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Cherise Boothe on starring in the comedy Fabulation at Signature Theatre
The first time actress Cherise Boothe appeared in a Lynn Nottage play, it was Ruined, about brutalized women in civil-war-torn Congo. Almost a decade later, she's starring in another Nottage work, but Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine is more hilarious than harrowing. The 2004 satire about race and class is being revived as part of the Nottage's three-play residency at Signature Theatre Company.
"My working relationship with Lynn has been a blessed one," Boothe says. "She is very thorough, very specific, very available to the process." The performer felt lucky to have worked on Ruined, a critically acclaimed drama that earned Nottage her first Pulitzer Prize in 2009. "Sometimes you get just one of those in a lifetime," she says. "So when the audition came for Fabulation -- the opportunity to work on another Lynn Nottage play -- I was really excited."
There's a lot of distance, literally and metaphorically, between Josephine, the Congolese rape victim Boothe played in Ruined, and Undine, the self-made Brooklyn-born PR queen she portrays in Fabulation, yet they share a strong connection. Both women have been victimized by men, but they're fighting to hold on to their dignity and identity. For Boothe, the key to both roles is the same: keep it real. "From an outside perspective, because Fabulation has so much buoyancy, one could approach Undine as sort of comic and not have her rooted in the reality of her situation," Boothe says about her character's downwardly-mobile journey back to her working-class roots. "But I actually think the play works best when you connect with her as a real person who's put in situations that are heightened to a place of ridiculousness."
During the nine years between Josephine and Undine, Boothe has kept busy on stages in and outside of New York. She won an Obie for her performance in Kirsten Greenidge's Milk Like Sugar at Playwrights Horizons, and also appeared in the Public Theater's production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home from the Wars and the world premiere of Danai Gurira's Familiar at Yale Rep -- all plays written by women of color and helmed by women directors. Boothe has no complaints about the male directors she's worked with ("I've just been really fortunate, honestly," she says) but she admits there's "something special" about having a woman in charge, such as Lileana Blain-Cruz who helmed Fabulation. "She sets up an environment of play and freedom of exploration," says Boothe. "Her sensitivity allows room for us to be artists, to find our way there."
For this mounting of Fabulation, Nottage made updates to the 14-year-old script that reflect cultural changes like smartphones and social media. "Lynn believes that even if the play is published, it's never done," says Boothe, though she adds that Nottage didn't tweak all that much. "There were some audience members who saw the original production and they said, 'Wow, she rewrote like 70 percent of the play!' In fact, I think it was 10 percent or less. She's very strategic -- that's one of her many gifts as a playwright."
Another is Nottage's knack for comedy -- something that may surprise theatregoers who only know Ruined and her other Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Sweat. While Boothe lands a lot of laughs in Fabulation, everyone in the versatile cast has broadly funny moments. "I often find myself in the scene just so enjoying what they're doing, and am so tickled and so charmed by a discovery that they make," Boothe says. "The play's been yet another highlight of my career."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Cherise Boothe in Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine. Photos by Monique Carboni.
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