Robin Givens’ eyes are slightly swollen. She’s been crying for two days.
No, nothing is wrong. In fact, everything is right.
Givens calls her slightly swollen peepers “happy, puffy eyes.”Â They are courtesy of having read and then rehearsed Pearl Cleage’s Blues For An Alabama Sky, directed by Sheldon Epps. It opened Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The play premiered in 1996 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where it was directed by Kenny Leon and starred Phylicia Rashad. It was performed during the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games as a part of the Cultural Olympiad. It reached LA in 1998, at Los Angeles Theatre Center, with Loretta Devine.
Set in 1930s Harlem, Blues for An Alabama Sky takes place in the Great Depression and turns a light on people living with their decisions, even the ones that produce disastrous results.Â Among the subjects addressed in the play are poverty and homosexuality.
Givens plays Angel, a struggling blues singer and nightclub performer who can’t find a gig.
Her co-stars include Kevin T. Carroll, who was recently seen in A Raisin in the Sun for the Ebony Repertory Theatre. He plays Guy, a costume designer who is out of work but dreams of being hired to design dresses for singer/dancer Josephine Baker. Tessa Thompson (Juliet in the opening production of the Theatre @ Boston Court, Pyrenees at the Kirk Douglas, Veronica Mars and Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls) portrays Delia, a social worker who is trying to organize a family planning clinic in Harlem.
Kadeem Hardison, who was last seen on stage in Fences at the Pasadena Playhouse, is cast as Sam, a doctor who works long hours delivering babies at the Harlem Hospital. Robert Ray Manning (Defiance at the Pasadena Playhouse) plays Leland, a man who recently moved to New York from Tuskegee and sees in Angel a memory of lost love and a reminder of those “Alabama skies where the stars are so thick it’s bright as day.”
Top O’ The Morning
It’s the morning of an early rehearsal day, and a petite Givens, 46, is sitting on a couch on the second floor of the Zona Rosa coffee shop just steps away from the Pasadena Playhouse. She’s clad in white sneakers sans socks, blue jeans with wide cuffs, an orange tank, a tee underneath and a flowing black sweater accenting it all. Her long, brown hair is flowing and her wrinkle-free face and clear complexion don’t give away her age.
There’s a peacefulness about Givens, who at one point was a media darling for all the wrong reasons — due to her tumultuous and failed marriage to heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.
But that was years ago. Today, Givens has an easy personality. The native New Yorker, who attended Sarah Lawrence College and later took courses at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, speaks deliberately about some matters, particularly motherhood and her two sons Buddy, 17 and Billy, 12. Then, in the next breath, she admits to not having all the answers when it comes to her career and life in general.
Her gaze is steady when she’s being asked a question and also when she answers. She pats arms and legs when she’s trying to bolster her case.
As she sips on herbal tea, she waxes about taking on a role that brought her to tears, while simultaneously filling her with joy.
“What a great role,” she says. “It’s challenging, but I’m loving every minute of it.”
After being offered the role of Angel and then reading the script, Givens, who was unfamiliar with Cleage’s play prior to being cast, says she was overcome with emotion –Â hence the “happy, puffy eyes.”
“I thought, ahhh,” she says, falling back on the couch like a kid who just opened a great present. “When I first read the script, I felt a number of things. I hadn’t had that experience in a while. I was in bed with a computer helping my son with his homework. Then, I started reading the script and the more I read, I began to get tingly. I felt these butterflies. That’s when you know you’re alive. I couldn’t stop reading. It was nothing but butterflies and satisfaction.”
What Givens experienced is exactly why she says she became an actress.
“I think it’s interesting when you choose acting as a profession at a young age,” says Givens, who began her career around the age of 10. “I have a love for acting. I love the figuring it out. More and more I realize I’m an artist. I love sort of experiencing what people go through. It’s like being a psychologist in many respects. You experience different paths of people. You experience their pain and their joy. I like that.”
Givens, who at one time wanted to be an ob/gyn, describes Angel as a woman who is “more fragile than one would think and more frightened than one would think. She’s lost all of her faith. She is impulsive. If she just had some faith, faith prompts us to be still. She’s complicated. She’s a woman that’s been damaged. These things happened to her in her life that she thought she could handle, sleeping with men and old men admiring her. She thought she’d be able to brush it off, but it’s all built up in her soul. When we see her, she’s almost choking on her circumstances.”
Givens Is On A Role
Givens got the role only weeks before the first rehearsal. The production’s director Sheldon Epps (also Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director) called her about playing the role after having recently directed her on an episode of the new BET sitcom Reed Between the Lines, starring Tracee Ellis Ross (Girlfriends) and Malcolm Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show).Â Givens made a guest appearance on the show’s debut.
Epps says he chose Blues For An Alabama Sky because he’s always admired Pearl Cleage as a playwright and a novelist.
The play replaced Pastoral, which was to have starred Angela Bassett, after Bassett was cast in The Mountaintop on Broadway,Â opposite Samuel L. Jackson.
“When we had to make a sudden switch, I went back and read Blues For An Alabama Sky, which is a play I often thought about doing here,” says Epps. “It’s so topical and contemporary, even though it’s set in the ’30s. It felt like she had just written the play last week or last month. It’s so contemporary in the problems the characters are facing.”
When he was casting the role of Angel, Epps wanted “someone with great beauty, because everyone in the play seems to fall in love with the character,” says Epps. “Robin more than fits that bill. The character will do some unattractive things and make some unattractive choices. She needed warmth and charm ““ all of which Robin has. Robin has a sense of bravery as an actress.”
Having now worked with Givens for weeks, Epps says he’s impressed with what she has done with the role.
“Robin has to do things without being concerned about the behavior,” says Epps. “I didn’t know she had that quality in her. It’s been a great surprise. She’s a brave and courageous actress. You can”˜t make actors do something honestly if it’s not in them.Â I pushed her strongly in certain directions. She’s had the willingness to be pushed.”
Givens has equal praise for Epps.
“I’m working with the best,” says Givens, twisting her face as if she had just eaten something delicious. “He’s just so smart. Sheldon is so smart and so willing to get out of the way and give you a free lane. I’m having the best time.”
Her co-star Hardison, who is taking the stage for only the second time in his career, says he’s in awe watching Givens and the rest of the cast work the stage.
“Robin is amazing,” says Hardison, who didn’t know the actress prior to working on this play. “I knew about as much about her as the average television viewer…I don’t know if she likes it, but I call her Batman instead of Robin because she’s doing the heavy lifting in this show. She really is carrying it. She has so much to do. I’m having a ball watching her.”
“This is a hellified cast,” says Givens, who had never met any of her co-stars prior to this show. “Everyone is doing such a great job.”
Although this is her first time on the Pasadena Playhouse stage, Givens is no stranger to the theater.
In 2006, she had successful runs as Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway and in the Off-Broadway production of The Vagina Monologues. In 2009, she appeared in A Mother’s Prayer, alongside Johnny Gill and Shirley Murdock.
“There is something about theater,” says Givens. “You can’t cheat. You can’t fix it in editing. Once that train pulls out of the station, you better hang on. It’s organic, the way it should be.Â I love the rehearsal process. It’s a bunch of people giving ideas and suggestions. We’re all striving to get to the truth and make it a beautiful sculpture.”
Getting to the truth is sometimes a challenge for this devoted mom.
“Preparing to go on stage, I, um, it’s a tough one being a mom,” says Givens. “All of these things have to be done first. There’s a school drop-off, social studies, pre-testing, getting lunch ready. I do lots of yoga. I have to settle myself and center myself. That involves a lot of quiet time. The more experienced you are, you can get to that place much quicker.”
It’s crystal clear that Givens, who is single, enjoys being a mother. When she speaks of her two sons, her face lights up. She’s bubbly as she talks about one of her son’s upcoming birthdays and all the preparations she has to complete. She hates being away from them for long periods of time, but as an actress, there are times when she has no choice. While she’d love to continue to have a flourishing career, that is not her main focus.
“I want to give the world two good men ““ and be present,” says Givens, referring to her sons. “That’s the most important thing for me. I want to really sit and enjoy the blessing of my children.”
Workin’ Through It
Givens’ prolific career has included television, film, stage and literature. In 2007, she published her book Grace Will Lead Me Home. In it, she reflects on the life of her praying grandmother, her experiences of domestic violence, her strong will to survive, feeling abandoned by her father, and her faith in God.
“It was cathartic to write,” says Givens, who says she had to fight to write the book herself.Â “I was the little girl who always kept a diary.Â I wrote the book in longhand. I went through a lot of thinking and examination of me and my family. A lot of who you are is because of the family you’re born into. I was the third generation of this pattern. I felt obligated to go back and look at my life. I had to assure my family that I would handle their feelings and circumstances gingerly and protect them. I tried to handle everyone respectfully and still be true.”
Her television credits include Head of the Class (1986-1991) and the miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, a recurring role on Burn Notice, a recurring role on Chuck, House of Payne and guest star roles on the series Nikita and Drop Dead Diva. She also starred in the Fox pilot Tagged.Â Her film credits include A Rage In Harlem, Boomerang, Foreign Student, Blankman and The Family That Preys.
Although she’s a seasoned professional with a large body of work, Givens says she rarely watches herself and is seldom satisfied with what she sees.
“I don’t like to look at my work,” says Givens who admits to being a “recovering perfectionist”.Â “I’ve never seen Boomerang. Well, not all the way through. Rage in Harlem, I would have to say, I was pleased with.”
Admittedly, Givens’ life has had some bumps and bruises that she’s had to work out in the spotlight.Â Her 1988-89 marriage to and divorce from Tyson was tabloid fodder, as was her brief marriage (it’s been reported it was a one-day marriage) to Svetozar Marinkovic in 1997.Â Givens, who is a spokesperson for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, chocks it all up to her journey. And even after her failed marriages, she still loves the notion of love.
“Love, I love it,” says Givens. “I mean certainly I’ve been in love. But with my children I’ve had certainly the most intimate relationship.Â Joy lies in simplicity. The things that satisfy you are being able to spend time with the people you love. I feel like whatever difficulties I’ve had, it’s really helped me to get it.Â I would love to be married. Yes, in a heartbeat. I feel like it’s going to happen. I can’t wait. Sometimes I look around and wonder, “˜Is it that guy?’
For a while Givens moved out of Hollywood and became more selective in her work choices. She wanted to get her bearings and concentrate on being the best mother she could be.
“My choosing to take a break was a self-examination,” she says. “I wanted to understand and learn who I was at that point and why I made certain choices. I wanted to be healthy and have my soul. I didn’t want to feel wounded. It was hard to do that, be a good mother and pursue acting at the same time. I would do things here and there, but only if someone called me.”
Epps says now that he’s seen Givens in action, he knows he made the right choice.
“Having made that choice, you never know until you get into rehearsals whether it was good or bad,” says Epps.Â “I made wonderful choices with the cast. I made a wonderful choice in Robin. She has taken on, with great charm, a work ethic of being the leading lady of the company. She works hard and continues to grow.”
“I remember he said to me, “˜If you don’t jump, you’ll never fly,’ recalls Givens.Â “That’s simply one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. We all have bad days, circumstances and challenges. We embrace it so that we’re better for it.Â Right now, I’m really into flying.”
Blues For An Alabama Sky, presented by Pasadena Playhouse. Plays Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat. at 4 and 8 pm; Sun. at 2 and 7 pm. Through Nov. 27. Tickets: $29-$59, premium seating $100. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 626-356-7529. www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
All Blues For An Alabama Sky production photos by Jim Cox