Q&A with Joy Davidson, actor, “Alice: An evening with the tart-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt”

She could have been overshadowed by her president father and House-Speaker husband, but Alice Roosevelt Longworth found a way to make a name for herself. Actor Joy Davidson, who plays Alice in the self-titled play appearing at the Capital Fringe Festival this month, said Longworth’s wit, stark honesty and knack for surprise were among the characteristics that attracted her admirers. 

Davidson, 74, a former opera singer, spoke to The Hill about the challenges and joys of playing Longworth in the town she once “ruled … as a princess.” 

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Q: What do you think is most interesting about Alice Roosevelt Longworth?

She really loved life. She took her father’s motto, and that was: “Have a good time as long as you live, and by God I have.” Her father, whom she absolutely adored and admired, [said], “You forgot the second half of that motto, and that is to do good.” Her answer was, “I’m all for doing good as long as I don’t do it myself.”

And he calls her a gadfly, and she takes that as a compliment: “Socrates said gadflies were necessary to sting the mule of society.”

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about her in preparing for this role?

Everything. I didn’t know anything about Alice, other than those famous quotes, like, “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.”

Q: How did you prepare for playing Alice, then?

I have now read 12 biographies about Alice … I’m not a terribly political person.

Q: How did you find this role?

I had premiered this one-woman play about [opera singer] Maria Callas in Naples, Fla., and it was kind of a big success, so they asked me to do another one the next year. The [Alice] script had fallen into my lap … and when they asked me … I said, “Alice — it’s got to be Alice.” I thought it would be appropriate for Naples; our audiences are packed with people who are from that generation.

Q: How do you feel about reprising the role in Washington?

I think it’s so wonderful that [The Fringe Festival] would accept “Alice.” We don’t have any F-words, and in the Fringe, there are a couple of plays that have F-words in their titles. “Alice” is a whole other thing. It was just fabulous.

I think it is — I hate to say education, every one goes “Ah, gag me with a spoon” — it really is. It’s history with a huge smile. 

This is our nation’s capital. This is where she grew up. We walked by her house the other day … and here I am walking the pavement where Alice’s footsteps are, and that’s a huge responsibility — and it’s an incredible privilege.

Q: How do you keep your performance fresh?

I don’t know; I wake up early in the morning and I always start running lines. It would seem in my operatic life I did 400 performances of “Carmen.” That’s just what I do … The theater is my heart and soul, [and] to not have to wake up every morning and see if the singing voice is OK — I’m happy not to have deal with that anymore. I do, however, sing three little ditties in the play. 

Q: Does the performance go into her role as the wife of a member of Congress? [Roosevelt was married to former Speaker Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio).]

Absolutely. Alice said, “Nick was Speaker of the House for six years, and all anyone remembers him for is some god-awful federal office building.”

She makes no bones about it: She was a dutiful wife. She took her role seriously. She also sat in the House gallery and made faces at him to make him laugh.

Q: Do you bring up her affair with the Republican senator from Idaho, William Borah, which produced their daughter Paulina?

Yes, of course. That’s part of the deal, and I don’t believe it ever was a secret, from all the biographies that I read.

And the four parents — they absolutely acted as the four parents of Paulina. I think Paulina was a very lucky little girl. 

[The affair] was a problem for Alice as far as her father was concerned. At the end of the play, we begin to get into that serious confrontation.

But I think these four people handled this situation incredibly wonderfully. 

Q: How was Longworth received by others in her time?

They adored her. She was absolutely the most welcome guest at any dinner party. She held court everywhere she went … Nixon loved her. The Kennedys loved her. She was absolutely the honored guest at any occasion … Everybody wanted to know what she thought.

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Q: Did she care what others thought about her?

Yes, I think she cared. I think she cared deeply, but that didn’t prevent her from being Alice. And I think that’s maybe what appeals to me the most about her … She was absolutely, rock-bottom honest — except maybe with her dad. That was sticky.

Q: What modern-day figure would you compare to Longworth?

Lady Gaga. Before there was Lady Gaga, there was Alice. She’s just out there. I love Gaga. She is out there, and that’s what Alice was. She’s out there with a sense of honesty and connection, and there isn’t any greater compliment to anyone than to say that we connect with people — that’s why we live. Gaga absolutely does that.

Q: How does your experience in the opera house inform what you’re doing today with Alice? 

First of all, I am very fortunate to have come from that generation operatically that took the stage … [and] brought theatricality to the stage, and my generation benefited from it. 

Secondly, I am blessed. I speak way too loud, but I do have that projection that I thank God for … We don’t usually have to amplify. I hate amplification. 

Q: What are the difficulties — and advantages — of performing in a one-woman play?

It either makes it or breaks it depending on your performance. You can’t blame anybody else. At the same time it gives you a huge responsibility. I’m always on my knees, hoping I’m not going to drop a line or screw something else up.

My hope, my most profound hope is that I can bring the spirit of Alice just for a few minutes to whoever is there.