Arts

In ‘The Refuge Plays,’ Nicole Ari Parker Comes Home

On the Max series “And Just Like That …,” Nicole Ari Parker plays the elegant documentarian Lisa Todd Wexley. New York audiences will soon see her in another guise, as a great-grandmother living off the grid in Southern Illinois. Her go-to accessory? An ax. This is Early, the woman at the center of Nathan Alan Davis’s “The Refuge Plays,” directed by Patricia McGregor and produced by Roundabout Theater Company in association with New York Theater Workshop.

“What the theater gives me,” Parker said, “is the feeling that I’m using everything.”

At a recent rehearsal, she had bounded onto the stage in a pink jumpsuit and makeup that aged her several decades. At the start of the first play, Early is in her 80s. The subsequent plays revert her to her 40s, then her 20s. This is Parker’s first stage role since she played Blanche DuBois on Broadway a decade ago, and previews begin Saturday. Asked in a warm-up exercise how she felt, Parker had a one-word answer: “Ready.”

McGregor, artistic director of New York Theater Workshop, had wanted to work with Parker since seeing her turn in “Streetcar” and marveling at the fragility and ferocity that Parker brought to it. Early, McGregor felt, would be an ideal role for her, allowing her to embody qualities beyond sophistication and glamour. “She’s a mother and an intergenerational caretaker,” McGregor said of her star in a phone interview. “Some of the things that are deeply rooted in what Early’s journey is, she has in her bones.”

Will this shift from statement bags to washboard and tub surprise audience members? “Maybe,” Parker said. “I’m surprised!”

Parker and Christopher Jackson in an episode of the Max series “And Just Like That ….”Credit…Craig Blankenhorn/Max

We spoke over breakfast the next morning, at a restaurant near the apartment that Parker, 52, uses while filming “And Just Like That ….” Owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike, Parker declined to chat about that project or any of her previous film and TV work. (She referred, glancingly, to the Showtime series “Soul Food” as “the show where I met my husband,” the actor Boris Kodjoe, “that we can’t talk about.”) Across the table, she appeared ageless, and effortlessly chic. She wore a hat, a scarf, two necklaces, two watches, five rings and a bracelet and yet somehow looked as if she’d simply woken up like that.

Over coffee and omelets, she discussed, with passion and precision, her love for the theater and the secrets that age makeup can reveal. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When did you know that you loved performing?

At a very young age. And I’m really upset with God that he did not give me a singing voice. Because, in my head, I’ve been a Broadway musical star since I was born. I would watch Shirley MacLaine in “Sweet Charity” over and over. I would watch Judy Garland in “A Star Is Born” over and over. I got into N.Y.U. as a journalism major. But second semester, I remember calling my dad and telling him that I wanted to transfer to Tisch. N.Y.U. is very expensive. My dad paid for my college tuition. And he said, “You can’t give up. You’re about to enter the business of no. And you have to keep going. And you have to be strong.” I always hold that in my heart.

What was your training?

It was pretty comprehensive — voice, movement, scene study. But while I was studying Shakespeare, I wasn’t going to play Juliet. I played the maid in “The Little Foxes.” I played all these small subservient roles in the classic plays. The sadness around discrimination is that it’s missing humanity. It’s missing that if you and I leave this cafe right now and there’s a thunderstorm, we’re both going to get wet equally in the rain. The sunshine doesn’t discriminate, and neither does love, loss, death, pain, joy. We all have those things that are in these beautiful classic plays. So you and I both could be up for a role. It’s not about washing clean or ignoring diversity. It’s about, what does it add? And what doesn’t it add? What just is.

“This moment that I’m having in my career is extraordinary,” Parker said. “The feeling has always been there. I just have slightly better clothes right now, better face cream.”Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

You moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Did you always hope to come back and do theater?

I just kept booking jobs. I did let my agents know, but the timing wasn’t always right. Then I got a call saying that Emily Mann was doing a production of “Streetcar” and she was coming to L.A. to meet just a few people. On the day I met her, I sat in the parking lot and I said a prayer: “God, if this is the closest I get to Blanche, being on a shortlist, I’m grateful.” But a 40-minute lunch turned into a three-hour lunch. She asked me if I was more of a Stella or Blanche. I was like, “Emily, I can play Stanley.” I was bursting at the seams to be maximized.

Are you an avid theatergoer?

I am a passionate theatergoer. I’ll go by myself. I’ll drag a friend. I’ll see two shows in a day. I stay for the talkbacks. I buy the good seats. Last year was on fire, with “Between Riverside and Crazy,” “A Strange Loop,” “The Piano Lesson,” “The Lehman Trilogy.” “Death of a Salesman” — I saw that three times.

How did “The Refuge Plays” come to you?

I had really wanted to work with Patricia McGregor. When I saw her production of “Ugly Lies the Bone,” I thought, this is magnificent. I met her after and we just stayed in touch, looking for a journey that we could take together. She sent me the play. And the breakdown said Early, matriarch of the family, early 80s. I called my agent and I said, “I’m a grandma!” He said, “Read the play.” And then I was lost in the magic.

Who is Early?

Her given circumstances are pretty loaded. She was violated. She made a bold choice to go on her own with her newborn. She killed a bear. She built a house. She can see ghosts. This is the kind of play where you can’t leave any of that out.

How did it feel yesterday to see yourself in the age makeup?

So cool. As women we’re told to panic about wrinkles. And I just felt so beautiful with that age makeup on. Everything that was drawn on my face, contoured into my face, I felt like I knew a secret in advance. Like, don’t waste any time fearing something that could be so glorious.

This is a play about family. Has it made you think about your own experience of family, legacy, inheritance?

Both of my parents were born in the ’40s. I feel so lucky to have both of them right now while doing this play, to have an immediate family that’s chopped wood or used a washboard. A lot of the details of Early are in my family. I feel honored to represent that. I said to my mom, “Do you know how to kill and pluck and cook a turkey?” She said, “Yes, baby. You have to boil it first to get the feathers out. And don’t let the gallbladder split because that bile will make the meat bitter.”

How does it feel to be experiencing so much success, so much fame, at 52?

I just did what my dad asked me to do. I fell down but I kept getting back up. In order to be resilient in this business, you had to feel like you’d made it even when you were just living off of bagels. This moment that I’m having in my career is extraordinary because it’s opening more professional doors. But on the inside, the feeling has always been there. I just have slightly better clothes right now, better face cream.

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