Catherine James is an amazon, in the very nicest possible way.
The 16-year-old junior is portraying Hippolyta, the amazon fiance of the king in Santa Monica High School’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She also has a beautiful, tall presence and conveys tremendous inner strength, clarity of thought and drive.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is her first straight play. She grew up performing vocally, participating in the first MHS Middle School Choir. She has been a Kiwanis Club finalist in vocal performance and a semi-finalist every year she applied. She sang with the SMHS choir. When its director left, she says, “Doc [SMHS theater director Frank Ford] was a friend of mine, so I decided to take up theater.”
As a freshman, she was permitted to enroll in advanced acting. “I was in a Malibu musical, ‘Leader of the Pack.’ It was the first Malibu musical.” She describes herself as, “by nature, a creative person.”
Born in Michigan, she and her family came to Malibu in 1984 and now live near Pepperdine. She once lived on campus. Her parents are both professors there — father Bernard James is on faculty at the law school and mother Constance James teaches leadership and business.
James attended Webster Elementary and MHS Middle School, then spent a year at Crossroads. “I wanted a more academic challenge,” she says. She chose Samohi.
“There’s a better variety of people,” she says, “a better variety of everything. I have nothing against Malibu High. They’re just limited in what they can give students — African-American Education for example. It’s a very homogenous environment. It left me to wonder, what else is there? So I came to Samohi.” Some of her best friends still attend MHS.
Of course she plans on attending college. “I have no choice, especially when my dad’s a lawyer,” she says. “Arguments are incredible.” With a 4.0 grade-point average, she will have a choice. “I like California, but I want to see what else is there. I’m looking at NYU and Columbia, at both theater and whatever else there is.”
Before theater and choir, she says, there was volleyball. She played competitively since middle school. “If I wanted to go to Stanford or Berkeley, I couldn’t play volleyball there, with my skill level,” she told herself. “I love to play volleyball, and I love to sing. I had to be a star in one of them. But if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to be good.” That left singing. “But singing on its own wasn’t enough. You’ve got to add it to something, like composing or musical theater.” She saw a musical at SMHS and said, “I could do that.” Ford told her it wasn’t as easy as it looked.”
In preparation for her role as Hippolyta, she conferred with Ford. “His main suggestion was to be this comical dominatrix,” she reports. “He gave me my basic relationship to Theseus. He conquered my army in battle. I’m one of the war prizes. Ironically, in the play, I’m 6-foot-3 and Theseus is 5-foot-4. It sets up farce beautifully.”
She developed her own subtext. “Hippolyta is definitely a strong-willed, confident, controlling person,” she states. “Her attitude towards Theseus changes as the play goes along. In Act I, which she opens up, her disapproval of Theseus shows. She thinks, ‘If you think you can control me by an arbitrary assertion of power, that doesn’t mean anything.’ The amazons were against male domination altogether.” She adds, all her character wants is respect.
Of course the cast gets along well. “This is where I love being in theater. Thespians love individualists. I fall into no categories. Everybody in there is respected.
“You can’t do that in sports,” she continues. “There’s such a conflict in the balance of team and individuals. That’s what killed my volleyball.”
James serves as associated student body representative for the junior class. She also played on the school’s varsity volleyball team, until she sprained her ankle. She is taking Advanced Placement courses in English, U.S. history and calculus. She took AP biology last year in a class normally given to juniors and seniors. What did she save for next year? “I’ll do a lot more student government things,” she says. “Different politics, community service and English. I love to write — maybe more than theater. I love writing imagery, putting the beauty of things into words.”
The holder of a learner’s permit, she drives to Santa Monica while one of her parents relaxes in the passenger seat. But her favorite activity is participating in the youth group at Malibu Church of Christ, particularly in outreach events helping inner-city kids. She also volunteers at The Turning Point, a Santa Monica shelter. “Honestly, I’ve been too tired to do any of that high school party stuff,” she says.
At home, she has two dogs, “Sax” and “Blue.” Like the color? “More like the music,” she says. “My dad’s a jazz performer in his spare time. When I was a kid, he always played the trumpet.” She likes jazz, but nothing modern — John Coltrane and Billie Holiday.
If she could change something about herself, she would stop over-rationalizing. She considers herself somewhat of an existentialist. “How much of what I am thinking can I consider a truth and how much of what I’m thinking has been influenced?” she asks. Big thoughts for a 16 year old.