Every African-American family has a Pearl, says Tacoma actor Cynthia Jones-Taylor. A great-aunt. A grandmother. Some older woman who has been through it all and developed a will of steel and a blunt way of telling it like it is.
In “Three Americans,” a show of three monologues opening at Seattle’s West of Lenin theater this weekend, Jones-Taylor gets to play Pearl in a work written for last year’s controversial election and just as powerful now. All three monologues are by playwrights of color. And for Jones-Taylor, theater’s ability to open your mind is exactly why we need it right now.
“The arts are like the point of an arrow, the way into your heart,” says Jones-Taylor, who’ll play Pearl in “Déjà Vu” by actor Regina Taylor (no relation), of such shows as “The Unit” and “I’ll Fly Away.” “It’s their ability to spotlight, literally, someone else’s point of view that you’d never normally see. They cut through everything to the heart of a person’s empathy.”
Jones-Taylor would know. Now dividing her time between Tacoma and Minneapolis, the actor has had a 35-year career that includes Intiman, 5th Avenue, Seattle Rep, Chicago’s Goodman Theater, Houston’s Alley Theatre and a seven-year national tour with “Menopause: The Musical.” She makes metal sculpture and jewelry on the side.
But Jones-Taylor can relate to the racial themes in “Déjà Vu.” Written just before the 2016 election, it’s the reminiscence of an older black woman about all her years of voting, how hard she had to work for that vote and why it’s precious. Jones-Taylor grew up in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, the first black family on her block.
“It was awful,” she says of the experience.
The monologue is just as powerful for an audience in this post-election Trump era, says Jones-Taylor.
“The underlying thing is that you have to fight to keep things right,” she says. “You can’t be complacent, sit back, put on a Sunday dress and vote. You have to fight. That’s what it takes to keep things fair. Compared to the ’50s and ’60s, of course, some things are so much better. But up here in the Northwest, we’re in a bubble. We’re sheltered.”
Like “Déjà Vu,” the other two monologues represent diverse points of view. “The Birds Flew In,” by Egypt-born Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi, deals with the grief of an immigrant mother who has lost a son fighting in the U.S. Army in Iraq. “Draw the Circle,” by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, talks about Deen’s own experience of being transgender.
For Jones-Taylor, it’s not just diverse theater like this that’s crucial right now. It’s all of the arts.
“When I’m on stage I have the ability to reach out and touch people,” she says. “I’ve looked out at their faces. There’s no resistance. They feel free enough to accept what’s coming because for them it’s fantasy. But (as an actor) you are still depositing information, a new point of view. So it’s changing something. That’s what the arts do. They allow that change of viewpoint to happen without judgment. It’s a key to the internal, to the heart of a person.”
What: Three monologues, by Regina Taylor, Yussef El Guindi and Mashuq Mushtaq Deen.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, Feb. 16-March 4. Also Feb. 27.
Where: West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle.
Tickets: $15 general; $12 senior, veterans and students.