By Deardra Shuler
Linda Powell greeted me in her backstage dressing room at the Cort Theatre with a warm smile as we sat down for our interview. Ms. Powell, who is presently starring as Chelsea Thayer Wayne in the play On Golden Pond on Broadway, has been working in the acting profession for nearly 16 years. As the daughter of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Linda grew up like most army kids moving from state to state. She was born in Fort Benning, Ga., and lived on various army bases in the south and in the Midwest as a child.
"Even though I was an army kid, I never lived anywhere exotic. We moved to Kansas, Alabama, Georgia, Colorado and Virginia. I didn’t get to move to any of those exotic places like Korea or Germany. Military families move a lot and you just end up adapting. You make friends easily when you get to a place because you know you will have to move on. There are positives and negatives to the military life because you have to leave friends behind. However, I have no complaints because I lived in different places and had many different experiences. I find it useful while doing the play to reflect on some of my own experiences. My character Chelsea, in some ways, feels an emotional distance from her father.
Though I didn’t feel abandoned by my father as Chelsea seems to, I can recall through my own personal experiences those absences when my father was away in Viet Nam for a year. He also did a hardship tour in Korea and was away a year while the family remained in the States. As each job came along for my father, there were higher and higher profiles and more and more time demanded from him. My father did not become famous until after I was grown, so my life as a kid was like most military children. However, his absences were something the whole family had to deal with," remarked the talented performer. "I guess I could say that in playing the role of Chelsea, I flush out from what is written in the text with what I can bring of myself to the role. Not all the experiences I throw into the show are experiences solely with my father. There is a hodgepodge of other experiences that I throw into the pot, thus I use whatever is useful to make the play come alive" explained Linda.
Educated at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Linda earned a Bachelors degree in English Literature. Her major was English and her minor was Theatre. She also trained as an actor for two years with Circle in the Square. "When I attended college, I was getting an English degree because it was what interested me. However, once it came down to my Junior year I had to consider what it was I wanted to do with my life. I thought why not give acting a shot. I figured if acting didn’t work out, I could always switch. I have been acting about 15 to 16 years now so I guess I’m stuck. I think I have always gravitated toward theatre. Most of my time in college was spent in the Theatre Department working on some show. I did a lot of high school plays and children’s theatre but acting wasn’t something I realized I could make a living doing," stated Linda.
Powell was in a Tony nominated play entitled "Wilder, Wilder, Wilder" and has appeared in "Jar the Floor," "Jitney," "Pericles," "Omnium Gatherum," "The Odyssey," "Stolen Child" and "Ascendancy." She has also appeared in "The Piano Lesson," "Raisin in the Sun" at the Baltimore Center Stage, "Seven Guitars" and "Uncle Vanya." Her television credits include "Law & Order," "Law & Order: SVU," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent", "Sex in the City," and "Cosby." Her films include "The Best Man," "American Cuisine" and "Labor Pains." "Wilder, Wilder, Wilder" was nominated for a Tony for best revival and now "On Golden Pond" got nominated for a Tony as well. I have good luck with revivals it seems. I must admit it’s always nice to be nominated," remarked Powell.
There is a scene in "On Golden Pond" where Linda’s character, Chelsea, argues with her father. He makes a remark that wounds her and all the hurtful emotion that Chelsea is dealing with is summoned up within a mere expression. "That moment in the play was developed in rehearsals. I would come to the point where James Earl Jones, who plays my father, says something that hurt me. I said to the director, I don’t know how to go on if he says that to me. It hurts. The director, Leonard Foley, advised me to do what I felt like doing. I felt like leaving. Thus, that response and that expression developed out of my honest response to that moment in the play. I tried to build on it, which was easy to do with James Earl Jones because he is so present in the moment. Therefore, I simply went with it as it happened at that moment. In summing up that kind of pain and that type of expression, I have to use my imagination, the eyes of the actor I am standing next to and life experience to get me where I need to go in terms of bringing up the emotions for which that particular scene calls."
Linda met James Earl Jones 12 years ago while auditioning for another daughter role. "Amazingly, James remembered me from that reading and said to the On Golden Pond producers and directors that they should allow me to audition. I did that in August of last year. I was very nervous because it was a nice role and opportunity and I wanted my shot at it. It went well and we clicked. I love the role of Chelsea. I think she does the best that she can given the parents she got. As the play is written, there is a danger of Chelsea coming across as ungrateful or whinny. However, I think the audience understands the struggle she is going through and recognizes a hurt person. In the play, her mother and father are so in love there is this feeling that the daughter is a third wheel. In many ways, this couple is so close -- their closeness excludes their child. There is a moment in the play where I refer negatively about my father and my mother, played by Leslie Uggams, responds "that is my husband." Her impulse is to protect him. Therefore, I think Chelsea, as a sensitive child, always felt on the outside," explained Linda of her character. "I love working with the entire cast. I am fortunate to work with legends like James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams. The entire cast is made up of truly wonderful people who are great to play with and jump into the pool with every night. Everybody is so present and so giving which makes this entire experience of On Golden Pond a real gift. Every play has a lesson that you take with you from it and the playing of every role, small or large, teaches you something. Yea, definitely! On Golden Pond has been a big one for me. Working with James Earl Jones has allowed me to stay more and more in the moment and work in the moment in a way that has made me stronger than I have been in the past."
Powell’s own parents support her acting career. They came to see her opening night. "Both my parents came to see the play opening night and I could see that my father was a proud papa," said Linda. "People may wonder if I see myself living in the shadow of a famous dad but it’s a feeling that I make myself put aside since it’s not anything that I can control. It takes too much energy for me to avoid telling people I am Colin Powell’s daughter, so I try not to worry about that kind of thing. It is not important. I would drive myself crazy trying to prove myself. I get good reviews and bad reviews. I do lead roles and supporting roles. I just try to keep working with good people and doing good work. If that continues to happen that will be vindication enough. Recently, I played the lead role of Bernice in Piano Lesson at the Cleveland Playhouse. It was a great role to play. I have always wanted to play Rosalind in "As You Like It." After I get a few more years on me I would, also, like to perform in "Medea." I think I need a little more anger under the bridge for that role however. There is a play presently in development, written by a friend of mine, entitled "A Small Melodramatic Story." It has a wonderful role and I hope to do the play sometime," remarked Powell. "You know I believe in synchronicity. I think the fact, that I met James Earl 12 years ago for a minute, is the reason that I am here today. The reason I met him back then was because I met Joanne Woodward and someone else led me to meet her and today I met you. I think all these little things fall into place. You don’t know how things will connect. You never know when you meet people how it will all fit together, if not then, maybe later down the road. It all fits together and never necessarily in ways you expect," claimed the Broadway star.
Single, Linda has lived in New York since 1987. "I think I have lived in New York as long as I have lived anywhere. I love New York and when I have time I date, but it isn’t easy to meet people when you are on stage every night. I am busy, so right now dating is on the backburner. However, I try not to lose track of my regular life. I only have Monday’s off so I try to catch up with my friends when I can. My friends have regular jobs and work during the week, so mostly I catch up on my chores and all those things I need to get done. Mondays get eaten up rather quickly. I love the movies and I love baseball and tennis. Though, I haven’t been able to tutor lately, when I can, I tutor with the New York Public Schools trying to help kids who are behind in their reading, get up to speed. I want to pick that up again once time allows," claims the busy thespian. "When the play ends its Broadway run, if the cast decides to tour together, I may tour with them. Who knows what comes next. So, for now, all I can do is live one day at a time."
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