How Do You and Orson Welles Do that Voodoo that You Do So Well?

Interview: Inger Tudor, Voodoo Macbeth Co-Star

The Renaissance of a Harlem Renaissance Woman.

To paraphrase 1931 Cole Porter song “You Do Something To Me”

Co-founder of the Negro People’s Theatre in Harlem? First production was Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty?

Tell us about your personal background?

Inger Tudor: I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. My family moved near L.A. when I was in high school. I went to college and law school in Boston, at Harvard.

After I graduated law school, I practiced law briefly at a firm in Boston… One of the women at the law firm knew I was acting on the side asked, “What is it you like about law?” When I told her she said: “You like acting in a courtroom and you should go act…” A few years later I went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, because at the time London was one of the few places that had one-year complete drama programs. So, I went there to study classical theater.

You’ve gone on to have quite a career, with lots of big and little screen credits, including legal and crime dramas. What are some of your stage and screen highlights?

Inger Tudor: Small parts in big movies that I enjoyed were The Social Network, which I got to shoot with David Fincher, one of my favorite directors, and Aaron Sorkin was the screenwriter. I’m a huge fan of The West Wing. The other one was [the Amazon television series] Goliath, I really enjoyed that because I got a chance to work with Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt. And another thing, which was hysterical, on Adult Swim there’s a show called The Trial of Tim Heidecker, and I actually got to play a D.A., and it was setup to look like a real trial, like it was on Court TV

Did your legal training come in handy in those kinds of parts?

Inger Tudor: The Tim Heidecker part for sure, because they were specifically looking for actors who had a legal background. They definitely wanted people who had courtroom experience… For Goliath, it helped to have some knowledge of the machinations at a law firm.

Actors play what they know.

Inger Tudor: Yes and no. As an actor, one of your jobs and one of the delights is playing what you don’t know. So that you end up finding out about more than your personal lived experience. That’s the best part.

Your latest film project is Voodoo Macbeth. Advertising for it states that the young Orson Welles got involved with this 1936 play “​Before Citizen Kane and War of the Worlds,” Welles’ 1941 movie masterpiece and his infamous 1938 radio broadcast. Given this, why was a 20-year-old Welles selected to direct this Shakespearean production for the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project? And who chose him?

Inger Tudor: A couple of things were going on. John Houseman wanted him, Houseman and McClendon decided he’d be a good choice for this. They were looking for someone to be able and willing to direct this who could lend a different eye to it and bring an innovative spirit and wouldn’t be put off by the fact that he’d be directing an all-Black cast. Someone who wasn’t going to let that deter him from the project. While we play up in the movie Orson’s “concern that there aren’t enough Black actors in New York that speak Shakespeare,” he was actually loved by the cast. They actually got along very well. We do take a little bit of license for dramatization. Part of the decision to have Welles is that he comes unencumbered with ideas about what Black actors are capable of doing with Shakespeare.

I also want to add… Welles often believed that this was the most successful thing he’d ever done, even more so than Citizen Kane and War of the Worlds.

What was the Federal Theatre Project?

Inger Tudor: Out of the Works Progress Administration, one of its sub things was the Federal Theatre Project. A woman, Hallie Flanagan, was the head of the Federal Theatre Project…

 

The idea was by helping the theater, not only were you encouraging, helping people in terms of their spirt, but you’re also providing jobs. Because if you’re doing a large theater production there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people you can employ. Something like this definitely did, because the cast was so large. Then you have all of the crew and everyone that goes along with it. So, this really brought a lot of jobs to the community in Harlem. And actually, one of the things protested as the show was in rehearsal was concern that this white director would not hire enough people from the community. So, there were some protests regarding him directing the play.

Was there also a fear that the Caucasian Orson Welles would be mocking and belittling Blacks as they presented the so-called high culture of Shakespeare?

Inger Tudor: Yes, there was. That was part of the protest, too.

What was the Negro Theatre Unit?

Inger Tudor: It was the subset of the Federal Theatre Project that focused on Black actors and Black productions, and specifically in this case, in Harlem.

Rose McClendon, along with John Houseman, were in charge of the Harlem office of the Negro Theatre Unit. But then Rose McClendon ended up shepherding the creation of Negro Theatre Units in 10 other cities… She started them but then they were run by other people in the other cities. It’s my understanding that Hallie Flanagan tapped him, and Houseman said we have to have somebody Black involved in this, especially in the Harlem Unit.

The FTP also had a Yiddish Unit… One of the really great things about the movie Voodoo Macbeth is that you and the film have rescued one of the great Black actresses and theatrical forces of American history from obscurity. Tell us about your character, Rose McClendon?

Inger Tudor: First of all, I have to admit that I was ignorant about who Rose McClendon was until I had the pleasure of reading one of the early drafts before we went into production at a table read. As I was reading this I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never heard of this woman. I lived in New York for nine years. I did theater in New York, I did theater in Harlem – how is it that I never heard of Rose McClendon? It was amazing to me and then I thought: “Okay, well you’re a bad theater student, a bad Black person.” Then I realized a majority of people don’t know about her and there’s a handful of people, either because they’re very serious students of theater or people who know of the whole Harlem theater history and the things that went on there with the Negro Ensemble Company and various other incarnations of Black theater…

Another thing that blew me away was – I remember sitting there going, “Wait a minute! Our government used to fund theater? Hello!” Can we go back to that model?…

Rose went to the American Academy of Dramatic Art and within a year after she graduated, she started on Broadway around 1919 and worked fairly consistently until 1936. She was in a production of Mulatto, which was written by Langston Hughes. She did something like 375 performances. She was in a production of Porgy [before George Gershwin adapted it into an opera], she worked with Paul Robeson. She was just a phenom during the Harlem Renaissance and that whole period of time through the 1920s and 1930s she was working consistently.

What role was Rose originally cast to play in Voodoo Macbeth?

Inger Tudor: She was cast as Lady M…

What was Voodoo Macbeth? How was Shakespeare’s tragedy transformed?

Inger Tudor: One of the things Welles decided to do, because this was an all-Black cast, he reset the location from Scotland to Haiti. Instead of witches, he had voodoo priestesses… Some of the music, the drumming…

Tell us about some other prominent talents who were involved in the play Voodoo Macbeth?

Inger Tudor: Most people probably know John Houseman for 1973’s The Paper Chase, which he won a [Best Actor in a Supporting Role] Oscar. He was known in Hollywood and on Broadway for being a producer. [In the movie Voodoo Macbeth he’s portrayed by Daniel Kuhlman.]

Juano Hernandez [in the movie Voodoo Macbeth he’s played by Ephraim Lopez] was a Puerto Rican actor of note at the time [who later acted in movies such as the 1949 screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and 1964’sThe Pawnbroker].

There is a boxer-turned-actor called “Cuba” in the movie. It seems that he was based on Canada Lee, who portrayed Banquo in Voodoo Macbeth and later played Bigger Thomas in Welles’ 1941 Broadway adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Most of the other dramatis personae use their real names. Why was Canada Lee’s name changed? Was Canada, like Cuba, actually gay?

Inger Tudor: Canada Lee’s name was changed because the B-storyline of the movie involves a relationship between the Cuba character and Maurice [Jeremy Tardy], another Black male character. It has to do with issues of homosexuality at the time, the clubs and the signals they gave to each other to let you know you were a gay man. Because we did not know details about Canada Lee’s sexual preference, we did not, he still has [surviving] family, we did not want to suggest and be incorrect that he was gay, so we changed the name…

An important subplot in Voodoo Macbeth is the investigation of it by Congressman Martin Dies [Hunter Bodine], co-founder of what became the House Un-American Activities Committee. Did this actually happen? What was Dies so concerned about? (Communist influence; race.)

Inger Tudor: That is actually one of the places where we took license. He did not Voodoo Macbeth investigate per se, but because as you mentioned he was involved with what became the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was a likely antagonist for the production… Many of the things that happened in the movie did actually happen – many of them did happen to the characters, but we’ve truncated the time period in some ways. For instance, Martin Dies didn’t investigate Voodoo Macbeth specifically, but he’s one of the people involved in the Federal Theatre Project being defunded as being “un-American” and having too many “subversive” plays and storylines going on.

Voodoo Macbeth opens October 21. Interestingly, October 27, 2022, is the exact 75th anniversary of the start of the Hollywood Blacklist. On October 27, 1947, the first member of the Hollywood Ten, John Howard Lawson testified before HUAC. So your film is very well-timed.

Inger Tudor: Interesting.

Canada Lee co-starred in 1947’s boxing picture, Body and Soul, directed by Robert Rossen and written by Abe Polonsky, both of whom were eventually blacklisted. Lee was ensnared in the Hollywood Blacklist. However, he got work overseas at South Africa in the 1951 movie adaption of Alan Paton’s anti-apartheid novel Cry, the Beloved Country, co-starring a young Sidney Poitier. The screenplay for the last movie Canada Lee acted in was clandestinely written by blacklisted screenwriter John Howard Lawson. Why do you think were Communist Party members in the movie industry were so interested in portraying racism onscreen?

Inger Tudor: …I can’t speak to communism in other countries but I think the Communist Party here was trying to point out in many situations injustices in the United States. When you look at the history of the Communist Party here they were trying to get people of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, the disenfranchised, poor people, white ethnic groups, to all understand that they’re all being put in bad positions by wealthy white men who are in power… I think the idea was that if these disparate people could see their similar circumstances and the wrongs that are happening, maybe they can come together in solidarity.

What was the public’s reaction to Voodoo Macbeth? [Why were some members of the Black community opposed to Voodoo Macbeth?]

Inger Tudor: It did well. It sold out for 10 weeks at Harlem. Then it went on tour around the country. In a couple of Southern cities it was not as well received. But in larger cities with more diverse populations, it did very well.

Orson Welles was relatively unknown when he rewrote and helmed Voodoo Macbeth. How did its acclaim affect the 20-year-old “boy wonder’s” career?

Inger Tudor: It put him on the map. In the film his wife [] says a white man directing Black actors in Shakespeare would do that. This was his directorial debut and it was a huge success. He was 20-years-old with a show with sold out crowds for 10 weeks in New York, that went on tour. It launched him, in many ways.

Inger, Voodoo Macbeth was made in an unconventional way by USC Originals. What is USC Originals? (Did you attend USC?)

Inger Tudor: That is the title they’ve given to… projects coming out of USC like this. This came out of a special class at USC that’s different from most film schools. Even though it’s a film, it was setup like the writers’ room for television. We had eight writers who worked on the script and of course the whole point for them as students was to learn the importance of collaboration and having that many voices being able to tell one cohesive story. There ended up being 10 directors. Each director did approximately 10 minutes of the movie.

Did you ever attend any classes at the University of Southern California?

Inger Tudor: No. I have taught there – I directed a play for one of the second-year playwriting students. Because we used acting students from the undergrad and I believe also some USC alums, it’s considered a class for undergraduate students. It was entitled Blood of a Hibiscus by Zharia O’Neal. That was a great project. She’s a wonderful writer; I look to see what she does next.

What’s next for Inger Tudor?

Inger Tudor: I have a few things happening. I do lots of voiceover. I’m about to work on an audiobook. I’m also the voice of Bree Stone, who is the wife of the character Alex Cross in the James Patterson books. I’m in a play going up at [L.A.’s] Fountain Theatre in January in the West Coast premiere of The Life Span of a Fact, which I believe was on Broadway just before the pandemic, with Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe… I play the editor of a news magazine and she has a young fact checker check on this supposed to be groundbreaking story by one of her top writers, but he has a tendency to stretch the truth. It deals a lot with the idea of how much do you let slide and how factual do you have to be. In this time of “alternative facts” it’s a very timely play… I’m also writing.

Is there anything you’d like to add about Voodoo Macbeth?

Inger Tudor: It’s a really compelling story. Beyond all the wonderful things about Rose McClendon or the young Orson Welles the thing that’s most important message coming out of it is, one, seeing that struggles can be overcome, and two, one of the things that I love about the film is that it is not a white savior film. Orson Welles does not come in and save the day. What you actually see is his development and coming awareness of how he needs to interact with these people who have agency on their own and have dignity… I really hope it’s the kind of thing that not only people will enjoy but it sparks something that makes people want to dig a little deeper to find out more about Jack Carter [Gary McDonald], Canada Lee, the young Orson Welles, and Edna Thomas [Ashli Haynes] and the various other people in it who are all real people in history.

Voodoo Macbeth is being theatrically released Oct. 21. For more info see: https://www.voodoomacbethfilm.com/ and https://www.ingertudor.com/.

Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.