Celebrated film and stage actress Felicia Fields returns to Chicago to play the lead in August Wilson’s landmark play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Directed by Ron OJ Parson, Ma runs through March 17 in the Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre at 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe, Illinois. Writers Theatre operates under the leadership of Artistic Director Michael Halberstam and Executive Director Kathryn M. Lipuma.
Inspired by the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, this groundbreaking work by Wilson set in Chicago will envelop you in a Roaring Twenties setting defined by the playwright’s remarkably beautiful language and an extraordinary dramatic conflict between ambition, desperation and love for the blues.
Chicagoan Felicia Fields, who portrays Ma Rainey, has appeared in productions around the world. In 2006, she earned a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Sofia in The Color Purple.
N’DIGO sat down with the renowned actress as she shared her Chicago roots and awesome road to Broadway and back to Chicago.
N’DIGO: You grew up on the South Side of Chicago and started singing in the church. How did you first become interested in music?
Felicia Fields: I was born at Michael Reese Hospital – which is no longer in existence –and I have been on the South Side all my life. When I was born, we lived on 72nd and Perry. I also lived in Roseland, and I live in Blue Island now. I have been here all my life and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
I attended Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on 62nd and Stewart and Rev. Daniel was my pastor. They used to have Junior Church and in Junior Church, you would get a chance to read little poems and Easter speeches and things of that nature.
My mom would help me do the poems, and then she would teach me how to act them out and memorize them. I got to the point at church that it was a big deal. Once a month the little people’s church would go into the big people’s church. I did that for several years. Then, when I was older, I was in the choir and eventually, I was choir director.
You wanted to be a school teacher, so how did you become interested in theater?
I was just starting. I had gotten out of high school, taken some courses, and had finally decided that I was going to teach. I guess God said, “Listen, we’re going to take you out of all that and put you over here.” Marriott’s The Wiz was my first show.
My pastor at that time was somewhat involved in the Chicago Police Department; he was their minister. Pastor met a guy named Bill Geller and his wife, Julie Geller, was writing a script with Chicago actor and playwright John Reeger called Stones.
They came to church one Sunday and were looking for people who might be able to sing on their demo. They had a makeshift studio in Wilmette and we did a reading. People heard me, and someone – I think it was Rufus Hill – came up to me and said that I should audition for The Wiz at The Marriott. I did that and got the job. That’s how I started working. I was on my way to being a teacher, but that just happened.
You are a fabulous singer and actress. How did you combine the two?
Once I decided this was what I was going to do, I started taking acting classes. There were several people I went to and learned techniques from, but some of them, I felt, were stripping away the natural part of what happens with me.
You know, all of the warm-ups and some of this stuff they have you do – it kind of desensitized my ability to just be calm and collective and be whatever the character is and make the character live within me without making it phony. I weighed that a lot. I did take some classes – some I stayed in, some I didn’t.
Now, if you are in musical theatre, it’s such a separate thing – straight actors and musical theatre. It’s very rare that the two intertwine and you can put your feet in both areas. I mean, it happens, but it’s like two different worlds. We’re in the same unions. You will see us at the same auditions.
But I don’t think straight theatre always takes the time to invest in people who can sing or dance as much as they do the people who don’t. I think a lot of people who do straight theatre don’t think of musical theatre as anything but fluff. To me, if you take the time and invest in it, you’ll see that there’s acting in singing.
We’re at an age now when directors want to take time to make musicals mean a whole lot more than when I first got started. I work with Gary Griffin, who stays on my tail and tries to get the best out of you. He doesn’t accept fluff. That’s one of the reasons I like to work with him. He really likes to implement acting and singing.
You have been in numerous theatrical productions with your most famous role being on Broadway as Sofia in The Color Purple. What was Broadway like for you?
I was doing Carousel – with Gary Griffin! – at the Marriot Theatre in Lincolnshire. We were in tech and we brought the costumes in. I walked past the mirror and said, “I look like Sofia in The Color Purple.” And then Gary said, “If I ever do the musical of The Color Purple, I have my Sofia.” Months later, I was at Chicago Shakespeare working and he said, “You’re not going to believe this.”
I listened to some of the music from The Color Purple and it was awesome. There you go! Destiny. First we went to the Alliance, then a Broadway theater, so I was there in 2004-05. Then in 2007, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to open the tour in Chicago and I did that until 2010.
Broadway is just a place. It happens to be a place where people love theater. And people come from all over the world to see it, so they’re passionate about it. But it’s just another place. Another building.
The one thing I do love about doing theater in New York is that they appreciate you. The audiences appreciate you. I personally believe that if they pay that much for a ticket and I work 2-½ hours – some people work eight hours or 10 hours a day and I’m doing only 2-½ hours a day – then I’m going to wait until the last person leaves to sign an autograph if I have to.
I would work and then I would stand outside and sign autographs until the last person would leave. Sometimes that was 45 minutes to an hour after I got off work. But it was rewarding to be able to connect with people after the show because that’s a part of who I am. And I enjoyed being able to talk to people after it was over.
I found out that a lot of playing Sofia had to do with taking pressure off of the hearts of people who had gone through similar things. I was sitting in my dressing room and thinking, “Of all the people that could have this role, why do you have it?” And it occurred to me that there was a nurturing that would take place.
So now you are back in Chicago at the Writers Theatre in Ma Rainey. How did that come about?
I’m excited. I have never worked at Writers. I like Michael (Halberstam) because I heard him speak at our first day of rehearsal and everybody around here seemed nice. At my age, that is the best part. I have done theater for years, but now I am at an age in life where I want to enjoy the process of working.
I want to have fun. I want to be around people that I like to be around…because I spend all day here. All week here. Sometimes we almost sleep here. So, I don’t want to be around people I can’t stand being around. It’s important to me that my environment is friendly.
It’s a beautiful facility, but a building is a building, and it’s more important the people than the building. It’s nice to work where it’s a beautiful space. But I’ve dressed in a bathroom, so it’s not that deep for me. I can put on my clothes and get on stage, but if I like the people that I’m hanging with, then it’s going to be a good thing.
What’s your favorite play?
Hot Mikado. It’s silly and I like to laugh in theatre. It changes me in terms of being happy and silly. To me it’s an exercise of concentration. In order to make people believe what you’re doing, you have to transform yourself and stay there. You have to commit to being in the farce or people won’t buy into it.
In the world we live in now, I want to leave happy. I worked with Ron (OJ Parson, director of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) on Five Guys Named Moe at Court Theatre and it was one of the best experiences of my life in theater.
I watched the audience during that show and people are so uplifted and they smiled so much. And they engaged so much. That was such an exciting event for me. I saw it years ago at Candlelight Theatre and I remember walking out of there singing songs all the way down the street to the parking lot.
Every time I went, I would get more people and bring them back and still sing out in the parking lot. If you are going to see a show for the first time and you want to engage in theater, that’s a good show to go see.
Who is your favorite playwright?
I like the work of August Wilson. It’s complex though. There are rhythms in there. It’s a challenge. Sometimes in learning it, you have said that same line someplace else and it can take your memory back to “Did I say that already?” It isn’t easy to do August Wilson. I enjoy watching it, though.
What’s on your playlist?
I don’t really have a playlist. I can do without the radio. But I do like the blues. In my spare time from theater I perform the blues in a show with E. Faye Butler. Blues is simple and gets to the point. Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, all the great Blues people were from here. I love Koko Taylor and Etta James. The voice of Mavis Staples.
I like people that have had passionate experiences – heartbreak – and revived from it. I love BB King. He’s fun and encompassed other people. He was loose enough to bring other people on stage with him and make a fun party out of it all. Bobby Blue Bland. I like these guys. I think they are fantastic performers.
What would you most like to accomplish that you haven’t?
My wish in this business is to keep working until I’m as old as Betty White, if I can continue to do what I love to do. That’s hard some days, though, when you get older and things physically happen to you. You don’t have the same stamina. Your memory is not the same. And God continually reminds you of that.
You have your sight when you’re young. Now you have to have readers. It’s a challenge. The challenge is greater. But if you can keep peddling through and make it to be what you want it to be and what you’ve always known, you’ll be okay.
This is what I know to do and at some capacity what I wish to be able to continue to do it. I get the opportunity to talk to students at Roosevelt University and I enjoy talking to them, to give them information that I didn’t have when I was their age.
They all think it’s going to be fun, but let me break it down to you. Some things are fun, but you’ve got to have a strong constitution because the world keeps coming at you. And you’ve got to have the capacity to keep beating it. You can’t let it sway you. You have to persevere.