Chekhov lures actress back to the stage

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Alfre Woodard is laughing. After 13 years in Hollywood, she's had trouble getting used to the sound effects in the new play "Drowning Crow." "It took me like the first week after we got on stage in the theater to stop cracking up every time a sound effect came on," she says, imitating dogs barking to make her point. "Everybody's very happy that I've gotten over that."

This year, the Emmy-winning actress broke her self-imposed hiatus from the theater to work on the latest play from actress/playwright Regina Taylor. "Drowning Crow" is a remake of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," retold from the perspective of a modern African-American family living in the Gullah Islands off South Carolina's coast.

The tragic story of a headstrong actress and her attention-craving, artistic son had a complexity to it that intrigued Ms. Woodard, whose résumé includes TV's "Miss Evers' Boys" and the movies "Passion Fish" and "Star Trek: First Contact." She praises Ms. Taylor for her ability to honor what Chekhov was trying to say more than 100 years ago - about social classes, and the desire to be famous - while finding a way to move the discussion forward. "It was just so deep and so layered," she told a press gathering last month. "I got so excited. And that's why I came to do it."

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Three weeks later, after days of 12-hour rehearsals and nightly preview performances, Woodard is even more invested in the production. She chuckles about the sound effects, then shifts to a thoughtful reflection on what "Drowning Crow" signifies.

"This play is for everybody - there is no such thing as a 'black truth' - there is a universal truth," she says during an interview at the play's home, the Biltmore Theatre. "It's an epic piece about an epic condition of human beings in their longings, their desires ... their patterns of failure."

She's particularly interested in the incessant quest for celebrity and success, themes explored in "Drowning Crow." "Everybody wants to be remembered," she says, but they try to do it by getting attention, rather than giving back to society. "Not only do we crave it for ourselves ... we make other people gods," she says.

Broadway itself is guilty of celebrity worship, and Woodard wonders why the classic play "A Raisin in the Sun" is being revived this spring. Rapper Sean Combs is slated to play the role Sidney Poitier originated. "You have to ask yourself the question, Why are the people who are producing it doing this - this American classic piece?" she says. "Well, we know why. It's a star vehicle. It's a vanity production."

She then muses on how far Broadway will go to court celebrities. "Would we really see somebody be cynical enough to put on a big fabulous production of Joan of Arc with Britney [Spears] in the lead?"

Woodard initially turned down the starring role, not wanting to be away from her children on the West Coast. It was her own struggle with being apart - not that of her kids - that held her back, she says. Now she's grateful for the opportunity the role has provided for her to grow beyond that concern. "A lot of times you do things when you don't know why you're being led to do them. You have your own reasons, but then there are also deeper and higher reasons."

Her daily routine starts with a morning prayer which helps her prepare for her nearly daily performances. Closer to performance time, she tries to "get all the other Alfre stuff out of the way."

"You don't arrive as the character," she explains, "but you need to be in a state of sort of a relaxed alertness and neutrality to take off from then and let it all unfold on stage."

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