By: Jun. 07, 2012
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Actress Crystal A. Dickinson is currently making her Broadway debut in the dual roles of 'Francine/Lena' in Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize winning play Clybourne Park. The production opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 19, 2012.

Clybourne Park is the wickedly funny and fiercely provocative new play that explodes in two outrageous acts set 50 years apart. Act One takes place in 1959, as nervous community leaders anxiously try to stop the sale of a home to a black family. Act Two is set in the same house in the present day, as the now predominantly African-American neighborhood battles to hold its ground in the face of gentrification. Clybourne Park has been nominated for a 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

Dickinson starred in Clybourne Park'S world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2010 and just completed a critically acclaimed pre-Broadway engagement at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Her other Off-Broadway credits include Lincoln Center's Broke-ology; Manhattan Theater Club's Ruined; Signature Theatre's The First Breeze of Summer (AUDELCO Nomination); Soho Rep's Born Bad (AUDELCO Nomination); Negro Ensemble Company's Sun Down Names and Night Gone Things (AUDELCO Nomination). On TV, the actress has appeared in Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.

In a recent chat with BWW, Dickinson explained how this poignant play manages to invoke a serious discussion about race relations in America while delivering a big dose of laughter at the same time. 

Congratulations on the huge success of Clybourne Park.

Thank you so much. I enjoy doing it for sure!

I'd like to start by asking how your passion for theater developed?

Well my oldest sister danced and I used to go to her recitals and I would watch her and think, 'Oh my gosh, it looks so fun!' and I wanted to just wear a costume. I remember thinking it would be so nice to wear a costume and people would clap. When I went to high school, I started to do plays there, mostly because I was a little shy and out of my element and thought it would be a good way to make friends. And so I did musicals but went to college still not thinking that I would like to study theater. But in college I met a professor, Deirdre Yates, who really got me excited about the theater and she coached me and that was it - I was off to graduate school for acting. I went to Seton Hall University for undergraduate studies. They have a surround theater, which is not a typical theater, so I basically went to graduate school not even knowing what 'Stage Right' was. (laughing) We were more like '12 o'clock, 2 o'clock …'

Well I guess you'd do well at Circle in the Square.

Yes! I'm very comfortable in all spaces now!

I understand you used 'Clybourne Park' in an audition workshop you taught at the University of Illinois. 

Yes. At that time I knew I had the part in Clybourne Park, but we hadn't worked on it yet - we hadn't begun rehearsals yet. I went back to my graduate school to do this audition workshop and I wanted to take some new plays with me. I thought 'let me take 'Clybourne Park'. Some of the scenes younger people could work on and it seemed like a play that the younger people could connect to. I also wanted to make sure the students were knowing what was going around New York City at the time. And I thought the play was good when I read it, but once I saw the students put it up, and actually say the words, I was like 'Man, this play is really funny and really good!' It's one of those plays that really comes alive on a stage. Seeing it is a treat.

Did you enjoy teaching? I know at one point you thought about teaching for your career.

Yes. When I was in undergraduate school I was studying Elementary Education and English. And I was planning to teach Kindergarten. What happened was, Seton Hall had to do 'The Colored Museum' and it was the first black production that the school had ever done in their history. So I thought, 'Well, this will be interesting. I'd like to be a part of it'. And Deirdra was the director of that. She is this lovely beautiful little white woman who said, 'You know I don't really know enough about African American culture but I'm willing to learn from you guys.'

It turned out to be one of the most spectacular experiences that I ever had because she was so open and so were we, and so we wound up really teaching each other. We would go home and maybe study in our dorms and practice scenes and come back to work on them and it really became something more than just the production. It showed me what theater could do. It could make people understand, and make people open and make people laugh. And our show wound up  selling out every night. I don't know if you've ever been to a college production, but that's kind of hard to do! And we did that every night and that came from acting out our passion and our love and caring for each other.

So I started doing plays with her after that, I couldn't stop. I was in every play she directed. And towards the end she asked me, 'OK, now what are you going to do?' And I said, "I'm gonna teach Kindergarten' and she said, 'No, you're not going to teach Kindergarten! Are you kidding me! Don't do that!' The rest is history. But that moment solidified it for me. I thought 'this is a good feeling to know that we can create something together, we can learn something and then we can give that to an audience.'

I actually think that there are some similarities between teaching and acting, especially the way you just described that experience.  

Yes, I think so.

So then you didn't completely stray from the course.

And I still teach here when I can at Pace University. It's something I think I will always want to do. I think sometimes an actor can be very self-centered. Acting can make you really focus on yourself. But teaching asks you to do the complete opposite. Which is a good balance for me.

Taking the show from Off-Broadway to Broadway, I know there were a few rocky
moments when one of the lead producers dropped out at the last minute. How did that affect the cast?

The interesting thing about it is that the first time we did the show at Playwright's Horizon and we thought the show wasn't going anywhere, we had already had that let down. People were talking about how wonderful the play was. They were coming and saying, 'It's fantastic, but we can't do anything with it'. So I think we already had those kind of bumps in the road as it went along. So when that one came, when the big one came, we weren't any more surprised. It's pretty much part of our business. This just seemed to be a blown up version of it, but we as actors, we deal with this disappointment regularly, like daily. It's part of the job to go and hear, 'Oh yeah, you got the job. Oh never mind, we don't want you." It happens all the time! So as a group, we were all like 'OK, well, if that's what's gonna happen, that's what's gonna happen.' But it didn't! We got rescued the next day! So it seems really dramatic but the turn-around was pretty quick. And it just goes to show you that something that the universe wants to happen is going to happen.

So that's pretty much what it was and we were all pretty cool about it. I don't think it changed us much. We stuck together and I think we're a really close knit and loving and caring bunch and so whichever way it went we were going to be okay and now that we're here - great. But nothing really changed except for my faith in things. And that increased because now I'm like 'Yeah, good things can happen sometimes even when the odds are against you!'

And especially when it is so deserved!

Yes - thank you!

You play two very different characters in the show. Is it hard to transform yourself from one to the other?

It's not because there is a big costume change and that helps that's for sure. But also the language of both acts are really distinct. In Act One there's a lot I don't say. There's a lot of silence. I have an economy of words that I think helps in the first act. In the second act, Lena has more to say, she is a little more of an active participant. So the energy and the language are really different. But Bruce (Norris) helps us out a lot.

Do you have an inspiration for your character Francine?

I'm glad you asked that. Yes, my grandmother who actually did work in people's home for a living. I didn't find that out until I was much older though because by the time I had come along, she had stopped working. I think that's what I held on to. I thought, yeah, this is what my grandmother did for a living, but I know nothing of that part of her life except that she was a very clean person. She loved to clean! And that's the interesting thing about Francine. Francine has a life which extends past the door of this house. This couple that owns the house doesn't know that. So that was a real inspiration to me. My grandmother's life and how she was a grandmother and a mom and married to a Deacon and they had their own home and they had two cars, she had a whole life. So I really held on to that part of Francine in the first act.

There's quite a bit of audience reaction to some of the dialogue in both acts. Does that affect you? Do you react to that?

Oh for sure. For sure! And that changes every night. I mean there are some things, like the joke section, we're going to get some reaction there, but I'm surprised sometimes, that reaction changes. It can be raucous laughter, applause, boos, groans - so we never know day to day what that audience is going to give us and that's one of the exciting parts about doing this play every night. Because the audience, I think all of us in this country, have such a deep seeded and love/hate relationship with what we call race. So how we deal with it, how each individual deals with it, they bring that to the audience. And people look to each other in the audience to see 'Well how is this person reacting?' or 'How should I react? Should I have reacted that way?' So there's a whole bunch of stuff going on and your brains are firing all kinds of neurons because there's a lot of surprises in the play and so much stimulation and we just have to be in tune to that every night to see how that goes. But that definitely changes day to day.

After the play I was thinking a lot about its message, and in some respects, it may not be such a hopeful one. In a way it asks, 'how much have things really changed in this country?' 

Well I like to think of it this way. I like to think the great part about the play is what transpires in that theater. We've all sat through this two hour event together, right? We've all maybe laughed at ourselves for something that we've seen on stage that reflects us or maybe we feel convicted of something we've seen in ourselves, or maybe we see that in others. Or maybe weep for your idea that things haven't changed. Or maybe we decide we want to do something about it or maybe we want to teach our kids something more, you know what I mean? Actually something is happening just by people coming to sit there and we doing that together. That's what I love about it. It's a safe place where we can do all of that stuff. We can be ashamed, we can laugh inappropriately sometimes, we can all do that for two hours in a safe environment. So to me, that is progress.

And all of us in the cast have friends that told us weeks later, months later, 'I'm still thinking about your play.' Then we've done something I think. It's a real honor because I feel like I'm doing something good. I mean art is great, but when art can also heal or educate, then that's the icing on the cake! 

And I think what makes the play such an enjoyable experience is that you have the humor there as well. It's entertaining, but then as you said, it starts that dialogue and really makes us think.

And Bruce (Norris) is not that kind of person who would want to hear all that, he's not the mushy type, but he really has written a marvelous play that allows us all to do that.

You've done some TV work as well and you mentioned you've also done musical theater. Do you have any preference?

I don't have any. I just like to do work that matters in some way. And it doesn't mean that I pooh pooh comedies or sitcoms or anything. I just want the work to be thoughtful. Something that asks people to think a little more. So it doesn't matter to me the medium, I think the message matters more.

So then you would be up for doing a musical down the road if the opportunity arose?

That would be so fun! I want them to call me! I would love to sing - nobody ever lets me sing!

What was it like to make your Broadway debut on opening night?

Oh my gosh.  Wendell Pierce is one our producers and I also did a show with him two years ago, and he told me to enjoy every moment. And friends that I have who had their debut, that's what they told me to do. And that's what I did. I remember at the bow, just taking in the moment of it. It just was so joyful. I felt really proud and really joyful. Doing something that I knew was good.

CLYBOURNE PARK is currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. New York, NY. For tickets and further information, please visit:

Photo credit: Walter McBride, Nathan Johnson