Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 14, 2008

Three generations of actors make for ‘Gold’ performances

Always diminutive in size and always called “Little Jo” because Josephine was also her mother’s name, Jo Alexander Cooke’s first reaction to the “Gold in the Hills” mural on the flood wall, in which she is pictured, was, “I don’t think I was ever that big.”

Jo appears in the role of Barbara Stanley, the youngest daughter of the poor but honest farmer Hiram Stanley in the famous melodrama that has been produced annually in Vicksburg for the past seven or so decades. In the painting, she’s wearing a red and white checked dress. The mural, which she called “wonderful,” was a total surprise to her. She doesn’t do numbers well, she said, so she doesn’t remember when she first began to play the role “but it was a long time ago.”

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Jo, who is married to Jim Cooke and lives in Oxford, was born “pretty close to downtown Yokena” on a family plantation, Bogue de Shea. Her mother was Josephine Sharkey Hyland; her father, A.G. Alexander. Many called her mother “Mrs. A.” She was a lady “who taught elocution, not speech,” and she had been a member of the cast of “Gold” since 1936 when the gay ‘90s play was presented on a barge at the city’s waterfront.

It was only natural that in years to come Little Jo would join Big Jo on stage. Though some actresses played various roles, Mrs. A never switched roles but was always Lizzie, the first person the audience saw when the curtain went up.

Jo began by selling peanuts, but when the Little Theatre decided to have two casts rather than just one and to expand the production to all of March and into the summer, she became “second-string Barbara” — whenever that was. “It was so much fun. I was probably in junior high. Tourists were so nice and friendly and joked with me.”

Her costume included some vintage shoes given to her by “the Queen of Bovina.” “ They just fit me. I loved the feel of those shoes. They had a 2- or 2 1/2-inch heel and were real solid and laced all the way up. I felt real powerful in those shoes.” She still has them, she said, adding that “the pointed toes would have been great for kicking my kids. But I didn’t.”

The only drawback to playing Barbara, she said, was that she had to sing — twice — “and my singing was terrible, Terrible, TERRIBLE; I could never carry a tune. I could talk loud enough, but I couldn’t sing loud. We had to kind of make it a joke. So when Hiram Stanley said, ‘Why don’t you sing for me, Barbara?’ the reaction from the rest of the cast was, ‘Oh, no! She’s going to sing!’”

One of the songs had the line, “We shall meet but we shall miss her,” a reference to Stanley’s daughter Nellie who had been enticed away to the city by a fast-talking dude. Jo was eventually promoted to that part, “a good thing because Nellie didn’t have to sing. I didn’t get too big to play Barbara, but I think age may have been the reason for getting the new role.”

The last time she was in “Gold” was in 1970 when her Head relatives had a family reunion here. Though she had not been on stage for a number of years — she was married and expecting — she remembered her lines.

“I could recite the script from the prologue to the second act,” she said, but then it got a little fuzzy — as she made only a brief appearance.

Performing in “Gold” became a family affair.

Though Mrs. A was Lizzie for many, many years, Mr. Alexander had the job of Capt. Andy who welcomed visitors aboard the Sprague. Jo had held the roles of Barbara and Nellie, and her daughter Victoria, when only 5, played the male role of Little Tommy. Jim Cooke even got into the act once, having only one line to say — but he forgot his cue and someone had to poke him.

Though Jo has a degree in speech from Ole Miss and a master’s from the University of Georgia, her schooling began at Jett where there were 40 little first-graders in her room. She rode Mr. Charlie Faulk’s bus, fondly remembering him and recalling the day he stopped the bus and, with a tire tool in hand, put two fighting boys off the bus and told them to walk home. In describing that dramatic moment, she quipped, “More of that needs to be done now.”

After the eighth grade, Jo transferred to Carr Central “because my mother, bless her heart, wanted to do the best for me. I was miserable because I was a little country girl, not in the in-crowd at all.” She was made to take dancing, but nobody would dance with her, “so I had to learn to dance with the other little dorky girl. I had to learn to lead and also to dance backward.”

Midway of her junior year, she transferred to All Saints’ Episcopal School where Mrs. A was librarian and also taught library science. After graduation, Jo took a European tour and then came back to All Saints’ for two years of college. There was a stint at UCLA, at the University of Colorado and then she entered Ole Miss. After graduation and a few months in summer stock in Wyoming, she went to work for the Department of the Army helping staff service clubs and was working in France when “this guy started talking to me. He introduced himself and said I could call him Jim, James or Jerry. I had an uncle and a cousin named Jerry, so I figured I could remember that.”

The soldier was James J. Cooke from Baltimore with Southern roots sufficient to make him acceptable. He was going to be in France longer than he had planned, for his tour of duty had been extended because of the Berlin Airlift. It was “like love at first sight,” Jo said, and following a courtship they decided to marry in France where a civil service was required, then followed by a religious ceremony.

The French nuptials were quite dramatic and included the mayor, who “read our rights, privileges and responsibilities” while wearing a sash and vest arrayed with medals and ribbons. He gave them a family record book where the names of as many as 18 children could be inscribed.

Back home, Jo taught French and English at Carr Central and Jerry, who eventually became known as Jim, enrolled at Mississippi College, earning degrees in history before transferring to the University of Georgia where he earned his doctorate. Among the job offers was one from Ole Miss, which he accepted and from which he retired 30 years later.

Cooke’s tenure as a professor also included active roles in the military and guest lecturer at the War College. His research and writing of French history, especially in relation to North Africa, has earned him the highest honors that nation can bestow on a non-Frenchman and, Jo said, “He actually has the right to be called Sir” and because of his service to the Foreign Legion “gets to wear this purple thing I have to sew on his suits.”

The Cookes filled in only four lines in the family records booklet — Victoria lives in Baton Rouge where she is assistant director of curatorial affairs for the Shaw Center; James works for a law firm in Jackson and is waiting to take his bar exam; John “works in various and sundry types of real estate in New Orleans”; and Josie is completing her doctorate in counseling psychology at USM. She’s the sixth in her mother’s family to be named Josephine, and though her middle name is Estelle and Jo tried to call her that, she gave up after a few months “because even when she was a baby I could tell she was a Josie.”

None have followed their mother’s love of the theater, though, she said. “All of our children can be very dramatic, but not on stage.”

Though Jim has written many books and Jo could, she doesn’t plan to.

“I can read a book, and I can edit a book,” she said.

Which is what she does with her husband’s works, “but what I mostly do is change his commas around.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.