Finding Your Way In: Alfre Woodard’s Latest Role… in Wellfleet

by Rebecca M. Alvin

On a scorching hot, humid day in early July, Wellfleet Preservation Hall is buzzing with activity. Food preppers arrange the farm-to-table hors d’ouevres, interns help organize the chairs and tables, and a bartender sets up the open bar for the Arts in Bloom fundraising event at which community members will meet for the first time the Hall’s new artistic director, Alfre Woodard.

Yes, that Alfre Woodard.

She’s been in too many films and television shows to list, with a career going back to the 1980s and still going amazingly strong. And when she walks into the Hall with executive director Kathy Fletcher, wearing a flowing pink dress and a wide, genuine smile, memories of all the characters she’s played from the modified Bob Cratchit character, Grace Cooley opposite Billy Murray  in Scrooged and Popeye Jackson in Miss Firecracker to her title role in Miss Evers’ Boys to a lead in Marvel’sLuke Cage coalesce around her presence; to every role she brings a unique combination of wide-eyed vulnerability, unflinching strength, and a depth of understanding about life as it really is. World-weary yet optimistic, strikingly beautiful and yet approachable, she selects her roles with an eye toward what is new for her.

In the film Clemency she plays a warden in a death-row prison reconciling her role in the state-sponsored executions that regularly take place in front of her and the aftermath families are left with. Her solemn demeanor, punctuated by panic attacks she conceals, insomnia, and when she can sleep, nightmares, bring us into the character, evoking empathy no matter what our politics. In the Netflix film Juanita, adapted by Roderick Spencer, Woodard’s husband of 50 years from the book Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams, Woodard plays a middle-aged hospice nurse, a working, single mother of adult children whose lives are moving in the wrong directions, including one son in prison and another about to be. When she finally takes a step back and reclaims herself as her priority, a trip to Butte, Montana changes her life. The role is rich in passion, depth of character, and also comedic, and Woodard masterfully takes it on.

In fact, it seems Woodard’s roles just get better and better. Asked about this ability to continue growing as an actress, playing better and better roles as she’s gotten older, Woodard responds, “I don’t think of myself as older or younger. I have had to always find the opening to enter, you know. I’ve never been invited in per se. So it’s a matter of refusing to go away I guess.” She smiles and laughs but then adds, “As long as you’re doing work that interests you, somebody will see it…And the type of person that you’d like to work with anyway will say, ‘Ah, I can use that’…They are attracted to the way that you work. Sometimes they are attracted to your spirit. And we all want like-minded or like-spirited people to go to sea with us. Right? Because, basically that’s what you do.”

After 49 years of professional work, the 70-year-old actress also thinks things have changed for women—not necessarily because of external factors, but because of the tenacity of actresses of her generation. “When they were saying to [actresses], ‘Oh, you’re almost 40 and you know, we don’t want to see your thighs anymore. Your breasts are not perky anymore,’ all that, I think the thought used to be that women would tuck themselves away and whatever. But my generation of women, there’s a couple of good handfuls of us that said, ‘I’m at my best right now.’ And they show up as doing their best work ,” she explains. “So, we’re actually laying new tracks on the mountain.” She pauses and then says with a laugh, “Wait, I need a seaside metaphor because of where we are.”

So how did she end up in the small seaside town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, as Hall’s inaugural artistic director? It was the work of Fletcher, with whom Woodard has worked on many projects over the years, including Turnaround Arts, a program spearheaded by Michelle Obama and the Kennedy Center that brings arts education to schools across the country. Woodard sees Fletcher as a “kindred spirit,” and together they have made youth and arts education a priority. When Fletcher brought her to Wellfleet and told her that she’d accepted the executive director position and actually moved there, Woodard likens it to the climactic scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where Chief (Will Sampson) rips out the sink and crashes through the window to escape the mental institution he’s been locked up in. “And Murphy and everyone is like ‘yeah! yeah! Wait, you can do that?!” she laughs.

For Woodard activism is not a casual interest. She spent time in Wellfleet driving around with Fletcher and coming to understand that it is a rural community, that there are problems and opportunities to make a difference in the lives of people, by helping everyone to access their innate creativity, especially youth who so often can find themselves rudderless in a place like this off-season. She cites high rates of suicide as a major area of concern but also points out the incredible wealth of creativity that already exists here, citing artist Robert Henry, still working prolifically at 90 years old and then, when young Chef Santiago Fletcher comes in to offer her the small Wellfleet oysters she loves, she rhapsodizes about his talents as both a chef and a visual artist, another example of Wellfleet’s creative wealth.

Wellfleet Preservation Hall’s executive director Kathy Fletcher
inaugural Artist-in-Residence Tianna Esperanza

“I feel my job is also to help [Kathy], to be a cheerleader and and a presence and help her activate some of the things for her goals for here,” says Woodard. “We’re just dead set on bringing the generations together under the same roof because it’s like, talk to older people. Are you kidding me? You know, you think you got a story about last weekend, how about they got 80 years of last weekends, and we just know there’s just so much engagement and reciprocal stories and life and fun to be had. And in the meanwhile young people just having a more solid ground to stand on, knowing people who have already walked in paths, and mature people getting their swag back, you know?”

But what are her actual plans as incoming artistic director? “As with anything else, you come into a space and you ask people, ‘How can I be of assistance?’ And then you know, I look at people, I’ve talked to a lot of people. ‘Tell me about what’s going on. Tell me how you feel. What do you know, what do you like to do, what makes you laugh, what moves you?’ I look at the space. You want to see the whole demographic of where you are, the culture of where you are. The task is always always to create community and figure out how you can do that. Because creating community really is vital to the health of individuals in that community and to the whole society at large,” she explains. “And it just so happens, I, gratefully, am in the business with a language that is the ultimate community creator, which is art and finding a way to use art to build a sense of community.”

Her enthusiasm for the community is clear. And it’s a perfect fit at Pres Hall where initiatives like the new artist-in-residence program, the continuing Youth Film Festival, a worker appreciation night with food and socializing, and an internship program all foster connections with an emphasis on young people exploring their natural talents, but also it’s about everyone’s creativity—not just artists.

“Yes, you’re gonna have artists life Tiana [Esperanza, the Hall’s first artist-in-residence] come in. But it’s like breathing; you can’t say that only certain people are expert breathers, right? You know, everybody is creative. People say, ‘Oh, I can’t sing or I can’t write or I can’t paint. Well, they’ve decided—or somebody probably told them that when they were little, or they fawned over somebody else doing it. So, we have this idea that we’re not creators, but that’s like saying ‘I can’t draw breath.’ And so what we do, which is a wonderful thing, is to get people to understand that they are creative. And yes, we want them to appreciate other people’s creativity, but also to recognize that in their everyday lives—not just in [themselves] but with everybody, and to realize how connected you are. There’s no reason for anybody in the community to feel alone.”

For more information about Wellfleet Preservation Hall call 508.349.1800, stop by 335 Main St., Wellfleet, or visit wellfleetpreservationhall.org

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