Backstage

Julia Nixon, Back In the Act After an Extended Intermission

Julia Nixon, in the title role, with Tia Speros in
Julia Nixon, in the title role, with Tia Speros in "Caroline, or Change," at Studio Theatre through July. (Photos By Scott Suchman -- Studio Theatre)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

About a decade ago, singer-actress Julia Nixon had to choose between her two loves -- the stage and her young son. So she headed back to her native North Carolina, though she still came to Washington for weekend music gigs while her mother babysat.

"Theater is a huge commitment and a child is a huge commitment," the soft-spoken, even shy performer says. "I was always in love with my career, but when I had my son, I looked at him and fell in love with him."

She had intended to leave the 8-year-old Nicholas with his father in Washington while she toured in "Smokey Joe's Cafe," but his unhappiness at the idea of her absence, plus the caught-in-the-crossfire headlines of the day -- "Kids his age were getting killed on a daily basis," she says -- changed her mind.

"I wondered if I had made the right decision at the right time," she admits.

Nicholas is in college now, so the time was just right when Studio Theatre's Joy Zinoman called Nixon about the title role in the musical "Caroline, or Change," which runs through July 9. Director Greg Ganakas didn't know her work, but after he heard her intensity, perfect pitch and four-octave range, it was a done deal.

"It was very scary. I was determined to get it right -- scared that I wouldn't get it right," Nixon says of the role. "I knew Caroline was going to be a challenge. I wanted to do more than just sing it . . . it allows me to tap into the more dramatic part of myself, which I wasn't sure I had."

Nixon was nightclub headliner here with her group Julia & Co. at spots including Mr. Henry's and Blues Alley from the mid-1980s on. Before that, in 1983, under the name Julia McGirt, she replaced Jennifer Holliday as Effie White in the Broadway production of "Dreamgirls." She also starred in Studio's production of "Spunk" in the 1992-93 season.

Now, in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's intimate epic about race and class, Nixon plays Caroline, an African American woman in 1963 Louisiana who supports herself and three children on the $30 a week she earns as the maid for a Jewish family.

She has stifled dreams and the memory of an ex-husband so disappointed with life after returning from World War II that he drank and beat her. She never smiles.

"Her anger to me is understandable. I didn't know if the audience would like Caroline . . . but they seem to get her," Nixon says.

The other challenge was how to bring that anger into the mostly sung role without belting all the time.

"I have a big voice, but I'm not that powerhouse singer [who] thinks every note needs to be sung like my life depended on it," says Nixon, who studied voice at the North Carolina School of the Arts. "That goes against me and my classical training."

Now that she's back doing seven performances a week, Nixon says she's ready "to see how far I can go with the talent God blessed me with." If only she could learn to toot her own horn. Zinoman chides her for her humility and the actress doesn't deny it.

She remembers auditioning for "Dreamgirls" choreographer-director Michael Bennett, who remarked that she seemed to be saying, "Excuse me for being here." She says he told her, "Don't ever apologize for your talent."

African Continuum Season

African Continuum Theatre will open its 11th season, titled "Embracing the Legacy," with a play by Lanford Wilson. "The Gingham Dog" (Sept. 21-Oct. 22) chronicles the breakup of an interracial marriage in 1960s New York. It will be staged at the Atlas Performing Arts Center by Jeremy Skidmore, artistic director of the Theater Alliance, which performs a few doors up the block at the H Street Playhouse.

Next African Continuum's leader Jennifer L. Nelson will direct a revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" (Nov. 30-Jan. 14), Lorraine Hansberry's classic drama of an African American family struggling to grasp the American dream.

The third mainstage show of the subscription season will be "The Oracle" (May 10-June 3) by Ed Shockley. The family-focused show, featuring music and life-size puppets, is based loosely on a story by George Bernard Shaw, "The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God."

In addition, Nelson and the company will stage two August Wilson plays, "The Piano Lesson" (Oct. 12-Oct. 22, 2006), in association with the University of Maryland's theater department at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and "Jitney" (Jan. 19-Feb. 18) in association with Ford's Theatre as part of its season.

Also at the Atlas, African Continuum will offer a series of cabarets featuring local performers on Feb. 9, 10, 16 and 17, and staged readings of three plays-in-progress in March.

Follow Spots

? Organizers of the Capital Fringe Festival are looking for volunteers to help run the operation: 400 performances by more than 100 artists or groups at more than 30 venues from July 20 to 30. They're holding a volunteer-recruitment happy hour tomorrow at the Warehouse Downtown Arts Complex, 1017-1021 Seventh St. NW, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Visit http://www.capfringe.org .

? Washington Women in Theatre will present New Plays (Un)Plugged next month. "I Heart Gertrude" (July 3-4) by Caleen Sinnette Jennings and "Boxing Day" (July 5) by Martha King de Silva will be presented at the H Street Playhouse. "How I Became a Bennington Girl" (July 14-15) by Sidra Rausch and "Friendship Betrayed" (July 13, 15 and 16) by Maria de Zayas, translated by Catherine Larson, will be performed at the Warehouse Theatre. Call 703-237-0711.

? MetroStage in Alexandria will end its season with a summer musical, "Ellington: The Life and Music of the Duke" by David Scully, starring Jimi Ray Malary, with local jazz master William Knowles as music director. It runs July 14-Aug. 6. Call 703-548-9044 or e-mail info@metrostage.org .


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