The little tour will stop in Louisiana, where she’ll be able to satisfy her craving.
Okra - how Olympia Dukakis loves it. It can be found in other southern states, Mississippi, Alabama, perhaps. But the tour isn’t going to those states.
It’s stopping in Baton Rouge, on Sept. 19-20, where Dukakis will step into the character of Martin Sherman’s one-woman play Rose for two performances at the Manship Theatre.
Dukakis isn’t leaving for Florida right away. That’s the tour’s final stop, from where, incidentally, the play’s namesake tells her story. No, Dukakis will hang around Baton Rouge until Sept. 21 to conduct a master class in the LSU Department of Theatre.
All of which will give her plenty of time to find restaurants that serve okra. This won’t be difficult. It is the beginning of fall, after all, football season at that. The smell of gumbo is in the air. Okra is a popular ingredient in lots of gumbos.
“People are always asking me, ?Do you really like that slimy vegetable?’” Dukakis said.
“I grew up eating okra. I love it.”
She loves it so much that she spent her free time ordering it at mom-and-pop restaurants in the northwest Louisiana countryside while filming Steel Magnolias in Natchitoches in 1987. She happened upon the restaurants while driving around to see the plantation homes outside Louisiana’s oldest city.
Well, Natchitoches is more than that. It’s the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory. It’s also home to Robert Harling, who based his play Steel Magnolias on the group of women with which his mom used to meet at the beauty shop.
Dukakis played the mayor’s wife, Clairee, in the film version and spent two months living and filming in Natchitoches alongside an all-star cast of Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Tom Skerritt and, yes, Shirley MacLaine.
“I haven’t been back to Natchitoches since,” she said. “But I remember how much I loved driving around and how you could order okra at every restaurant.”
So now she returns to the state on the little tour. These are her words. And she’s right. The tour is a short one. beginning in Oklahoma City, moving on to Baton Rouge and ending in the aforementioned Florida.
She reprises a role she’s been performing for more than a decade - Rose.
The title is simple for a play with 67 pages of continuous monologue. Just the sight of the script was intimidating at first.
Dukakis was no stranger to the stage, but she’d never performed a work written for one actor. Rose meant all responsibility would fall on her. She had to tell the story this Jewish matriarch who peers back on a life growing up in the Ukraine, then surviving the Nazi massacre of the Warsaw Ghetto and post-war Israel refugee ships.
Rose then emigrates to America, where she now tells her story.
Truthfully, Dukakis has second thoughts about this role at first.
“I almost quit a couple of times,” she said. “I’d think, ?I can’t learn all of this.’ I didn’t know if I could go through all the emotional changes that had to be dealt with in this play. And I wasn’t sure I could do a show by myself where I talked directly to the audience, telling them about this trepidation. They were fabulous challenges, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. Every time I thought about quitting, my husband would tell me to sleep on it. And he was right.”
She and husband Louis Zorich have been married 49 years. He, too, is an actor, and they live in Connecticut, from where she speaks by phone on this particular day.
And she talks about Rose, who has evolved since 2000, when Dukakis introduced the role at The Royal National Theatre in London, where it played to sold-out audiences. The play was moved to Broadway later that year for a successful run - so successful that Sherman was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play.
But now it’s probably more accurate to say that Rose belongs to Dukakis. She’s lived with Rose for almost 12 years, and the two have experienced changes together.
It’s only natural people grow through their experiences, and stage characters are people within themselves. Actors may portray them differently, but again, Rose has been a part of Dukakis since 2000. So, Rose’s evolution is only natural.
“I know I see new things about Rose in this show,” Dukakis said. “I see a lot of new things. This show is terrific, and the story has a lot of political content. But it also has a lot of humor, and Rose’s humor has evolved over the years.”
Now, Rose’s story is still the same. She tells of her life while performing a mourning ritual, sitting shiva over an unnamed character. She recalls being pitched from country to country. She has outlived husbands and her family really isn’t interested in hearing about it.
“Rose’s story,” Dukakis told the Washington Post in a 2010 interview, “is almost allegorical. Her tribulations were the experiences of Jewish people in the 20th century. Her mourning is her effort to understand what has happened to the Jews and what happened to the dream that was Israel, to understand it historically.”
Dukakis calls the story timeless, one that’s even more significant when placed on the backdrop of today’s current events than when it was first staged.
“It feels real,” she said. “The message is so strong today.”
Now, Rose isn’t Dukakis’ only project. She’s just completed work on three films, Cloudburst, Montana Amazon and Art of Love.
“They’re all independent films,” she said. “They’re low budget. There aren’t a lot of parts in films for women my age, and when there are, they usually go to British actresses.”
Her age? 80.
But she isn’t deterred. She performed in the 2010 production of the Morris Panych play Vigil in San Francisco, where she will return this year for another run of the play.
There are other television and movie projects on the horizon, all adding to a four-decade career during which she won an Academy Award for playing yet another Rose - Rose Castorini in the film Moonstruck.
It’s a career in which she’s worn the hats not only of actor but those of director, producer and activist, appearing in more than 50 films and 130 off-Broadway and regional productions. She won Obie awards for her work in Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s Man and Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.
She stops to share her knowledge along the way, just as she’ll be doing at LSU. Dukakis’ master class is exclusive only to LSU Theatre students and will focus on acting, directing, theater, film and television. She’ll work one-on-one with eight students from the theater department’s undergraduate and master of fine arts programs in an intimate class setting.
Each student will have the opportunity to work with Dukakis in scene and character work while other students from the department observe in an audience setting.
Somewhere in between performing and teaching, she’ll be combing Baton Rouge’s restaurants for selections that include okra.
Gumbo sounds good about now.
“And I love it fried,” she said. “Do you have any restaurant suggestions?”
Well, the choices are limitless. She’ll be in Baton Rouge, after all. Where all the food is good.