Fort Worth actor David Coffee gets in touch with his feminine side as Edna Turnblad in the local debut of ‘Hairspray’
MARK LOWRY | Special Contributor
From a young age, it was clear to everyone around David Coffee what he’d be when he grew up. In second grade in Fort Worth, he had to perform “some sort of talent” for his music class, so he lip-synched all the parts to the entire The Wizard of Oz soundtrack. Later, when visiting his grandparents at an old folks’ home in Oak Cliff, he’d act out the TV shows as the residents watched them on the tube.
He told everyone he wanted to be a doctor. But his second grade teacher and a double amputee at the home set him straight: Acting was clearly the path for him.
Remarkably, the 53-year-old Coffee says that he’s lucky that he’s been able to make a living as an actor, most of it in Fort Worth. Aside from brief teenage stints as a shoe salesman at an Arlington department store and a mail boy at his father’s business, Coffee has consistently worked onstage, beginning his professional career in The Wind in the Willows at what was then called Casa Mañana Children’s Playhouse, in 1968.
“Since that time, I’ve either been playing a show, learning a show or forgetting a show,” he says in his dressing room, where he’s playing Edna Turnblad in Casa’s locally-produced premiere of Hairspray, which opens Saturday.
Coffee spent years touring the country in non-Equity shows in small towns (he’s now an Equity member), 20 years of returning to the Granbury Opera House, and of course, plenty of time at Casa. He has starred with such leading ladies as Cyd Charisse, Betty Buckley and Sandy Duncan. So far in 2011, his work has included Touchstone in As You Like It at Fort Worth’s Trinity Shakespeare Festival (it was his third year of making himself a standout as a Shakespeare clown at TSF); and as Herr Schultz in Dallas Theater Center’s revival-for-the-ages of Cabaret. In December, he’ll play Ebenezer Scrooge for the 19th time at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass.
But the panties role of Edna — played by Harvey Fierstein in 2003 Broadway debut and by Divine in John Waters’ 1988 source film — is historic for him: It marks his 75th show at Casa.
It’s no wonder he’s been able to make it. Character actors typically get more consistent work, and Coffee has been playing roles much older than him since he was a teenager. With a round face and bald head ringed by brown hair, he resembles the image of the wind, that man in the clouds blowing in the sky. When he started as Scrooge at North Shore, he was in his 30s — a part he says has only changed slightly as he has gotten older.
“I clicked into him even as a child,” Coffee says. “I never felt an affinity to Tiny Tim as a child, it was an affinity to Scrooge.”
All of the experience goes into Edna, a comedy role perfect for an actor who has become synonymous with comic relief, who knows how to be hammy without overdoing the pork. It’s the first time the straight actor has played a woman, although he understudied the role at North Shore in 2010. The actor playing Edna gave the advice to make sure that the fat suit has a zipper in the vaginal area, so he can relieve himself without taking off the entire suit.
“I’ve seen people play it soft and feminine, and I don’t do that,” Coffee says about the challenge of playing Edna. He seems to be in touch with his inner woman, though: He sat through the entire interview wearing a pair of pumps that we’ve requested for the photo shoot after the interview. “I don’t pull any big bones about it. The femininity will come through the physicalization, but I don’t do with it the voice. You just play what’s there and you’re OK. You don’t ignore the fact that it’s a guy in drag, because there are a couple of places in the show where they play it up; but other than that, you don’t worry about it.”
That’s just one thing Coffee doesn’t have to worry about, along with having to rely on a day job like almost every local stage actor. Now that’s some sort of talent.
Mark Lowry is a Dallas-based writer and co-founder and editor of TheaterJones.com, where you can read the full Q&A with Coffee.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 12, 2011.