All eyes on the radiant Charlayne Woodard


The "Night Watcher" as seen at the Primary Stages in New York. Written and acted by Charlayne Woodard. (James Leynse)

Actress Charlayne Woodard has been married for nearly 22 years, and she doesn’t have children — at least not exactly.

“I have 13 godchildren, 21 nieces and nephews, and 15 people who call me Auntie Charlayne,” Woodard says from Los Angeles.

These kids are the subjects of “The Night Watcher,” the acclaimed solo show that was warmly received off-Broadway in 2009 and that Woodard is re-creating for a run at the Studio Theatre beginning Wednesday. The piece is full of stories about “Auntie Charlayne,” as she is routinely called, mentoring and nurturing her wide circle of the young and not-so-young (the oldest is 33).

“I’m the person who comes and plays with them in the playroom after an audition, just to get the audition out of her system,” says Woodard, who audiences may recall as a fierce Kate in the 2007 “Taming of the Shrew” with the Shakespeare Theatre Company or, for those with longer memories, as a Tony-nominated Broadway singer-dancer in the original 1978 “Ain’t Misbehavin.’ ”

“And my play is about secrets,” adds Woodard, 59. “Who are they going to talk to beside their mom? Who might be safe?”

Someone who gleams, perhaps, which is the term that comes up repeatedly to describe the multi-talented writer-performer. “Woodard roams the stage like a human searchlight,” the New York Times wrote of her “Night Watcher” performance, “casting a permanent glow that reaches all the way to the back rows.” “A lustrous heroine,” the paper declared in 1990 when she starred in George C. Wolfe’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” for the Public Theater.

Current “Night Watcher” director Bart DeLorenzo joins the throng flicking lighters and holding them aloft for Woodard.

“She’s a radiant personality,” DeLorenzo says from Los Angeles. “She glows. She’s like that when she talks about a piece of candy she just ate, and when she talks about a character on stage. She just has crazy abundant energy.”

That was certainly clear as Woodard played Kate, the strong-willed daughter being courted roughhouse style in the memorably high-gloss “Taming of the Shrew.” Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse, then an associate director with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, first encountered Woodard then and recently asked her to bring “The Night Watcher” to the biggest of the Studio’s four stages.

The “Night Watcher” idea fell into Woodard’s lap shortly after the D.C. “Shrew,” when a California literary manager asked whether Woodard was writing anything new. She had nothing up her sleeve, but that vast gaggle of kids in her life came to mind.

“I thought: Attention must be paid,” Woodard says in her quiet yet intensely enthusiastic manner. “The world is coming at our young people at a very fast pace. There are no boundaries. They are getting all kinds of information far too early for them to be able to digest it.”

Woodard’s solo works — all of which she has performed in Seattle and New York, none of which she has performed here until now — represents a particular niche in a creative life that has been all over the map, literally and figuratively. She sang in the church choir growing up in Albany, N.Y., but developed a taste for serious drama in high school. So she studied theater at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, but then found herself in musicals almost as soon as she looked for work in New York — a revival of “Hair,” the starring role in the ABC TV movie “Cindy” (an all-black telling of “Cinderella,” with Woodard in the lead), then “Ain’t Misbehavin.’ ”

On YouTube, you can watch Woodard tapping up a storm at the 1978 Tony Awards ceremony. It makes her giggle, because it was never what she wanted to do.

“I went to school to do plays,” she says. “It was my dream to do plays.”

But during Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at the Goodman School, director Vinnette Carroll wanted to include a hymn. Woodard happened to know it, and she taught it to part of the cast. The next thing she knew, she was in the no-frills bus-and-truck company of Carroll’s touring “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.”

She credits that job and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” with teaching her how to perform eight times a week. But she pivoted her career away from musicals and toward serious theater by the early 1990s, appearing in such notable New York premieres as Suzan-Lori Parks’s “In the Blood” (1999), Athol Fugard’s “Sorrows and Rejoicings” (2002), Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation” (2004) and David Adjmi’s “Stunning” (2009).

Oddly, the stage habit has been sustained by screen work in Los Angeles, where Woodard moved more than 20 years ago. Those gigs have been both routine and sublime, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “ER” to the starring role in the Showtime movie “The Gail Devers Story.”

Los Angeles is also where she began to spell her first name – Charlaine – with a “y.” At New York auditions, she’d break the ice with charming patter about how her name “sounds like Charlayne Hunter-Gault, except I’m not all that.” In Hollywood, they didn’t get the joke. So, for simplicity’s sake, she went with the phonetic spelling.

That fundamental disconnect might explain why, when you ask whether she likes the West Coast film and TV work she has done, her answer is yes — but basically because Hollywood jobs make it easier to carry on with her far more enjoyable theater career.

“I came out here for a TV series years ago and have never gotten it!” she says. “But I am probably one of the most fulfilled artists in this city. . . . In New York, it never occurred to me I would write. But I have weekends here. And these people take them! You can’t get anybody in their offices after 3 p.m. Fridays.”

And if she frets about her age getting out — even though 59 won’t surprise folks who can put two and two together since her Tony nomination was 35 years ago — it’s not because she worries what theater honchos will think.

“It’s all L.A.,” she says. Hollywood roles calling for women in their 50s and 60s seem to conjure an image that the youthful-looking Woodard doesn’t match. Of course, anyone who saw her convincingly play the lead in “Taming of the Shrew” past age 50 will understand.

“No way could the Kate of such a poised and powerful performer as Charlayne Woodard be anything but a headstrong adversary,” wrote The Washington Post’s Peter Marks, describing “the magic of casting” for that show.

“I have taken pains to keep myself healthy and in working order,” says Woodard, whose most excitable tweets skew toward sports (namely tennis). “I believe if I wasn’t an actor, I would have been an athlete. I think actors are athletes, the way we use our bodies and the way our minds have to go over our bodies.”

She tells the story — for that is how she always identifies herself, as a storyteller — of the time Michael Jordan overcame the flu during an NBA playoff game, amazingly scoring 38 points when it seemed like he could barely stand up.

“You could tell he had just vomited,” Woodard says, setting up her inspirational conclusion. “But his heart rose up and said, ‘Body, follow!’ I love that.”

The Night Watcher

written and performed by Charlayne Woodard. Wednesday through Nov. 27 at Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or go to studiotheatre.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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