Taking center stage

The actress and singer E. Faye Butler blazes away on stage like a human campfire. Audience members want to draw close, sit shoulder to shoulder in a ring around her and warm their hands.

This is true when Butler is playing characters who are likable, such as the legendary blues singer Ella Fitzgerald, or as the African-American actress battling racial stereotypes in Alice Childress' "Trouble in Mind."

But it is equally true when she's playing a role less likely to draw the audience's sympathies, such as the dour maid and title character Butler portrayed in Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," or the at-times ruthless diva at the center of the production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" now running at Center Stage.

"There's an ebullience that E. Faye has and a bursting energy," says Center Stage dramaturge Gavin Witt, trying to put his finger on that elusive quality, star power. "Her spirit is larger than life. She's bountiful. She has more than enough to go around, and the audience can't help wanting to take a sip."

Butler is a bona fide local favorite, performing not just at Center Stage, where she is an associate artist, but also with such prominent Washington-area troupes as Signature Theatre and Arena Stage. It seems that about every second week, her fans can find her standing in the footlights somewhere in the region — if not as part of a play or musical, then performing her floor show.

So it's a surprise to be reminded that Butler is not, in fact, one of Baltimore's own, but a Chicagoan. It was in the Midwest where she and her hairstylist husband raised two children, now grown, and to the Midwest that she will return next month to celebrate the 100th birthday of the woman she lovingly calls "Granny Good Witch."

She's thinking of relocating one day to Baltimore, but it almost doesn't matter, because wherever Butler goes, audiences instantly claim her as their own. Seemingly without effort, she persuades folks from widely divergent backgrounds that she is part of their tribe.

"I've been performing since I was a kid," she says. "I love it so much. That's the gift I was given. I've known how to take people with me on my journey, so they can feel what I feel."

She doesn't need a paying audience to cast her spell, and she doesn't need a large crowd.

"She'll come by the admin. bay at Center Stage, and a crowd will start gathering around her," Witt says.

"I saw her do it just the other day. She told the same joke four times, and it was hysterical. When she told it the first time, the punch line got a chuckle.

"It was like, ‘Oh, look, I have an audience, and they liked that story.' You could see E. Faye get a whiff of something and go after it. It was like a little shot in her veins.

"So she backed up and added a bit of context and told the joke again, and this time it got a bigger laugh. What began as a conversation between equals morphed into a performance.

"I sat there watching it, and it was kind of amazing. I mean, who tells the same joke four times? I finally had to close my door and put my headphones on to get any work done."

Some people simply have more to say than others while standing on a stage, and Butler is one of them. Her brand of charisma has something in common with intelligence, with talent and with her willingness to be emotionally transparent in the footlights. But not even that potent combination of qualities fully explains her Pied Piper appeal.

In a way, Butler comes by her performing skills naturally; her godmother and mother's best friend was the Mahalia Jackson. The famed gospel singer provided a real-life example of success, but the drive was Butler's own. From her earliest days, Butler didn't merely seek the limelight. She wrestled it into submission.

She likes to tell the story of the business venture she embarked upon at age 13. At the time, she was living temporarily with her grandmother while attending school.

"I asked for money, and my grandmother told me I'd have to earn it," Butler says.

"So that summer, I opened a spook house in my grandmother's basement, which I called ‘the dungeon.' I got all the other kids on the block to come over. I could always talk them into anything.

"Granny didn't know about the spook house, so I'd wait to open it each day until she went to work. I charged 50 cents admission, and I took the money from that and bought popcorn, oil and butter, and began selling concessions out of my bedroom window. With my profits from the popcorn sales, I bought candy, then Kool-Aid, and then hot dogs.

"Granny didn't find out until one little boy got nightmares. His mother came over that night and knocked on our door.

As she tells the story, Butler lightly raps the table with her knuckles and laughter bubbles from her like helium.

She studied theater at Illinois State University and the Goodman School of Drama, though she dropped out of graduate school to pursue her performing career.

Witt met Butler in the early 1990s when both were working at Chicago's Court Theater. Though he always enjoyed her performances, he says she didn't strike him then as out of the ordinary. That changed in late 1999, after she was cast as jazz chanteuse Dinah Washington in a production of "Dinah Was" directed by David Petrarca.

"It was startling to see the difference," Witt says. "She was performing in this huge, 950-seat theater, and she just held the place. Her performance was riveting. You could see the evolution. In those few weeks, a star had been born."

Butler credits her breakthrough moment to Petrarca, now a producer and director of such TV shows as "Drop Dead Diva", "Big Love" and "True Blood."

"I was in rehearsal ,and I was having a hard day," she says.

"Without knowing it, I was relying on all the techniques I had learned in musical theater. David let me go through the whole first act without stopping. Then he said: ‘That was really, really boring. You need to get in gear and put away your little bag of tricks. Now, go outside, take a break, and do what you need to do. Cry, or have a cigarette. Then come back, and bring a character with you. Leave E. Faye out in the hall.'

"I was angry, I was frustrated, and I was humiliated. I didn't know at first what he was talking about. But that's the moment I started listening on stage."

Something must have clicked; to date, Butler has won six Joseph Jefferson Awards and one Helen Hayes Award, the quivalent of the Tonys in Chicago's and Washington, respectively.

Julianne Franz, who produces the cabaret series for Center Stage, says that Butler knows exactly what she and her voice are capable of.

Butler was scheduled to perform her cabaret act Valentine's Day weekend — or the same three days in which the second of the February snowstorms hit Baltimore.

"These guys in the band trudged in from the county, and we worked them to the bone," Franz says.

"Musicians are taught not to overpower singers, so at first they held back. But E. Faye has tremendous confidence in her own vocal instrument, and she told the saxophonist: ‘Give me everything you've got.' She knew she could handle anything they threw at her."

Butler doesn't merely perform at Center Stage. She helps shape the place.

It was Butler who proposed that Center Stage launch an annual series of the intimate, nightclub-style cabarets that have proved popular and profitable. The current season was planned, in part, to showcase her skills. She is not infrequently asked to vet plays being considered for upcoming seasons.

"I feel like an artist when I'm working at Center Stage," Butler says. "Everyone on the staff has great integrity, and they appreciate you for who you are."

So sturdy is Butler's self-confidence that it's tempting to speculate that she has been magically sheltered from life's trials. But nothing could be further from the truth..

"My father died from an aneurysm when I was 6 years old," she says. "Life changed for us overnight, and in a big way."

The little girl missed her father terribly. But she somehow managed to avoid the deep-rooted insecurities that often afflict young children who have undergone the loss of a parent. She is, she says, as happy as she seems.

"If I have been affected by that experience," she says, "it's that it instilled in me the importance of having a family and a life. What people might not know about me is that I'm a homebody. I love to cook, to garden, to attend family events. It's why I won't live in New York or L.A."

So she didn't hesitate to drop out of Center Stage's 2004 production of "Sweeney Todd" — Butler had been cast in the plum role of Mrs. Lovett — after learning that her mother was dying of breast cancer. Instead, she picked up a less-demanding job with a Chicago troupe that would allow her to continue paying the bills while tending to her mother.

"The day my mother died, she literally sent me back to the theater that night," Butler says.

"She said, ‘You know what will hurt my feelings? If after I close my eyes, you don't go to the theater tonight. It's all right. I'll be there with you.' "

Butler's mother was — and continues to be — as good as her word.

"I feel her all the time," she says.

"The other night, before ‘Ma Rainey' opened, I said, ‘Well, Ma, let's go to the theater. It's another opening night.'

"I could almost hear her say, ‘Have a good show, Baby.' And I knew I was going to be OK."

Mary.McCauley@BaltSun.com

If you go
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" resumes at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., and runs through May 9. Tickets cost $10-65. For additional showtimes, call 410-332-0033 or go to http://www.centerstage.org.
No Swift Picks
Tim Swift is on assignment. His column returns next week.

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