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From Broadway Dreams To Dreamgirls, Angela Birchett Is Making No Apologies

Drew Shade

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Angela Birchett is a dynamic vocalist & actor. Since deciding to follow her dreams of musical theatre to New York City in 2005, Angela has captivated audiences in several regional and U.S. touring productions. She made her Broadway debut last year in the Tony Award winning revival of The Color Purple. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Angela sat down and shared with us little more about her journey

and where she is now. Currently taking on the role of Effie Melody White at the Village Theatre in Everett Washington, Birchett rubs a little of her Dreamgirls magic off on us and it definitely will make you as happy as it made us. Caution: inspiration below.

Growing up in Detroit, what influenced you to pursue musical theatre?

Honestly, I didn’t grow up listening to musicals. I was a church girl. I grew up singing in and directing choirs at a very young age. One summer my Mom found a summer arts program with music and theatre and dance. You know moms want you busy, you’re not going to sit around the house. Well, that whole experience changed my whole view of theatre. We ended the program with the musical Purlie and I was cast as “Missy.” The youngest cast member cast as one of the oldest roles. Thanks to Clyde Harper who cast me & Rick Sperling founder/artistic director of the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit who directed me in the role. I have a long history with Mosaic but that is how I got my start.

What has been the biggest thing you’ve had to overcome?

The biggest thing has been honoring, taking ownership, and being proud of who I am as a person, not a singer or a performer. I stop and think, who am I? You can’t be defined by what you do. What you do is not who you are. It’s a daily thing though. It helps me not to worry about not being enough this or that or too much this or that. I fully embrace myself.

What was the magnitude of you booking your first Broadway show with The Color Purple Tony Award winning Revival?

It’s still hard for me to put into words. I think the intensity of it and the audition process was very fast. It didn’t really hit me until maybe about a week later. Two of the company members presented me a production jacket with my name on it. I could just bust out and cry because it’s hard sometimes. I know I’ve walked out of an audition feeling misunderstood but to know that you made the connection and your dream is happening is quite surreal. To this day, I still say “Wow! That really happened.” It was numbing. It truly meant so much.

IG: @AngelaBirchett

What did you learn and take away from your time during The Color Purple?

Coming into a show that was already successful is a little intimidating. There were moments where I questioned could I do this but the biggest thing I learned was “You belong here so act like it. Don’t get in here and now get shook.” Being a swing in your first Broadway show is a hard thing to walk into. It taught me going forward that I am here because I belong here and I will act accordingly.

What made you want to take on such a big role like Effie White in Dreamgirls?

Well, Dreamgirls is always one of those shows that kind of eluded me. I always knew I could do it, I sing it, I could play her but things never really worked out. I would get so close with different productions or not considered at all. So, when the opportunity came I jumped at it. This is a challenge and something that I wanted to do. This was my chance to really see what I have and to push myself. I gladly took on the challenge and I’m happy I did.

It’s making me better as a person as a performer. The discipline you need to be able to do this show night after night is life changing.

What’s the favorite part of the show for you?

The hardest part. It’s really where we start to see Effie crack. Once Heavy starts to the end of Act I is the most fun because it gives me a chance to find layers and make the stakes higher so when she finally does crack you crack with her. When you put it all together you get a little bit of annoyance but you feel for her.

What is the best advice you can give to inspire your younger self?

Don’t feel like you have to apologize for everything. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and allow it in other people, too. Be human. Be you and enjoy the person God made you.

Dreamgirls runs thru July 30th at The Village Theatre in Everette, Washington. Find out more information and purchase tickets HERE

 

“One Night Only” – Dreamgirls

Effie White (Angela Birchett) and Deena Jones (Lauren Du Pree) fight for a spot on the charts with their versions of “One Night Only.” For more information about Dreamgirls at Village Theatre visit http://www.villagetheatre.org/dreamgirls.php

Founder/Editor-In-Chief of BroadwayBlack.com | Actor | Artist | 1/3 of @OffBookPodcast | Theatre connoisseur | All Audra Everything | Caroline over Change | I'm Not Charl Brown | Norm Lewis is my play cousin | Producing an all-black production of Mame starring Jenifer Lewis in my head

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Behind The Scenes

Sing Girl Sing: One on One with Sojourners Playwright Mfoniso Udofia

Broadway Black

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Ask Nigerian-American playwright, actress and educator Mfoniso Udofia what her first love is and she’ll tell you, to the surprise of many, “singing.”  Surprising only because in the last decade, the American Conservatory Theater graduate has become renowned for several of her writing and philanthropic efforts, not her ingenue operatic vocal stylings.  She is currently busy with her most recent work Sojourners, which opened Jan 21.

Abasiama came to America with high hopes—for her arranged marriage and for her future—intent on earning a degree and returning to Nigeria. But when her husband is seduced by America, she must choose between the Nigerian and the American dream.

Still, Broadway Black got the chance to sit down with Udofia and discuss why she took a break from singing, how she defines her work, and what exactly is “Nigeria-dar.”

Broadway Black (BB): You’re just like…a master of everything!
Mfoniso Udofia (MU):  Oh, my mother is like ‘Be careful Mfoniso, don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none!’  Because I did, I liked to dabble!

BB:  What’s the last incredible show you saw?
MU: I just saw The Color Purple and Cynthia Erivo… it’s like my Nigeria-dar went off! She was so good, like incandescent. From this little body came this gorgeous, gorgeous voice.  The Color Purple itself, by Alice Walker, the book tore me up. The movie destroyed me. Then watching it… I think I forgot how deep the story was and the type of healing that story demands.  Alice Walker is a beast.  Reading her canon is good for the Black body.

BB: So did seeing Color Purple inspire you at all [to want to return to acting/singing]?
MU: For a hot HOT second!  But I don’t sing like that, and that was a big thing when I was auditioning.  I think people want me to sound a very particular way, because of what I look like.  So it’s gonna demand a breaking of our gaze which sometimes is easy and sometimes is not.

BB: There’s been a lot of talk about the white gaze over the different productions.  What would you say to someone who is trying to work under what we might veil as a “white gaze?”
MU: Having the uncomfortable conversations, in the beginning, is important and right at the start dismantling privilege.  I do think that is something that Playwrights Realm was wonderful working with me going, ‘Listen, the play I’m writing right now, the gaze from which I’m writing it is not the gaze that most western theatergoers might understand and I am not interested in changing the internal heartbeat that way’ and I was actually listened to.  But, you can’t make an assumption that you are understood. I push from the beginning so that in the middle when I’m pushing it can’t be like ‘Oh, I didn’t know this might be coming one day.’ I’m pretty upfront.

BB: What is unique to you and your storytelling?
MU: I make sound. It’s poetry, really. I may break the form of what feels like spoken word. My father was giving me narratives to read when I was young and I think I started thinking in poetry and it’s leaked into my writing. I love it because it confounds itself.  The line will play on six different levels.   The way poetry and prose fuse…

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.04.16 PM

BB: If you had to give it a name…?
MU: If I had to give it a name… [You can hear her struggling to create the vocabulary for her art] You’re asking me to create on the spot, you’re watching the creative mist [she laughs]…. It is “true north.” My poetry is the container in Sojourners and is true north in Run Boy Run.

BB: What do you want your audience to take away from Sojourners?
MU: I want them to have critical sight into what the African-Nigerian body actually is. How certain immigrants might have come here to build a life.  Especially since now, we’re having really interesting conversations on immigrants and there’s a particular sense of phobia in certain pockets, so to really understand what it’s like. I want audiences to understand that the WAY immigrants come into this country, they’re varied, there might not even be a desire to stay, and that building within the Amerian dream is a particular crisis.  I hope this play complicates the idea of the American Dream and makes us understand that when immigrants are coming in they’re coming in with their own dreams and will become a fuel for the American Dream.
Also, I do hope people start to grapple with the African body vis-à-vis the African American body and we start to build language and see where connections fail and where connections can be made between those two communities.

Sojourners is currently playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater through Feb. 13.  For tickets, visit TicketCentral.com.  For more on what Mfoniso is up to, check out her website mfonisoudofia.com.

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Behind The Scenes

Exclusive: Kimberly Scott Talks Sweat, Nottage Vs. Wilson, & What Inspires Her

Broadway Black

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Kimberly Scott has spent 30 years honing her craft in a distinguished and successful career in film, television, and theatre. A Tony Award nominee for her performance as “Molly” in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Scott has maintained longevity in a fickle profession that’s not known for its kindness to African American actresses by carefully moving from project to project in every genre. And her latest role in Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat further cements her ability to seamlessly transition into a role that encounters challenges that many have faced and beckons her take her talents to new heights.

With more than 40 film and television projects under her belt, and having shared the screen with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Robert Duvall, Salma Hayek, and Jenna Elfman, this Texas native and Yale School of Drama grad admits that theatre is her first love – embracing and reveling in the energy that’s shared with a live audience.

“It’s a sacred triangle between you, your fellow colleagues onstage, and the audience. There’s a synergy there that doesn’t exist with a camera,” Scott says.

Nottage’s Sweat is a timely and relevant piece that delves into the impact of corporate buyouts, outsourcing, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs on human capital. Nottage set the play in a small town to “explore America’s industrial decline at the turn of the millennium by examining the inhabitants of one Pennsylvania town who still struggle to reclaim what’s lost, find redemption and redefine themselves in a new century.” Sweat premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August and is now headed to the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, where it opens on January 15 and runs through February 21.

Scott is cast in the role of “Cynthia” one of two friends for life who work at a local factory in Reading, Pa. Tracey (Johanna Day) is white; and Cynthia is black. Their friendship is tested when Cynthia is promoted to management, causing a painful rift with Tracey, who had also applied. Tracey attributes Cynthia’s selection to tokenism.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Broadway Black, Scott discussed her latest role, her thoughts on comparisons of Nottage and Wilson, and other topics.

Kimberly ScottWhat is it about the role of Cynthia that drew you to it?

I know Lynn’s work and she’s a beast, she’s amazing, and opens windows into people’s souls, her character’s souls that are just astonishing and lovely. I had not even read the play when I said “yes.” I knew it was going to be beautiful. I knew it was Lynn, and I went, “I’m in. Can I read it?” They said, “We only have the first act. We only have the first act.” I said, “Let me read it.” I was like, “Okay, if you think…” they’re like, “Yeah, we think.” Then, about a month before we started, I got to read the whole play, and it blew my mind.

Reviewers have sometimes compared Nottage to August Wilson, particularly as it relates to dialogue. Do you see any similarities between the two, having worked with both of them?

I think that the joy in the language is absolutely there. That joy, that familiarity, that humanity, is absolutely comparable and the same, and glorious. It’s glorious, the way she makes these people that are completely familiar. You know who they are. You know these people, you know their situation, and you know their feeling. She does not write things that are easy. They’re beautiful mountains, they are beautiful mountains that you have to climb. You can’t see it, when they call places you can’t see the top. Somehow, you have to take it one scene at a time, one moment at a time. I feel that way about Sweat. You take it one moment at a time, you take it one scene at a time, you keep breathing, and you keep going forward in the experience of these characters in the play.

That was the way it was with August. Very, very keen ear for his own work. That’s the thing they have in common, the keen ear and also the joy. She has a great joy in the room. August would lean back and laugh and enjoy it. She enjoys hearing your experience of what she’s written. She enjoys you turning on the lights in this rooms that she’s furnished. It’s beautiful; it’s really quite beautiful.

“Cynthia” faces some very real issues when she gets the promotion – allegations of tokenism. Some of us have felt that at some point in life. As an actress who’s played very diverse roles, have you ever encountered anything like that and what was your response? Did your response affect how you handled that in the role?

Doing the play, telling this story is so familiar for so many of us. It’s so familiar. I had so many women walk up to me and say, “Girl, girl let me tell you. Girl.” It’s having that experience of suffering and questioning the value of your own ambition.

It’s hard because ambition is hard enough; self-esteem is hard enough. Then, to become a tool, to have it all, to be used in the way that she gets used, is hard. It’s hard to tell the story because it’s familiar. I really think that if you have any ambition at all, if you have any sense of self-esteem or achievement as an African-American woman in America, you can understand what Cynthia goes through. It’s tough to lean into what it is that she goes through with her friends. It’s not simple, it’s class, it’s race; it’s all of that. Friendship on top of that, and camaraderie, and 20 years of experience, 30 years of experience, it’s tough. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s close.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 2.46.43 PMThe play opens at Arena Stage DC on January 15. You’ve played there before in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, what will it be like to go back?

Every audience is different, but to do this play in Washington DC, so close to the area that this is talking about, so close. There will be exponentially more people who not only have had an experience like it, but will know exactly what we’re talking about. On top of that, possibly people in the audience who will have a possible way to affect the situation, policy wise, that’s very gratifying. I look forward to, possibly, the congressmen and senators, and people from the various departments of the U.S. Government who could come and see this play and understand, maybe, on a more fundamental level, what’s happening. I think that Lynn has written a play that is as illuminating to the deindustrialization of America and this moment in history that we’re at, as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was to that moment in American history – for the American working man.

For someone with such an impressive and enviable body of work, how have you been able to maintain longevity in a profession where people often get discouraged and give up, or they just can’t get the roles?

There came a moment when my dad died. It got real, as they say. I realized, life is finite, and daylight is burning. I was living in Los Angeles and when you live in Los Angeles, you do television and film, you tend to turn down a lot of theater to wait around for film work and television work. When my dad died I had just done a play and I realized how much I missed doing theater. I was doing theater over the years, but not as much as I could have been doing. I wasn’t doing everything that I was offered. I had this moment where I realized, “Wow, I need to follow my bliss. I need to do that. I need to trust that everything’s going to come out okay. I need to go ahead and do what’s offered to me because it’s coming to me for a reason.” I just decided, I’m not going to turn down nothing but my hat.

I’m Buddhist. My practice is so much about really attracting things and not chasing after my fortune. I’m not trying to chase after my fortune anymore. I’m really trusting that my fortune is coming to me. Ever since I’ve really tried to stand in that truth, it’s been great

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 2.46.55 PMWhat is it that inspires you?

My colleagues inspire me endlessly, their courage, their bravery. We have three new cast members and just the opportunity to rediscover the play with new people, that’s inspiring, as well as the experience of discovering it the first time with the people who originated their roles. I have a profound belief that the first cast leaves DNA in the play, there’s no getting around that.

When you do world premieres, you’re crafting an experience. You’re crafting a play. You’re crafting this thing, telling this story. You have these actors telling this story, this way. You’ve got a director working on it and on the way we tell that story, but no matter who the director is, and the playwright, and the words that the playwright has brought to the table, and we tell that story, there’s no getting around the fact that the first cast puts a stamp on it.

For tickets to see Scott in Sweat at the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, visit here.

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