Keeping a character who battles with her elderly mother-in-law sympathetic might seem like a bit of a challenge, but Vanessa Williams, who portrays a woman doing just that in “The Trip to Bountiful” (opening Nov. 20 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre) says it’s all part of the job.
“The work is to make the character a whole person, and to demonstrate their strengths and their weaknesses. Once people see the show and see Jessie Mae, they realize what the real issue is of her frustration,” Williams says, pointing to the challenges of sharing a tiny apartment with a husband recovering from depression and his mother. “It’s a classic love triangle that plays out.”
Williams has now played the role of Jessie Mae a few times. The show has been on Broadway (her co-star, Cicely Tyson, won a Tony for her work), adapted into a TV movie and performed in LA. It tells the story of the Watts family, with matriarch Carrie Watts longing for a simpler time back home in Bountiful, while her son Ludie and his wife Jessie Mae remain committed to their lives in modern, cosmopolitan Houston.
Williams calls Tyson “a force to be reckoned with.”
“To watch her work ethic and her passion at her mature age that she is, which is still a mystery,” says Williams with a laugh, “I think that it’s what makes you feel hopeful, rejuvenated, and never have any excuse to feel tired or weary if someone that accomplished and that mature can do it and never miss a show.”
Though Cuba Gooding Jr. played Ludie on Broadway, this incarnation stars Blair Underwood in the role. As Williams points out, “I’ve had four different husbands between Broadway and TV and the LA run. Each person brings a different energy. That’s why live theater is so great. Depending on the night and the actors and the mood and the audience, it’s always different.”
She praises Underwood for getting into the swing of things quickly. “I think he did an amazing job, having no fear jumping into something that was an established hit, and then he’s just elevated it to another level with his understanding of Ludie.”
While Williams is very recognizable from her singing career and her screen work, she says theater has always been a part of her life. She even majored in musical theater at Syracuse University, “so it’s kind of my home, and I love it. I love the live audience. I love being able to act and sing and dance. It uses 100 percent of my being and my talent, and it’s nice to feel that kind of exhilaration.”
If you go
Nov. 20-Dec. 7
Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont St.