“Spit Like a Big Girl” addresses life’s challenges and treasures

Clarinda Ross

Clarinda Ross. Photo by Alysa Brennan

Though she’s lived in Southern California for 14 years, there’s still a seductive twang in the speech of Clarinda Ross. It breeds trust and honesty and a down-home humor that is rarely exhibited in Hollywood theater-types. It’s doubtful her closet faire is emblazoned with designer labels and one-of-a-kind gowns. Jeans seem more appropriate. Given her upbringing, catfish is probably more likely to be on her shopping list than halibut. It’s doubtful there’s a Mercedes in her garage.

The Santa Monica resident brings her storytelling flair in a one-woman show to the Hermosa Beach Playhouse now through April 4, produced by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities (CLOSBC). “Spit Like a Big Girl” is Ross’s monologue tribute to her dad and a gut-checking commentary on personal survival when a parent is faced with raising a special needs child. You can leave the Kleenex at home, however. We’re not talking dark here, just real and totally applicable stuff to anyone who has survived at least a breath or two on the planet.

“I found dad’s journals after his death. I was not aware, nor were my mother or brother, that he kept journals. They were just a great gift. He died very suddenly, very young, 56, and it was such a shock,” said Ross of her college professor father. “Then there were these books. I had never been a diary or journal keeper, but when I found these, they were so precious to me… I thought, I should do that, so I started to [keep a] journal. Because he was taken so suddenly, I was afraid I wouldn’t remember things. He was such a great guy, larger than life, loved his job, loved his students. He was a funny guy and used to say, ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than an educated redneck.’

“He had common sense. He was in this world of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ but was a great people person, very grounded. He also knew his subjects [history professor] backwards and forwards. But he always felt he had a foot in both ponds. I’ll never forget, when he died, the janitor in his building came up to me in tears and said, ‘Some of these professors think they’re too good to talk to you – but your daddy wasn’t like that.’ He definitely had the common touch, but he could move in the circles of the intelligentsia.”

Her dad, Dr. Carl A. Ross Jr., taught at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Clarinda’s alma mater. His journals included both personal and professional entries. “I talk about them in the show. A lot of it was really dry. He’d give the temperature of the day; very factual entries. But then he would wander off the topic, get personal, and write about, say, going hunting. I don’t know that he ever got much, but he sure did like to walk around in the woods,” said Ross.

After his death, Clarinda faced a new challenge: taking care of her mentally handicapped daughter, Clara. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in your life, and I have this child, who is special. People say, ‘Oh, my god, Clarinda, I don’t know how you did it, I don’t know if I could do that.’ And I say to everybody, you are thrust into a storm. You get a bucket and start bailing water; if it is your child, you have to.”

Clara, 21, has been living in a group home since she was 19. “The second act (‘Spit’) is about her becoming a big girl. I’m the big girl in the first act. The first act is about me becoming a big girl and dealing with my father’s death. The second act is Clara becoming a big girl, in her limited capacity. The title is from when she learned how to spit in the sink while she was brushing her teeth… One day, I was brushing her teeth, and I was saying, ‘C’mon baby, spit like a big girl.’ My husband said, ‘That is the title of your play.’”

When faced with dealing with the needs of a special child…

“It was the perfect storm,” said Ross. “I was young and strong and I had this good background from my brainy parents… I was unafraid to push back against these doctors. I had the toolkit from my professor parents to persevere. I didn’t have a privileged upbringing in terms of money. But in terms of education, I think I did.”

There were events in both Clara’s and Clarinda’s lives that finally encouraged mom to let her daughter go, not the least of which was the birth of Clarinda’s two boys, now ages 7 and 10, with husband Googy Gress, an actor. “It’s tremendously scary. There’s an occupational therapist who tells me she’s ready to move out. And I said, ‘Well, I’m not ready, thank you very much.

“But, the home of two actors and two young boys was not orderly. It was time for Clara to go elsewhere.”

Ross praised CLOSBC Executive Producer and Founder James Blackman for his ongoing efforts to assist special people and said Hermosa Beach Playhouse is the perfect venue for her show.

“James Blackman has had a lifelong devotion to the disabled. He presents these previews, dress rehearsals – I’ve been to them – for special people. He doesn’t have to do that. It’s such a gift to these people. They’re very proud that they are going to the theater.”

As for his dedication to the South Bay community and his patrons, Ross said, “He has such a rapport with his audience; as devoted as they are to him, he’s devoted to them. It really seems like a dialogue between him and his audience… What they (CLOSBC) do in the time that they do it in, with such a level of professionalism, is amazing.

“James told me that my show was the culmination of his 20 years in the theater and devotion to the disabled, and he said he was glad to be able to bring this show in, because of the message.”

Ross stressed that “Spit” is not just for people who have a disabled relative; it’s universal. “I think that we did a good job in developing this play at the Rubicon Theatre (in Ventura, where the play debuted last year). I’ve had people say to me, ‘If I’d known the subject matter, I wouldn’t have come. But now that I’ve seen it, it’s such a hopeful story…’ I’ve had doctors come backstage and say, ‘Wow, you’ve made me think about the way I relate to patients.’

“In a lot of these one-person shows in the ‘90s, it’s about a person’s problems – he’s an addict or whatever. A lot of those shows were rough and tumble about really hard lives. Even though I’ve had struggles, I had a really great set of parents. When I talk about that, I think everybody identifies with the hopeful story.”

Ross was born in Athens, Ga., where her parents were attending the University of Georgia. “My parents’ families were from a little place called Chatsworth, Georgia. That’s where I summered with my grandparents on their farm. My parents became college professors; though my dad’s passed away now, my mom, Charlotte, is still going strong, still teaching at Appalachian State. She’s a storyteller. That’s where I lived from second grade through college. I went to college there, then did an internship at the Alliance Theatre (Atlanta), and I was pretty much based in Atlanta, but I would go out on the road to work. I was in the TV show ‘In the Heat of the Night’ with Carroll O’Connor. He was a darling person and I was just the local hire there in Atlanta, so I wasn’t a famous Hollywood actress, but he liked me and hired me for the last season. He said, ‘You’re funny. Do you want to be a regular?’ and I said, ‘Yes! Yes I do!’ And then the show got cancelled. But he said, ‘You know, you’re pretty good. Why don’t you come out to L.A.?’

“A lot of other people I talk about in the show also encouraged the move. And, when enough people say the same thing, you think, well, why not? So, I came out and I was just going to stay for six months because I was sort of locally famous in Atlanta. I worked a lot – there weren’t that many actors. It’s a small (theater) community and we all knew each other. It’s a great feeling. And then you do come out and there’s no community here; it’s all spread out and nobody talks.”

Ross was 31 when she came to L.A. “That’s old for a TV actress. Then I met my husband, Googy Gress. I told myself I was going to do one pilot season, which is when they cast the new shows, and then I was going to leave.  But my (soon-to-be) husband said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t leave. I want you to stay.’ So, he talked me into staying, even though he had ulterior motives.  He said six months is not enough time.”

Her choosing to stay in L.A. proved worthwhile as she landed roles in TV’s “Medium,” “Judging Amy,” “E.R.,” “Drew Carey,” and movies “The Client,” “Blue Sky,” and more.

What brings the actress/playwright to Hermosa Beach?

“It’s kind of a funny story of connect the dots as to how I ended up here with CLOSBC. Stephanie Coltrin is now their artistic director, but she was a young girl just out of school during my first show here in L.A. It was a terrible play called ‘Cementville,’ about lady wrestlers. It was soooooo bad. It was awful with an awful bunch of people. Audiences were leaving at intermission in anger and wanted their money back. Stephanie was the stage manager, and in her youth and bravery, she’d go out to a really hostile audience and say, ‘You know, this play might not have been your cup of tea, but there’s this woman who played Tiger, and if you want to stay, she’ll come out and do 10 minutes for you.’ So, I’d come out after the show and do 10 minutes of what would become ‘Spit,’ talk about my dad and his journals and stuff. Stephanie said people would come to her in the lobby and say, ‘Oh, thank god you had that woman come out because otherwise we were going to drop our subscription.’

“And Stephanie remembered me all these years. When we did the world premiere (of ‘Spit’) at the Rubicon last year, she came up to see it. She said ‘We have to get you to the South Bay,’ and I said ‘I want to come!’” Coltrin directs the Hermosa Beach production.

After the current run, “I’m sending the show out to a lot of producers. I have some interest from a couple theaters in Florida and I’ve sent it to theaters off-Broadway in New York, so I’m putting it out there. I’m available.”

Spitting is good for the soul.

‘Spit Like a Big Girl,’ by Clarinda Ross. Hermosa Beach Playhouse, Pier and PCH, now through April 4. Preview tonight at 8 p.m. Regular schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees March 28 and April 4 at 2 p.m. Sunday evening, March 28 at 7 p.m. Closes April 4. Tickets, $40 – $45. Call (310) 372-4477 or visit www.hermosabeachplayhouse.com.


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