Audra McDonald’s Dramatic Arc

As Audra McDonald returns to Broadway, the six-time Tony winner challenges herself to reach new heights.

WORDS Michael Musto
May / June 2019
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Being able to stretch is a joy. I was hyperactive as a child and still somewhat am as an adult. I don’t ever want to be pinned to a certain thing or put in a box—“This is what she is” or “This is what she does.” I’m curious about all of it. The idea that you could fall flat on your face but might learn something in the process is masochistically appealing to me. That’s fueled a lot of my choices.

When I work on a show, rehearsal is the best part. I like the discovery, the failures and the learning that comes from the failures.

I wanted to do something a little different, something that scares me, a role I haven’t played before.

I like opening your heart to the characters. It’s like when you fall in love—the process of falling in love with the story, the characters and the people you’re working with, there’s nothing like it. I feel richer with each role that I do, spiritually and from a creative standpoint. I’ve figured something else out, whether I was successful at it or not.

The revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune came out of nowhere for me. I’d been thinking I wanted to do something a little different, something that scares me, a role I haven’t played before. Tom Kirdahy [the producer] said, “We want you to play this role opposite Michael Shannon.” It took me two seconds to say yes: One, yes, and two, it’s Michael Shannon, so, hell, yes. The opportunity to work again with Terrence [who wrote the book for Ragtime, which won Audra her third Tony] and now with Michael on this beautiful play was a no-brainer. Frankie is a heartbroken waitress being dragged back into romance. She’s stuck her toe in, and it’s about the two of them trying to find each other. I’m very excited.

Winning Tony Awards has been exciting, for different reasons. The first one [for 1994’s Carousel revival] was, What’s happening? The sixth [for 2014’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill] was, What the [bleep] is happening? I can’t even comprehend it. It’s like it’s happening to someone else.

Broadway fans are unlike any other. They’re so loyal and passionate about the theater. Maybe because they can see it and it’s more tangible because they’re there at the stage door. A couple of times people gave me flowers. Friends who know me give me Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

At the dinner theater I worked at in California, I was denied certain roles because I’m black. I certainly couldn’t audition for The Sound of Music. But there were certain ones I got. I played Evita at 16. I learned so much from being in that dinner theater growing up, but I always was like, I can only be who I am as an artist. I learned not to say no to myself. If I think I’m right for something, I’ll go in for it. And if they say no, at least I tried.

I’ve done roles specifically for people of color, but I also did Carousel. I certainly don’t think Eugene O’Neill had a black woman in mind for Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten, but when I did the play with my husband, Will Swenson, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I felt I knew who she was and there were aspects of her I identified with. I also think Terrence wasn’t thinking of an African-American woman when he wrote Frankie and Johnny, but here we are.

Doing A Raisin in the Sun in 2004 was everything. Sometimes you do pieces that aren’t as brilliantly written as that and it’s, How do I help lift this play? With Raisin, you can’t break that play. It’s brilliant. It was an incredible honor, especially to be with Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan.

Sean Combs worked his tail off like nothing I’d ever seen. He was the biggest cheerleader, and he threw himself heart and soul into that production.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned a lot about TV acting. It’s my second season as Liz Reddick-Lawrence on the CBS All Access series The Good Fight. [Creators] Robert and Michelle King take the story wherever it needs to go because

they’re not constrained by regular network rules and regulations. It’s wild television.

I also spent four years on Private Practice. One of the reasons I took that show is so I could stop being afraid of a camera and figure out how to act for it. You’ve got to act small and think big. Your thoughts have to be very, very loud. The camera can see everything. For me, it was learning that the camera is the audience: What is this machine in my face? Oh, that’s the audience. That helped me.

Outside of the business, working with Covenant House is very important to me. That came about because I was looking for a place to donate proceeds from the opening night of Lady Day to, and it seemed right to me because Billie Holiday was homeless for a lot of her youth and she was trafficked as a sex worker. I thought if there was a place like Covenant House for her to land, she might not have had such a difficult childhood and launched into the adult life she had. I went there to donate and saw them doing an intake of a kid coming off the streets. The way I saw this house leap into action and become a safe haven blew me away. I wanted to be involved.

Through all of this, Will Swenson is my life partner. We met doing 110 in the Shade in 2007 and we did that show again for his family’s theater back in Utah. He’s my husband, my best friend and my baby daddy. I can’t imagine life without him.

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