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How to Play the People in a Musical about a "Ghost"

Date: Apr 25, 2012


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"I get scared every night. Every single night." So says Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who's playing psychic Oda Mae Brown in the Broadway musical Ghost.

It's easy to understand why she'd be nervous. For one thing, Ghost is based on the beloved and well-remembered 1990 film about Sam Wheat, a ghost who asks Oda Mae to help him find his killer and protect his wife, Molly. It's also the very definition of a modern major musical. High-tech effects, sophisticated video projections, and a rock score by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard all make it feel larger than life.

Still, the actors need to deliver to grounded performances. Even in a show about ghosts, they need to seem human.

Randolph faces that challenge by relying on her training. Like her co-star Bryce Pinkham, who plays Carl, Sam's murderous best friend, Randolph studied acting at Yale School of Drama. What she learned is just as valuable in a major musical as it is in a Shakespeare play.

"For me, having the foundation helps cut through the nerves," she says. "I can say to myself, 'I know my objectives. I know the purpose. I know where I'm going. I know how I want to tell the story.'"

Sitting next to Randolph in her dressing room, Pinkham agrees, adding that his training has been crucial for playing a bad guy. "On the list of the people who are going to defend Carl, my name is first," he says. "I think of him as a three-dimensional guy, not just a two-dimensional villain. There's so much you wouldn't initially see about him, and it's exciting for me to say, 'Okay, how can I bring this out?'"

At the end of the show, for instance, Carl does drastic, violent things, but he doesn't begin the story as a threat. Pinkham wants to show us each step in his downfall. "The idea of watching him land on the other side of a really, really bad decision---watching him try to navigate his next few decisions---that's more interesting to me than watching a carbon copy of every villain you've ever seen," the actor says. "Later on, there are moments where you can see that Carl is still, or was at one time, a good guy. That he genuinely cares for Molly. Those are moments that I try to play with a positive [energy.]"

Granted, that doesn't mean an audience will accept those extra layers. As Randolph says, "People are going to put the bad guy on him, no matter what, and people are going to put the 'loud, sassy, everything's funny' thing on me. But for us, we're telling a story. And how you perceive it is your experience, and I'm so grateful for you to have that. But for me, it's not just 'funny.' For me, the biggest thing is to show the heart and the vulnerability."

In other words, when Randolph's in an over-the-top scene, shouting at Sam's ghost, she doesn't worry about making people laugh. Instead, she focuses on Oda Mae's "outright, blatant honesty"---her inability to keep her opinions to herself. She also imagines that Oda Mae is driven by the desire to be as special as her mother and grandmother, who also had psychic powers.

Of course, a massive show like Ghost doesn't always let actors focus on their motivations. Sometimes, they just have to avoid the sliding walls and flying pieces of furniture.

"It's keeping two parts of your brain alive at the same time," Pinkham says. "One is your actor brain that knows, 'I'd better be standing in that exact spot, or I'm gonna get hit by a thing. But then there's the character brain, who's thinking, 'I just pointed a gun at my best friend.'"

He continues, "It's doing those two things on equal terms and knowing when it's safe to dial the emotions up all the way and when it's important to say, 'Well, let's just take a breath here and make sure I'm hitting all my marks.'"


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor