Aliah Whitmore Keeps Family Tradition Alive with 'Night, Mother' at Whitmore Eclectic
The granddaughter of venerable character actor James Whitmore talks about the new revival and her famous grandpa
There was little doubt Aliah Whitmore would wind up in the family business. With a grandfather like James Whitmore, star of classics like The Asphalt Jungle and The Shawshank Redemption, and a father like James Whitmore, Jr., director of NCIS: New Orleans and The Good Wife, the performing arts were inevitable. Which is part of the reason she and brother Jake are the driving force behind Whitmore Eclectic, an equity waiver theatre company currently raising the curtain on their latest production, Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winner ‘Night, Mother, through Nov. 9.
“Sometimes you got to make the work you want to do,” Whitmore told his granddaughter. “He said it all the time, and my dad said it all the time too,” Aliah tells The Hollywood Reporter. After studying acting and assisting her father on the set of numerous TV shoots, they both found the work limiting and began looking for a way to explore bigger ideas. What began as a series of cold readings among friends grew into Whitmore Eclectic and ‘Night, Mother, in some ways represents a closing of the circle.
Before he got into movies James Whitmore studied and taught at The Actors Studio in New York where he had James Dean as a student. Dean’s roommate was Martin Landau who is a current co-artistic director of The Actors Studio West where ‘Night, Mother was being workshopped. After inviting actors Sylva Kelegian and Ellen Gerstein to her house for a table read, Aliah brought it to her company and signed on as director. Gerstein later dropped out due to medical reasons and Lisa Richards has taken her place in this tragic two-hander about a daughter who decides to commit suicide and the mother who tries to talk her out of it.
Read more: James Whitmore dies at 87
Having recently become a parent, Aliah was interested in exploring family themes which made ‘Night, Mother a perfect fit for Whitmore Eclectic. Family, theater and politics are three constants in the Whitmore household, where Aliah accompanied her famous grandfather to fundraisers for political causes like the Brady Bill or events like The ACLU Awards. “One of my first birthday gifts in a birthday card was an ACLU card when I was 15 or so, he got me my membership,” she recalls. “Issues of race and social equality were always part of the conversation cause he firmly believed it was necessary.”
Her grandfather, a social liberal who starred in the film adaptation of the Civil Rights era novel, Black Like Me, was forced to put his money where his mouth is in 1972 when his son returned from Trinidad with an Indian wife. “Talk about guess who’s coming to dinner,” laughs Aliah about her mother’s introduction to the family. “It’s like how much do you believe in social equality. They embraced her. My grandfather and grandmother were like, this is the daughter we never had.”
A New York native, her grandfather attended Choate on his way to Yale on a football scholarship. When an injury sidelined him, he gravitated toward the prestigious drama program there and also joined the notorious Skull and Bones secret society that had George Bush, Sr. and Jr. as members. “They’re crooks, they’re lunatics, they’re complete sociopaths,” is how Whitmore, Sr. described the membership to Aliah. “He was never withholding about his opinions about these guys and their policies."
Neither was he withholding about his opinions on his chosen field. “He felt that most film was totally useless,” she confides. “He felt it was all kind of watered down. The whole concept of the reboot was like, we’ve done this. Does no one have a new idea?” As for his other chosen field, TV, where he starred in numerous shows over the decades including The Twilight Zone and The Big Valley, he described it as “the thing they use to keep the commercials from banging into each other.”
Of course that didn’t keep him from signing contracts and cashing checks but his real love was the theatre, an affinity he passed on to his son and grandchildren. “He always believed that there was something really pure about it,” she recalls. “You’ve got to do the work that means something to you and do it for your own reasons.”