Come From Away Actress Jenn Colella is Out, Polyamorous & Tony-Nominated

Jenn Colella
Photography: Matthew Murphy

One of the Broadway season’s biggest hits, the seven-time Tony nominated Come From Away is a rousing, folksy show about the real-life incident where planes were diverted to a small town in Newfoundland on 9/11 and, for the most part, its passengers were welcomed and celebrated.

A testament to human decency, the show features a gay male couple who slink around the town, terrified of stepping into homophobia, but feel way more comfortable when they realize the people there are just plain nice. The show’s LGBTQ presence is upped by the fact that Beverley Bass, the lady pilot who landed the musical’s central plane in Canada, is played by the self-described “mostly gay” Jenn Colella, who just got her first Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Jenn debuted on Broadway in 2003 in Urban Cowboy and has many other credits to her name (including shows like High Fidelity and Chaplin).

I recently caught up with her to discuss her work and personal life.

Hi, Jenn, Congrats on the nomination. I heard that Beverley Bass, the pilot you play, adores the show so much, she’s a repeat viewer.

She’s seen it 62 times. She loves it. She’s not just given it her stamp of approval, she cries and gasps every time as if it’s her first time. She was the first female captain on American Airlines. She was retired, but since the show, she started to creep back into flying. It ignited it again.

When did you meet her?

Not until the last preview in La Jolla (the California venue where it played pre Broadway). In a restaurant, we spotted each other across the room and she came up to me and said, “I think you’re playing me.” I said, “I think you’re right.” She has definitely helped inform some of the things people put into the show. There are more stories she shared with the writers that got integrated, and I started adding little mannerisms of hers to make it as authentic as possible.

The message of the show is so uplifting that you must get incredible responses to it.

It’s been awesome, especially right now. It’s become the norm to be mean and spit vitriol at people, and we’ve gotten out of the practice of kindness. This shows us to practice kindness and says that we are all inherently good, which I deeply believe.

With the conversation about immigration raging, Come From Away reminds us how we need to welcome foreigners.

100%. I couldn’t agree more. When tragedy happens, you don’t care about their religion or socioeconomic background or where they stand politically. You shouldn’t at any time. I think these Canadians live this way all the time. It’s a reminder that it’s possible all the time.

Speaking of living openly: Were you always out in your career?

I wasn’t until I did an off-Broadway play [in 2008] called The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, taken from the Ann Bannon pulp fiction novels, playing a butch lesbian. I was getting a lot of attention, and it didn’t feel right not to be out anymore. It felt ridiculous, in fact. When I first got to New York, I was encouraged by people I respected to not come out. But I couldn’t do that anymore.

In 2013, you played a lesbian again in If/Then. You’re getting typecast.

[Laughs] Awesome, that’s great. Let’s do that all day long.

You told the New York Times you’re “mostly gay.” Offstage, are you dating or married?

I’m in a polyamorous relationship. I’m currently dating a married couple [a man and a woman]. They live in D.C. And I’ve also just started dating another woman.

Is she in the business?

Yes.

So these are obviously open relationships.

Yes.

In fact, you’ve said that your girlfriend is now on OK Cupid. Have you ever had longtime monogamous lovers?

Many. I’ve been married twice, and I used to joke that chicks love it when you propose.

But we haven’t had same-sex marriage long enough for you to have been married that many times.

It wasn’t legal. The first one was in ’95—a big ceremony in South Carolina [where Jenn was born and grew up]. It was a huge uproar. I was 21 and she was 10 years my elder, and the state newspaper covered my wedding and they had thousands of cancellations of the newspaper in protest. Then I remarried nine years ago, and it still wasn’t quite legal then. That one was dissolved as well. I’ll probably stop proposing. [laughs]

Why did you go ahead with these ceremonies if they weren’t legal?

The ritual of it. Humans love rituals. We like to get together and celebrate and make proclamations. It means so much. I don’t regret it. Both were incredible marriages and beautiful weddings.

What’s your best feature as person?

My practice of kindness. It’s really something I’m dedicated to. I try to treat each person I meet with respect and be as pleasant as possible.

Your best quality as an actor?

It might be the same. My present awareness helps me stay in the moment onstage. I believe I’m talented, but I think we’re all talented in New York, and a great deal of what I’ve accomplished is my leadership ability and my ability to help form a family on a show. I put myself in that position. They call me captain.

In every way!

I try to connect with each person. It’s kind of insane that I got a nomination when it’s such an ensemble show, but I put myself in the position where people look to me like a leader.

One last question about Beverley: Did she experience misogyny as a female pilot?

Absolutely. “Me and the Sky” [Jenn’s big song in the show] is almost directly taken from transcripts. She talks about the WWII pilots calling her “baby” and literally saying women don’t belong in the cockpit.

I guess they take the word “cockpit” very seriously.

[We both laugh].

THE SEASON IN GAY

The gay male couple in Come From Away aren’t the only LGBTQs on Broadway this season. Also up for Tonys: Lesbian playwright Paula Vogel’s Indecent is about a real-life Yiddish play that dabbled in lesbianism, to the horror of cultural oppressors. War Paint—a musical about warring cosmetics titans—has a character who shifts corporate allegiances, but is always true to his male partners. And in the realm of revivals: Falsettos deals with a man, his wife, his lover, and AIDS. Six Degrees of Separation centers on a real-life con artist who beds a hustler and flirts with anyone who can help him. And The Glass Menagerie’s narrator, Tom—based on author Tennessee Williams—has always had gay subtext, but with openly gay Joe Mantello playing him, it’s possible it comes out even more. The season also brought us a gay who has trouble dating, a small-town gay who’s not afraid to let his father know, and same-sex couples dancing at a ball.

Among the Tony nominees are the openly LGBTQ David Hyde-Pierce, Andrew Rannells, Gavin Creel, and Nathan Lane. And Jenn Colella! Congrats to all for a diverse and stimulating bunch of work.

A TARD DAY’S NIGHT

A polyamorous couple comprises one of the sketches in Unitard’s show Tard Core (There Are No Safe Words) at Joe’s Pub, but that sort of thing is mercilessly skewered, as per usual with this troupe. (“We have rules. You can cum in their mouth, but you can’t hold hands.”) In the riotously funny show—which will have you spitting out your overpriced wine—the comic trio also lampoons people who troll Whole Foods for tofu key lime pies; Facebook addicts who are horrified that someone else posted a photo of their breakfast burrito and got more likes than their own inane posts; and Russian hackers who discover that Hillary’s password is “Monicasucks.”

The show starts with the long running trilogy of terror—David Ilku, Nora Burns, and Mike Albo—as folk singers musically lamenting what’s happened to New York City. (“Where have all the porn shops gone? Turned into Soul Cycles and nail salons.”) But while the edge-depletion of the new NYC is one of their favorite targets, Unitard also makes fun of anyone who whines about it too much. A satirical Mod Squad for the new age, they hold a mirror to our pretensions while carving up soulless real estate agents, fruity designers who’ve crash landed on QVC, and the desperate Ann Coulter, who has a cell phone battery for a heart. Best of all are the Narcissists Olympics sketch and one in which the comics are hemorrhoids popping up in Trump's butt and dodging all the fatty foods. No one is better at satirizing up-to-the-minute foibles than these three kooks. I would just add an 11 o’clock sketch probing some really dark pathos and despair, just to bring things to a different level, but having nonstop hilarity is nothing to kvetch about.

STAND BACK

Pure entertainment was also on display at the 27th annual Night of 1000 Stevies, a riveting Stevie Nicks tribute at Irving Plaza, where “enchantresses of ceremony” Chi Chi Valenti, Paul Alexander and Hattie Hathaway, and DJ Johnny Dynell presided over swarms of twirling, spinning wiccans and vegans. The Garbo theme added yet another diva into the mix—the Jackie Factory is genius at blending metaphors—and the show sizzled with performers like Xavier, Divine Grace, and Amber Martin, who rocked the place with a fierily fierce “Angel.” “Stevie has a pre-existing condition,” I told the crowd as one of the night’s presenters. “She’s fabulous!”

SAINTS AMONG US

Tom Eubanks’ Ghosts of St. Vincent’s is a memoir about the legendary NYC hospital (now closed), which catered to AIDS patients like Eubanks, who also has researched the place’s extraordinary history from 1849 to 2010. I asked Eubanks, an old clubbing/ACT UP friend, to relate the most eye-opening things he learned about the hospital as a patient and author. He replied, “During my repeated stays during the height of the crisis, two things opened my eyes: time is subjective and friends are paramount. When you’re dying—or told that you’re dying and being asked if you’d like to see a priest about last rites—you achieve a kind of peace you never imagined on a deathbed. All sense of time ceases; it’s unnecessary, really. The only ones who gain any perspective when you’re dying are the people who visit.

“When you’re told that you will live, time and perspective return full-force. As I write in the book, it was a cruel trick Jesus played on Lazarus. That’s what AIDS did to all of us who made it through the maelstrom. The hospital’s destruction to make way for luxury housing illustrates the moving on of time we never thought we’d have. Also, it’s crucial to note that those of us who spent time on the seventh floor of St. Vincent’s learned a lot about selflessness, especially from the nurses and few remaining nuns.

“In a juicier vein, through my research I learned that St. Vincent’s was responsible for plenty of true life resurrection stories in its 161 years, with characters like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sidney Lumet, Gloria Vanderbilt, Cardinal Franny Spellman, Ed Koch, the Ramones, Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe, Vito Russo, and others, about whom I write in the book.”

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

In 1982, Hal Prince directed a gigantic flop of a Broadway musical in A Doll’s Life, a sequel to the 1879 Ibsen classic A Doll’s House, about a woman who breaks free of male oppression and finds liberation. Critics thought the original play was perfect enough, thank you, and found the musical additions uninvolving and unnecessary. If anything didn’t cry out for a sequel, it seemed, it was A Doll’s House. But here comes Lucas Hnath’s new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2, which shockingly makes the same premise work. First of all, Hnath starts the action 15 years after Nora Helmer has walked out on her husband Torvald (Chris Cooper), so he doesn’t even recognize her when he’s confronted with her again. (He never did notice her much anyway). Furthermore, the play—under Sam Gold’s direction—often attains a screwball comedy tone, with modern thinking and behavior mixed in and some wacky interactions that make things seem very now. The killer is that Nora—who’s now a successful writer of women’s books and has come back to finally make her divorce official—still faces battles with each person she talks to, whether Torvald, who still can’t see how he condescends to her; the chatty maid, Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), who keeps insisting that Torvald isn’t necessarily unhappy without Nora; and Nora’s even chattier daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad), who refuses to believe Mama’s idea that while love is grand, marriage is just enslavement. The resulting debates about romantic entanglement, responsibility, and compromise are fresh and entertaining, and there’s also pathos in the fact that Nora is still seeking validation. (Hnath has said that Nora and Torvald don’t really get to hash things out in Ibsen’s play, so he wanted to give them the chance to do so).

Miriam Buether’s set has the title in neon, which rises up (as the house lights stay on throughout the play), revealing simple furniture surrounded by very tall walls, making this home feel like a difficult one to escape, especially twice. Cooper is fascinating (and refuses to make his character an ogre), Houdyshell is hilarious, and Rashad is truly electric, with direct and affectless spoutings of Emmy’s logic. As Nora, Metcalf commands the stage, using all her expert comic and dramatic skills to create one of the season’s most indelible performances. I generally deplore sequels, but I hope they do A Doll’s House, Part 3.

MULTI-CULTI BROUHAHA

Notice that when I mentioned Rashad as Metcalf’s daughter, I didn’t say anything about the fact that she’s black. Who cares? She's brilliant. And while her casting is one of director Gold’s purposely novel touches, it’s not the first time she’s played a role written for a white person. She was Juliet in 2013’s Romeo and Juliet, cast because she’s good. And this season, the African American Denee Benton is playing the female lead in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and it didn’t bother me—or the Tony committee, which nominated her for Best Actress in a Musical—since she doesn’t happen to be Russian either. It’s theater. It’s acting. And I’ve long felt that people who aren’t white should not be penalized for their color and limited to roles any more than white people have been—and lord knows, Jonathan Pryce got flack for playing the Eurasian Engineer in Miss Saigon in 1991, but he also won raves and a Tony for it. Ideally, they should get the person who’ll give the best performance—and in the current production of Miss Saigon, it’s Jon Jon Briones, who’s fabulous. (And I didn’t sit there going, “But the character is half Vietnamese and half French, whereas Briones is Filipino American!”) Similarly, Glenn Close and Bette Midler might not be the right age for Sunset Boulevard and Hello, Dolly!, respectively—they’re older than what’s written—but they’re definitely the right people for the part.

Years ago, I got a screaming email from a theater writer (who just recently nabbed the critic’s job at a popular Broadway site). Since we were friendly, I thought he was going to say, “Thanks for doing that panel for me, which you just did,” but there were no niceties involved. He just launched into a fuming rant about how woefully wrong I was regarding something I’d written about multi-cultural casting. Seeing as his screechy email didn’t even bother to say specifically what he was reacting to, I had to dig into my brain and remember that months earlier, I had written a throwaway, light hearted sentence on the subject for a long-lead-time magazine. Lest I argue back, the writer’s screed included a pre-arranged defense, saying, “And don’t say people don’t usually sing in real life either!” blah blah blah, thereby trying to block any discussion on the matter. He had decided I was guilty of journalistic treason for not wanting to theatrically limit black actors to roles written for people of color—and my light hearted comment hadn’t even really said what I think on the subject.

But he guessed right. As I’ve said, I am in favor of not relegating black people to only Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess, Showboat, and August Wilson plays (and some other works). Some of those are great properties, but—with white people controlling the business for so many years—it becomes an unfairly limiting palette for those who didn’t happen to be born white. So, if Audra McDonald wants to play Maria Callas, I say fine. She’d no doubt be magnificent, and I can use my imagination for five seconds and then forget about her skin color for the rest of the show. I also don’t think trans people should just play trans people. They should play all people, just like cis people get to do. And last year, I liked The Taming of the Shrew with Janet McTeer as Petruchio and the biracial Cush Jumbo as Katherina. This season, I had no problem with multiracial castings in shows like Groundhog Day and Present Laughter and I didn‘t hear anyone else gripe about it either.

Of course, someone might interject, “But what if a white person played Othello?” I’d reply that the point of multi-cultural casting isn’t for white people to get more roles. And also, that things get sticky when you’re dealing with plays that are specifically about race. But ideally, if everyone becomes able to nab a larger variety of parts, that should be a viable possibility too, once we’ve arrived at a more equitable landscape. And if some bold director tries it before then, then we’d have to accept the fact that theater should retain the power to offend (though let’s definitely stop short at Olivier-like blackface. See, white people have already played the part). It’s complicated—and case by case—but I welcome alternative viewpoints, as long as they’re clear-minded and not screaming or patronizing.

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