Tennessee Williams’ classic drama “The Glass Menagerie” will be performed at the 47th Street Theatre, located at 304 W. 47th St., May 8 to May 30. The play, presented by Masterworks Theatre Company, is about a family struggling to break free from their past and present. It is directed by Christopher Scott.
What caught my eye about this production is the use of nontraditional casting. While the role of the mother, Amanda, will be played by Saundra Santiago, the role of the children will be portrayed by two Black actors—Olivia Washington (Denzel’s daughter) and Richard Prioleau—while the role of Jim will be played by a white actor, Doug Harris. I found this casting quite intriguing and recently had the opportunity to do a Q&A with Olivia Washington about her life and this role.
AmNews: Ms. Washington, you have a BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but what motivated you to want to be an actress?
Washington: I grew up with an artistic spirit. I was always dancing or playing the piano. In my dance company, the Eartha Robinson Project, we had acting classes taught by Vernee Watson-Johnson, and her words always stuck with me. I was very shy and learning a form of artistic expression helped open me up to new experiences. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, and when I started working with my aunt LaTonya Richardson-Jackson, that I realized acting was the art form I wanted to focus on.
What about this incredible art form do you like and what do you find challenging?
That is a difficult question to answer because I love acting so much and for so many reasons … I find it hard to sum it up, and so, with that said, I got most of my training at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City, which is part of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and we were always taught, “Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous,” and I can truly say that with every step I take in the art form, I learn something about the world, people and myself. I find such joy in discovering new things or rediscovering old things, things I thought I knew but now see from a different point of view. It’s really amazing.
You have been in “Clybourne Park” and now in “The Glass Menagerie.” These are such different types of plays. What drew you to the role of Laura in “The Glass Menagerie”?
It’s Tennessee Williams! I’ve been put in a unique position, having gotten to study in a conservatory, to acquaint myself with, and work on, great text by some of the best literary talents in the world, past and present. So when an opportunity arises to audition for, and then eventually be asked to be a part of, an off-Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie,” there is no hesitation to say yes. It’s what I have been training to do, and now I get to do it in a professional arena—I’m beyond the point of elation! There is something quite breathtaking and extremely relatable in his stories.
How would you describe your character and what approach are you taking to the role?
At this point, we are a week into rehearsals so I really enjoy finding new things about her. I’m not sure if I have one specific approach to taking on this role. But I can tell you today, this day in the process, I really am fascinated by all her layers and discovering just how many she has!
What about Laura can you identify with and what about her is the opposite of your personality?
Umm (laughs) well, I can relate to her in so many ways, and yet there are parts of me that would say, “No me, Olivia, would probably have said something in this moment.” My family would probably say I’m nowhere as quiet as she is, I tend to think out loud (laughs).
You have grown up around the industry. What lessons have you learned about the things to watch out for in this business?
I wouldn’t say I grew up in the industry, my parents were in it, but I went to school, I had after-school activities, I had a very normal childhood. You know, it’s interesting because I think people assume that in my house we discuss “the Industry” like at the dinner table or something, but that wasn’t the case. Yes, of course I get advice from my parents, but for the most part, their advice is about the art. They are artists and I have learned a lot from them.
What are your hobbies? How do you relax?
I like to knit, I read, I also enjoy Netflix marathons. I’m lucky to have made some really great friends in school and many from home who live in this city, so going out, hanging out is something that I do often.
Once you commit to a role, how do you prepare for it? How are you preparing for this production?
I think it’s different every time. I really have to feel it out, see what is needed. I think what I consistently ask myself is what are the circumstances of the story, what the big idea is and how my character advances or challenges that idea, but before I do that, I read and read and read again. Seriously, I read it so many times.
What does it mean to you to play a role that is normally cast for a white actress and to have a Black brother also?
Although our production is not overtly dealing with race, it will be interesting to see how people take and interpret it. I focus more on the work, and the pursuit to gain a better understanding of character, to do my best to really inhabit her, wholly. And I truly hope the audience will relate to pieces of her that I bring.
What does nontraditional casting do for a production and for the audience?
We will have to see!
How exciting are you to be part of this production and have it mark your New York debut?
I am beyond excited! And to be surrounding by such giving and knowledgeable people everyday is beyond anything I have ever hoped for, for my New York City theatrical debut. A real sense of family is being built in this company, and it feels really special that my first off-Broadway show will be the inaugural show for Masterworks Theatre Company.