A Tribute to Jennifer Underwood -- from Rudy Ramirez

(reposted from Rudy's Facebook page, January 12, 2023)


Jennifer Underwood as Lear, 2011 (via Rudy Ramirez)For my birthday, which was also her birthday, I’m going to give you Jennie Underwood. Now, you may already have a Jennie Underwood—and I could never replace yours—but some of you never got to meet her, and I feel so sad that you weren’t as lucky as the rest of us. So, for those who didn't get to know her I want you to get a sense, my sense, of my birthday twin, my reason I will always be a little sad on my birthday, and why I feel so grateful for that sadness.

Every word that I could use to describe the skill, care and power Jennie brought to the stage as an actor is tired and inadequate, so I will offer two stories. The first is that on opening night of Qualities of Starlight, Jennie Underwood delivered a monologue in the second act, seated the entire time, that stopped the show so people could applaud. I have seen that with songs. I have never seen that with a monologue. The second—and this is particularly aimed at the New Yorkers reading this—is that I saw Deirdre O’Connell, Tony Award winner and icon, play the same role that Jennie originated in Terminus, play it beautifully and, I noted, very differently. When I was introduced to her I got a better understanding of that difference. She said, “Oh, that woman! We watched the video of your production and I thought ‘How am I going to follow that?!”

The greats took their hats off to Jennie. And I could talk even more about her incredible performances, not just in the shows I got to do with her but in Suddenly Last Summer, Agnes of God, The Language Archive, Arsenic and Old Lace, Mrs Mannerly, Machinal, 4000 Miles and all the other shows I saw her in (I missed The Casket of Passing Fancy, damn it). But that wasn’t the only reason to love Jennie.

It’s easy for the greats to make themselves unavailable, to stick to the most established works and artists, but Jennie was always ready to take a risk, especially on a person. I was nobody when I told her that I wanted to do King Lear with her in the title role. We barely even knew each other. But we had a meeting at The Blue Dahlia, where we found out that we shared a birthday and a butterfly landed on our table to sip balsamic vinegar. That’s all she needed. Because she was playing Lear, the best folks in Austin showed up. She trusted me, and I owe her my career.

Jennie trusted so many of us Austin weirdos with wild ideas (I’m REALLY mad that I missed The Casket of Passing Fancy, y’all) and new plays. But that wasn’t the only reason to love Jennie.

If you were in a show in Austin, and you heard that tonight was the night Jennie and Karen were coming, you stood up a little straighter, you maybe did an extra warm up or reviewed your lines more than usual. It was different from the feeling of knowing a reviewer would be in the audience. It didn’t come from a place of nerves or insecurity, it came from a place of pride, of wanting to offer them the best version of your performance you could because they were who they were, because you knew you would hear Karen’s loud laughter in the audience, and because, if you were good, you knew how Jennie would meet you after the show. She’d take a little step toward you to embrace you and then stop, her hands closing with the excitement of a child taking just one more moment to look at the Christmas tree before unwrapping the presents, a smile on her face that was half the smile of a proud mother, half the conspiratorial smile of a secret society member looking at a new inductee, The Cult of the On-Stage Greats, and then it would begin. The first one was a stage whisper: “I love you!” Then a little moan of delight, then the machine gun fire: “IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou!” until she made her way to hold you in her arms. Then maybe another moan or gasp and a couple more, “I love you! I love you!” And then it was off to the bar to share gossip and tell stories, to maybe sneak some pot if we felt we could get away with it, and if you sat next to her there’d usually be at least one more moment when her hand would rest on yours and she would say it again. “I love you.”

Some actors sit on praise like dragons on a hoard, but Jennie loved to watch you be great, to tell you about it, to share it with you. But that wasn’t the only reason to love Jennie.

Once I was sitting next to Jennie as she was looking at Karen, her wife, and she said that she had given up by the time she met her, that she assumed that she would never find anyone to love her, and then all of a sudden, there she was. I got to see them get married in New York; they had been together for 29 years, but were waiting to get married in a state that meant something to them, and New York is where they met, two actresses who became one another’s biggest fans. I have been to many weddings, and I’m sorry if I went to yours as I say that no other wedding could hold a candle. It was a simple ceremony in a restaurant, and it was so romantic that I can’t help but cry writing this. Here was a love that had stood the test of time and the storms of prejudice, still warm and glowing, lighting up the rest of us all around them as we toasted them and sang love songs to our queens.

Queer people everywhere will tell you that glimpses of that kind of love are precious, and Jennie and Karen gave us so much more than glimpses. But that wasn’t the only reason to love Jennie.

There was the way she dropped her jaw in surprise, the way she pronounced every syllable of “Bye Fe-li-ci-a!” the ferocity with which she went after anyone she thought was hurting someone she loved, the theatricality of her storytelling, the welcome she gave you into her home and pretty much any table she sat at, the adoration of her puppies, the way she could go from down-home Kansas to regal in a moment, the sound of her voice as she cussed, the love she brought to every. Single. Thing. She did. In the days since she passed—on a full moon because, as my friend Andrea said, she could always find her light—the Austin theatre community has poured out Manhattans and their hearts for this woman who inspired us to be our best selves onstage and embraced us in our flawed completeness off it. And the thing I keep coming back to is that for all I will miss her in my own life and oh God, do I miss her, I feel sadder for all the young people coming into Austin theatre after the pandemic who won’t.

So I wrote this to try to give a sense of her, as incomplete as it is, and because for all that Jennie was one in a billion, I hope that, if you’re someone not from Austin reading this, you recognize someone in your own community in her. The actor who steps onto a small community stage and becomes the Muse of Fire that Shakespeare was looking for. The audience member whose voice you hear from backstage that makes you “sit in solemn silence on a dull dark dock” one more time. The queer couple that shows you that yes, we too can have ’til death do us part (and even that parting is only for a little while; I pity any force—natural or celestial—that tried to keep these two apart). These folks never get the attention they deserve, but they do, hopefully, get the love. Tell them you love them.

Rudy Ramirez, Jennifer Underwood (source unidentified)And to my birthday twin on her 75th birthday, and my 43rd, it was one of the greatest privileges of my life to be your 32nd birthday present (if my math is right). I love you. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou. I love you.