An Interview with Caroline Clay of ‘Clementine and the Lower 9′ at Forum Theatre Pt. 1 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

Carolines_Headshot-231x300Caroline Clay is a phenomenal woman. Her extraordinary acting skills and God’s gift of performance talent are only preceded by her grace, beauty, and kindness. Caroline plays the title character, Clementine, in Forum Theater’s current emotionally charged new work, Clementine and the Lower 9, written by Dan Dietz and directed by Derek Goldman. This is the closing weekend of the play and TODAY is your last opportunity to see one of the best productions and rewarding new plays that I have seen all year.

Caroline Clay recently talked with me before a Thursday performance  about her acting career, theater life, and Clementine and the Lower 9, her latest play in the DC area since her 2008 Helen Hayes Award-winning performance for Best Supporting Actress in a Non-Resident play for Doubt.

In Part One: We discuss the production process of Clementine and the Lower 9, the cast, and the creation and evolution of Caroline’s leading role.

In my recent review on Clementine and the Lower 9, I wrote about Caroline Clay’s performance:

“Caroline Stephanie Clay’s performance as Clementine is fantastic … there is such a freedom of expression, an instinctive authenticity to her portrayal. You feel her agony, you share her dreams, and you are inspired by her courage of hope. Clay is an experienced Broadway and theater actor, but her performance in this lead role is indeed a defining moment… We need to see more of her in DC Theatre!”

Syney-Chanele: What does this play mean to you?

Caroline: I have had this play orbiting around my life for about five years. I workshopped it when I was living in New York, both in the city and upstate, and at a festival in Philadelphia. When it was announced that it was receiving its first full-fledged production in LA, I had already decided to get my MFA at University of Maryland. I did as I do with many things in my life – to surrender it to the universe. I wanted to do the show badly but resolved to myself that if this were going to happen, it would come back around to me.

Three years later, in one of the most circuitous routes possible, I happened to take a class with director Derek Goldman at University of Maryland who also teaches at Georgetown University. Derek knew nothing of the play, or my involvement with it. Later, as he got to know my work and we became friends, Dan Dietz, the playwright, mentioned to him my connection and it snowballed.

We had a reading at Forum and the people at that reading were the people who were cast. It’s eerie, the casting is perfect, Thony, Jeff and I look like a credible family;  there is a resemblance. Often I see Thony, standing in the very same position that I’m standing or we listen to Jeff in the same way. There are many moments like that where you can’t choreograph, people either vibe or they don’t, this cast vibes and audiences are responding.

Clementine and the Lower 9 is a new play that was still evolving when changes were made with this Forum production. What was it like having the playwright there with you in the rehearsal period for a couple of weeks as you sculpted the character of Clementine? Having Dan Dietz the playwright in the room definitely charged the atmosphere with a sense of purpose and excitement because there was a fluidity, and a willingness to experiment with things he had always wanted to try and shift. Along with our director Derek Goldman and dramaturg Hannah Hessel, changes were made through performance time. The core of Clementine never changed it was really just a question for me of clarifying “why” Clementine did what she did, being a career nurse, having given up her dreams of being a pianist, her relationship to her mentor, the trauma over having euthanized her mentor in the hospital during the storm, her relationship with Jaffy, her Reginald, and Cassy.

What challenge or responsibility did you feel to develop Clementine, this “new” character?

For me this play is a huge heart and each of Clementine’s storylines represented an artery leading to the main heartbeat. My challenge was being clear which vein conducted the most life-giving blood. Everything cannot have equal importance. I found myself exhausted in rehearsals, from not know where to focus my attention as a character. There seemed to me to be an overload of concerns on Clementine’s plate. As rehearsal progressed, and composer Justin Ellington joined us, Clementine’s relationship to her suppressed dreams of becoming a musician and being haunted by the expectations of my mentor were further refined, and became a beautiful anchor for me emotionally.

Clementine in the Lower Nine is Dan’s beautiful vision. It is the story that came out of his trips through the Lower Ninth Ward following the storm when he was teaching at the University of Alabama. He was particularly moved by the stories of nurses trapped in hospitals with patients in hospitals when the generators went out and their courage in standing by their patients under heinous conditions. That is where the nurse storyline comes from. A native of Marietta, Georgia, Dan has a lovely ear for the region and has crafted a moving story using the Greek Myth of the House of Atreus (Clytemnestra/Agamemnon) as a backdrop.

Describe Clementine, and tell me what cultural references you used to create her look and character.

Clementine is a loving wife and mother who suffered the worst imaginable tragedy, the death of her daughter during Hurricane Katrina. She is determined, however, to rebuild her life after nine months of displacement following Hurricane Katrina. Along with her college age son Reginald and husband Jaffy, as recovered addict and horn player – they go about the task of rebuilding.  The problem is, Jaffy returns with an unwelcome guest. Clementine loves Jaffy with her entire being, even in the face of her better judgment. She stood by him during his addiction and has weathered many emotional and economic storms to stand by him. As an interracial couple, even in New Orleans where race mixing is commonplace, Clementine and Jaffy have experienced their share of racism, isolation, and hard times because of their union.

I used the Yoruban orisha “Yemaya”, “goddess of the waters” as the template for my look and imagery for my temperament. Costume designer Ivania Stack created a look that leaned heavily on Greek silhouettes and draping, but we used African prints and head wraps, cowrie shells, and earrings with jewels that looks like blue chalcedony: all offerings to Yemaya. Dan Dietz, Derek Goldman and I were very interested in Clementine being as immersed in African and African-American narrative as possible. The Yoruban “Supreme Being” Olurun is mentioned in the opening monologue. When I read that, I took it as an invitation to bring my culture, my interests in anthropology, my travels to Ghana, and my multi-ethnic background to the fore. Clementine is all that I am. I am Clementine. Clementine and I might not solve problems the same way, but there is nothing that she does in this play that I cannot conceive, empathize with, or understand.

Jeff Allin and Carolina Stefanie Clay. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Jeff Allin and Caroline Stefanie Clay. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

What back-story and motivation did you create for the character Clementine? Did you look to Greek mythology at all?

There is a saying, “if it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the stage.” I simply used the text. The back-story is what is stated in the script. The motivation is clear. That’s why the Greek myths endure. You might not agree with what Clementine does but you see the seeds of how she got there  I am a huge fan of Greek mythology, I own Edith Hamilton’s anthology. I have played Euripedes’ Medea (a translation by Hans Henny Jahnn for Target Magin Theatre in NYC). Medea is my favorite Greek tragedy. I remember seeing it with Zoe Caldwell as Medea and Judith Anderson as the Nurse. The scene where the messenger returns with the news of the cloak of gold bursting into flames on the princess and Zoe Caldwell shaking in ecstasy stands as one of the great moments in Theatre. I tapped into some of that orgiastic joy when preparing Jaffy’s bath. It felt right.

I see, feel, and experience an emotional roller coaster when you perform Clementine. What is that determined intensity like night after night?   Internally, what do you go through?

I go through a lot playing Clementine but I also practice an emotional remove. The images play in front of me like a movie but when the film is over the curtain closes and it’s over until the next showing. It has to be that way for my own emotional health. It wasn’t always this way… I used to hold residual tension and trauma after difficult or emotional scenes. I had a hard time letting things go. That is where technique comes into play.

The actor must be a “tabula rossa” which in Latin means blank slate. Emotions must wash over and through you. Being an emotional wreck does not make you a good factor it makes you an emotional wreck. Believe it or not, the rollercoaster I’m on during the show is thrilling, because I am living the life of a fully realized woman of color who doesn’t edit her feelings or her speech. Clementine says what she feels and walks a path populated by the enchanted mysteries that make the people of Louisiana so special. She says at one point, “My family been living in this town for well over 100 years, which means I know a thing or two about the supernatural.” I get the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a woman whose feet are on the ground and yet her life experience has given her a heightened sense of bloodline, familial loyalty, sensuality, ferocity, and the need to rebuild.

You bring such authenticity to the role of Clementine. How has the development of Clementine evolved throughout your performances? Does your source of energy for her come from any personal references?

I don’t push anything about Clementine. I trust that what I have worked on with my characterization is now coming out of my pores. I don’t have to “show” the audience how hard I’m working. At this point she is like a second skin. She is a combination of many women in my life: she sits wide-legged like my Aunt Edna in Birmingham, Alabama, she pulls at her girdle like my grandmother “Mu’dear” Julia of Meridian, Mississippi, and her grin is enigmatic like my Grandmother Dorothy of Louisville, Kentucky. If Clementine had a theme song, it would be Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women.’

What is your pre-performance ritual? 

I warm up for 45 minutes before the show to a Linklater taped vocal and physical warm-up that vigorously warms up the breath, the spine, and my thought/feeling impulses. I then steam my throat and nasal passages and hum softly. I do yoga and stretching for 15 minutes and run through the first scene with my son (Thony Mena) on the roof of their home. We do it before the show for good luck every night. It’s the longest scene in the play, and for me the one that took me the longest to learn. I still struggle with the words. I then chat with Meghan, my dressing roommate, we talk about our day, the business, boyfriends, and silliness. I am intentionally silly before this show. I then wish each of my cast mates a great show. I always have coffee, my script, throat drops, water, and lipstick,  in that order lined up on the piano outside of the stage – entrance. Ask anyone.

Tell me about the four other cast members of Clementine and the Lower 9?

I adore them all. Scott Patterson (Jazz Man) is an amazing musician and actor. He has a young family and is doing all can to push musical boundaries, a true genius. Jeff Allin (Jaffy) is kind and sincere. It took us time to get to know one another, our chemistry has been earned and because of that it feels lived in, true, and authentic. He is a true gentleman and lovely actor. Meghan Graves (Cassy) has a maturity that belies her young years. Her gravitas and wisdom make me think she’s been here before. She has a huge career ahead of her. Thony Mena (Reginald) has stretched himself in this show in a way I had not previously seen. A graduate of University of Md., I’ve watched Thony become hungry to play on stage and engage at the highest levels of listening and exchange – a very exciting young actor indeed.

I love the intimacy that the staging of this play provides. It’s like the audience is right there with you on the stage. How has all of this affected your performance?

I love the set and how it feels as if the audience is in the house and in many of the rooms, they indeed are. I assume the cast feels the same way. That lack of privacy is so helpful and gives you feeling of intrusion that this family and families like theirs would feel in a house blown off of its hinges after something of this magnitude. There are days when the set/house is messier than others. Reggie, is literally living on the couch, leaving his clothes on the floor, and that embarrasses me (as Caroline and as Clementine).

The fact that the audience can see right into the bowels of the home, no doors, no barricades, creates a physical and emotional nakedness that I know Derek (the Director) was going for – literally no place to hide. That I cannot provide my son his own room and no matter how much I sweep, clean, wipe down, and spray, the house is still a mess- makes me feel very vulnerable.  Yet as Clementine says in the way only she can, “It’s still standing.”

What did you learn working with Derek Goldman, the Director, on this production?

I adore Derek Goldman. He has a Ph.D., and is a professor in Theatre and Performance Studies at Georgetown. While that’s impressive, I don’t want to be directed by a scholar, I want to be directed by an artist. Derek is both. He is incredibly busy, yet is a dedicated family man, yet, somehow manages to make it to his son’s baseball games. He has had his own theatre company, he nurtures emerging artists, and he isn’t afraid of difficult works. He is a progressive who is constantly looking ahead. What has been most satisfying about getting to know Derek is his sense of humor, he is hysterical.  His humor ranges from self-deprecation to chapter and verse quotations of jokes from early Redd Foxx albums.

As we speak, I am currently working on another project directed by Derek at Georgetown University for a “Symposium on Documentary Theatre” where Derek is the Co-Artistic Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. It’s a staged reading of a play called Hate Radio by Milo Rau about the Rwandan radio station RTLM and their role in the genocide that occurred between the Tsutsis and Hutus.

Working with Derek always leaves me feeling challenged, curious to know more, and considering things I hadn’t when the day began. That is the core of collaboration.

Caroline Stefanie Clay and Thony Mena. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Caroline Stefanie Clay and Thony Mena. Photo by Melissa Blackall.


In Part Two: We go deeper and get more personal with Caroline Clay, as she discusses the creative process and her Helen Hayes Award win, her greatest joys, career mistakes, and the impact of a life in the theater and the future.

Clementine in the Lower 9 review on DCMTA. 

Theater of the Voiceless: International Symposium and Festival of Documentary Theater 

Clementine in the Lower 9 ends its run TODAY June 15, 2013 at  at 2 and 8 PM at Forum Theatre at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.


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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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