Actor Crystal Fox is a star of Tyler Perry's "The Haves and the Have Nots," one of the highest rated shows on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network. She has returned to the Twin Cities to headline her fourth production at Penumbra Theatre, where she is a company member.
Fox, who lives in Atlanta, plays an aspiring actress in old Hollywood in Lynn Nottage's critically acclaimed drama "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," which is making its regional premiere in a Lou Bellamy-directed production that opens Thursday. Vera, who is black, works for Gloria (Norah Long), a white Hollywood star whose success, she hopes, will be shared.
Fox chatted about "Stark," her TV show and famous aunt Nina Simone.
Q The last time you were in the Twin Cities, it was for "The Amen Corner," which Penumbra presented at the Guthrie. What have you been doing since, and will you be singing this time around?
A Well, I got a little part on the little screen. Ha, ha.
Q How has working on this TV series changed your life?
A First of all, it's not the only series I've had, as you know. Twenty-five years ago, I was in "In the Heat of the Night" with Carroll O'Connor. That was a blessing. But I was naive then. For all practical purposes, I was a regular on that show, but I wasn't making the money that regulars make. I was not business smart. Now, I know the business a little better. This [TV] role is a spiritual gift to me. Before I got it, I prayed, wondering if I needed to commit to theater only or see if there was a TV audience that I could appeal to. God answered me.
Q Some people in the business would give up their first-born to meet Tyler Perry.
A He and Oprah are incredible. At the audition, Tyler asked me, "How old are you?" I said, "I'm not going to tell you." He said, "This woman is supposed to be 49-50, and I want to cast someone who is that real age." I told him my age and then I left to go back to Oregon. Within a week, Tyler had made me an offer.
Q What has it been like?
A The response has been crazy. I mean, the show is a hit, and people follow you around with cameras, want your autograph. They write letters. We're in Canada now, so we get mail from there, and we get fan mail from Africa, too, where they're bootlegging it.
Q Why do you think people connect to your character, Hanna Young?
A She's a blue-collar worker in a very dignified lead position. She has moral fiber and strong will. I think she reminds people of their favorite aunts, their mothers and grandmothers. I can't tell you how many people want to hug me and thank me for representing this type of character on screen. We set out to get a demographic of 22-to-50-something women. But it's drawing everyone — teens, black and white, boys and girls.
Q On screen and in Lynn Nottage's play, you play characters who support the dreams of others.
A I know that some people ask the question, "Why are you playing maids? Aren't you selling out and taking demeaning roles?" But when I get responses like I've gotten from our fans, I know I'm doing something right. It's a heavy responsibility to show the deep humanity, the wisdom, the warmth, the charm and everything about Hanna. Vera has this hunger. And she has a desire to succeed.
Q At Penumbra, you've played a prisoner with a special song in "Black Pearl Sings." You've also played Risa, who scars her own legs to make herself unattractive to lecherous men in "Two Trains Running." And you played Odessa, the protective older sister of the female preacher in "The Amen Corner." All these roles seem related.
A Well, they're all women with gifts and value who are not sure if their value is going to serve them or serve someone else. Pearl thought she was developing a friendship with this white woman who was only trying to get her songs. Risa showed that people walk around with their magic inside of them, and she wondered who's going to see it and whether she'll ever get a chance to fully show it. In "Amen Corner," Odessa offered rock-solid support to her sister. In this play ["Vera Stark"], I support Gloria and believe that if she achieves what she sets out to achieve, we'll achieve it. I'll share some of her light.
Q: You identify with these women, especially the two you play on stage and screen at the moment.
A For me, Crystal, one of the hardest things that I've wrestled with is how to be true to who I am as a child of God in an industry that's so sick. Very few brown women with natural hair are hired to be on TV or in feature films. The larger environment isn't that welcoming to us. I think what Tyler is doing is revolutionary. He and Oprah are creating places where we get to work. They're hiring and educating many, many people in front of the camera and behind the scenes. And they're creating opportunities for people like me, who can be naturally who we are.
Q I remember you said that you'd gotten bitten by the acting bug when you saw Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf."
A Yes, I think I was about 12, and it must have been New York. I just sat in my seat when it was over. I was blown away by the performances. I also understood, in a deep way, that that power that moved me came from people — not the props, not the sets. It was those actors onstage who charged me and gave me something that has lasted all this time.
Q And you still carry that thrill from that time.
A I got into this business to act, not to be in show business. That's been a little bit to my detriment. Because I've not always paid attention to the business side, I've been poor.
But now I have another appointment. There was something I asked Tyler about, and he said, very gently, that I was the epitome of someone who doesn't realize that her station in life is changing. I'm having a hard time embracing celebrity. I want to be a regular person, but I know that not everybody's boss is Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.
Q Why are you so wary of fame?
A Why me? We all deal with worthiness issues. Aside from that, I've seen the dangers of celebrity up close. It kind of messed up my family. My aunt [Nina Simone] was famous. I saw the cost of all of that on her. Fame is disruptive. It bends and skews relationships. You have to decide, do you lose yourself because you adapt to fame? And if you try to be normal, does that make for a more joyful life?
Celebrity costs a lot. If you want to be famous, and you get that, that celebrity could be an early death sentence.
Q Tell that to Vera.
A I know, right?
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390