There is nothing like live theater. The very act of an actor or actors going on a stage and performing in front of a new group of people every night is an original experience. An actor could say something a certain way and completely change the tone of a scene. A light could blow, or a cell phone could ring (I think we covered why this better not happen) but the actor has to play off that or ignore that or embrace that. Welcome to the mystery of theater.
But. What if no one knows what is going to happen on stage including the actor? What if an entire production is shrouded in mystery, the website tells you not to google the play.
Enter White Rabbit Red Rabbit.
It is the latest effort from playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. His play has been performed all around the world. Here is what might google did say about the play:
“The actor about to perform has never seen it. In fact, there is a new actor every performance, and they’ve only been told what is absolutely necessary.”
We were not satisfied with that answer. So we tapped veteran actor Reg. E. Cathey, who will be the A-List actor performing in White Rabbit Red Rabbit at 8 p.m. tonight at the Westside Theater, to give us any information. But the mystery was even more exciting for him.
“The idea of doing a cold play is challenging,” he said. “When first approached I googled the project and, after a few sentences, immediately stopped. I knew I wanted to do it. And I didn’t want to spoil any of the experience and did not want , even unconsciously, to plan anything. I want to take the journey completely open and free. It is what ultimately attracted me to the piece. But Freedom is terrifying…. It’s very exciting.”
Thank God we trust Cathey who has wowed us consistently in roles. His resume of television work is like a master class for how to get on iconic shows. Let’s name drop a few, “The Wire,” “Oz” and now “House of Cards.” More extraordinary than the shows is the type of characters is plays. Always drenched in integrity, always fighting insurmountable odds. How does he pick his roles?
“The practice of choosing a role is relatively new,” Cathey said. “There was the audition and there was the offer. If you’re lucky. The choice was what audition time was best! One difference for Black actors was choosing not to audition for the ‘Coon Role.'”
“Upon becoming a professional actor, more than a few decades past, Black actors were expected not to play certain roles. It was important that the Black image in popular culture and media be reflective of truth and not the racist stereotypes which had proliferated the zeitgeist for centuries. Sometimes it was difficult. The Legend of the Rent is way hardcore.”
Cathey emerged as an actor when the socio-economic landscape of the country was changing, and the larger questions of his art forced him to make many choices.
“The theatre scene, at that time, was changing due to volatile economic influences and the plague that was/is the AIDS epidemic but was still exciting, vibrant and much more inclusive,” Cathey said. “I learned how to act at Yale but learned how to be an actor in NYC. I escaped wandering lost in the desert that is Los Angeles after a decade (which I’ll never get back) and being psychically traumatized I didn’t audition for film and television immersing myself in the ‘Classics.’ The plan was to make money doing voiceovers and do theatre to live. It worked for three years! I stay in the Theatre and returned to film and television.”
Even with the success of the shows he was on Cathey returned to the stage over and over again. We asked him why?
“Diversity,” Cathey said. “Broadway giving Hollywood a beat down on that front. But I’m an old theatre weasel and I’ve seen it all before. Perhaps not on a Hamilton (which l loved) level but seen it I have. The Wiz, Soldiers Play, Dreamgirls were huge hits and we were all excited how it would usher more Black shows on the Great White Way.”
Along his journey not only did Cathey start getting recognized for his talent he recently won an Emmy for his work on House of Cards. We just knew the big scripts were being thrown through his front window. Cathey remained cautiously hopeful.
“Let’s see what happens,” Cathey said. “We Americans like to take one step forward then two steps back…see Donald Trump.”
In addition to loving the theater, Cathey has a particular affinity to Shakespeare which he can be seen returning to again and again in New York.
“It is and always will be a struggle to find good roles which is why Shakespeare is the gift that keeps on giving,” Cathey said. “Playing Shakespeare kept me sane when Hollywood chewed me up and threw me out. Always challenging. Always something new. Always room to stretch and grow.”
In fact, the theater continues to be generous to Cathey.
“Shakespeare. August Wilson. Art. Music. Dance. Literature – These make us Human,” Cathey said. “These are our better Angels.”
With Cathey performing tonight the theater experience is bound to be a bag of surprises. We asked if there was anything the actor has not played yet that excites him.
“My dream role has yet to be written,” Cathey said. “A jazz musician. A Bari-sax man. I play! Sigh. I probably should write it but that requires a different kind of discipline.”
Until that happens we have White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Purchase tickets here.