Playwright/actor/director J. Nicole Brooks remembers her “Spidey sense” tingling when she took a relative to the doctor several days before the March 7 opening of “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” which Brooks both wrote and directed for Lookingglass Theatre.
“Everybody there was wearing masks, the people waiting and at the nurses station. It was ominous,” recalls the North Lawndale native currently co-starring as Buel Cannon opposite Chris Rock’s entrepreneurial crime boss Loy Cannon in the Chicago-set fourth season of FX Networks’ “Fargo.”
We all know what happened in the following weeks. “Jane Byrne” closed five days after opening, a casualty of COVID-19. Brooks gave the cast the news before their final performance.
“Obviously I was sad because my play had closed, but that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was watching 30 people lose their jobs at the same time. That’s the worst feeling ever,” Brooks says. “My mind was racing. I’m thinking about my friend (director) Lili-Anne Brown, who was supposed to be opening ‘School Girls’ at the Goodman that week. And then my friends all across the country. All across the world. Everybody out of work. Everybody,” she adds.
Still, Brooks’ more than 30-year film and theater career is a testimony to resilience as well as talent. Her audio adaptation of “Her Honor Jane Byrne” debuts Thanksgiving Day on WBEZ-91.5 FM, with an encore performance at 2 p.m. Nov. 28. Led once again by Christine Mary Dunford as Chicago’s first female mayor, the 10-person cast is back together — virtually — for the project. Brooks’ work on “Fargo,” meanwhile, culminates with the Nov. 29 finale.
As Buel, Brooks is a steely-eyed hero with the icy nerve of a Mafioso enforcer and the passion of a mama dragon under siege at the moat. Yet when she was asked to audition, her response was unhesitating and unequivocal. Nope.
“I told my agent they definitely didn’t want me,” she says of her TV series role. “That’s not self-deprecation, it’s not that I don’t think I’m good enough. It’s that this is big-budget, network TV, opposite one of the biggest stars around. This business isn’t always merit-based. They don’t want me because they want a big name. That’s just the way it works.
“Plus, I was in New York visiting family. I was burned out. I was gearing up for ‘Jane Byrne’ and I didn’t want to fly back to Chicago on my first day of vacation just to do an audition I wasn’t going to get. I wanted to go to Coney Island,” she says.
Brooks recorded her audition on her phone and went to Coney Island. She returned to Chicago post-vacation and immersed herself in “Jane Byrne.” Two months passed. There were no “Fargo” callbacks, no screen tests, no chemistry reads. Then her agent phoned. Brooks had gotten the part. “Believe me when I say that is not the way things usually work in this business,” Brooks says.
Buel Cannon isn’t one to run her mouth, but when she’s on screen, you’re watching her; and when she speaks, best believe everyone listens. Her shotgun-wielding showdown with hitman Constant Calamita (played by Gaetano Bruno) is a case in point.
“Gaetano and I are friends. But once they yell ‘action’? We’re ain’t friends any more. When I open that door on him, what you see is actual fear, because he is that good of an actor,” Brooks says. “Also, it was like 30 degrees that day and I was freezing.”
She drew on the lessons learned from the women in her family while growing up in Washington Park.
“I was raised to stay ready so you don’t got to get ready. My mother taught that if you telegraph and yell and show your hand — that might not serve your ends. I wanted to play Buel like that, a Black woman who’s got this stillness that’s also her strength,” Brooks says.
Working with Rock, she adds, meant putting her fandom aside.
“I’ve loved Chris Rock’s work since forever. But I had to go into this not as a fan but as his partner. Because even though we’ve just met, we’re filming emotionally intimate scenes and a lot of people are watching very closely. We agreed to have each other’s backs. And we did. Although sometimes he’d crack jokes before serious scenes and, well, he is the funniest man on the planet.”
With “Fargo” in the can, Brooks returned to “Jane Byrne,” cutting the script by half an hour, and tweaking the dialogue for radio. (“You can say ‘godda**it’ but you can’t say ‘piss.’ The FCC rules are fascinating,” she said.)
Brooks plans to return to the stage, when the stages return. She believes “Fargo” will “open the doors to many new adventures.”
“When I think of 2020, I think of Pandora’s box,” she says. “The last thing in there? That was hope.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.