One thing Suzanne Darrell has learnt in her 60 years, is how to take a curveball. But the news that New York was shutting down, for the unforeseeable future, because of Covid-19 came when she was in her first starring role, an off-Broadway play called Mirrors.
The coronavirus outbreak scuppered that opportunity, 12 days into its run.
“New York Theatre Workshop follows Broadway protocols and last Thursday when I received the news, I was heartbroken,” said Ms Darrell, the daughter of the late Sharon Clarke and the late civil rights leader and political activist Roosevelt Brown.
“I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to [my character] ‘Bird’. I went to pick up my things from the theatre where the cast, crew, director/founder and general manager of Parity Productions met to say goodbye.
“That night was bittersweet. Instead of doing the show, we gave Mirrors a proper ‘wake’ or send off. We laughed, cried and shared special moments that I’ll never forget.”
The former Purvis Primary School student, who claims “practically everybody on Cedar Hill” in Warwick as family, fell in love with theatre at an early age. But when it came time to choose a career, she set her sights on becoming a classically trained opera singer, working for a time as a behavioural health specialist.
At 47, when a friend questioned her plans for the next 50 years, she decided it was time for a shift.
“The first play I ever saw was at City Hall at the age of four.
“I just fell in love with the theatre. My mom married my stepfather when I was two and we sort of lived all over the world.
“My mom made sure we were always exposed to culture — whichever country we lived in, whatever they had to offer.”
She was watching Inside the Actors Studio when her friend posed her life-changing question.
The late James Lipton, the television show’s host and creator was dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University.
“I was not ready to make the leap to the professional stage when I was working as a singer so many years ago because I thought, ‘Am I really good enough?’ And then I discovered that, even at the tender age of 47, it’s never too late. So, I just went for it,” said Ms Darrell, who had been active in a women’s theatre collective, while living in Tucson, Arizona.
“James Lipton was a giant among men. I feel very grateful to have met him. It was a very competitive programme and I auditioned and I got in.
“So, I went to graduate school when I was 47 and graduated at the age of 50.”
Ms Darrell has no regrets that she took so long to make the leap.
In the years since, she’s “done a lot of plays” in New York City, although Mirrors was the first time she’d been cast in the lead.
“Everything I’ve done, up to this point, has led me to this moment. All of my life experiences, whether it was living in Guam or wherever I was and being a Girl Scout, have led me to really fulfil my passion.
“Most people say it’s a young person’s medium, it’s a young person’s opportunity, but I think most people recognise, when they look at a television show or a film or a play, that there are people of all ages; that we’re not invisible and it’s possible, even at the age of 60, to continue to do this work.”
She was in every single scene of Mirrors, Azure Osborne-Lee’s play about a teenager sent to live with her late mother’s ex-lover Bird Wilson, played by Ms Darrell.
“I got an e-mail from the casting director, Jamiebeth Margolis, who casts Broadway shows and I thought, ‘Wow! OK.’
“Azure already knew my work and he said, ‘Just bring her in for the callback. I promise you she’s worth the wait.’ I went in for the callback and they kept pairing me with other actors, so I knew I was doing something right and then, shortly thereafter, I was offered the role of Bird Wilson.”
The show ended on March 12, ten days ahead of schedule.
David Barbour was one of the critics who gave it early praise: “The best thing about the production is Suzanne Darrell as Bird: Gifted with strong presence and the ability to shift the mood onstage with a quarter-turn of the head, she provides the drama with a much needed anchor,” he wrote in Lighting & Sound America.
“It has already opened doors for me. I’ve gotten calls from casting directors who are wanting to bring me in for auditions and that’s where it all starts,” said Ms Darrell. She’s thrilled that a cousin, Simone Gibbons, was able to see her performance before Mirrors ended and over the moon that her niece Hana Bushara, “an amazing singer”, took the stage as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.
As far as her next role, the actor was keeping her cards close to her chest, although she would love to try her hand at television, “the only medium I haven’t done”. And while she “can be funny”, her “passion is drama with a social bent”, something she believes she inherited from her father. “I gained my passion for social justice and restorative justice through him and so I choose roles based on people who may or may not be forgotten or invisible in society, in some way, shape or form.
“His way was to tackle it head-on through politics and my way is to tackle it through performance. My mom is deceased; she passed away four years ago, as is my dad.
“I know they would both be extraordinarily proud of the work that I’m doing. In this industry, typically women who look like me are invisible and I made up my mind to not be.
“I told myself, ‘No. I’m going to audition. I’m going to work’. Because when little girls see people who look like them, it gives them permission to dream.”
•Mirrors ran at 4th Street Theatre as part of Next Door At New York Theatre Workshop, February 29 to March 12