About two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of conducting a telephone interview with actress Caroline Stefanie Clay. Now on tour with Doubt, she was staying in the same Holiday Inn Express hotel in Hartford, Connecticut, where I spoke to Tonye Patano while she was on tour with Legends! Like Legends!, which had a short run in Washington last fall, Doubt is coming to the National Theatre for two weeks beginning March 13.
Ms. Clay was a natural subject for an interview: I asked one question, and half an hour later I said, "I think it's time to let you go." She was gracious, funny, and passionate. I very much enjoyed chatting with her.
As a result of our conversation, I wrote an article for The Metro Herald, which should appear next week (in the February 23 issue). Here is what I submitted to the newspaper:
Interview with Caroline Stefanie Clay:
Appearing in Doubt, D.C. Native Has Homecoming
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
Actress Caroline Stefanie Clay is a Washington native and graduate of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts who is now touring in a production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, which will arrive at the National Theatre on March 13 for a limited, two-week run.
The original Broadway production of Doubt garnered many laurels, among them eight Tony nominations (winning four awards, including Best Play of 2005) and five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding New Play).
Clay plays the pivotal role of Mrs. Muller, who appears on stage for just a few minutes but who has such a dramatic impact that Clay’s predecessor in the role, Adriane Lenox, received a Tony Award for it. (Clay understudied for Lenox throughout the Broadway run of Doubt.)
In an exclusive interview with The Metro Herald, Caroline Stefanie Clay shared reflections on her life growing up in Northwest D.C., her career as an actress, and her role in Doubt.
Clay grew up near the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Military Road. Her father was a high-ranking official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Carter administration, and he later served a similar role, locally, under Mayor Marion Barry.
“I grew up in melting pot of a lot of embassy kids,” says Clay, noting that among the neighbors on her street were “Greeks, Ethiopians, Somalis, Chileans, Russians, Chinese.” She went to Lafayette Elementary School, which she describes as “an international community.”
“It wasn't until I went to Alice Deal Junior High,” she notes, “that I got into the African-American community.”
Even so, she says, “we grew up being very aware that ‘if you're black, you've got to work three times as hard’” – an admonition that has guided her professional ethic ever since.
Her mother, whom she describes as “a brainy oddball” was an English teacher who came from Louisville. “My brother and I still laugh at this: she would get The Canterbury Tales and read them to us in Middle English. She was determined not to raise her children by television.” Instead of TV, Clay remembers, during her formative years “we would go to museums.” Moreover, Clay’s mother would “lock the screen door to keep us outside and said, ‘Go find your friends; if you can't find them, make them.’”
During her teenage years, Clay says, “I was very, very lucky. I was a product of the Mayor's Youth Employment Program. To me, that program was one of the most progressive and forward-thinking programs. One year I worked at Smithsonian Visitors Center, I also worked at Hirshhorn museum in the slide registry, learning about 20th century modern art, learning about Picasso and Pollack. I was with D.C. Youth Orchestra one summer, and also with D.C. Street Theatre. Those were the kinds of things you could do, as long as you applied yourself.”
Ellington School co-founder Mike Malone, who passed away last December, was a mentor to Clay. “He was instrumental in giving me confidence to know that I could do what I could do. He told us the life skills you can gain from here -- if you're paying attention -- if you soak up what we have to offer, there really isn't anything you can't do.” At Ellington, “there was always a reinforcement of African-American achievement. That's what thrust me out into the world.” Clay adds, with a chuckle, that after high school, “Perhaps people thought I was arrogant -- definitely crazy.”
After high school, Clay went on to study in Philadelphia and dove into the New York theatre scene. “When I graduated college, I did not go to grad school. I got my union card and was ready to work.” Sadly, Washington was not welcoming to the newly-trained actress. ” I came home after college, auditioned, and didn't get response. I have to say it wasn't until I went to New York that I was able to work in D.C. Unfortunately, there are some places that won't give you a second look unless you've been working in New York.”
She did, however, get a second look eventually. Now a classically trained actress, she appeared at the Shakespeare Theatre with Kelly McGillis in The Duchess of Malfi. She has nothing but praise for the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director: “Michael Kahn is brilliant -- he is a true master teacher,” she says.
Clay admires the Washington theatre scene in general, too. “There is such a rich, talented, theatrical community in D.C., they don't need a lot of people from outside.”
“I am always happy to come back,” she says, especially since it gives her an opportunity to “figure out how to get theatre students from Duke Ellington” back together for a mini-reunion.
"The last time I was in DC,” Clay said, she was a finalist in a theatre festival, doing Lady Day from Emerson's Bar and Grille. “I said I am so very proud to be in D.C.”
Getting back to her current production, Clay says, “I play a character back in 1964, who is working very hard to protect her son, dealing with a priest who may have dealt with son in improper manner. My response to that allegation is what you can never, never imagine.”
Doubt, she says, is actually “two plays -- the play that's on stage, and the one that’s off stage, where people talk about it afterwards.”
“I love being in Doubt,” says Clay. “I think Doubt is divine in all things.”
Doubt opens at the National Theatre on Tuesday, March 13, and closes with two performances on Sunday, March 25. Ticket prices range from $38.75 to $78.75 and are available through Telecharge.com or via phone at (800) 447-7400. Tickets area also available at National Theatre Box Office. For more information, visit www.doubtthetour.com.
(Photo of Cherry Jones and Caroline Stefanie Clay from Doubt courtesy of the National Theatre. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)