Praise Song for the Day: In Praise of Alfre Woodard

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The New York Times article “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (so far)” sparked my memory of excellence in acting, especially memories of those whom I admired or on whom I patterned my career. Back in 1983, I had decided to turn professional, staying in college but commuting back in fourth from New Haven to New York two or three times a week sometimes. I was a junior in college and decided that more school would not be in my future. Enter, Alfre Woodard and lightening.

What I remember most of all was series television was like nothing I had seen before. The newspapers had proclaimed the sitcom to be dead back then. But the episodic as they were called, or the hour-long dramatic shows, were king. At the top of the list was “Hill Street Blues.” One episode featured a new actor — to me — who had been around for the better part of a decade. She was fierce, polished, and like no one I had seen before. Alfre Woodard was that actor playing a mother whose son dies at the hands of the police while brandishing a toy gun. The mother, “Doris,” played by Woodard, is framed for neglect. This was, of course, instead of arresting the sensitive yet kindly Puerto Rican cop who pulls the trigger. “Doris in Wonderland” was the blockbuster show of the season (Season #4, Episode #5) for “Hill Street Blues, which first aired on November 10, 1983. If you remember the trope, “Hill Street Blues” was about do-gooders vs. the machine hacks.

Back then and through the late 1990s, television shows were still considered a lesser medium where actors could make a good living, but the real art was on the stage or in the movies. If you were a regular or a guest lead on television, moving from show to show, you might be able to eke out a living until you caught a break or “aged-out,” because after all, television is a young person’s medium. Like Woodard and other journeymen at their craft, an actor could string together quality work that might lead to being a regular on an existing show or a supporting character or even lead in a pilot or a spin-off. Unknown guest leads weren’t winning too many awards. Alfre Woodard chose a different path, working her way up the television ranks purposefully for the better part of a decade through a variety of television series, before and after “Hill Street Blues,” becoming a lunch-bucket kind of professional, honing and shaping-shifting characters with her craft.

Woodard’s acceptance speech for winning the Emmy Award for “Doris in Wonderland” was nothing but grace and gratitude. Although breathless and full of wonder, Alfre Woodard looked like she was used to the accolades as in “act like you’ve been there before” in her speech to her television peers. She would go on to be one of the most highly-decorated actors of her generation. Four decades later, Alfre Woodard’s relevance still resonates. What was it about her enduring creativity that makes her radiant forty-five years later? Woodard’s subsuming herself in character roles, even before “Hill Street Blues” provided her with a platform that other actors of her generation — Merle Streep, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, Lawrence Fishburne — took full advantage of in leveraging commercial and critical acclaim.

This praise song provides a pause to go back and watch that original episode if you get the chance. The takeaway moment in “Doris in Wonderland” is when Woodard’s “Doris” hears that her son has been shot and killed, and the affable but bigoted Officer Andrew Renko, played by Charles Haid, tries to console Woodard’s character. The piercing “don’t you touch me or I’ll…” look from Woodard, just a beat, a mere moment, freezes us and Renko in the scene. Woodard’s reaction, along with the rest of her performance for her character’s arc, rises above the mostly boho slumdog dialogue. What we know of a mother’s grief rips through us all in that instance. Woodard’s “Doris” is certain but unsure.

In all praiseworthy work — a moment or three strung together — allows us to understand a kind of Truth — Doris’ Truth and Woodard as an actor.

— — — — —

Like a daily gratitude practice, Praise Song for the Day will be a way of appreciating what we know we know in a different and perhaps even profoundly deeper way. This column takes its name from a poem of the same title by Elizabeth Alexander called “Praise Song for the Day” delivered twelve years ago at the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. Clap back if you dig the piece. Go watch Alfre Woodard in something new if you really, really dig the piece.

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Lives in Andover, New Hampshire

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Brian Thomas

Brian Thomas

Lives in Andover, New Hampshire

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