Karen Malina White must be lying about her age.
OK, maybe not deliberately. She may not even know she’s doing it, but it’s all over her face.
Her youthful looks and spirit be-lie (pun intended) her 46 years on the planet. The petite, veteran actress has often played characters much younger than her actual age.
However, in her latest turn, she’ll play Quilly, a 53-year-old woman in The Old Settler, the comedy that opens on June 3 at the International City Theatre (ICT) in Long Beach.
Sipping on a drink at Café MUSE in Hollywood, White looks tres chic in her black slacks, black blouse, gold metallic shoes, gold earrings and necklace, all accented with a black/white striped scarf about her head. From the wide smile on her face and the sparkle in her eyes, it’s obvious that she’s excited about her latest theatrical undertaking.
“This is a wonderful play,” says White, who pauses for a moment to exchange greetings with her friend and colleague, actor/director Robert Townsend, who just walked in to grab a bite to eat. “And I’m excited because I get to work with a wonderful cast, a wonderful director and wonderful material. I have a really juicy role” — but it isn’t the title role. “My character isn’t an “˜Old Settler’ because she has been married before.”
In 1943 Harlem, where the play is set, the phrase “˜Old Settler’ referred to women who have reached the age of 30 without getting married, with no romantic prospects on the horizon. In the play, Quilly’s older sister Elizabeth, played by Veralyn Jones at ICT, is “the old settler.”
However, because White herself has never been married, “I can identify with the notion of an ‘Old Settler’,” she says.
As for White’s own role, the once-married Quilly, White describes her as “fun and sociable. She goes to church not for the word, but to socialize. She’s that sister in the church that has to be seen.” Quilly and Elizabeth “find themselves the only ones left in their family and they come to realize just how important that sisterly love is.”
The sisters share an apartment. To help pay the rent, Elizabeth takes in a 29-year-old boarder named, of all things, Husband, who has traveled from the South up to Harlem to find his childhood sweetheart Lou Bessie and take her back home. However, things start to get a little complicated when Elizabeth and Husband begin to have feelings for each other.
White has liked the play ever since she saw the 1998 Pasadena Playhouse production, with CCH Pounder and Jenifer Lewis. She also was keen on it because she knew the playwright, John Henry Redwood. He lived in her home town of Philadelphia — and died there in 2003.
“The show at the Pasadena Playhouse was incredible,” says White. “There was lots of good material for CCH and Jenifer to work with.”
The Old Settler was first given a workshop at the 1995 National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. It was seen there by the Russian Theatre Union, and in 1996, the play was produced in Sheleykovo, Russia, followed by a run in Moscow. In 1997, the play had its first American production at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, a co-production with New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Since then, it received numerous productions and several awards and citations. In 2001, a TV version on PBS featured real-life sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.
Deciding to ‘settle’
Last year Shashin Desai, ICT’s former artistic director (he retired this year), chose The Old Settler as part of this season’s theatrical offerings. His wife caryn desai, ICT’s new artistic director and an award-winning director, has taken the helm of The Old Settler. She explains why the show is part of ICT’s season and why she wanted to direct it.
“We try to bring a variety of diverse experiences to our audience so this just added to it,” she explains. “We’re doing a season of romantic adventures. This isn’t a fairy tale story and it doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. It’s a beautiful play that is so well written. The writer has written wonderful roles for actors. He has written colorful characters. This story is poignant and touching. He writes about the pain and the need for love. It resonates with me and touches me deeply.”
She has equal praise for her cast. Desai says she was looking for talented actors, of course, “who can adjust and take direction.” But, she adds, there was more to it than that. She believes these four actors are “able to capture these characters and live and breathe them and understand the humor in the play. It’s a privilege to go to work and rehearsal when you’re working with that level of talent. And, what makes it even better is they are all wonderful people off the stage as well.”
Along with White and Jones, the play stars Ryan Vincent Anderson and Tarina Pouncy.
As for casting Quilly, desai says that White “understood the humor and the touching, poignant moments. She understood what was going on. She captured that emotion and stoic-ness. During that time period they didn’t share their emotions. They held a lot inside. You’re dying for them to release. You feel their pain and awkwardness to communicate.”
“She’s a thinking actress,” says desai. “You give her a note and you see her put it to work right away. “
It’s a mutual admiration society, as White has nothing but good things to say about desai.
“I’m working in a way with her that I’ve never worked before,” says White. “I’m used to working at the table for three days and working on what’s going on emotionally with the characters. [In Long Beach] we read the piece on day one and then we were up on our feet and she started blocking. It’s like she said, ‘I’m going to build the frame of the house first.’ She blocked in four days and then she filled in…the walls the furniture, the painting. It’s an interesting way to work, but I’m enjoying it. She actually had the whole show blocked before rehearsal started. She’s very detail oriented. She’s very smart.”
For White, “the dynamic cast” is part of the fun of working on The Old Settler. “I’m working with very good actors. Veralyn is an incredible actress. I’m excited to get to work with her. She’s a joy to watch and amazing to work with.”
What a character
White, whose bubbly personality is infectious, enjoys the rehearsal process because she gets to develop the character.
“I love rehearsals,” says White, who also “loves to cook” and invite friends over for spirited conversations. “You get to play. You show up at work to play and find the character. It’s those little moments that I enjoy. I get to decide the way she walks, what she wears and then start building relationships. It’s almost like treasure hunting. I love when I discover something on stage. I get excited. From 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. is rehearsal. You’re exhausted, but it’s a wonderful exhaustion.”
White, who travels from North Hollywood to Long Beach daily for rehearsals, has come to embrace her latest incarnation.
“I like that she has this wry humor,” says White. “She says what’s on her mind. I like that she has an unspoken love for her sister. I like her vulnerability even though she appears to be strong. She has this fear of being alone or dying alone. She’s not unlike anybody else. She’s not unlike me.”
White, who has two sisters and one brother (she’s the baby), wanted to do the show because she had always wanted to work at ICT, she says, and because the role gives her a chance to do comedy and drama in the same piece.
“I’m best known for doing comedy,” says White, who was a regular on The Cosby Show, A Different World, Malcolm and Eddie and Proud Family, where she did voiceover. “But, I’m actually a dramatic actress. I love being able to do both in one show. This is perfect.”
White’s credits include The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Lean On Me; the West Coast premiere of The Ballad of Emmett Till, which was an Ovation and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winning production at the Fountain Theatre; Crumbs From the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage (South Coast Rep); Permanent Collection, Distracted, and Salt Fish & Bakes (all at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis). New York theater credits include the Off-Broadway production of Chain by Pearl Cleage, Brown Silk and Magenta Sunsets, and In Search of Snow.
Whether it’s television, film or theater, White is content when she’s an active participant. She’d prefer to do more films because they pay better. And she wouldn’t mind doing another weekly TV series. However, theater is her passion.
“I’m an artist,” says White. “I just want to do the work. I love what I do. I’m fortunate to be able to do it. There is nothing like theater. It’s that immediate response, that call and response. It’s a shared experience.”
Live audiences fuel her performance.
“The audience is that final character of the play,” she says. “I like it when you begin to have a conversation with them. Theater makes you a better actor because you have to bring your ‘A’ game. There is no stop and start, no takes or retakes. Theater is live. You have to be present. When you’re present to life the joy is immense and tremendous.”
In the beginning
White began acting at age 14. She went to a performing arts high school and attended Howard University where she majored in Fine Arts and was “Miss Howard” from 1985 to 1986.
She first thought she would major in accounting, before a teacher told her she had the mindset to be an actress. She now says she wouldn’t have chosen any other way.
“My teacher told me I had something,” says White. “I believed her. It never entered my mind that I wouldn’t become a working actress. I’m an actress. I act. I get to explore life through other people’s eyes. I have a great job. I’m creating all day and getting paid to do it.”
**All production photography by Carlos Delgado
The Old Settler, presented by International City Theatre, opens June 3; plays Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., Tickets: $37-$44, opening night is $55. Center Theater at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA; For information: 562-436-4610 or ictlongbeach.org.