BWW Interview: Cherise Boothe of WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID, a powerful feminist-driven play set in 1972, resonates like a hurricane even today. The story is set in a Puget Sound bed and breakfast that is actually a surreptitious safe haven for battered women run by the indomitable Agnes, portrayed by the two-time Tony Award-winner Cherry Jones.
The drama tracks Agnes' multiple challenges as she struggles with her adolescent daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor of Showtime's HOMELAND), abuse victim Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan) and Hannah (Cherise Boothe) an African-American feminist seeking identity and exploring sexual politics. Hannah is, by turns, assertive, aggressive, strong, self-confident, compassionate, funny and opinionated. But she's ready for a sea change.
"I was intrigued by Hannah because of how boldly she inhabits herself," Boothe said after a recent performance. "Her politics and engagement with the world embody her opinions with such conviction, even while discovering what kind of world she wants to create for herself and others."
The drama, a new work by playwright Sarah Treem, (whose plays include A FEMININE ENDING and THE HOW AND THE WHY), stars the incandescent Jones backed by a stellar cast. Jones inhabits a maternal and knowing Agnes, who's seen too many battered women and strives to arm her daughter with inner strength and worldly awareness. Agnes not only harbors abused women with mysterious backgrounds, she also has a few secrets of her own. When Hannah arrives on the scene, she proves to be a significant catalyst.
The sixties and seventies were a time of great upheaval-women were being beaten, unrepresented politically and unfairly treated in the work force-and these incendiary issues flicker across the state.
"Hannah has strong opinions and embodies those opinions with such conviction even while discovering what kind of world she wants to create for herself and others," Boothe said. Hannah crashes Agnes' home with intensity, searching for a peaceful, feminist-driven world. That urgency sets in motion a series of events that unravel compellingly. Her search complements Agnes' determination to achieve parity of the sexes.
"Hannah is quite something, and she's a problem-solver when she comes up against challenges," Boothe added. "And she does her best not to get defeated by these challenges while she figures out what to do next.
"The kinds of lessons she learns in the play-acceptance of life, moving forward even if she has to make a 180-degree turn-there's never a sense of 'Oh man, bad on me.' I'm here and moving forward at all times," she said.
Boothe researched the times and the struggles within society then while she was learning her role. "I prepared for the play from the script, too. Sarah's language is so bold and clear and I took that as my base," she explained. "The 1960s and early '70s were a hotbed of social movements.
"There was so much political change going on, and Hannah was coming into her adult life. Being a black woman at that time, she was affected by everything. So much change revolved around racial issues and I had many conversations with the writer and director [Pam MacKinnon] about how should I play this.
"Hannah is such a strong character and it takes place on an island in 1972. All of what was going on in the sixties -the civil rights movement, the black power movement, counterculture-was happening and gay rights started to be on the scene," she said.
It was a dizzying time in the history of this country and around the world, Boothe said. "There was so much going on, and Hannah can't help being who she is. She's very much involved in the scene and actively participating, if not physically, then in on the conversation."
"In those groups, she finds out what her next step on the journey is. The second movement of feminism is happening, and as a black feminist dealing with issues of sexuality, she's so representative of what was going on then."
Boothe's character represents different things to the others, as she brings in a piece of the outside world. "She brings the outside world from the mainland to this little, secluded, buffered island. Hannah brings a revolutionary explosion in this situation, because she gets in on the conversation about domestic violence, for one thing."
There is great simpatico between Hannah and Agnes, she observed. "There's a meeting not only of the minds, but heart and soul wanting and desiring to help women," Boothe said. "We both want to shelter women and protect them so they get better and thrive. I do think that among other things, it's a place where Agnes and Hannah really meet."
The play's subject matter may be dark and foreboding, but it is not without humor, Boothe added. There are a lot of funny moments, easing the tension running taut through the production.
"The play is so interesting when you meet these characters, and the audience continues to discover things about them as the play goes along," Boothe continued. "The perspective is from Agnes, who initially has a healthy wariness about Hannah; here's a black woman traveling alone, in need of a job and she somehow manages to make her way here."
Hannah softens a little when Agnes calls her by name and asks personal questions. "She asks Hannah her name, offers food and shelter," Boothe said. "But Hannah has her own code of ethics and self-respect." So it's difficult at first to accept kindness as kindness, without an ulterior motive, she said.
"I think the combination of Hannah's need and Agnes' determination to problem solve allows them both the opportunity to get to know each other. I think that's what allows the evolving of the relationship beyond a first impression," Boothe said.
"I believe there's a need to raise awareness about what it is to be a feminist," she said, "and the play raises questions. Being a feminist is a complicated thing, and it means different things to different women. The play had a triple layer for me, and it's a powerful story."
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID is playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, NY City Center Stage I, through August 10th.