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Building Character: Tracie Thoms

Date: Dec 19, 2011


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about how actors create their roles


Tortured love affairs, parental disapproval, and a board game that leads to a wall-rattling fight: There's plenty of juice in Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly. However, drama's only half the equation in the play, which is running at Broadway's Cort Theatre. The show stands out from other family meltdown sagas because it fuses fury with deep conversations about race, class, and gender. The characters are just as likely to hurl accusations about racist subtext as they are to cry about their daddy's dark secrets.

Both elements spring naturally from the story, which centers on the Le Vays, a clan of wealthy, African-American intellectuals. When the sons bring home their girlfriends---Taylor, an African-American entomologist, and Kimber, a white scholar who works with urban youth---philosophical differences quickly lead to personal explosions.

Actors have to make sure the thinking and the feeling are equally clear in every moment. Tracie Thoms, who plays Taylor, has it especially tough: Her character---who is not only a scientist, but also the abandoned daughter of a famous race theorist and a black woman who grew up in a privileged white community---has several dense speeches that unfurl like arias. "It's a mouthful to say every night and even more difficult as I'm wrapping my mind around these particular ideas," Thoms says.

She adds that Taylor always has an emotional reason for every argument: "If there's no passion behind it, if there's no need to say these things, then it can become like a lecture. I have to start with who she is and what her background is and how she felt alienated her entire life, being the only black person in her classes. That's why she's always felt like she has to argue her point and say, 'No, you can't say that.'"

But even when she's making righteous arguments, Taylor also wants to be accepted, and the hunger to be right <i>and</i> be loved animates Thoms' performance.

Thoms, who starred in the Rent movie and the series Cold Case, says that as a performer, she identifies a little too easily with Taylor's neuroses. "Taylor plays on the basic needs of all actors," she explains. "She wants to be right. She wants to be agreed with. She wants to be liked. At the end of the day, what actors do is subjective, and it depends on whether people like you or respond to you, so Taylor really plays on that."

That becomes an issue when Taylor gets to the end of a big tirade and waits for other characters to agree with her. At that moment, it's tempting for a performer to wait for the audience's approval, too.

Thoms explains, "There were days, especially in rehearsal and in the first couple of previews, where I would think, 'Who is making this decision? Is it me or is it Taylor?' Do I feel like I want to argue this point because the audience isn't on my side or because Taylor doesn't feel supported? Where is this impulse coming from?"

Ultimately, she has to ignore those thoughts. If Thoms changed her performance to make the audience root for her, then Taylor would lose her essential rough edges and the play itself would feel like a political rally instead of an authentic family story.

"I really have to stay in Taylor's mind and stay focused on the people on stage," Thoms says. "We try hard not to let the audience's response alter what we're doing. They're there to participate, absolutely, but you can't play your position differently based on how they're receiving you. [Our director] Kenny [Leon] always says we have to be the rabbit and the audience has to be the greyhound."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor