BWW Interview: That Wasn't Me: In Conversation with E. Faye Butler
"Felicia and I have a song in our concert, LETTIN' THE GOOD TIMES ROLL, that we wrote. It's called 'That Wasn't Me,' laughs actress E. Faye Butler. It talks about how people will walk up to me and say, 'Felicia, I'm so glad to see you.' And then they do the same thing to Felicia, calling her E. Faye. It makes us laugh!"
Butler is speaking of her close friend and co-star at MSMT this summer, actress Felicia P. Fields, with whom she shares the stage in SOPHISTICATED LADIES and in their joint revue, LETTIN' THE GOOD TIMES ROLL. "We have known each other for thirty-one years on and off stage. We both began our journeys growing up on Chicago's South Side. I am godmother to her daughter; our husbands are good friends. We have gone on vacation and spent holidays together. She is like a sister to me. We can laugh, argue, say I'm sorry, and hug it out. We can finish each other's sentences. Working with Felicia is easy, so it is always a treat to do a show together."
And Butler feels blessed in this production of SOPHISTICATED LADIES not only to have Felicia P. Fields as a colleague, but to be reunited with Director/Choreographer Marc Robin and MSMT's Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark. Of Robin she recounts, "I have known him since he was so very young in Rockford, Illinois, and then in Chicago. I was fortunate enough to be in the first show he directed, NUNSENSE. He came to me and said, 'If you will do this with me, they'll hire me.' And I said, 'If you say you can do it, I believe you.' And look at all the amazing things he has accomplished," she says beaming with pride. "And it's the same with Curt. He comes from Pecatonica, Illinois, just down the road from Rockford, and we've been friends and worked together all these years. We all did SOPHISTICATED LADIES together twenty-one years ago in Chicago. Marc directed, and Curt was my dancing partner in "Love You Madly/ Perdido" medley. Recalling how unforgettable the moment was, she adds, "We did a soft shoe and had a whole dance break."
Since Butler last performed at MSMT in the 60thAnniversary Gala last year (and before that in 2016 as Oda May in GHOST), she has enjoyed an incredibly busy artistic year in which her biggest thrill, she says, was to get to play Mama Rose in GYPSY at Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre. The part had been on her bucket list for a while. "It was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences I have had in a long time. It is the Othello for women. There is such depth in the character, and the whole show is a musical theatre challenge from beginning to end."
She talks about how she and director Michael Weber approached the story. "I went back and read [Gypsy Rose Lee's] memoirs, and I realized this was a fable - a fantasy of how things had happened that didn't necessarily agree with her mother or sister's memories. Then we decided to take the production back to vaudeville days, where the performers had no color. They were just artists who wanted to work - people like Cat Man and tappers like the Nicholas Brothers or musicians like Duke Ellington. So Rose is an African-American woman in this production, and it is believable that she favors June with light hair and fairer skin who could pass [for white], while Louise is darker [complexioned] with nappy hair and wouldn't pass the brown paper bag test. The other children are orphans she picks up in various tour cities, so they can be of any ethnicity, and Herbie is a Latin American man of the period who could also pass. If you think of the context that way, it makes sense to have a cast as diverse as it was."
Besides GYPSY, which she hopes to do again, Butler recently had a memorable experience in THE WIZ at The Muny, playing both Evilene and Anna Pearl . "It was fun to play both the good and bad sisters. The costumes were absolutely phenomenal - bigger, more beautiful than Broadway - and that huge house is exciting. The stage is half a football field; it seats 11,000 people and was sold out for every performance."
And now, here she is at the 600-seat Pickard, whose relative intimacy compared to a Broadway house, is going to make this production of SOPHISTICATED LADIES all the more electrifying. Of Duke Ellington, Butler says, "He was the Stephen Sondheim of the period. He was so far ahead of his time with his rhythms and the way he put them together. You hear them and you wonder 'where is he going with this song?' And his intervals are not easy to sing. We understand the words, and his songs have meaning and stories behind them. It is so great to hear him celebrated again. He was truly the original master of the American songbook, and he never got credit for that in his lifetime." Butler also admires "the amazing, full, lush sound" which the eleven-musician onstage orchestra creates.
And while she appears primarily as a vocalist, singing some of the Duke's great classics, she describes Marc Robin's decision to use three choreographers to create the different styles of the piece as "genius. Marc [Robin] is a master at tap and musical theatre styles; Kenny [Ingram] knows how to do the Harlem styles and capture the grittiness of the African-American elements, and Mark [Stuart] understands that swing is about expression." She describes the rehearsal process as "a kind of layering." First the choreographers gave the dancers the steps, then watched them work it into their bodies, then added the musicians and the vocalists. "So by the end of the three weeks, it was a new and different feeling from where we started. All three came together to collaborate, help one another, and evolve, and they became one."
Butler is looking forward to working with Kenny Ingram again later this summer when MSMT co-produces with Portland Stage AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' . Butler will direct, as she has done in countless prior productions, and Ingram will choreograph the Fats Waller musical in Portland. She eagerly anticipates performing the show in that intimate space and praises both companies for choosing the work, calling Fats Waller "another forgotten genius."
But before that, she and Fields will give two Brunswick performances of LETTIN' THE GOOD TIMES ROLL, their original cabaret concert of blues, jazz, and gospel music. She characterizes the piece as "a great opportunity for us to work together. It's a journey through thirty-one years, touching on the music we've shared, the places we've been, the roles we've done separately and together."
I ask E. Faye Butler how she feels about having the opportunity to perform in and present to the Maine audiences three shows celebrating African-American culture and art - in some cases, for people who are unfamiliar with the these works and the heritage they embody. "That's part of our problem," opines Butler. "We often don't communicate; we don't reach across the table and share our experiences with one another. If we did [more of that], we would find that we are not all that different from one another. So I think it is wonderful that MSMT and Portland Stage are saying 'let's embrace this music and culture and have togetherness and understanding. I also think it's a great thing the way Curt [Dale Clark] and Stephanie [Dupal} are opening these doors inviting a diverse, new audience into the theatre, as well as hiring a very inclusive, diverse team. All of us have to keep pushing for that because we are all in this together, and we have to remember that theatre, music, and dance are the best ways to bridge gaps between people. When you have a company like MSMT that wants to do that, it is a gateway."
Photographs courtesy MSMT, SL photo Kinectiv
She directs AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', a co-production of MSMT & Portland Stage at Portland Stage, 2 5 Forest Ave., Portland, ME www.portlandstage.org 207-774-0465