Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How starring in Proof of Love has changed Brenda Pressley's life
Brenda Pressley had never done a solo show when playwright Chisa Hutchinson asked her to star in Proof of Love, a one-person-play about a woman navigating multiple calamities. Although Pressley was blown away by the script -- "I read the first couple of pages and my mouth dropped open, literally" -- she initially declined, concerned she just didn't have the time to tackle such a challenging project. She was already busy performing in Hutchinson's dramedy Surely Goodness and Mercy Off-Broadway; when would Pressley find the time to learn 75 minutes' worth of lines and blocking?
The part went to Suzzanne Douglas, but she dropped out due to personal reasons before rehearsals even began. Hutchinson asked Pressley to reconsider, and the actress took it as a sign. "A yes flew out of my mouth," she recalls. "I think that was the way it was meant to be all along. I'm a firm believer in life happening as it's supposed to." And yet, she says that she also, "burst into tears. I knew I was getting into something I had never done before as an artist. There is great responsibility in taking on something like this."
Produced by Audible in association with New York Theatre Workshop, Proof of Love is a moving exploration of grief and forgiveness centering on Constance, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class black woman, whose life is upended after a car accident leaves her husband in a coma and she discovers his extramarital affair. It's a meaty role and, while it seems Pressley was destined to play it, she admits the journey hasn't been easy.
"It took hours and hours and hours, and it's still taking hours and hours and hours," she says about mastering the material. "Saying the lines out loud, over and over again. And of course, being up on my feet, there are some things that get in my body. That triggers the mental pairing of words and physicality."
Even though the world-premiere show has already opened, Pressley, a 30-plus-year theatre veteran, says she continues to grow in the role every day. "I'm still in the process of being comfortable delivering all of those lines -- my lord!" she exclaims. "I sometimes think to myself, in a couple of weeks, it will be there." That's good timing because, toward the end of the run, she will record the play for Audible, the audiobook publisher, so her performance will live on long past the show's June 16 closing date.
Pressley gives voice to multiple characters in the one-act, including Constance's husband Maurice, their daughter and his mistress. But it was the chance to play Constance that drew her to the play. In an industry where it's still rare for black women to occupy center stage, Pressley relishes portraying such a complex character who displays vulnerability and strength. "I think she's just so interesting and so different from what we've seen on stage," she says. "We know of very accomplished African-American women, but the way someone of this stature and means deal with complete emotional devastation, it's so refreshing."
Pressley also sees herself in Constance as she too had a longtime husband who was unfaithful. "I relate to a number of moments that Chisa has written for this character," Pressley says, especially "the hurt, the shock, the anger. You have to accept it, and you have to find a way to go on with your life. And, hopefully, you'll find happiness again, someway, somehow."
Because Proof of Love isn't about betrayal; it's about how you navigate its aftermath. At the end of the play, Constance is able to find a kind of peace. In doing this play, Pressley -- now divorced after 20 years of marriage -- has too. "This experience has given me the confidence to move forward as a single woman of a certain age, having shown myself -- not the world, but myself -- what I'm capable of," she says. "This whole process has strengthened me as a woman, as well as an artist. It's been one of the most valuable experiences I've ever had."
Top image: Brenda Pressley in Proof of Love. Photo by Joan Marcus.