Woodard, who attended the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. “Catherine Kimmel, the literary manager, called me in the spring of that year and said simply, “˜Whatta ya got? I told her I had nothing. She said, “Charlayne, you’ve got three weeks to come up with something and submit it.” I said, “˜Three weeks?’Â She said, “˜OK, four.’”
So, for four weeks, Woodard, who teaches at CalArts as a guest artist, went into a studio and starting writing what was on her heart.
As she sat, thought and wrote, it became clear to that she had a lot to say. Stories flowed as she thought back to her own childhood, teenage years, college experiences, family dynamics, marriage and friendships. The common denominator for all of the stories was children.
Although everything in the show is based in truth, Woodard, who calls herself a “blue collar actor,” admits to taking creative license. She talks only about the kids who have issues and challenges, not the ones who are doing well. Her challenge, she says, is to make the audience see all 20 of the children she talks about in the show — yet also to preserve their privacy.
“These are children,” says Woodard. “Well, they’re not children now, but I still want to protect them and keep them anonymous. The events and the other stuff is absolutely true. Some of the kids have seen the show. One boy actually said, “˜Use my name and my father’s name.”Â I have another one who said, “˜Please use my name, auntie. I don’t think anyone will ever write about me in my life.’ She’s 20-something. The boy is now 30-something. What I realize is the stories I’ve chosen and things that are happening, all deal with the issues that kids are having. It’s not about exposing them. I’ve hidden them. I want to protect their innocence.”
Over the years, some of the children have sought her wisdom and advice or asked for help. They’ve texted her, called her or pulled her aside.
“It’s usually because they have a secret,” says Woodard. “It’s something they don’t want their parents to know.”
Woodard’s interest in children goes beyond the ones she calls “my children.” She also has a sincere concern for the nation’s children.
“The kids of America are on my heart,” she says. “What’s happening to the youth? They have a hard way to go. It’s a struggle for them. When I was growing up, life was fed to us with teaspoons, now it’s with technology.Â Our kids are getting it full force in their face. You can’t censor. Everything is hitting them so quickly. The world is bigger than it’s ever been. It has an effect on them. All of us have a responsibility to our children. I was raised by a village. That’s what it takes.”
Although she loves children, Woodard never had any of her own.
“I grew up the oldest of five kids to the hardest working parents on the planet,” says Woodard. “You know, that’s a lot of kids. I really couldn’t wait to get away and just be free. When you think of all the Woodard women coming across that ocean, they had to have babies. It was part of their survival. They were raped. I’m going to be the first Woodard woman to exercise her ability and right to be free and have no kids and take the adventure and see what it’s like.”
One week each year Woodard and her husband host one of her kids ““ doing whatever they want to do. They do everything from eating whatever they want, to shopping sprees, pool parties and Disneyland. By the time it ends, Woodard is worn out.
“What I realized about parenting is that we only do it well for a week,” she says, laughing a hearty laugh. “Plus, there is a gift to parenting. I don’t know if I have that gift.”
“I don’t call them one-woman shows,” says Woodard. “I call them solo plays. People have an idea that a one-woman show is one hour and no intermission. I create a play using all the elements of the theater that create a play. I use the tools of the griot, movement, music, the works.”
According to a New York Times review of The Night Watcher, Woodard “roams the stage like a human searchlight, casting a permanent glow that reaches all the way to the back rows.”
The Night Watcher requires Woodard to be on stage for two hours. It also requires a day of preparation.
“I spend the day getting ready,” says Woodard. “I sleep in late. I eat well. I drink a lot of water. This is your instrument.Â This body is your instrument. You’re limited if you have a body that’s limited and can’t tell the story. I come in early, bring my jump rope, do pull-ups and sit-ups. I got my band for strengthening. I am constantly in the world of the characters. That’s what it takes for me to concentrate like that.Â I like to stay in the world. From the moment I wake up in the day, it’s all in preparation to go back and do it again that night.”
While Woodard makes it all look effortless, she’s quick to point out preparing for a solo play is anything but.
“I love how people think they can do this,” says Woodard. “In the ’90s some people said, “˜I can do that. If she can do it, I can do it.’ It is one of the most difficult things anybody can take on.Â An autobiographical, solo play takes a bit of courage to share with people. I found the deeper I go, the more universal it is.”
The Night Watcher is Woodard’s fourth solo play.Â Her first, Pretty Fire, won LA Drama Critics Circle and NAACP Awards for a 1992 production that moved from what was then the Fountainhead Theatre in Hollywood’s Hudson complex to the Odyssey Theatre, staged by Stuart K. Robinson with additional direction by Ken Page. Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum hosted Neat (Irving and Blanche Laurie Theatre Vision Award, Outer Critics Circle nomination in New York) in 1998, and In Real Life (Back Stage West Garland and NAACP Awards) in 2001, both of them directed by Daniel Sullivan. CTG also commissioned her ensemble piece, Flight, which was also produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
“I enter this process after Charlayne has pretty much created the play and told her stories many times to different kinds of audiences,” says Sullivan. “My job is to help her translate her stories into action. That’s not terribly difficult because her stories are charged with life and energy.”
A Dying Wish
Growing up, Woodard had several influences in her life. Not only did she have two loving parents, she had eight blood-related aunts giving her advice, as well as several others who weren’t her actual aunts but are considered family nonetheless.
The biggest influence, though, was probably her grandmother, who, she says, manipulated her into becoming an actor.
“My career, it all started with a dying wish,” says Woodard. “I was 12 when my grandmother said, “˜Before I die, I’d like to hear one of my grands sing in the Wilborn Temple First Church of God in Christ junior church choir.’ I thought she was going to die, so I joined the choir that next Wednesday night. Three Sundays went by. We always had Sunday dinner at her house. There she said, “˜Before I die, I want to see one of my grands sing a solo.’Â She got the spirit and I hadn’t mumbled a word into that microphone. I said, “˜This is it. She’s going to die.’ I sang with everything I had. It was an emotional and passionate love song to my grandmother. The name of the song was Joy. It was a powerful moment. I had all those grownups in the palm of my hand. I have been chasing that feeling since then.”
She may not have achieved that initial feeling but Woodard, whose grandmother lived several more years, relishes the reactions she gets from connecting with her audiences.
“When I’m solo I never feel alone,” she says. “When I come out, the first thing I do is look at the audience and share. One thing leads you to the next thing. Before you know it, it was like when I was 12 years old. When you have those moments, it’s golden.Â It’s unnatural to stand in front of an audience by yourself. I never feel alone because I can hear them, feel them, hear a sigh or a gasp.”
Giving Credit Where”¦
Woodard has been hearing sighs and gasps for decades.Â Her Broadway credits include the original company of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (she received a Tony nomination), and she received Obies for The Witch of Edmonton and In the Blood. Other theater credits include: Stunning by David Adjmi, Fabulation by Lynn Nottage, Sorrows and Rejoicings by Athol Fugard, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. She has also appeared in the films Sunshine State, Unbreakable, The Crucible and Eye for An Eye. Her TV credits include recurring roles on Law & Order: SVU, Terminator, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and ER.
Woodard believes she is doing exactly what she was put on earth to do. Ever since she studied drama, she’s never even considered doing anything else.
“When I was in drama school, they said if there is anything else you can do, go do it now because you’ll end up doing it,” says Woodard, who calls herself the queen of the self-help section at the bookstore. “They said, don’t waste your time. This biz is so unfair that the only guarantee we have is rejection.Â At that point I couldn’t type, I had never waited a table, nothing. It had to work.Â It had to work. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t.”
Once she decided to become an actor, Woodard immersed herself in the craft. After decades in the industry, she says she is just as in love with acting as she was when she first started. And when it comes to the stage, Woodard admits theater is her life.
“It’s my church,” she says. “It’s all about looking for the truth. You watch someone doing a scene for 40 minutes looking for the truth. In one moment, you can change a person’s life. Theater is powerful. The arts are powerful. I was born to it. I think you’re born to do it.Â I just feel good with theater people. With other people I’m too much. I have to pull back. We’re a whole different breed of people. We live in a world that’s indescribable.”
The Night Watcher, presented by Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Opens Nov. 20. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat at 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Through Dec. 18. Exceptions: no performance on Thanksgiving Day; no 2 pm performance on Sat., Dec. 3; no 1 pm performance on Sun., Dec. 11. Tickets: $20-$45. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
***All The Night Watcher photos by Chris Bennion