Actress Caroline Stefanie Clay. (Chris Sorensen/For The Washington Post)

It may have gone unnoticed by most people who have come to the Samuel Friedman Theatre in the past few months to see the Manhattan Theatre Club’s well-received Broadway revival of “The Little Foxes.” But to Caroline Stefanie Clay, one particular character detail gave her a profound sense of how her role could be especially meaningful both to her and a modern audience.

She plays Addie, the maid, in Lillian Hellman’s 1939 melodrama about a family of rich, malicious, scheming white Southerners. Addie is the one character in “The Little Foxes” available to a black actress in any faithful rendition of the play; the plantation’s valet, Cal, portrayed here by Charles Turner, is the sole part written for a black man in a cast of 10. And the trait that proved so important to Clay was one suggested by the director, Daniel Sullivan: that Addie could read.

Clay stars as Addie the maid in "The Little Foxes" on Broadway. (Joan Marcus)

“Dan’s insistence was that we see in real time that Addie is literate,” says Clay, a highly regarded Washington actress who works in both cities. “You see me read the Bible. You see me read the labels on the medicine bottles.” Giving Addie the dignity of literacy not only helped audiences understand the depth of intelligence of this secondary character — through Addie’s and Cal’s reactions, we grasp the magnitude of the venality and mendaciousness of the people they work for — but it also reassured Clay that a part in a script containing dated and sometimes even offensive racial references was worth taking on.

“I came in knowing,” she says, “that I was in the presence of a directorial vision that would keep me safe, as a woman of color.”

It’s a fact of American entertainment that in plays and movies of certain vintages about affluent whites, servant roles often were among the few open to actors of color, a mirror of the social and economic conventions of the times. But in 2017, such roles can seem an unsettling throwback, a black actor entering a scene essentially to pour the coffee or open the drapes for white people. Clay, who also teaches acting at the District’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, is an actress of formidable range. I’ve seen that range in her work as a gossipy English lady of means in Folger Theatre’s “Sense and Sensibility” and as a sharp-tongued policewoman in a family of embittered siblings in Katori Hall’s “The Blood Quilt” at Arena Stage.

It’s also true that Broadway roles are scarce enough for minority actors: According to a new employment study by the Actors’ Equity Association, between 2013 and 2015, only 34 women of color — or 7 percent of the total number of actors — appeared in principal roles in straight plays on Broadway or in the national tours. Their average weekly salary of $1,798 was slightly less than for men, or women as a whole. Opportunities, then, for a decently compensated job in a high-profile production, such as this one, in which an actress would appear alongside, among others, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Michael McKean and Richard Thomas, were rare.

So I wondered what it was like for Clay to be playing a housekeeper on Broadway, and not for the first time. Her last performance there, in 2008, was in another revival by the Manhattan Theatre Club of a classic play, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 comedy “The Royal Family,” in which she assayed the role of Della — the maid. It’s not that servants cannot be rewarding roles. Sometimes, they’re extraordinary. In Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2004 musical  “Caroline, or Change,”  the tempestuous, emotionally exhausted housekeeper, originally played by Tonya Pinkins, is the undisputed star. And in the uproarious meta-theatrical satire “An Octoroon,” based on a 19th-century Southern plantation drama, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins transforms the female house slaves into a scathingly funny comedic tag team.

Richard Thomas and Caroline Stefanie Clay in “The Little Foxes.” (Joan Marcus)

But being offered Addie did give Clay pause. And it prompted her to reflect, as a daughter of ardent civil rights supporters, and whose late father, James Earl Clay, was an undersecretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Jimmy Carter’s administration, about the impressions left on contemporary theatergoers by a subservient black character. Compounding the issue in “The Little Foxes” is the penchant of the white Hubbard family, in a play set in turn-of-the-20th-century Alabama, for tossing around the n-word. Regardless of the language’s historical accuracy, of its intimations of the racism that lingered long after slavery, Clay says she wouldn’t have been able to take the job had the word remained. “The way it’s used in the original draft, I could not see myself making it through the run without feeling dismantled spiritually,” she says.

Even with the issue addressed — the epithet, in all but one instance, has been altered — the role and the play remained troubling for some in her life. Several friends told her, she says, that they would love to have seen her but that they had no desire to sit through the play. Neither, tellingly, did Clay have a desire for two of her former Ellington students, now studying drama in Manhattan at Juilliard, to see her as Addie. “I don’t want the next generation to have to continue to grapple with these roles,” she says. “It’s not about being ashamed. It’s about having the opportunity to aspire to being their highest selves, in material that’s worthy of their experiences.”

Backstage at the Samuel Friedman Theater in New York City. (Chris Sorensen/For The Washington Post)

That Sullivan was eager to add as much richness to the roles of Addie and Cal as possible was a tonic for both Clay and Turner, a classically trained actor who has understudied James Earl Jones on Broadway several times. “The wonderful thing about working with Dan Sullivan is that we had a share in the process,” says Turner, who took it upon himself to spend time in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, bringing to the rehearsal room material on Reconstruction and plantation life. “Stella always said,” Turner says, recalling the words of acting teacher Stella Adler, “know the world of the playwright, and know the world you’re dealing with.”

“They’re the ones who see the truth,” Sullivan says of Addie and Cal. He points to a moment late in the play when alcoholic, aging belle Birdie, played on alternating nights by Nixon and Linney, reminisces about her childhood on her parents’ plantation, where she claims they were so good to their slaves. The director has Cal stare back stonily. “His dead silence is absolutely important,” Sullivan says. “For me, it sets up what has to be a kind of fiction that Birdie lives in, that that was a wonderfully happy time for all.”

In Clay’s assertive, meticulously observed performance, Addie emerges as one of the evening’s most intriguing characters. Interestingly, although Addie complies with the orders issued to her, her spine is always apparent, especially when matters concern the well-being of Alexandra, the daughter of willful, narcissistic Regina, the starring role in which Linney and Nixon also alternate.

Early in rehearsals, she says, she played the maid as more soft spoken, reticent. “Dan said, ‘I have no interest in any of that. What I want is your authentic temperament. Don’t make her palatable or likable. Just tell her truth.’ ” And so, another, more resilient, side of the character came to the fore. “She’s a woman of her time,” Clay says, adding, with a laugh, “Had Addie been born any other time, she would have been a CEO.”

The experience of playing her, which ends this weekend, has been more fulfilling for Clay than she had imagined. Given the favorable receptions to her performance, she has managed to add new dimensions to a character audiences assume they know.

“I have to be very specific about how I choose to use my energy,” Clay says. “Now, it’s in the service eight times a week of a woman who is worthy, whose journey I did not always appreciate and at one time was a source of shame.” She sees Addie, ultimately, not as limiting, but expanding her horizons. “We choose,” she adds, “to take back the images that have been used to denigrate us.”