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Andrea Lee's 'Interesting Women'

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Interesting Women, the new collection of short stories by Andrea Lee.

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Other segments from the episode on June 24, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 24, 2002: Interview with Laila Ali; Interview with Cherry Jones; Review of Andrea Lee's “Interesting Women."

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DATE June 24, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Cherry Jones discusses her acting career on stage and
on screen and the current adapatation of "Lysistrata" she stars in
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Actress Cherry Jones has been called the high priestess of New York theater.
She starred opposite Gabriel Byrne in the production of "Moon for the
Misbegotten" and won a Tony Award for her starring role in "The Heiress."
She's been featured in the films "The Perfect Storm" and "Cradle Will Rock"
and now plays Buggy in the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

She's currently at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, starring in a
musical adaptation of the classic Greek play "Lysistrata." It's a
co-production with the American Repertory Theater, which is affiliated with
Harvard University. Jones was a founding member of ART. The director, Robert
Brustein, wrote the adaptation. The music is by Galt MacDermot, who wrote the
songs for "Hair."

"Lysistrata" was written in the 4th century BC by Aristophanes. The story is
set during the long war between Sparta and Athens. The women of Athens, led
by Lysistrata, are tired of losing their fathers, husbands and sons to the
war, so they decide to go on a sex strike: no more sex with their husbands
until the men decide to stop the war. Jones plays Lysistrata. Jones was
never in a classical version of the play; in fact, she was never a big fan of
the play.

Ms. CHERRY JONES (Actress): It was all Greek. You know, there were so many
inside jokes, true to the period, which was 420 BC. But I think also it felt
like a big drag show because, of course, you know, men were performing the
women's roles.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. JONES: And so the vulgarity was male vulgarity about women's parts, but
playing women, being vulgar, but with this fantastic, Utopian goal of ending
war by this brilliant plan of withholding sex from the men. So the idea was
terrific, but it seemed like the execution was very thin, because it's a
fantasy and it's a comedy and it's about something as universally sought after
as the end of war in our time, but done in this completely bawdy, vulgar way.
And I guess I couldn't figure out how we were going to be able to pull that
off in the year 2002.

And one thing that, as women, we found that we had to find a way to make the
vulgarity female vulgarity and not male vulgarity. I think comedically you
shoot yourself in the foot by having women play the women's roles. But since
that was the given, then we had to figure out a way to try to make that work.

GROSS: The first adaptation that you were given was written by Larry Gelbart,
who wrote "M*A*S*H" and did the book for the musical "A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum"...

Ms. JONES: And "Tootsie" and...

GROSS: And "Tootsie," yeah, yeah. But that adaptation was thrown out and
another one was written. What was wrong with the Larry Gelbart version?

Ms. JONES: It was--Larry had added a lot of extra scenes which--I appreciated
the attempt, but it couldn't support its weight, and it was too long and it
just didn't hold our interest.

GROSS: Did it have the same problem that you were talking about that you
think Aristophanes had, which is that the sex talk sounded too male for a
female to be saying?

Ms. JONES: Yeah. I mean, there are just certain vulgar words that women just
shy away from. And in Larry's script, they were used quite--women were using
them quite freely. And it certainly is not that we're prudes, because we were
going out of our way to be as vulgar up there as we can and true to
Aristophanes, but we had to find a way, as I said before, to make it
believable as women.

So we had to decide whether to go ahead and do a script that we could not
figure out how to produce with people unhappy with each other, or start over
from scratch with absolutely no time to write a book and compose the music and
write the lyrics. And that's what we chose to do. We decided to dive off the
cliff. And we were all desperate, because we had to have a musical on the
stage in six weeks, and we started with nothing except a very difficult
2,500-year-old sex comedy.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cherry Jones, and she's
currently starring in an adaptation of the ancient Greek play "Lysistrata" at
the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. You can also see her on screen in
the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Has it been difficult at all to make the transition from stage to screen in
terms of your voice or your gestures or facial expressions?

Ms. JONES: Well, I am learning each time I do it, because I do such small
roles, but I've talked to so many of my older friends about it--Frances
Sternhagen, who has told me that it's all in the eyes, that that's where the
magic of the cinema is; it's in the actors' eyes. I had a wonderful meeting
with Sidney Lumet once, who said that actors, especially theater actors, are
always told not to do too much, not to be too big. He said, `You can swing
from the rafters with a purple face if you mean it, if it's committed.' So I
think Mr. Lumet is right, that as long as it's truthful and people buy it,
you can do anything on camera.

GROSS: You've said that you were a tomboy as a kid. Do you think that that's
helped you in a way as an actress because you were physical and probably
physically uninhibited?

Ms. JONES: Incredibly, I think it's also been good for my bones. They say
that--you know, there are all these new studies now about women and
osteoporosis.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. JONES: And they say that if you're incredibly active as a young girl,
that that's half the battle right there. I know as an actor, it's been
invaluable to me. I think I got to play as many of the great heroines as
I've gotten to play because I was so active as a young girl. I mean, I've
gotten to do swordfights as an actress and literally swing from, you know, the
top of the stage and fall into bodies of water on stage and climb to the tops
of trees on stage, naked and in a baldpate, I might add. But there was a
point when I thought as I was turning 40 that my physical theater years were
behind me, and it so depressed me, but I'm going to push it until I'm 80.

GROSS: My guest is actress Cherry Jones. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Cherry Jones. She's currently at the Prince Music Theater
in Philadelphia, starring in a musical adaptation of "Lysistrata." And she
plays Buggy in the new film the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." On
Broadway, she starred opposite Gabriel Byrne in a production of O'Neill's
"Moon for the Misbegotten."

We talked a little bit about what it's been like for you to go from stage to
screen. I'm sure you've seen a lot of people, maybe even worked with some
people, who've gone from screen to stage.

Ms. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And they had to adapt themselves from, you know, cameras and
microphones to being in a large theater. What are some of the things you've
observed watching them make the adaptation?

Ms. JONES: Gabriel had done a fair amount of theater before movies--Gabriel
Byrne--but he hadn't done any stage work, I think, in about 18 years. So it
was actually sort of painful to watch at first, 'cause he was so--I was going
through a hard time. I was having a confidence crash. And he would just sort
of softly mumble his lines in rehearsals. I mean, we looked like, you know,
"Voyage of the Damned" in those rehearsals. And he wasn't sleeping, because
he was having such a hard time learning the role. But then once he got on
that stage and once there were people out there, you know, with each
performance, the voice grew and, you know, by the end--I mean, he's Irish, you
know; come on. He was meant to be on a stage. And so he just took over once
he had the room full.

GROSS: What happens when you're doing something on stage and you're
performing every night or nearly every night, a couple of matinees thrown in,
and you're just not feeling great? You know, either your confidence is low or
you're depressed for some reason, and you gotta go out there and act like you
don't feel the way you do?

Ms. JONES: Well, it had never been a problem for me ever. If I felt lousy
or--I just have always so loved what it is I do that it was never--I went to
work and that's what I did, and I had to be in a certain place and I would get
myself there. Now there's certain times when you haven't felt yourself and
you've given the best performance you've ever given, and there are other times
when you're absolutely on top of the world and you walk in and you give a
lousy performance, maybe because you feel too good and so you can't get to
where you need to go.

But when I went through this major confidence crash, which I think we all go
through at some point in our lives, no matter what we do--it's just those of
us who are in front of a thousand people a night, one feels a little more
vulnerable when it happens. And that was terrifying. I mean, I'm still
battling it a little bit.

GROSS: What was it about?

Ms. JONES: I think it was about a whole convergence of things. I started
menopause at a ridiculously early age. And especially when I was doing "A
Moon for the Misbegotten," I had seen Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards when
I was 16 and it had changed my life. And you know, I was treading with
memories there that--I probably shouldn't have gone near the play because it's
meant so much to me as a memory.

And I don't know; I just think there's a point when you hit your middle years.
We all like to be the underdog. We always like to have people come up to you
and say, `Gee, I didn't know you could do that,' and give you a pat on the
back. And then you get to a certain age and people expect you to be able to
do it, and you just can't always, and especially in something that is
subjective as the theater. You're going to be able to please some of the
people some of time. And I think it was just also the bitter kiss of success,
you know. Success is a funny thing.

GROSS: Why is it funny?

Ms. JONES: Well, because--Who was it?--someone said that from the height of
success, you can see the abyss. Again, I don't know if that's the exact
quote, but there is something to that. The morning after I won the Tony
Award, I was so depressed because I thought, `Now how is this going to change
my life? I've had such a simple, pleasing career, and now this is somehow
going to change it.' And I was 38 years old; I wasn't a baby. You know, I
should feel that I had some control over what came next.

GROSS: Let me ask you this. When somebody else wins a Tony or an Oscar, do
you find yourself at home thinking, `God, they must feel so good; I wish I
could feel that good; they must feel so good,' and then you win it yourself
and you're really depressed?

Ms. JONES: What I thought you were going to ask in your insightful way,
Terry, was: Do I look at those people and think, `Oh, bless their hearts;
they don't know how they're going to feel tomorrow morning'? 'Cause that is
more what I feel, especially with--you know, there's some of us who are just
driven by ambition and then the others of us that just aren't. And I think
when you find yourself suddenly on what can feel like a conveyor belt to sort
of mass appeal--I don't know how else to put it--it's uncomfortable and you
just want to jump off. You don't quite know how, because everything is geared
to keep you on that conveyor belt, because people love to invest in people
that they enjoy watching. And journalists do it; suddenly, you're being hyped
to the moon, which is completely unfair, you know. So I worry particularly
about young people when it happens to them at such an early age. I don't know
how they handle it.

GROSS: Cherry Jones is my guest, and she's now co-starring in the "Divine
Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." And she's currently in Philadelphia, on
stage at the Prince Music Theater in a new musical adaptation of the classic
Greek play "Lysistrata."

Let's talk a little bit about your background. You grew up in a small
Tennessee town called Paris, Tennessee.

Ms. JONES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Describe what the town was like when you were growing up.

Ms. JONES: Well, there was a little wonderful old courthouse and a downtown
area that was still very much thriving. There were farmers who still came
into town with wagons and horses; not many, but a few left. This was the very
early '60s. There were woods across our street and a lot of kids on our
street, so we lived in the woods and the creeks. And our imaginations
just--there was always a plot. We were cowboys or Indians, or we were GIs,
you know, landing at Normandy, or we were women who had--you know, there'd
been a plane crash over the Congo, or we were--you know, I mean, there was
always something where it was about survival and creating a home, you know,
creating a home in the woods. How would we survive? What would we eat? What
would we--it sounds like that awful television show now, but you know, kids
loved to--and then we had to dress ourselves and leaves. And we were always
doing something like that.

And it was heaven. It was heaven. I had a dog named Lassie--I really did--a
collie. It was actually a boy, but I didn't know; I was only four. And my
parents were just exceptional people. My father had a flower shop on the
Courthouse Square. My mother taught high school English, American and English
literature. And I have a younger sister who is the greatest storyteller that
has ever been and a wonderful person. They all three are still at home in
Paris, so I get home as often as I can. I got to be grand marshal of the
world's biggest Fish Fry Parade.

GROSS: In 1995 you won a Tony for your performance in "The Heiress." And
it's a kind of famous story now, but in your acceptance speech, you thanked
your partner, Mary O'Connor. And for anyone who didn't know that--and this
was a very public coming out, not that you were necessarily in the closet
before, but you weren't also mounting the podium to mention it, either. How
did you decide to say that in the speech? Was that a difficult process?

Ms. JONES: No, not at all. I never even decided. It just never would have
occurred to me not to, you know. It was just the most natural thing in the
world.

GROSS: Do you think it's any different for a stage actor than a screen actor
to be out?--because so many people in the movie industry who are gay or
lesbian worry that if they came out, it would really hurt their ability to get
roles. More people are starting to come out, but still I think there's a lot
of fear there.

Ms. JONES: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: You think it's easier for a predominantly stage actor, or is it the
kind of thing you wouldn't care about one way or another?

Ms. JONES: Well, no, I think it's much easier for theater actors. I mean,
ours is a profession rife with homosexuality. And people just--it's a much
more tolerant--and you're not dealing with the masses. You're dealing with
just a handful of folks each night that you've--it's a very intimate,
one-on-one experience. And for film actors, they're having to appeal to
everyone in this country, regardless of what their religious or moral beliefs
are. And so I hate that it's that way...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. JONES: ...for those people, because it's very wearing on the soul.

GROSS: Were you ever in the closet?

Ms. JONES: Nope. I mean, with my folks until I was about 25, I didn't want
to tell them until they asked. Because they're such exceptional people, I
knew that they would know and they would deal with it the way they needed to.
And then when they asked me about it, then we would talk and we'd all be ready
to deal with it. And it was, of course, really difficult for them, as it is
for all parents of gay people, 'cause you--in the first place, we want for our
children what we've known and what has brought us pleasure. But I never gave
it a thought.

GROSS: So you waited for your parents to bring it up. Can I ask how they
brought it up?

Ms. JONES: Mom and I were sitting at the kitchen table about 1:00 in the
morning, talking about God and politics--and we're both Democrats--and I think
because I'm gay, I became angry with the church when I was about 12 or 13,
because that's when I really knew what I was. I was just hurt. I was hurt
and angry. And I remember that night my mother said, out of the blue, as
though we'd been talking about for hours--she said, `Darling, do you just not
like men, or do you have trouble with men?' And I said, `Mother, I love and
adore men, but you know how much Judy means to me,' which was the young woman
I was living with at the time. And at that point, I broke down and sobbed,
and Mother never shed a tear because she'd spent the last five years sobbing,
as she said, as though she'd been told her child had an incurable disease and
was going to die. And it took many years after that amazing talk for my
mother to not only come to terms with it intellectually, but also emotionally.

My father came to a comfortable place with it much sooner, but I think that's
often the case with especially gay women. Your mother is willing to share you
with a man, but she's not willing to share you with another woman because it's
a kind of intimacy that women have with one another just on a spiritual plane.
I mean, it's very interesting. And I was so blessed to have these two--these
three family members who I knew we were all going to be together through thick
and thin, no matter what.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. JONES: Thank you very much, Terry. I've enjoyed it greatly.

GROSS: Cherry Jones is currently starring in a musical adaptation of
"Lysistrata" at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Interesting Women." This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: Andrea Lee's collection of short stories "Interesting
Women"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Former New Yorker writer Andrea Lee published a memoir in 1991 called "Russian
Journal" that was nominated for a National Book Award. Her latest book, a
collection of short stories called "Interesting Women," also contains an
autobiographical element. Like many of the interesting women she writes
about, Lee is an African-American living in Italy who has had her brushes
with, as she calls them, `sleazy Italian playboys.' Book critic Maureen
Corrigan says Lee was wise to follow the old writing saw, `Write what you
know.'

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Every May for years, two women friends of mine have invited me to a garden
party at their house, and I always find an excuse not to go. The title of
their party puts me off. The laser-printed invitations read, `A gathering of
interesting women.' Unh. As far as I can tell, my annual party-dodging has
nothing to do with self-loathing misogyny. Instead, it's that `interesting
women' business that bothers me. Now that I've read Andrea Lee's spirited and
original short story collection of the same name, I know I've been right all
these years to trust my instincts and stay home.

Interesting women set off a full red alert wherever they land. They're
unpredictable, brazen, full of idiosyncratic personality flaws, often witty
and ruthlessly judgmental. Interesting women are fabulous creatures to
encounter in literature; in life, they require way more emotional energy than
I have in reserve on a soft spring weekend afternoon.

One of the chief reasons Lee's women are so interesting is that they're all
fish out of water. Some are African-Americans vacationing on the islands,
deliberately playing with the insider-outsider boundaries that so seamlessly
correspond to race in the case of white tourists. Others are
African-Americans who feel some sense of estrangement on their home turf. In
"The Golden Chariot," for example, which is the only non-female-centered
story, a prosperous African-American family in 1962 drives in their Rambler
across the USA to the Seattle World's Fair. So odd and potentially dangerous
are their encounters with their white fellow Americans that they might as well
be touring Lapland.

But most of Lee's 13 tales feature expatriate American women living in Europe,
particularly Italy or, less frequently, the Far East. These meticulously
groomed exports are the semisophisticated, mildly cynical, cell-phone-toting
cousins of Henry James' clueless Daisy Miller. In the naughty and emotionally
nuanced lead story "The Birthday Present," a 30-something American woman named
Arielle(ph) hires a couple of astronomically priced call girls to minister to
her jaded 55-year-old Italian husband Roberto on his birthday. To Arielle's
satisfaction, the gift flaunts her wifely attentiveness and sexual
sophistication. Still, you wonder what surprise she's going to have to come
up with for Roberto's next birthday now that she's so flamboyantly raised the
stakes. Arielle is, after all, in the jittery position of being Roberto's
second wife. As we're told, nowadays Roberto is furioso at himself for
getting old and at Arielle for witnessing it, so he bullies her and feels
quite justified in doing so. Like all second wives, Arielle was supposed to
be a solution, and now she's simply enlarged the problem.

In the title story, which is the funniest and most menacing, the narrator is
an American woman vacationing at a luxury hotel in Thailand with her
adolescent daughter. By the pool, she meets an interesting woman who calls
herself Silver. They begin talking. `Then,' our narrator tells us, `I
dropped the word "ex-husband," that password that functions as a secret
handshake in the freemasonry of interesting women.' Silver and the narrator
go off into the jungle together, searching for yet another interesting woman,
a Smith graduate who conducts past-life meditations and supervises colonic
irrigations. But three's always a crowd. Our narrator is jilted and returns
to the hotel, wiser and unirrigated. `Evidently,' she says, `I wasn't
ethereal enough for Silver. And besides, getting a taste for these chaste
female encounters can lead to incredible promiscuity. Another day, another
soul laid bare.'

As you can hear from the passages I've quoted, the pleasures of Lee's writing
are something akin to the pleasures of travel in a foreign country. Lee uses
language unpredictably, and every turned phrase yields a new vista, a fresh
insight. Like the best short story writers, she has a poet's delight in
fusing together formerly unacquainted words. My favorite story title, for
instance, is "A Fog and Cappuccino." Best of all, though, it's a hoot to see
all her stylish, expatriate interesting women colonizing the literary
territory that used to belong exclusively to big bwanas like the
aforementioned Henry James, along with Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and
Rudyard Kipling. As frequently fascinating as their characters may be,
they're usually no match for their Old World or exotic adversaries. Lee's
wised-up, Prada-clad adventuresses stand a far better chance.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. I'm
Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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