It was perhaps preordained that actress Cassandra Small should portray the famed New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau in the upcoming musical Fire on the Bayou. Small says she has had “a strange history with Marie Laveau” ever since she impersonated her at the Zoobilation Ball back in 1993. She showed up in character with dangling jewelry and a white turban on her head. The party planner had instructed her to pretend to be a fortune-teller and “just make up something” for the guests’ entertainment. “I held the hand of the first ‘customer’ and started talking: ‘Such a pretty lady! You didn’t really want to come here tonight, did you? He forced you. But just relax and have fun, pretty lady …’ and so on,” recalls Small with still discernible dismay. “The guy who was with the woman was standing by, and he goes, ‘Wow, you are really good!’ Apparently, it was true; the woman did not want to come to the party, and there was this whole thing between them about it. And then a similar thing happened with person after person. I guess I was reading their body language, but still, it was spooky!”
A couple of months later the same event planner booked her again for another party in La Villita. “This time it was even more intense. One lady started crying,” says the actress. “I said, ‘No more, you just lost your Marie Laveau.’ I felt the whole thing was getting out of control.” But a stage Marie Laveau is another thing altogether. There’s a script, and people know they are watching fiction. Small was first cast in that role back in the mid-‘90s when Fire on the Bayou premiered at San Antonio College. The final product, however, never realized the potential of the show, she felt. This time around, with an all-pro cast and crew on board, she has high hopes: “I said, ‘Yes! Yes! This is going to be a blow-it-out-of-the-water kind of show.’” The brainchild of playwright Mark Leonard and San Antonio composer and music director extraordinaire Tom Masinter, Bayou tells the story of how Laveau saved a small Cajun town near New Orleans from the evil schemes of a con man. With a musical score that ranges from Cajun and zydeco to R&B and show tunes, the show has created great anticipation.
It’s directed by Tim Hedgepeth, with sets by Steve Gilliam, both of whom won San Antonio Artists Foundation grants to work on this project. The huge, 40-member cast of actors and dancers features the Who’s Who of San Antonio theater, including Anna Gangai, Ben Gamble, Sherry Gibbs-Houston, SkudR Jones, Travis Trevino and Roy and Stephanie Bumgarner. But when it came to casting the pivotal role of the legendary voodoo queen, “Cassandra was the first one I thought of,” says Masinter. “She’s incredible; she’s Marie Laveau. She has the charisma and passion for her roles that compel you to watch. In the show, we’ll see an old Marie regain her mystical powers and turn the con man into a snake. In the process, she gets rejuvenated, too. You are going to see these transformations right on stage.” For her part, Small researched her character, who is based on a real woman, or more accurately, two women — a mother and a daughter who ended up fused in the public’s imagination as the epitome of the mysterious powers of voodoo. Yet it was clearly the first Marie who gave rise to the Laveau legend.
“I read a lot about her,” says Small. “She amassed a great deal of power for a woman of color because she knew everyone’s secrets. She was revered as well as feared, and she was able to move with greater freedom than most black people at the time.” As for voodoo rituals, Small has seen them only on video. Small is a veteran of the stage who has appeared in at least 25 plays; 13 movies, including Miss Congeniality and The Life of Davie Gale; in TV shows and in commercials. In 2006, she won the Alamo Theater Arts Council’s Globe Award in the lead actress category for her portrayal of Lena Younger in the Renaissance Guild’s production of Raisin in the Sun. A second Globe came in 2008 for a supporting role in the highly acclaimed production of Doubt at the former Church Bistro and Theater. Not surprisingly, Lena and Mrs. Muller (from Doubt) are among her favorite roles. “The best parts have layers of complexity,” she explains. “Both of these characters appear to be just average at first glance, but when you get into the heart of the matter, you see their extraordinary strength and loving commitment to their families.”
Movie work has come mostly through her Austin agent, as a number of Hollywood producers like to film in our capital city and its environs. Though her parts have been small, pay is good. Residual checks from Miss Congeniality are still arriving in the mail. More recently, the actress briefly explored the Atlanta market and discovered many potential film jobs. Though she ultimately decided to return home, where she and her husband, Douglas, have built their dream home in Garden Ridge, she may return to Atlanta later to pursue some leads. Steady work on a TV series is one of her goals.
Her purpose and her passion
Despite her last name, Small is a tall, good-looking woman of 57 who is comfortable in her own skin. “I am happy with where I am in life,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be younger. I am old enough to be my authentic self.” Raised in Chicago, she fell in love with San Antonio when, as a youngster, she spent summers here to improve a respiratory problem. The Smalls eventually moved to the Alamo City for good after they got married. They have five grown children, including one from Douglas’ first marriage. Though she used to sing with her dad and had a bit of experience with a community choir, on the whole, young Cassandra did little public performing. In fact, her stage career didn’t start until the age of 35 and then through sheer serendipity. She tells the story of her theatrical debut with relish. At the time, her day job was as a reservation sales agent for Southwest Airlines — where she stayed for 22 years — but she also had a little radio gig on the side. One day, she went to the Cameo Theater to help decorate the place for that evening’s going-away party for her radio boss. When she got there, however, the auditions for the musical Godspell were still in progress. So while waiting, she fell into conversation with another woman, who started urging her “to read for the director.”
“I had no idea what she meant. What’s wrong with the director that he cannot read for himself, I thought,” says Small, who was unfamiliar with theatrical parlance. But “read” she did, and by the next day she was cast. It turned out her chatting acquaintance was the wife of the producer, who sensed that Small’s deep contralto would sound good in song. “That was my first theater production, and I was smitten. There was no turning back,” says the actress. Today, she is as much a singer as an actress. Her group, the Powerhouse Divas, founded with three other vocalists — Delores Walker, Alisa Claridy and Sonya Yamin — packed them in for months at the Harlequin Dinner Theater at Fort Sam Houston. In fact, the divas won top awards in the 2009 U.S. Army Festival of the Performing Arts in competition with 17 other Army bases from around the world. Currently, they continue to perform at the Hot Tin Roof Bar and Grill.
Over the years, roles for black actors have increased across the board, including here in the Alamo City, which is a development she welcomes. But she was never one to be intimidated by barriers.
Back in 1987, she boldly auditioned for a part in San Antonio Little Theater’s production of Mame even though others advised her against it. They don’t cast black people over there, they told her.
“Well, they did cast me, and I was damn good in that show,” she says with a tinge of pride. “I cannot allow myself to be controlled by other people’s limitations on me. I think that whoever you are, you need to be kicking those doors down.”