The Maternal Side of Robert Aubry Davis

Robert Aubry pictured with Carolyn Cole (as Tracy Turnblad).
Photo by Christopher Mueller
Robert Aubry pictured with Carolyn Cole (as Tracy Turnblad).

Culturally speaking, Robert Aubry Davis is big.

If this city ever appointed a minister of culture, someone who represents what it is to be a Washingtonian to the world, Davis would be perfect for the job. He’s already been doing it, unofficially but regularly, for decades.

Generous to a fault with his voluminous knowledge about all things cultural, be it medieval lutes, lines from the poetry of John Keats, or folk music both modern and anonymous, Davis is the cultural promoter par excellence. The longer he lives, the more he knows and does, and the Washington cultural scene is all the better for it. Of course, there are some people, having just been exposed to a flood of Davis erudition, that walk away exhausted.

Somewhere, sometime, if you’ve been around long enough, you’ve heard the name Robert Aubry Davis. Maybe you’ve heard him on “Symphony Hall “and “Pops,” the classical channels on Sirius XM. He’s also program director for the folk channel “The Village.” He produces and hosts “Millennium of Music,” now in its 33rd year on public radio. For the past 26 years, he has been the erudite and personable host of “Around Town,” a forum of Washington area critics discussing all manners of local art on WETA. You can also find him cajoling, guilt tripping, and congenially prodding for donations at WETA’s pledge drives.

His manner is at once imperious but outgoing, partly because he is a large man who speaks English with an unquiet voice that elongates vowels and nails consonants with precision. What you’re really getting is his enthusiasms, his expertise, and his ravenous hunger to explain and learn at the same time. At some point, he just bowls you over.

As an arts writer, I do a little cultural stuff myself, and one thing I know is that wherever I go, more often than not Davis is there too. Whether it’s an exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Art, opening night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the opera or a 12th century lute performance, David is there.

He’s also a very brave man, by my way of thinking. Drop by Shirlington sometime during the run of Signature Theater’s holiday production of the musical version of John Waters’ “Hairspray” (Nov. 21 – Jan. 29), and Davis will be there. But you might have trouble recognizing him.

Davis is playing Edna Turnblad, the large, nervous, overly protective mother of the hit Broadway musical, which won eight Tony’s in 2003.

“I thought Robert would be perfect for the part,” said Signature Artistic Director and founder Eric Schaeffer. “He has a personality, he has charisma, everybody knows him, it’s a great part—I think that would appeal to him.”

In an interview with announcing the casting, Davis said, in true form, “Eric Schaeffer, has, like a tomb raider of old, decided to wake the sleeping thespian long buried in my breast.”

“To tell you the truth, I thought, No,” he said. “I haven’t been on stage since, I don’t know, college—which was a long time ago. I thought this was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I could do this. But still, starting with rehearsal, waiting to go on, doing the day-to-day work, it’s a little frightening.

“It confirms what I already knew but not so viscerally,” he said. “Something like this, a theater piece itself, is hard, hard work. It’s unbelievably hard. It reconfirms my respect for everyone involved in theater and for the group of people who are doing this with me and helping me. They’ve been incredible. And I am enjoying myself.”

“Hairspray,” for the uninitiated, is a story that originated from the eccentric mind of world renowned filmmaker John Waters, a Baltimore native, who made a movie version that served as the source material for the ensuing musical. It’s about a spunky, plus-size Baltimore teenager named Tracy Turnblad who wins a spot on “The Corny Collins Show,” a local teen dance show a la American Bandstand. But as the promo suggests: “Can a plus-size trendsetter in dance and fashion vanquish the program’s reigning princess, win the heart of heartthrob Link Larkin and integrate a television show without denting her ‘do’?”

And can Tracy’s mother Edna overcome her own shyness and insecurity—she hardly ever goes outside—and join her daughter in the spotlight?

And there’s one more thing. Edna is written to be played by a man. And in this case, Davis is that man.

Davis will be walking in the high heeled footsteps of some formidable men: the late, acclaimed drag queen Divine from Waters’ original cult film, the gravelly-voiced Harvey Fierstein, and superstar John Travolta, who played Edna in the film version of the musical.

“But I didn’t just want to go up there and pretend to be a woman in big clothes,” Davis said. “I think Edna is a wonderfully maternal person who’s always had trouble with being comfortable in her own skin, with her size, in ways that her daughter doesn’t. I can relate to that. I’m a big person—tall, extra weight—and everybody who’s extra-large or heavy always has to find a way to deal with that... It’s not as difficult for men, but our culture has thin as a kind of ideal for women. So I looked at the maternal side for one thing. My wife and I have two children, and that lets me get a little into my maternal side, which is pretty strong. My son says that he sometimes thinks he has two mothers.”

Of course, this being Robert Aubry Davis, it won’t be Edna 24-7. He will still provide the narration for “A Celtic Christmas” at Dumbarton Methodist Church in Georgetown, (Dec. 3, 4, 10 and 11) as he has for several decades. As music goes, it’s not quite so rarefied as the Gregorian chants that he plays on his radio program, but it’s another display of his passion for old music.

Edna, on the other hand, is a display of something else entirely: a willingness to take on a challenge with gusto and a boundless curiosity for the human heart on display. If experience is knowledge, than Robert Aubry Davis is learning something new under Edna’s makeup, and as is his wont, he’s sharing it with us.

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Mon, 26 Jun 2017 11:28:14 -0400

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