Woman of Parts

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Critics gripe constantly about the dearth of good new American plays, but another stage life-form, the one-person show, is alive and well and living in theaters all over America. Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin have soloed on Broadway, and a host of lesser knowns—among them the hyperinventive Jo Harvey Allen—are taking their singular acts on the road. Now living in Fresno, Calif., A monologuist Allen, 44, transforms herself onstage into dozens of real and imaginary characters from her home state of Texas. She writes plays too. In 1985, Allen collaborated with her two teenage sons, Bukka and Bale, and her husband, artist-songwriter Terry Allen, on Do You Know What Your Children Are Tonight? David Byrne cast her as the beguiling Lying Woman in his 1986 movie True Stories, and in two weeks she opens in a Georg Büchner play in Minneapolis. The woman of a thousand faces talked recently about herself and her various guises with senior writer Michael Small.

When I was a country music deejay back in 1970, I used to interview all the best singers. One time I was supposed to talk with Waylon Jennings, but I got too intimidated and I never showed up. I was feeling like a real failure, so my husband, Terry, took me to this great Texas diner to cheer me up. Because I was acting like a real sad sack, this waitress kept bopping over to the table, smiling at me. So Terry said, "Why don't you just interview her?" And you know, I actually did. I went to her house and wrote down every word she told me.

After that, I asked a lot of waitresses if I could interview them, and they'd talk with me for hours, sometimes days. I found out that waitresses weren't all poor, downtrodden, underpaid people who wanted to get out of this godawful job. Some of them had been working double shifts for 50 years, and they loved it. They said, "Being a waitress is the blessing of my life."

In 1974, the TV news did a report on this raunchy San Joaquin truck stop where half of the waitresses were hookers. I went out there and got a job so I could talk with people. At first, I would come out with a plate of beans when it was supposed to be a hamburger patty because they all looked the same. The cook screamed and threw buttered toast at me. With the truckers saying these come-ons, I was so rattled I never treated them with any respect. Finally, when I got my job down pat, they would say an insult, and I would pretend I didn't hear it and I'd say, "Are you tired? Where are you going? Do you have a family?" Then every trucker started treating me so terrific. Pretty soon I loved that job.

I had never even tried acting until 1973 when Yvonne Rainer—she's this choreographer and filmmaker—came to Fresno to teach a class. I just went up to her and said, "Look. I'm gonna be your shadow for a while. I'm gonna pump your brain." I'd stay up all night writing performances. Then I'd put them on for her as if I were doing a regular show for a million people. I'd bring in two carloads of junk and fill up the room with props. I went to Denny's and bought all the setups for their tables so I could act out things the waitresses had told me. I would get anybody I could find to be actors. In one show, I had them tied to ropes, and I was up on a big platform, and I would yank at them like puppets while I was singing country songs that I had written.

I started writing poetry and traveling around the Country doing readings in 1976. I did one reading on the radio in Houston when all of a sudden I started singing, too, and another time I started acting out the words. Eventually, the interviewing, the singing, the poetry, the whole thing just came together. I wrote a letter to an alternative art space in San Francisco and said I wanted to perform. They told me to send a resumed So I just wrote, "Look, I've scrubbed the bathroom a million times, and I'm ready to move on." And they said okay. After that, I performed literally everywhere, even in real truck stops by the side of the road with real cooks, real waitresses, real truckers watching. I try to just present the stories of the people I've interviewed and not say yea or nay about them. I'm sort of a recorder. One guy came up to me after a show and he said, "I've got to get out of here. You're my ex-wife, my sister and my mother, and I can't stand any of them."

After David Byrne came to see me perform in California, he said he thought there were several parts in True Stories that I could do. The funny thing was, he meant perhaps I could play one of several parts, and I, of course, took it to mean that I could play every part in the movie. David didn't have the heart for a whole month to tell me that I only had one role. And there was another thing I misunderstood. When he gave us the script, David encouraged the actors to improvise a bit. At our first meeting, I just raised my hand and started in with pages of new dialogue for my character. The first story I added was one that was really true about how I was born with a little bitty hairy tail and how I think it gives me extra psychic abilities. David's mouth sort of dropped open. But he did add that story to the script.

I think I owe a lot of my luck to growing up in Lubbock. When you stand in the middle of nowhere like that you feel like you are the center of the universe, and it gives you this incredible confidence. At the same time, you feel like this tiny little speck, and that keeps you grounded. In Lubbock, a lot of people made up their own stuff. When I was a kid I would act out themes like the death of a baby. I would put catsup on a doll and bury it in some old building site and watch the workers find a leg or something. Then I would dig it up, solicit kids from all around, and we would act out the doll's death for weeks. We would have music. We would sew the costumes. We would cry and sell tickets to the funeral.

My daddy was a carpenter. He was very handsome. My pretty momma kissed him on a blind date and two weeks later married him. He went to war, and she went to work. So my grandparents helped to raise me. One of my grandfathers was a big-time gambler who owned hotels and land until he lost it all in the Dust Bowl. He died and left my grandmother to raise six children in a two-room shack. She took in washing and ironing and soaked her feet in a bucket as she read the Bible. She'd go right outside her back door, wring some chicken's necks and bring 'em in so we could pluck 'em. My other grandmother was very proper. She ran a boardinghouse, and her husband ran the elevator at the one tall building in Lubbock. He always wore a rose in his lapel. Every year he'd take off work for two days, grind peppers and meat and make this big pot of hot chili. He'd invite the gas station attendant, grocery store clerks, people who rode in his elevator, whether he knew them or not. Then he'd set at the kitchen table and eat a little chili and crackers with each one and get to know them.

Since we left Lubbock, Terry and I haven't always had money, but we don't get too upset about it. We've always had opportunities. I've sold a cleaner door to door. I've sold meat and house paint over the telephone. I was an interior designer and sold ads for the Yellow Pages. I loved that. I always managed to be the second best. Then everybody was pulling for me to beat the first one.

I worry all the time about my family. There's a funny part in this play that my husband and my sons and I wrote. In it, I'm sitting at the table waiting for the kids to come in from school, and I'm saying "Oh God, what if they're in a wreck? God, what if they've gotten somebody pregnant? Oh God, what if they're queer?" Then one of them walks in and he says, "Hi, Mom, what are you doing?" and I say, "Oh, I'm just sittin' here thinkin' how much I love you." I put corny things in my performances sometimes. Because I think people are moved by things that verge on being corny. I mean, you see a sunset every day. But you still get that feeling when you see it. I remember how I used to wake up and imagine I was in a casket, and afterward I'd feel so glad to be alive that I'd have a great day.

That's an idea I really like, making something positive even out of negative things. If somebody wants to look at me, God, there are so many ways I screw up all the time. But you really can look for the better part in people instead. There's a poem I wrote. Part of it goes: "Shuck off my momma and my daddy, my lover, my babies and my friends/ All you've taught me, all my skins have absorbed like lotion./ Strip off the silks one by one and what would be left is a secret." I love that poem. It's a secret even from us what's inside us. That's what I struggle to bring out. There's some sort of gift down in there in everybody.

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