Suzi Bass came to Atlanta in the late seventies, in the middle of a successful career as wife to Bob and mother to twins Cameron and Jennifer. A neighbor, noticing Suzi’s ability to tell a story and get laughs, convinced her to audition for Bell, Book and Candle with the Cobb Community Players. She was cast, and soon discovered a new career that she would pursue whole-heartedly, becoming one of Atlanta’s best-loved performers. As Suzi later said, “I feel like I was destined to do this.”
Suzi quickly found places to learn the ropes: an internship at the Alliance Theatre, some workshops, and on-stage experience with other professional actors. By the mid-eighties break-out roles came one after the other: she created a triumphant Hannah Mae in Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking at Theatre in the Square; she originated redneck Oletta Crews in Frank Manley’s Two Masters at Theatre Emory; she exposed her deepest self and awed audiences as Gertie in The Sea Horse at Theatrical Outfit. Critics took notice of her ease with her characters and her natural ability to find the humor in their situations. Atlanta Journal-Constitution theatre critic Linda Sherbert wrote,
“She has made startling progress and won seemingly unanimous acclaim for her most recent roles. She is fabulous at playing women trapped by their perceptions of their lives.” (AJC, 2/3/85, J1)
In Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Suzi confirmed her mastery of loud, funny, Southern characters. She also cemented solid professional partnerships with Karen Howell and Jessica Phelps West; their onstage pairings in future shows would continue to thrill audiences throughout Suzi’s career. The eighties were a rich period for Suzi: she joined Actors’ Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and began working in film and television as well as on stage. She had a recurring role as Eula in the second season of “In the Heat of the Night,” a character in “I’ll Fly Away” and roles in several TV movies, all of which were filmed in Atlanta and the Southeast.
Suzi’s growing career didn’t stop with roles in production. Her involvement with the performing unions turned into long volunteer hours as the “voice” of the Equity Hotline in Atlanta; often she was the first person to speak to new Equity members. Through the hotline, she unfailingly fielded questions and advocated for members with problems until her second diagnosis of cancer. From almost the moment she joined the union, Suzi was a member of the Atlanta Equity Liaison Committee, and was a strong voice for the Southeast region at the national level. Along with Clarinda Ross, she founded and ran C.A.S.T., an organization to bring regional theatre artistic directors to Atlanta in order to show off the local professional talent pool. Not content with volunteering for Equity, Suzi was active in the Atlanta chapters of both AFTRA and SAG, eventually becoming SAG Atlanta President in the late nineties.
Contemporary comedy, although Suzi’s forte, wasn’t the limit of her talent. By the late eighties and early nineties, Suzi stretched into classics and dramatic roles that proved the depth of her abilities. At 7 Stages, she found the clown inside a bleak factory worker in Carmen Kittle. At Theatre Emory, she jumped into Spanish tragedy in Lorca’s Blood Wedding. She tackled Tennessee Williams’ uber-mother Amanda in The Glass Menagerie at Theatre in the Square. For Georgia Shakespeare she played Maria in Twelfth Night and a funny, sexy Courtesan in A Comedy of Errors. It was again at Theatrical Outfit, however, that she found a role ideally suited for her, and found another on-stage partnership that would create magic for the rest of her career. In O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, Suzi played Josie to David Milford’s James Tyrone. The Atlanta Journal Constitution called her portrayal “foul-mouthed, funny, earthy and, as she drops Josie’s guard, radiantly beautiful.” (AJC, 3/13/87, P2)
Throughout the nineties, roles at Flat Rock Playhouse, Georgia Repertory, North Carolina Shakespeare and Charlotte Repertory introduced regional audiences to Suzi’s talents, and eight seasons with the Alliance’s A Christmas Carol insured that home audiences didn’t miss her too much. During this time Suzi continued to work in film and television, creating a virtual monopoly on the character type of “big Southern women with curlers in their hair.” She brought life to waitresses, gossipy neighbors and administrative gatekeepers in Traveling Man, Chill Factor, My Cousin Vinny, Getting Out, and Chattahoochee, among others. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Suzi shared a substantial scene with Kathy Bates, as the Nurse who pulls Ninny’s paper roses off of the wall.
In September of 1995, Suzi had a cancerous kidney removed. By January of 1996, she was completely recovered and back on stage at the Alliance Theatre in Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Atlanta Journal-Constitution theatre critic Dan Hulbert wrote that she was “absolutely on fire . . .as Lottie, whose hilarious blab shields a broken heart” and kept up “a hilariously raging river of talk.” In an interview with Dan about the show and her recent illness Suzi said,
“I feel so blessed . . . to have this role. Having faced death, I have no fears anymore. It’s such freedom. Each night I take a big deep breath at the beginning of Act 2 and I don’t exhale until I exit with the corset on my head!” (AJC, 1/19/96, P12 & 1/28/96, L3)
Between 1996 and 2001, Suzi worked consistently with the Alliance, Theatre in the Square, ART Station, Theatrical Outfit, Flat Rock Playhouse, and Blowing Rock Stage, performing in over 20 productions and garnering much admiration from critics and her peers. At ART Station in 1998 she gave the miracle-working Sister Pearle in Buck Nekkid an “unknowable intensity – funny and just a little off – she keeps us guessing whether she has the holy spirit or is simply out of her mind.” (Hulbert, AJC, 5/15/98, Q7) Along with a crack ensemble in Wuthering! Heights! the! Musical! at Theatre in the Square in 1999, Suzi was “eternally hilarious” as Cooka, the patroness of a South Georgia community theatre and the author of a terrible musical version of Bronte’s novel. Big, broad, loud and silly – Cooka was Suzi at her clownish best. When the show went to Actor’s Theatre of Louisville in 2000, Suzi went with it to “goof around” again.
In the late summer of 1999, hard on the heels of portraying Cooka, Suzi gave what many feel was her most astounding performance. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Suzi and Jessica Phelps West were an riveting pair as Mag Folan and her daughter Maureen. The longtime friendship of the two actors gave an intimacy to the relationship that bolstered their outstanding character work. Judith Green of the AJC said:
Bass absolutely steals the show. Restricted much of the time to her rocking chair, she makes this porcine old woman into a creature of limitless selfishness, capable of any mean action that will further enmire her daughter – and yet we understand the misery and fear that impel her. Between the playwright’s words and Bass’ childlike, amoral, impish face and eyes and voice, an unsympathetic person becomes unforgettable. (AJC, 8/27/99, P1)
Shortly after that play closed, Suzi’s doctors removed a melanoma skin tumor. She continued working and playing with unflagging gusto both in films and on stage. Just over a year later, while performing in Amy’s View at Theatre in the Square, doctors discovered that the melanoma had invaded Suzi’s brain. Her “retirement” from acting in order to be treated included a three-week shoot for the feature film Sweet Home Alabama and the title role in the short feature "Petunia," both released in 2003, after Suzi had passed away. Although she had only a small part, director Andy Tennant and the producers for Sweet Home Alabama rearranged their production schedule to accommodate Suzi’s chemotherapy, an un-heard-of gesture in the movie biz. People often repaid Suzi’s generosity and loving spirit as a matter of course. She made sure love and laughter were always around her, even, seemingly, at her own expense. Strong, loving and generous on stage as well as off, Suzi was always a woman to respect. As she often said to friends during the last year of her life, “Honey! Do what I say, I’ve got a brain tumor!”
Suzi passed away on May 17, 2002; she was fifty-six years old.