“The Queen of New Orleans Theater,” Carol Sutton, has Died at 76 Due to Covid-19 Complications


When the late Carl Walker asked me to contribute to one of his productions of Native Tongues — where New Orleans playwrights wrote New Orleans characters, to be performed by New Orleans actors — I had a shy request: Could I try writing something for Carol Sutton?

Carol, whom I never had met but admired as one of the best stage actors I’d ever seen, was delighted. And when we did meet, she was delightful. The short play, Backbones, as not very good. But Carol’s performance polished up a rhinestone into something that sparkled. She could take an uninspired line, or one that lay flat on the page, and during rehearsal weave it into the tapestry of a living, breathing character who would materialize like a Polaroid photo coming into focus.

For all her talent, she was just as well-known for her generosity and willingness to collaborate with anyone in town. It was the backbone of a 50-year career during which she performed on dozens of stages in New Orleans (most notably the Anthony Bean Community Theatre), as well as mentoring and helping other performers, particularly the new and the young. Her onstage persona could be regal or debased, innocent or sophisticated, but offstage she was as down to earth as they come. No one, but no one, disliked Carol Sutton.

“I feel like she’s one of those actresses you see and you’re like omg she’s been in everything,” wrote someone on Reddit. Indeed.

She began performing with the Dashiki Project Theatre in the late 1960s, but almost immediately branched into TV and movies as well. Carol’s first TV role was a small one in 1973’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, followed shortly by a larger role in a hilariously bad movie called The Savage Bees, in which Carol played a mother whose little girl was the first victim of the titular swarm: “All that was left was her hair ribbons,” Carol said years later.

From there, she never stopped, becoming one of those character actors whose face is familiar even if you don’t know the name. She was the bailiff in The Runaway Jury. The high school principal in 21 Jump Street. A nurse in Steel Magnolias. She was in Ray, Monsters Ball, True Detective, Treme, the remake of Roots, American Horror Story, Eve’s Bayou, The Skeleton Key and dozens more productions large and small. Most recently she was in an episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. In between, she appeared on local stages large and small; in recent years she earned accolades for playing the narrator in Our Town at Le Petit Theatre, and the matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun at the Ashé Power House Theater.

When we worked together at Barbara Motley’s now-closed Le Chat Noir, I often would drive Carol back home to Central City after rehearsal (“I live in the ghet-to,” she told me with a laugh). Sometimes we would have drinks first at the theater bar. When she was cast in The Skeleton Key, she told me how excited she was to meet and work with the great Gena Rowlands and how they hit it off immediately (acting game respects acting game), and how unprofessional she found the film’s other star, Kate Hudson. Carol, who showed up on time ready to work in all situations, was appalled at Hudson’s lateness and slovenliness, not to mention when she began to breastfeed during the first read of the script: “A titty at the reading table!” Carol said, but even she had to laugh at that.

She played her share of maids and wise black women in dramas — she was a working actress, after all (and her monologue as the maid Cora in the movie The Help was one of its few highlights). But she also was devastatingly funny. One of my favorite performances of hers was as Big Momma in the campy comedy The Glass Mendacity at the True Brew Theater. It was a send-up of every Tennessee Williams play ever written, and she threw herself into the material like Carol Burnett.

Carol was busier than ever these days. According to her IMDb page, Carol was in 11 TV shows and movies just last year and this year alone — including her biggest role of all, co-starring with Diane Keaton and Pam Grier in the movie Poms, which gave her a taste of the red carpet life. But she always was just as thrilled to go to Gambit’s Big Easy Awards and see her compatriots and friends; the Big Easy Awards honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

“The Queen of New Orleans Theater,” as the City of New Orleans’ Twitter account called her, died Dec. 10 of complications from COVID-19. She was 76 and had been honing her craft for half a century — and that was far too short a life. Carol Sutton was to the New Orleans stage what Leah Chase was to the New Orleans kitchen, and she just had so much more to give.

 

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