By Brian Robin
From ‘Seinfeld’s’ Renee to "Raisin"—Veralyn Jones’ Journey
Veralyn Jones gets recognized coming down escalators in Century City. Out of the blue, people send her things to sign—“How they got my address, I have no idea,” she said. She’s got a standing invitation to go on a podcast with two devotees of a certain iconic television show that’s “about nothing.”
This is what appearing in three episodes of “Seinfeld” will do for your Q rating. People find you. If they don’t find you at the bottom of shopping-center escalators, they seek you out by somehow finding your address to sign something for their scrapbook. Or they remember you through the conga-line of guest characters moving into and out of the lives of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer and want to hear more about it on a podcast devoted to all things “Seinfeld.”
And yet, while Jones’ three-episode role as Renee, Elaine’s co-worker on the hit show “about nothing” from the 1990s is what brings out the pop culture fans, her career goes far beyond about nothing and into the roles of plenty. Roles like that of Lena (Mama) Younger in SCR’s critically acclaimed production of A Raisin in the Sun. The Lorraine Hansberry masterpiece runs through Nov. 12 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.
This is the role Jones felt she was born to play. And yet, it was the role that eluded her, seeming just out of her reach—like the dreams deferred in A Raisin in the Sun. She had auditioned for this role on a previous production, but didn’t get it.
“I always knew the way they would cast that role was always different to what people told me I looked like,” Jones said. “That was my experience.”
This experience—much like how she landed her guest role on “Seinfeld”—came with a fortuitous twist. For “Seinfeld,” it was doing a reading at the Odyssey Theatre in L.A. in front of the show’s casting director. For SCR, it was meeting director Khanisha Foster at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Foster was directing a play and while Jones acted in another play, she was captivated by Foster’s direction of that play and made a mental note that this was someone she wanted to work with.
She would. It took a while, but after SCR Casting Director Joanne DeNaut contacted Jones’ agent about reading for the part of Lena, Jones took a detour from a day in Newport Beach with her daughter, walked into the room for the reading—and there was Foster, who directed A Raisin in the Sun.
“That blew my mind. You put it out there, ask for something and it comes,” Jones said. “Normally, I was skeptical about auditioning for it. Again, I didn’t think they’d be interested in me. But someone had interest in me coming in and reading for it. I said I would leave something behind in the room. I didn’t have big expectations about it, but I felt great about it.”
A week later, Jones had her dream role.
“I always had visions of these roles I wanted to play—the Mama in Raisin, Aunt Esther in Gem of the Ocean. Formidable women,” Jones said. “I love language and text and these characters always have the type of language I love. You always need to have an extra something in you to play these roles. I was always intimidated by that, but I’ve always wanted to play these roles.
“Someone said to me when they saw the play—and I’ve heard it before—that ‘It seemed the fire and passion in you seemed to come up from the core of the earth.’ Someone else said, ‘It was like summoning up all the ancestors to tell the story.’”
Summoning Jones’ ancestors to tell her story would take you to Jones’ birthplace—the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou—an 11-square mile speck of land located northeast of Grenada in the southern Caribbean that lacked not only theatre or arts at that time, but electricity and indoor plumbing.
When her family moved to Brooklyn, Jones’ eyes opened to a world beyond her immediate comprehension—even beyond having electricity and indoor plumbing.
“Seeing TV for the first time was like the biggest thing ever. I used to think they could see me like I was seeing them,” she said. “Imagine coming to America and seeing that for the first time. It was the typical immigrant story and fascinating as a young kid to see a whole different culture.”
That “culture” included seeing her first play—Man of La Mancha. Jones was 14 and this was one of those life-changing experiences many actors and artists describe as their moment. The moment they know what they want to do with their life.
“I couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing on that stage,” she said. “It wasn’t just the acting that fascinated me. It was everything: the set, the costumes, the things they could do. It wasn’t just the acting that fascinated me. It was everything. From that moment on, I was totally fascinated by theatre.
“It was totally against my family. They expected me to teach, or be a nurse or one of those traditional things. They didn’t understand why I was fascinated by this.”
Jones didn’t know she wanted to act, but she knew she wanted to do something in the arts. And, not surprisingly, given her background, she didn’t take a traditional path to get there. No conservatory, no MFA. Just her degree in Dance from Brooklyn College, which she put to use touring with Alvin Alley’s company. Jones knew then that dance wasn’t going to be her future, but when she performed in a musical revue, her natural stage presence opened up. It was palpable and obvious to anyone watching.
“I learned basically by doing it. There was something inside me that allowed me to access something,” she said.
That something took her to L.A. where she started going to auditions. That led her to the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, where those meaty roles brought more of her natural presence out. Jones commanded the stage as everyone from Claudius in Hamlet to Queen Elizabeth—“name the roles and I played them.” She later served on that company’s board.
Jones’ experiences there build on her natural stage presence, leading to theatre stops at the Mark Taper Forum, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, A Noise Within, the Kirk Douglas Theatre and even La Scala Theater in Stockholm, Sweden. They also led to SCR and performances in A Christmas Carol, My Wandering Boy and Ben and the Magic Paintbrush.
And A Raisin in the Sun, where Jones’ arresting and searing performance as the matriarch of the Younger family not only displays her deep understanding and command of a role played in the original Broadway production and the 1961 movie by the Tony Award-nominated Claudia McNeil and in a 2004 Broadway revival by Phylicia Rashad, but her approach to finding the character.
“Until I really wrestle with a character, it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. But it’s the way I seem to work,” she said. “I always go into a role not knowing how to approach this character. Only by reading the script over and over again does the character drop into me. These things happen without knowing when or how it happened. All of a sudden, you feel like something has dropped in. It all drops in an unconscious way. I never know until I start feeling it: how she walks, how she talks, the way she moves, how she views the world around her. It all happens naturally. When it happens, that’s when I start feeling the connection to the character.
“… It’s a personal process to me, because I don’t know how else to do it. I can’t think about it; otherwise it’s me trying to put my own thing onto this character. The character has to fall into me.”
So how did Jones fall into “Seinfeld?” By following one of her first seat-of-the-pants acting lessons: never turn down a play reading. That reading she did at the Odyssey Theatre—on behalf of a friend whose boyfriend wrote the play—led to a call from the show’s casting director, who asked her to read for a part.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. It was the first TV show I auditioned for when I came to L.A. I was nervous as a cat,” she said. “They brought me in to meet the producers and there were all these people on the couch and Jerry Seinfeld. I thought it was a regular audition, but after I got home, they called saying I was on it—my first TV show.”
Her role as Renee, Elaine’s co-worker, in Season 5’s first episode was short. Yet it was so memorable that she was invited back for two more appearances that season. She was so awestruck that Jones missed the curtain call on her first appearance.
“It was quite something to be on the set with them. When they called me back a second time, one of the writers told me they got such a response from that episode,” she said. “… That was quite a big coup. It was the hottest thing going at the time (and) my entrée into television. … I remember I was meeting in Jerry’s dressing room to run the lines of the scene. What is this? I’m in Jerry Seinfeld’s dressing room?”
It shows Jones’ range, presence and talent that she can get asked back for three episodes of the hottest comedy of its day—and play one of the deepest, most intensely emotional characters on the stage nearly 30 years later.
“This play is so humanistic to so many things we can sink our teeth into, but it all comes down to Mama and what she wants. And what she wants is her family to stay together and not fall apart due to their circumstances,” she said. “What happens to you if you allow that dream to shrivel up?”