Whoopi Goldberg’s career is one of those perfect rags-to-riches tales. In the mid-1970s, when I first encountered her in San Diego, she was doing comic improvisations in response to audience suggestions. It was director Mike Addison who spotted a higher dimension in her and took the risk of casting her in San Diego Rep’s production of Mother Courage in 1977. Later, in the Bay area and on tour, Goldberg developed her own brand of solo performance, which in New York caught the attention of Mike Nichols. That led to her acclaimed one-woman Broadway show; which led to Steven Spielberg’s casting her in The Color Purple; which led to a busy (some might say overbusy) movie career, a television talk show, a steady role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress in 1991, for her role in Ghost). It all sounds like a movie; The Whoopi Goldberg Story— or maybe, given the natural American understanding of success stories, just Whoopi.
Or Hoopla. But beyond the hoopla, what is important about Goldberg is her genuine artistry, and her unique quality as an actress. To define that quality, you would have to talk about her satirical wit, her ebullient sense of joy and fun (so delightfully captured in Annie Liebowitz’s photograph of her grinning in a bubble bath), and the great depth of her compassion for human suffering. On the one hand, brilliant comedy (not to mention her zest for vulgar comedy): satirical improvisations on casual San Diego stages, or the fake medium Oda Mae who much to her surprise and terror finds herself speaking to a real ghost. On the other hand, the profoundly serious naturalism of Goldberg’s leading role in the film version of Alice Walker’s heartbreaking The Color Purple. She has proved herself an actress of striking range, filled with vitality and truth at both ends of the acting spectrum.
But what is most wonderful about Whoopi Goldberg is her ability to be comic and serious at the same time — or even vulgar and compassionate at the same time. It is an ability rising from her own character, which her natural histrionic flair has been able to transform both into rounded individual characterizations and into theatrical embodiments of the contradictory nature of life in general.
I — and maybe the world — first saw this unique doubleness when Goldberg took the role of Brecht’s hard-bitten heroine at the Rep’s Sixth Avenue Playhouse. A petty shopkeeper following the troops, Mother Courage is ruthless in gaining a tough living for herself and her family. She has no illusions about human goodness, commenting sardonically on the culture of warfare, power politics, and individual selfishness. But she loves her children with a fierce love; her pain as she loses them, one by one, goes as deep as pain can go. As her performance demonstrated (although no one had suspected it before), this was a role made for Whoopi Goldberg. Unlike many actresses with more extensive classical training and experience, she found the right tone immediately; her own tone, dry, sarcastic, methodically self-driven, utterly unsentimental, and — without any flamboyance — bursting with the relentless energy of all human life, even of all organic life. It was a performance Brecht would have revered.
The same yoking together of opposites was at the heart of the most memorable sketch in Goldberg’s Broadway show, written (as was the whole show) by herself, and performed under Mike Nichols’s sympathetic direction. Do you remember the spastic woman, all crumpled into herself, her limbs twisted, her voice a raucous bray between inarticulate lips? How — of all things — she went to a dance; how a tall, handsome man drew her onto the dance floor; how, before our very eyes, she blossomed, expanded, straightened up, became free and beautiful, and spoke with ease and grace; how she fantasized a lasting relationship with this man, but how nothing permanent came of his pity; and how, finally, she folded up again, lost her speech, became once more the bent and hopeless creature she had begun as. It was a miracle of acting — but what was most miraculous was that along with the almost unbearable pathos, the sketch was so often authentically funny. Astounded audience members found themselves laughing and weeping at once, and coming to know — as though from the inside — what it must be like to be that unfortunate, marginal, but completely human person. It was not the sort of insight one ordinarily expects from a comedienne.
Is there anyone on stage or screen today who could have done that except Whoopi Goldberg? And in a different vein, could there be anyone more perfectly suited than she to the role of Gainan, the ageless wise woman of Ten Forward on the Enterprise? Mysterious in her knowledge and her identity, tolerant of human weaknesses, capable of piquant humor, serene with the serenity of someone who has been through everything, sharp and smooth at the same time — it is Goldberg herself, in a glittering turban and a purple cloak (more of the color purple), her sly pixie face (one more resolution of opposites) magically lustrous and beautiful.
The only trait of Goldberg’s character in which these layered contradictions and transcendences are noticeably absent is her loyalty to old friends. In that, she is single and firm. Hence her return to San Diego Rep this weekend with her new one-woman show, in two benefit performances for the theater that first recognized her as something special. The monologues and sketches will be seen here for the first time anywhere. Among them, there are bound to be some that will amuse, some that will touch the heart, and some that you will never forget. It’s Whoopi Goldberg, after all.