A Tony Award-winning actress walked into a bar, and before long, she was talking about racism.
“I have noticed in my career,” the actress, LaChanze, said, “that roles that I’ve gotten are roles of women who have experienced trauma. Major, major trauma. People feel comfortable making me, as a dark-skinned Black woman, a victim of some kind of violence, a victim of trauma. A victim.”
The subject of racism — and the various ways it can manifest in the theater industry — came up repeatedly during a lively conversation on a recent rainy Friday afternoon in an Upper West Side wine bar.
But don’t get it twisted. LaChanze is thankful — for her career and for the opportunities she’s had over the years.
She just received her fourth Tony nomination — her first for best leading actress in a play — for her portrayal of Wiletta Mayer in the Broadway debut of Alice Childress’s 1955 play “Trouble in Mind.”
LaChanze, who uses a mononym but was born Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, received glowing reviews. The Times’s theater critic, Jesse Green, wrote that she got the character’s “arc just right in a wonderfully rangy compelling performance.” LaChanze “dazzles,” embodying Wiletta with “breathless ease,” Lovia Gyarkye wrote in her review for The Hollywood Reporter.
Every aspect of “Trouble in Mind” seems to comment on racism in some way. There were plans to take it to Broadway in the mid-1950s after a successful run in Greenwich Village, yet the show didn’t make it there until 2021. As a Black writer intending to highlight the unfairness in the theater industry, Childress, who died in 1994, ran headlong into it.
“She is finally getting her day in the sun,” LaChanze said of Childress after the show was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best revival of a play.
Childress’s comedy-drama is centered on a group of mostly Black actors, with an all-white creative team, rehearsing a Broadway-bound play about the events leading up to a lynching. Wiletta, the main character, is a proud veteran musical-theater actor, excited to be in her first play. She just has a few notes about the script. But the white director is not receptive to Wiletta’s suggestions and feedback. And as she summons the courage to be more forceful, pointing out that some of the dialogue and actions in the script are not authentic to what Black people would actually do and say, the resulting conflict has dire consequences.
LaChanze knows the feeling.
“I remember having an argument with a director once, saying, ‘A Black woman would never say this about herself.’ And he said, ‘I think she would.’ And he was a white man.” There was an “organic” connection for her with the character of Wiletta: “I have literally lived it in my 40 years of being in this business.”
That changed with “Trouble in Mind,” whose director, Charles Randolph-Wright, was “the first Black director that I have had as a leading actress on Broadway,” LaChanze said.
Describing LaChanze as a “goddess,” Randolph-Wright praised not only her acting (“I knew what she would do with this, but it was even beyond my imagination”) but also her spirit (“She led that company with grace, with humor — it was brilliant”).
And the two of them had a “symbiotic” relationship while working on the show, he said, adding: “It would be late at night and I would have an idea about something, and I would go to dial her number — and my phone would be ringing. She would call me at the exact same moment.”
Over a glass of wine, LaChanze was straightforward. Matter-of-fact. She was also luminous, quick to laugh and her eyes shone when she talked about her daughters. Her eldest, Celia Rose Gooding, is now starring in the TV series “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” after starring in the Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill.” Her youngest, Zaya Gooding, is a linguistics major in college. Coincidentally, Celia’s “Star Trek” character, Nyota Uhura, specializes in linguistics, giving the younger daughter a chance to show off a bit for her older sibling. (“She calls her sister and she advises her on certain things,” LaChanze beamed. “How cool is that?”)
Performing started early for LaChanze. As a child, one of her brothers played trombone; the other played drums. “We would make our own songs, and we sort of fashioned ourselves after being like the Jackson 5,” she said. Hers was a military family, so they moved a lot, but her mother always made sure LaChanze was in some sort of dance class or performing arts program. “I thrived there. It’s where I felt the most comfortable to be an outgoing, expressive child with this extra energy.”
After attending Morgan State University in Baltimore for two years and then studying theater and dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, LaChanze landed in New York “so broke” in the mid-1980s.
“I had decided I wasn’t going to go back to school. I was going to stay in New York and do this Broadway show ‘Uptown … It’s Hot!’” she said. Her character was, in her words, “third girl from the left.” Alas, her Broadway debut was brief: “It closed in four days.” (Technically the show closed after 24 performances, but it’s safe to say it was absolutely not a smash hit.)
LaChanze ended up sleeping on an ex-boyfriend’s aunt’s couch.
“He wasn’t even my boyfriend anymore. But his aunt and I were so tight,” LaChanze recalled. “She gave me a ring to pawn. And it was, like, $600 I got for the ring. And she said, ‘When you get your job, you’re going to go back and get my ring for me.’” In just under a month, LaChanze said, “I was able to get her ring back for her.”
A few years later, LaChanze landed the role of the peasant girl Ti Moune in the 1990 Broadway musical “Once on This Island.” Although the Caribbean-set fairy tale with a predominantly Black cast was based on a novel by the Trinidad-born Black writer Rosa Guy, Black people were not involved in writing the lyrics and music, nor in directing or choreographing the show.
It was a hit, and in 1991, “Once on This Island” was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best musical. LaChanze was nominated for best featured actress in a musical and won a Drama Desk Award. She went on to play Marta in the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Company.” And three years later, she stepped into a production of “Ragtime,” a stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel exploring the lives of three families at the turn of the 20th century. It was another production with a lot of Black cast members but a white creative team, including the same music and lyrics writers as “Once on This Island,” and Terrence McNally, who wrote the show’s book.
At the time, LaChanze was thrilled with the role. But now she views some aspects of the show with a more critical eye. “Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful,” she said. Still: “It was for me the first time that I realized that — aha — here we have white people deciding, culturally, what Black people are doing.”
LaChanze stepped back from the business for a few years: “I really just focused on raising my kids.” This was after her first husband, Calvin Gooding, died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But when she came back, she came back in full force: It was her embodying of Celie — a character constantly subjected to abuse — in “The Color Purple” that earned LaChanze her first Tony Award, in 2006.
That year, the best actress in a musical category was positively stacked, as she put it, “with women that I would have voted for.” Patti LuPone (“Sweeney Todd”), Sutton Foster (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), Chita Rivera (“Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life”) and Kelli O’Hara (“The Pajama Game”) were also nominated alongside.
“I was very shocked when they called my name,” LaChanze said. The win changed her life. “It moved me from being at the top of the B list to the bottom of the A list.”
But in the years that followed, audiences didn’t see much of LaChanze. Though Foster appeared in “Anything Goes” on Broadway as well as the television shows “Bunheads” and “Younger”; Rivera did “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “The Visit”; and LuPone, well, she LuPone’d all over the country.
“I didn’t get a series. I didn’t get a movie. I didn’t get the things that so many Tony winners get,” she shrugged.
She said she would have loved to be a love interest. She wonders, sometimes, if her skin was the reason. Then again, maybe not.
“I don’t want to blame it on colorism,” she sighed. “Hell, maybe they just didn’t like me. It could be that, too. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough for them. It could be that, too.”
There are many unanswerable questions every performer may ask themselves, and some that are particularly uncomfortable for Black artists: Was it racism? But now she’s in a position to help future generations of artists, as the vice president of Black Theater United, an organization she founded with a number of stage veterans, including Audra McDonald, that champions Black talent in the theater community. “With our New Deal that we’ve created, one of the stipulations is no more all white creative teams,” she said, referring to “A New Deal for Broadway,” a pact that some of the most powerful players on Broadway agreed to in an effort to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices. “That’s the main thing.”
And, at 60, LaChanze said she was optimistic about the future.
She saw a glimpse of what might be possible for her in a recurring role as Anne Foster on the NBC crime thriller “The Blacklist.”
“Rarely have I been the object of affection onstage. It took James Spader!” — the star of “The Blacklist” — who kisses her onscreen, for other people to see her, “a woman in my fifties at the time, to be the love interest. And for people to say, ‘Oh, wow, she’s beautiful and sexy.’”
Next, she said, she will play a love interest again in an upcoming film she described as “Hitchcock meets M. Night Shyamalan.”
In addition, she is adding “producer” to her résumé. This fall she is co-producing (alongside David Stone, the lead producer of “Wicked”) two Broadway shows: “Kimberly Akimbo” and a yet-to-be-announced play revival. “I’ve been around for 40 years,” she said. “I know what is required to put on a successful show.”
So while racism kept coming up during the conversation, LaChanze — who uses “create” as her opening word on Wordle every day and loves fantasy and sci-fi television shows like “Vikings,” “Ghosts” and, of course, “Star Trek” — is ready for other things. “I think in a post-pandemic, post-George Floyd world, Black trauma is no longer entertaining. We’re up to here. We’re full up.”
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