Appearing in The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage through June 7, Caroline Clay's work in the Washington area includes Clementine in the Lower Nine and Gidion’s Knot (2015 Helen Hayes Nominee) with Forum/Next Stop Theatre, the national tour of Doubt (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Featured Actress), and productions at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Shakespeare Theatre Company. She has appeared on Broadway in Doubt and The Royal Family, and off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, Signature Theatre, and Playwrights Horizons. Regionally she performed with Yale Rep, and McCarter, Long Wharf and Goodman theatres. TV credits include Law & Order, Law & Order SVU, House of Cards (Seasons 2 & 3) and The Knick. Film credits include Everybody’s Fine, Sherrybaby, and Morning Glory. A native Washingtonian, she is a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the University of Maryland (MFA), and now a proud member of the faculty at both schools.
1. What was the first show you ever saw, and what impact did it have?
Growing up a student of DC public schools, we would see plays all over the city. I remember A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Folger starring the amazing Franchelle Stewart Dorn. She was the first actress I ever saw play Titania. I idolized her, and still do. The impact of seeing a classically trained woman of color bringing brilliantly life to these roles made a huge impact on me that cannot be overstated. Later this year, I will have the privilege to play Titania at the Folger in A Midsummer's Night Dream directed by Aaron Posner- talk about coming full circle!
2) What was your first involvement in a theatrical production?
Kindergarten, Lafayette Elementary School, Washington DC, 1973. I played a flattering, card-playing jester in The Emperor's New Clothes. I remember I got my first laugh, and the rest is history!
3) What’s your favorite play or musical, and why do you like it so much?
My favorite play is Joe Turner's Come & Gone by August Wilson. I have been in three productions to date, and I believe it keeps coming into my life for a reason. While it may not be Wilson's most readily accessible play, I believe it to be his most brilliant. The intersection of blacks coming from the South to the North during the great migration in search of a new life, coupled with having to reckon with the ancestral ties that bind, is so powerful to me. What other play looks to make manifest the scars incurred during the Middle Passage through mysticism, humor, visions, recollection, and memory? This play also began what has become my deep interest and inquiry into the cultural connections between modern black life and ancient African deities.
4) What’s the worst day job you ever took?
Living in New York for almost 20 years found me in every kind of odd-job between gigs. In the 90's I worked in a Wall Street firm on the night shift covering a now obsolete job called the "phone turrets." Once upon a time before voicemail, there was a switchboard system where people would call the bankers after-hours and need to be patched in immediately by yelling out to them on the investment floor. I'd have to scream: "Joe Smith, your wife is on line one, she says it's urgent!!!" They never wanted to speak to their wives, and I would always have to get the earful.
5) What is your most embarrassing moment in the theatre?
Quite recently, I was in a show where I injured my knee. Our schedule was such that I never really got to properly rest it and consequently was controlling the pain with medication. One day, in agony, I took a capsule that you're only supposed to take at bedtime. I got onstage feeling fine and about one hour in, I could not put a sentence together - I was smashed. Luckily, my colleagues pulled me through with strong coffee and even stronger empathy. I made it through without too much damage. Anyone who was at that performance, I apologize. I learned my lesson!!
6) What do you enjoy most about working on The Blood Quilt?
I'm enjoying the role of Gio immensely. She keeps me guessing and constantly challenges me. I've been doing this a long time, and roles like these don't come around often. Every night is revelatory. I'm so much more nuanced than I was at the beginning of the run and am beginning to trust her moments of quiet, and stillness. It's a joy to play this deeply flawed, achingly human individual who must remain vulnerable even when she's being outrageous, and it is an emotional workout. That I have been blessed with this amazingly stellar cast of women is a gift beyond measure. I am indebted to Katori Hall and Kamilah Forbes for giving me the space and freedom to walk around in this woman's unruly shoes.
7) Other than your significant other, who’s your dream date (living or dead) and why?
James Cagney. I am a huge fan of his work. Although he's mostly known for his gangster films, what has always struck me was his genius as a hoofer - the man could dance, watch Yankee Doodle Dandy. His sexy vulnerability was always so appealing to me. I like bad boys. No matter what kind of bully he played, at the core of his performances was love. Watch his brilliantly layered work with Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me: The Ruth Etting Story. He also kind of reminds me of my late Dad: short, intentional and that crazy Irish-American spirit that reminds you of a gorgeous bulldog!
8) What is your dream role/job?
Ideally, I'd love to continue to create my own work in the form of the many one-woman shows I have written in the past years: Let It Flo!: Radicalism's Rudest Mouth and Sepia Sculptress: The Life and Times of Edmonia Lewis. In the past, academia has afforded me the financial security, the latitude to teach and devise work, to continue my immersion in voice and dialect training, and to perform. I hope to find that again.
9) If you could travel back in time, what famous production or performance would you choose to see?
I would've love to have seen Rudy Dee and Earle Hyman in the all-Black version of O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night at Arena Stage. I saw it on PBS Great Performances as a teenager. It was incredible and speaks to the vision of Zelda Fichandler, not only for putting such a radically progressive production front and center, but for showcasing Ruby Dee in what I think may have been one of her finest performances as Mary Tyrone.
10) What advice would you give to an 8 year-old smitten by theatre / for a graduating MFA student?
My advice would be to follow your heart. I know it may be cliche, but it's true. If this business is for you, you'll know. Remember it is a business: ask questions. Folk want to help, mentor and be of service, but you must be willing to ask for help. Also, be able to do something else outside of the arts, not to fall back on per se, but to fall forward into. Meaning, if your entire conversation revolves around "actor shoptalk"- the scope of your world is not as large as it deserves to be. Go to museums, garden, travel whenever you can—even if it's to Rock Creek Park--swim, meditate, volunteer at a senior center or for a social cause dear to you. Have other interests, it only adds to your layers as an artist and citizen of the world.