Interview with St. Ann’s ‘Oklahoma!’ revival star, Brooklyn native Rebecca Naomi Jones
One of the iconic female roles in American musical theater is that of Laurey Williams in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic “Oklahoma!,” which is currently receiving a glorious revival — and selling out nightly — at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO. Without changing a word of the text, this striking and audacious production, directed by Daniel Fish and originally presented in 2015 as part of the Bard Summerscape series, is a reimagining of “Oklahoma!” for our present moment.
Nowhere is this reinterpretation more evident than in the production’s approach to the role of Laurey. Unlike her predecessors, this Laurey has agency. The transformation is in no small measure made credible by the bold and nuanced performance of Rebecca Naomi Jones. Ms. Jones, who has appeared in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “American Idiot,” “Passing Strange” and “Marie and Rosetta,” gives an astonishing performance.
Her Laurey combines an independent streak with an aching vulnerability. She fully inhabits the role, subtly registering Laurey’s confusion and uncertainty as she navigates her attraction to both Curly, the cowhand, and Jud, the hired hand working her farm. Jones has the range and emotional dexterity to strike this daredevil balance.
Before a recent evening performance, I spoke with her in a one of St. Ann’s cavernous rehearsal spaces.
Below are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Brooklyn Eagle: How familiar with “Oklahoma!” were you?
Rebecca Naomi Jones: Not very actually, which I suppose is strange for somebody like myself who does musical theater for a living. Of course, I was familiar with many of the songs — “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “I Can’t Say No,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” — but I wasn’t really that familiar with the story.
I had seen the 2002 Broadway revival starring Patrick Wilson, but funnily enough I didn’t remember a lot about it even though I did love it. In fact, I remember loving it so much. And yet my memory of it now is “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” I remember being so moved by that opening number. That set me up for loving the production as a whole.
Eagle: How big a transition has it been for you going from post-modern musicals like “Passing Strange, “American Idiot” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to one of the pillars of the golden age of American musicals?
RNJ: Honestly it hasn’t felt like a huge shift for me because this production really feels like rehearsing a new musical. Because Daniel Fish, the director, wanted to do something so fresh and innovative with it. Of course, it was not as though we had the writer in the room and he’s making changes; but it really did feel like we were digging into the text in the way that you do with new work. The way we crafted this production did not at all feel like “plugging and playing.” Or like we were trying to do a version that has worked before. In a way, we felt like we’re going to make this our own.
Eagle: Did Daniel encourage you to explore and investigate Laurey’s conflicting impulses and emotions?
RNJ: Yes, absolutely, that’s a huge part of what we’ve done in this production. To explore what Laurey really wants. What’s so funny is that I’ve had a couple of friends say to me “I wish you had more to say in certain moments” and I think that’s so exciting because what it means to me is that the audience is seeing that a living, breathing, present human being is feeling something and has an opinion about something, beyond simply what’s in the text. So that’s really exciting.
Eagle: How aware is Laurey of her own sexual attraction to both Curly and Jud? Or is it all a jumble of confusion?
RNJ: In my opinion she’s aware of the attraction but is not comfortable with it. I think particularly the attraction and connection she feels to Jud is quite scary for her, especially because Jud, as she has come to know, has something inside him that feels like it could go off at any minute. And yet there is also something special and tender about him that she also understands.
And I think she shares Jud’s dark world view, which I think also scares her. She’s more comfortable with her attraction to Curly but even there she has to adhere to the restraints of 1902 society, a society not familiar with or open to the concept of women’s sexuality. It is a society that doesn’t think it’s appropriate or acceptable for a woman to have those choices or want those things.
Eagle: And she herself is not sure what those things are, right? As when she says to the peddler “I want things I can’t tell you about — not only things to look at and hold in your hands. Things to happen to you. Things so nice, if they ever did happen to you, your heart would quit beating.” Do you think she herself even realizes what she’s talking about?
RNJ: I think she knows some little morsel of what she’s talking about. But she also knows that there’s so much more that’s possible to happen to, and for, her. She doesn’t quite know what it is, but she wants it.
Eagle: But she’s also a little scared of it.
RNJ: That’s right. I think that’s why Laurey is such an interesting character. Because she knows so much and she’s strong in her opinions, but there’s also a lot of fear.
Eagle: This is your first “golden age” musical. Are you eager now to explore some others in the future?
RNJ: Possibly. It depends on the production and the director and what that director wants to get out of it and get at by doing it. I think the production we’re doing now is asking new questions of this 75-year-old musical and what this musical was saying about the state of the country then and exploring how relevant it is to be asking those questions and exploring those answers now. That’s one of the factors that make it so exciting to be part of this production.
Eagle: Finally, a Brooklyn question: Still living in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens?
RNJ: I sure am. And I still love living so close to the park — although I’m so busy I haven’t had time to take my accustomed morning coffee under the trees.
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