Nicole Ari Parker’s Biggest Challenge Yet
In The Refuge Plays, she portrays a character across her lifetime, from a teenager to an 80-year-old.
If you’re familiar with Nicole Ari Parker from film and TV, her new off-Broadway role might come as a shock. When she first appears on stage in The Refuge Plays, she’s dressed as a great-grandma, complete with old-age makeup, house slippers, and the slow gait of a woman who’s seen it all. Her character, Early, wouldn’t know what to make of Lisa Todd Wexley, the glamorous filmmaker Parker plays on the Sex and the City spin-off, And Just Like That...
“The character I play is in different stages of her life,” Parker, 53, says of The Refuge Plays, which tells the story of one Illinois family over 70 years. Written by Nathan Alan Davis, it consists of three acts, each of which is set in a different time period and could stand alone as one play. Parker is on stage for nearly the whole time, first playing Early at age 80 — as noted above — then at 50, and finally as a teenager starting a new life after unspeakable trauma. (To convincingly play a teen, she speaks with a softer voice and adopts the edgy movements of a young woman who’s not quite sure of herself.)
Each story peels back layers of the family’s history, shedding light on why Early and her relatives are the way they are — ultimately giving new meaning to the phrase “respect your elders.”
“I tried to respectfully craft this woman, because I have 80-year-old parents, and they don’t try to be old,” Parker says of the role. “My mom’s from the South, so I talked to her about some of the practical life of the play. How do you catch a turkey? How do you defeather a turkey? How do you live off the land?”
“I love New York, and I really wanted to get back on stage, so it was a no-brainer,” says the actor, whose most recent theater role before this was in a 2014 production of Antony and Cleopatra. “I’m like the new kid in the group. Most of the actors have been really seasoned in this material,” she says of her castmates. “I had to jump right into the rhythm of everything.”
Parker is no stranger to New York City — she graduated from New York University and filmed AJLT here — but doing The Refuge Plays still feels like a homecoming of sorts. “A lot of the people [in the audience] are people I love and know,” she says. “I always want to see who’s there, greet them, and honor that they came.”
Below, she shares her backstage rituals, dressing room totems, and the one thing she’ll never do before showtime.
On her dressing room staples:
I wish I had snacks. There’s no time for snacks. It’s three plays — not just three acts — so most of the things around my dressing room are makeup and wig changes. And then I have a son in the show, so I have a picture of my [real-life] son on my mirror.
On her music-free preparation:
I don’t eat much before the show. I do a vocal warmup, a deep breathing warmup, and body stretching. For this show, I don’t [listen to] any music. The words feel like a piece of music to me. I just try to lay into them before each show. As I’m doing my vocal warmups, I’m sometimes doing my lines so I can feel them resonating in my being. The words mean so much that I almost can’t get distracted by AirPods in my ears.
On why she leaves people on read:
I do not look at that phone, girl. I do not! I am still a nervous Nelly. I tell my friends, “Don’t tell me you’re coming.” Just text me right after, and I’ll pick up my phone at, like, 10:27 p.m.
On how New York nightlife has changed:
It might be my imagination, but New York is going to bed earlier these days, right? At maybe 10:20, I’m finished, changing into my pedestrian clothes, and greeting family and friends. By then it’s 11 o’clock, and kitchens are closing. When I was at NYU, I remember being able to go somewhere at, like, midnight and have a full meal.
Getting out late has been quite a shift in how I work. I have to decompress. I don’t live too far from the theater, so sometimes I walk home. I have a lot of groceries, and I’m making my own food. It’s been nice to really nurture myself with home-cooked meals, tea, and good rest. I saute a lot of vegetables. I love Indian food in New York City, so sometimes I’ll warm up some leftover chana masala.
On what she hopes audiences take away:
I hope that they reach out to the people they love who they haven’t seen or spoken to and express their love for or their forgiveness to them. My hope is that people believe in the time and space that we cannot see and make peace with those ghosts. And I hope that people leave the theater laughing and crying at the same time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.