The first time Will Little read the script for “Las Meninas,” he laughed out loud.
He wasn’t being flippant. He was just surprised — pleasantly surprised.
Unless you’ve signed on to be one of Snow White’s stout minions or a member of Oz’s high-pitched Lollipop Guild, dwarf roles are still relatively uncommon — especially for African-Americans.
Cast as Nabo, a 17th-century African dwarf in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s “Las Meninas,” Little was, in a sense, typecast.
A third-year student at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, the 5-foot-6 actor, along with his two female classmates —Devereau Chumrau and Lindsay Marie Tierce — was handpicked for the production his first year with the graduate program.
“Look, this isn’t a part for Denzel,” Little jokes. “The fact that it’s written for a short black man means it’s the part for me. I’m the only one in the program. If you’re going to be typecast as an actor, it’s OK if it’s for a part like this.”
When Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards met Chumrau, Tierce and Little in 2008, he knew he had found the three central figures for Nottage’s 2002 play based on a little-known love affair between Queen Marie-Therese, wife of King Louis XIV, and her African court jester.
Little, who showed up this season in the Asolo Rep’s “La Bête” and “Twelve Angry Men,” is challenged and thrilled by the opportunity.
“It’s almost like a part you can’t ask for,” he says. “It just happens.”
Seated in a rehearsal studio at the FSU Center for Performing Arts, dressed in a pair of basketball shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, the muscular 25-year-old doesn’t seem (pardon the pun) little.
A former football player and track star, Little grew up outside of Atlanta, were he juggled two opposing roles in high school: class jock and theater geek.
“I was the only athlete who was also in theater,” Little says. “I found it was a nice way to release energy without getting in trouble.”
Sure, his buddies mocked him.
“That’s what athletes do,” Little says. “They were like, ‘Dude, you’re not serious about this acting thing, are you?’ But I was pretty good, so they didn’t have much to say.”
How good, though, Little wasn’t sure.
It wasn’t until his senior year, when he brought a crowd of theatergoers to tears during a dramatic scene in “The Boys Next Door,” that he realized his work on stage brought him more satisfaction than his work on a football field.
That spring he turned down a football scholarship to study theater at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., followed by three more years of training at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory.
“I think Will is on a particular journey as a man and as an actor,” says Edwards. “He’s funny. He’s appealing. He has a lot of the qualities I think Nabo must have had. He gets the marginalized aspect of the character.”
Like Nabo, Little has, at times, felt like an outsider in a strange environment.
When he arrived in Sarasota three years ago, he was shocked by how few African-Americans he saw.
Even his conservatory class was predominantly white.
“I was Nabo,” Little says. “I grew up in a city and went to college in a city that was diverse. I came here, and I was suddenly a minority. It took a little getting used to. I felt like an alien on earth.”
Eventually, he settled into a comfort zone, drawing rave reviews for his depiction of a mentally ill patient in last season’s conservatory production of “Blue/Orange.”
He moved out of his Bradenton apartment and into a place closer to downtown Sarasota. He filmed a part in the local indie flick “Deadly Closure” and starred in The Players Theatre’s “Wit” and “Taming of the Shrew.”
He became a father. His 4-month-old daughter, Zhaniya, was in the audience this year during his performance in “La Bête.”
She didn’t cry during the show, which Little took as the ultimate stamp of approval.
“It makes me think she’ll be comfortable in the theater,” he says. “I guess with her dad being an actor, she has no choice but to be entertained.”
“He’s one of those underrated character actors, but he’s never really been typecast, which is amazing.”
“He’s got that ability to go seamlessly from role to role, from an African hotel manager or an undercover street cop.”
“They each bring something different to the plate. They support me and guide me and remind me that I’m not alone.”
His conservatory professors
“They’ve motivated me to be the actor I am today.”
“Sarasota has taught me a lot about community support. It’s beautiful for so many reasons, not just because it’s close to the beach.”
IF YOU GO
“Las Meninas” opens March 18 and runs through May 15, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. For tickets, call 351-8000 or visit www.asolorep.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]