Lynda Gravátt, a self-defined realist, doesn't worry about being typecast. "If I'm employed, I'm happy," she says. "Still, I always wanted to be the ingénue, but I'm usually cast as the pragmatic grandmother, even when I was young." A veteran actor who has been in the business for more than 30 years, she emphasizes, "But it's my job to make each [grandmother] as unique as possible."
While Gravátt's current onstage alter ego is undoubtedly a mature woman with a smidgen of pragmatism, there are other elements to Ruby, the aging and at moments delusional matriarch in August Wilson's King Hedley II, slated to open Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre Company on March 11. Set in Pittsburgh's Hill District in the 1980s, King Hedley II recounts the go-nowhere lives of an inner-city enclave. At its center are King Hedley (Russell Hornsby), an angry young man who has already done time in jail; his downtrodden mother, Ruby (Gravátt), who abandoned him as a youngster to her sister; and Elmore (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the seductive gambler and love of Ruby's life, who resurfaces after a long absence and threatens to destroy whatever fragile bonds exist between King and Ruby.
"Ruby is the product of welfare, despair, and poverty," notes Gravátt, a New York City native who grew up in Harlem. "She has a rough-and-tumble quality, drinks beer out of a bottle, hangs out on a stoop, and smokes cigarettes out of the side of her mouth. And her voice is deep, I decided. I bring my voice down to its lowest register to suggest a woman who has spent a lifetime smoking and drinking. But there's another side to her: She knows how to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants.
"I've based Ruby on women I've observed who came from that world," Gravátt continues. "I've also studied the work of August Wilson to help me understand her. Ruby first appears 40 years earlier in his Seven Guitars. Hedley harkens back to that period and hints at how she's developed. The big challenge is finding her humanity, her struggle to make a connection with her son. She is rebuffed, but she keeps trying to get through to him, to let him know that she loves him and she did what she did—let her sister raise him—because she thought it was the best thing to do. She wants to connect with her son, and there's urgency: She's getting on and believes her time is limited. What most prepared me for this role is my relationship to my own sons, who had to stay with their grandmother when I was on the road. I'd tell them I loved them but I had to work."
Gravátt appeared once as Ruby in the Broadway production of King Hedley II in 2001, as a standby for Leslie Uggams. In that one appearance, Gravátt says, she largely re-created Uggams' performance, though she has always viewed Ruby through a different lens: "Leslie's Ruby was gentler. Mine has more of an edge. In fact, a monologue that had been cut from the Broadway version, describing a violent episode in Ruby's life, was restored for this production and the published version. I encouraged August to put it back for the printing."
Gravátt has also appeared on Broadway in 45 Seconds From Broadway and Off-Broadway in Intimate Apparel, Crowns, and The Old Settler, earning Audelco Awards for the first two and a Theatre World Award for the third. Regionally she has performed at such venues as the Kennedy Center, Hartford Stage, Ford's Theatre, McCarter Theatre, Berkeley Rep, the Mark Taper Forum, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the Alley Theatre. On the small screen, she has had a recurring role on One Life to Live in addition to guest spots on all three current Law & Order series and Sex and the City. For most of her career, Gravátt supplemented her acting gigs by teaching at Howard University, her alma mater; the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.; and Rutgers University.
Gravátt stopped teaching and returned to New York in 1990 to care for her ailing mother. She came to a turning point four years later. "On the day my mother passed in 1994, I decided to return to acting full-time, partly because I knew that's what my mother wanted me to do," Gravátt recalls. "I started working steadily, I never took another day job, and I got my first agent. I never looked for one before because I was acting. But now, thanks to my agent at the Gage Group, I was getting work that I wouldn't be getting otherwise—roles on TV and in regional theatre. I believe there was divine intervention."
Looking back, Gravátt says there were moments when she considered throwing in the towel: "I thought about being a caterer and opening a restaurant. But whenever I've been at my deepest despair, at that moment, the phone rang with an acting job offer. Divine intervention. At one point I thought about being a minister, but a theologian told me that I was meant to act and that I had a ministry: my audiences."
Her ministry has not extended to Los Angeles. Indeed, Gravátt hasn't even toyed with the idea of relocating to the West Coast. "There were never enough parts for me in L.A," she says. "And Los Angeles is a city for young people. There comes a point when you just don't want to be part of a frantic life, running from place to place, the endless struggle. In L.A. everyone seems very desperate."
Gravátt is also very much an advocate of nontraditional casting and would love to play Lady Bracknell in either an all-black or a racially diverse production of The Importance of Being Earnest. At the moment, however, her thoughts are on King Hedley II, hopeful "that audiences—black and white—see the humanity of the characters on stage and understand that these people are products of their condition that they want to change but can't."