Nicole Ari Parker is having one hell of a homecoming. For the first time since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and heading for Hollywood, she’s back in town headlining the starry Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Parker made her name with roles in films like 200 Cigarettes, Boogie Nights, A Map of the World, Remember the Titans, Brown Sugar and Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, among many others, as well as the Showtime series Soul Food, where she met her husband, actor/model Boris Kodjoe. During some well-earned down time from her demanding role, Parker chatted with Broadway.com about being a (temporarily!) long-distance mom and making her Broadway debut as one of the theater’s most iconic leading ladies.
How were you first approached about doing Streetcar?
Word had come down that they—the invisible “they”—were doing a production of Streetcar with a multiracial cast, and I got the call to have lunch with the one and only [director] Emily Mann. I was told she only had 40 minutes, and it turned into a three-hour conversation. We just clicked. I heard nothing for almost four weeks, and then I got a text saying, “Welcome. You’re going to get the offer on Blanche today.”
Really? Via text message?
Well, Emily and I had been exchanging messages over the four weeks, just updates on research we’d done and things we’d discussed. I left that lunch feeling gratified, but not overly hopeful. I said to myself, “I’m sitting at a restaurant with Emily Mann discussing A Streetcar Named Desire. If this is the closest I ever get to this play, I will be very, very happy.”
Had you been looking to come back to the theater? You’ve been working steadily on screen for a long time.
Any actor will tell you that you go where the work is, especially when you have children. I’m just grateful that I was able to support my family over the years, but I missed New York terribly and I’ve missed the theater terribly. You can imagine how many tears of joy I cried to come back like this.
Were you nervous about getting back on stage in such a demanding role?
You know, I had to step up to the plate. I had to go into very intense vocal training, and I had to redevelop the muscles to reach those people in the balcony. There’s no way around it. I admittedly had to work on that as much as I had to work on the emotional life of Blanche.
So when you got this offer, what was the conversation you had with your husband?
Oh, there was no conversation [laughs]. I’ve waited for this phone call for 20 years, so the answer was an ecstatic yes. My husband said yes, my family said yes, my children are too young to know what they’re saying yes to, but they said yes. [Parker and Kodjoe have a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son.] We played around with scenarios of where we should live and if they should come with me, and I think we made the strongest choice for them to stay in their rhythm in Los Angeles, with ballet and karate and soccer and birthday parties, and to come here as soon as school’s out.
How are you staying in touch? FaceTime, Skype?
Oh yes, lots of FaceTime. And Skyping, texting, pictures, drawings, everything.
Is your dressing room blanketed in photos?
Yes! My husband made me a photo book, and he sent me 35 family photographs to put all over my room, so they’re with me every night. I’m also keeping a journal, writing my thoughts from this time down for my daughter, to give to her when she’s older.
How is your husband holding up?
He is exhausted! Any parent will know I’m telling the truth that our kids are kicking his butt, but he’s holding it down. He does that hair in the morning, he makes those pancakes with powdered sugar, and he gets everyone to soccer and ballet and sends me pictures every step of the way.
How are you enjoying being back in New York?
It’s like I never left. Being a pedestrian again is very exciting because in L.A. you live in your car and you’re on a freeway all the time. So I walk everywhere and I love the sounds and the crowds, the pulse of the city. I’m a city girl at heart.
Are you loving being part of the Broadway community?
The interesting thing is that I’m being treated a little bit like the new girl in town. I’m not going to say how old I am, but I am certainly a grown-up, and it’s nice to be treated like the new girl. I’m feeling fresh, and refreshed as an artist. Sometimes I get choked up when I think about this opportunity, and this cast that I’m working with. I love them all so much. And then I got nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award. I couldn’t believe it!
Are you getting caught up in thinking about the rest of awards season?
Oh, I’ve already won. I’m serious! I’m African-American, I’m playing Blanche on Broadway under the direction of Emily Mann, opposite Blair Underwood, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wood Harris. I’ve won like four Tonys in my head already. They are the awards to put on my shelf and bring home to my kids.
This is a beast of a show. Are you exhausted?
It’s climbing Mount Everest, but there are so many layers to Blanche that I have to discover every night that I come with so much enthusiasm. I have nothing to complain about. I just try to do my best every single night and hopefully Tennessee Williams is pleased.
Do you have to dispel the ghost of Blanches past?
I have to respectfully let the ghosts leave the room. [Streetcar film star] Vivien Leigh was a brilliant actress, and I had to let her linger in my consciousness as long as she wanted to stay there. But the material is so intense that I have to dig deep within myself, so ultimately the Blanche becomes mine. I couldn’t imitate anyone if I wanted to.
Are you discovering this character in a whole new way?
Yes, I started the play feeling Blanche’s fragility, and I think part of that was the ghost of Blanches past. Then I realized in rehearsal how much she’s been through. If you’re actually talking to someone who’s been through a disastrous number of years, that only means one thing: They survived it. If I went through what Blanche went through, I don’t know if I would be standing. Yes, she’s longing and she’s desperate in a lot of ways, but she made it through. That’s a fighter. The other interesting thing is that, though a woman can survive all of those things, the thing that most often breaks us is the heart. Poverty didn’t break her, a bad reputation didn’t break her, her promiscuity didn’t break her, her alcoholism didn’t break her, but love did.
Does this character linger in you, after the show is over?
No, there’s no negative residue; there’s no going crazy. I am finally getting the chance to put everything on the stage, for real. We scratch the surface of our emotional life to try to bring truth to characters, but many times the material doesn’t use all of it, so you’re on the subway going home with like a half pound of emotion left in your heart. But Tennessee Williams says I need all of it, and I need all of it now.
Did your husband have a similar experience playing Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway?
He was a different actor after that experience. Seeing him maximized like that was really thrilling for me, and made me keep that spark of hope alive that I would have that opportunity. I’m a different woman already. Dreams really do come true. It’s weird. I feel almost like a kid again.
Sounds like you’d love to come back to the stage.
If they’ll have me, I’ll be back! If I can figure out a way to make it work for my family I would dedicate my life to it.
Thank you for talking to us today.
Thank you. I love that you talked about the play and the character. Because yes, I’m proud to be black, and I’m proud to be an actress that’s playing Blanche. But if we do the play right, the last thing on your mind when you leave the Broadhurst Theatre is race. You come in like,“OK, the black version, la da da,” and then you leave and you’re like, “This is a journey through the human heart.” The playing field is level.
See Nicole Ari Parker in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Broadhurst Theatre.