"Life's got its own rhythm. It don't always go along with your rhythm."
Ruby, from August Wilson's King Hedley II
"What you doing?" Ruby asks, narrowing her eyes.
Planting flowers, he says.
"Them seeds ain't gonna grow in that dirt."
Actor Sharon Scott hurls her lines across the small stage. Arms folded, head wagging, derision dripping from every word, she completely inhabits her character.
As the matriarch in August Wilson's King Hedley II, at American Stage in St. Petersburg through Feb. 22, Scott fusses, flirts and philosophizes, churning through the entire spectrum of emotion. For three hours a night, Scott is Ruby.
She doesn't like Ruby.
• • •
If you've seen live theater around Tampa Bay, you've seen Scott. She's bubbly and booming and commands the stage even when she's not speaking. Her voice shakes chandeliers — and spans four octaves.
She was the sultry voice of the carnivorous plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. Audiences cheered her in Sweet Charity, The Wiz and South Pacific. When she played the narrator in Black Nativity, people at the packed Palladium wept.
She toured the world with Ain't Misbehavin', sang with a jazz band in Singapore, frolicked in Nunsense in Kuala Lumpur. She starred in a one-woman show called High-Hat Hattie, about the actress who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
That show made it to New York, where it ran off-Broadway.
"A performer of size and vocal quality that overwhelms the stage," the New York Times gushed in October 1990.
Thousands of people have heard her sing. But few know her story: the absent mom, the preying preacher, the insufficiently specific prayer. Scott's own life is as richly dramatic as an August Wilson play.
She sat down last week at the Citrus Cafe, her favorite haunt near her home in Sarasota, and over a bowl of seafood chowder shared her story. She was wearing a black "Got hope?" Obama T-shirt and a denim jacket studded with sequins. As she talked, people kept stopping to say they had seen her sing here or there, and how fabulous she is. "You make my knees buckle," one man gushed.
Scott thanked them all, smiling and grabbing strangers' hands in both of hers.
Then she went back to the beginning.
Act I was set in Queens, N.Y., where Scott grew up the eldest of four children of a single mother. She never knew her dad.
Her mom was tall and regal, "like Dionne Warwick." Scott would lie on her mom's bed, watching her get ready to go out. Her mom always blotted her lipstick with tissue. After she had gone, to wherever it was she went, Scott would rescue the tissue from the trash and take it to bed. "So I'd have her kisses."
Her mom was gone most nights. She always chose a man over her children. Just like Ruby.
Scott was 5 when her mom sent her to Ormond Beach to live with her grandmother, a maid for a white family. Scott's grandmother became Mama, and her husband, Scott's step-grandfather, became the only man she ever called "Daddy." She loved the way he smelled: tobacco and bourbon.
Daddy was a preacher, so Mama always got up early on Sundays. She'd croon Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson songs while she baked biscuits. Soon, Scott was singing along.
One Sunday, after Daddy collected a second offering at his service, he told the congregation it wasn't enough. "Now I'm going to put my baby up here, and she's going to sing for you," Scott remembers him saying. "So you all better dig deeper and give it up for my girl."
He lifted her onto a table beside the pulpit. She took a deep breath. Amazing Grace filled the church and the people passed the plates again and soon the preacher was dumping crumpled bills around her feet.
Scott hadn't started kindergarten and here she was making more money than she had ever seen.
Just by singing.
• • •
Daddy started molesting her when she was 6. All through elementary school, she suffered silently.
When she was 10, she heard him ranting about a woman at church, saying, "She's so fat I wouldn't touch her with a 10-foot pole." That's it! Scott decided. If she got fat, he wouldn't touch her anymore. She swelled two dress sizes.
Of course, that didn't stop Daddy.
"For a long time, even after I told my grandmother, even after she kicked him out and shipped me back to New York, things were all messed up," Scott says. "Music and God, family and food . . . everything I loved got tangled with the hurt."
She stopped singing. Stopped praying. Kept eating, to keep everyone away.
• • •
In the second scene of King Hedley II, Ruby finds out she's going to be a grandmother and reflects on her own unwanted pregnancy.
This scene, and the final one in the play, are the most difficult for Scott. She tries to block out herself and let Ruby take over. She can't think about what she's saying.
Scott always wanted children. She was going to be the kind of mother she had wished for.
She was 16 when she found out she could never carry a baby because of the abuse. Another door shut. Another scar to hide.
"You never know what God have planned," Ruby says in the play. "You can't all the time see it."
• • •
Scott joined the drama club in high school to work backstage, pulling curtains and handing out props.
Someone heard her singing and told the teacher, who talked her into auditioning. She got a role in Oklahoma! and enjoyed it until she had to kiss Pa Carnes. "Back then, black girls didn't kiss white boys," Scott says. Black kids stopped talking to her. White kids walked away.
She enrolled at SUNY-Oswego with thoughts of becoming a social worker. "There was another big black girl already there doing theater," Scott says. "So I never did any acting in college."
She was teaching special ed in New York when she heard a touring company was looking for someone to play Nell Carter's role in Ain't Misbehavin'. Scott sang those songs all the time. She would rather be that character than be herself, whoever that was.
She landed the part and launched her career. "If you can call it that," she says.
• • •
Ah, the glamorous life of an actor: cramped dressing rooms you squeeze into with three other tired performers. The monotony of the same show, night after night, of having to dig deep and still strike that spark, though you have just traveled 15 hours on a bus and haven't slept in your own bed for months.
Still, Scott loved touring. Shows took her to Australia, South America and Europe. She called her grandmother once from Chicago. "Imagine that," her grandmother said. "You made it all the way to Illinois."
Scott traveled with theater troupes for more than a decade. When a show landed somewhere for more than a week, she would buy a plant for her hotel room. Sort of made it feel like home.
But the tours always ended and Scott would wind up back in New York, trying to score some short-term job she didn't want to do. Customer service or telemarketing or medical billing. Anything that would pay her rent until the next role. "I tried to walk away from theater but I couldn't," she says. "I need it to live. I need it to breathe. It's always been my greatest gift and my greatest curse."
When she's acting, Scott doesn't have to hide. She simply disappears. And emerges as someone else.
• • •
In her 30s, she started church-hopping, hoping to reclaim the spirituality Daddy had tainted. To get to God, she says, she had to forgive him.
Then she asked God for a favor.
"Dear Lord," she remembers praying, "please send me a man. A big, sexy man who will make me laugh. Make him at least 6 foot 4, with exotic eyes and strong arms and a few other things I won't say out loud."
Sure enough, God answered her prayer.
"But I forgot to ask for honesty, so I did not receive. I lived with the fool for two years, then he broke my heart."
She tried acting again, even auditioned for Dreamgirls on Broadway. Got a callback and then . . . nothing. So she waited until another revival of Ain't Misbehavin' hit the road and morphed again into her second self.
• • •
The tour finished in Florida, and Scott never got back on the bus. She set down roots in Sarasota where it was warm.
She sang at a few churches and restaurants, got promoted to assistant manager of an auto travel club. Told herself she was done with theater. It seemed done with her.
When a man she worked with asked her to come hear him sing at church, Scott didn't tell him she had performed around the world. Marque Lynche was the first man she dated who hadn't known her as an actress.
He made her feel beautiful. And safe. She didn't have to worry that he was in love with some part she was playing, or with the thrill of her voice. He loved her. Sharon.
He fell in love all over again, he says, the first time he saw her on stage. "She blew me away."
He convinced her to give theater another shot. She was a different person now, able to embrace all sorts of new roles.
They've been married nine years, and he still goes to every show, every night.
• • •
In the end of King Hedley II, Scott's character gets to sing. But it's not the big, booming Sharon Scott voice that floats across the theater. This is a squeaky, despondent, desperate little whimper that sends shivers up your spine. This is Ruby.
"She's not just a big girl with a big voice," says Bob Devin Jones, who has directed Sharon in seven St. Petersburg productions, including Hedley. "Her artistry is what impresses me. Just when you think she's given you everything she has, she kicks in somewhere and finds more.
"With her formidable talents and the variety of roles she has mastered, she should be doing much more — on a much bigger stage."
At the end, during the standing ovation, all the other actors wave and smile. Scott is still crumpled over, tears streaming down her cheeks. She's still Ruby.
• • •
"Art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired," August Wilson wrote in the afterword.
Translation: You have to live the blues to sing the blues.
"If I hadn't been abandoned and molested, if I hadn't been black and fat, if I hadn't been challenged and rejected, I could never come up with the pain to play this part," Scott says.
She wouldn't wish her childhood on anyone. But she has seen how it shaped her and made her strong. She's not ashamed anymore. She's proud.
Her first play will be produced in April: a show she wrote about Mahalia Jackson. Ruby and Hattie were weak women, Scott says — willing to bend to please. Mahalia wouldn't bend, and Scott knows how to play that.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.