As stages begin to reopen around the globe, Playbill is reaching out to artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.
The series continues with Broadway and West End veteran Marisha Wallace, who has been seen on the Main Stem in Aladdin and Something Rotten! and in the London productions of Dreamgirls and Waitress. It's been a busy year for the actor, who returned to the stage following the pandemic shutdown as Motormouth Maybelle in the London Coliseum production of the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, released three EPs, appeared on Netflix’s Feel Good, performed for the Queen at the Royal Variety Show, and electrified the crowd at the U.K.'s first post-COVID NFL game singing the National Anthem while towering over the stadium on a specially built harness.
The North Carolina native, who recently performed a series of U.K. concert dates, is currently offering concerts on this side of the Atlantic. Featuring songs from her recordings Soul of the Stage, Alice, and Sunset, remaining performances are November 3 at Los Angeles' The Hotel Café, November 7 at Manhattan's The Green Room 42, and November 21 at Durham's Motorco Music Hall. Click here for additional information.
How did performing the National Anthem for the U.K.’s first NFL game post-COVID come about? What was that experience like? I take it you don’t have a fear of heights!
Well, when I got the call from the NFL I was excited, and then they said, “Are you afraid of heights?” LOL. But I love a thrill and a challenge, so I took it on. And who doesn’t want to have a Lady Gaga-at-the-Super Bowl moment? I knew it would be so inspirational for people to see a curvy black woman living her version of the American dream in London—towering above the stadium of 60,000 people, singing for her country. I sang it in Whitney’s key, and I have dreamed about that moment my whole life. I watched Whitney’s performance thousands of times. I never thought it would be me—and then it was. It was an out-of-body experience. And, then there were F-15s flying over and fireworks. I am still in awe of that moment.
You were part of the company of the recent London Coliseum production of Hairspray. Can you describe the feeling of being with a group of artists on the first day of rehearsal?
It was crazy 'cause we were like guinea pigs. No one had really opened a musical during a pandemic. We had all these new COVID protocols, which changed the dynamics. We couldn’t hug or stand too close. But when we were doing a scene, we could. It was a mind mess up. But once we got used to that, we started to get used to the new normal. And the first time I sang “I Know Where I’ve Been” was indescribable. Especially after all we have gone through with the BLM and the death of George Floyd. Everyone in the room was in floods of tears. And, then the first full audience of 2,000 people screaming and crying. It was just a beautiful moment.
Were there any parts of the role or the musical that seemed particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past 18 months?
When BLM happened, we were stuck in our homes going through it in different ways. So when I sang “I Know Where I’ve Been” for the first time, it was indescribable. The whole audience was silent and on the edge of their seats for the first verses. Some crying, some reflecting, some mourning, some healing. It was the first time we had faced it together in a theatre, all races together. It was a beautiful moment, and I felt like I was a part of history. Then, at the end of the song, over 2,000 people stood. And Marc Shaiman was there to see how his song had transcended the musical and became a song of protest and hope. Especially after all we have gone through and the death of George Floyd. The song had a new meaning. Everyone in the room was in floods of tears. It was just a beautiful moment.
You’re about to launch a U.S. concert tour. What can audiences expect to hear?
I have just completed my U.K. tour a couple of weeks ago, so I was so excited to bring that show to the States. I have not been home in two years because of the pandemic, so it is as much of a tour as it is a homecoming. I am looking forward to the U.S. getting to see how much I have grown as a performer and to spreading the message of tomorrow. That even a pandemic can’t stop us from reaching our dreams if we keep the faith and believe. You will hear songs from my album Tomorrow and my latest EPs, as well as songs people know me for like “And I Am Telling You” from Dreamgirls and “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray.
What would you say to audience members who may be feeling uneasy about returning to live performances?
Grab a friend or family member, get a ticket, and get ready for a night to remember. It is time to feel alive again. To dance, sing, and enjoy. We have been through so much, and tomorrow is finally here.
You perform on both sides of the Atlantic. How did the opportunity to perform in London originally come about? Do you notice any difference between audiences here and abroad?
It has definitely been an incredible adventure. I went to London on an emergency call to replace Amber Riley because she got sick during her run of Dreamgirls on the West End. So I packed all my stuff and moved to London the next day. I had five days to learn the role and then I was starring as Effie White on the West End. It was surreal. So it was definitely a shock to say the least. I had to learn the British way of doing things. The little cultural nuances and all the different words like “toilet” instead of “bathroom” and “crisps” instead of “chips,” “interval” instead of “intermission,” and “beginners” instead of “places.”
I thought the Brits were reserved, but they actually have been giving me mid-show standing ovations for my songs in the different shows I’ve been in, which is huge because the Brits don’t stand for just anything. The Brits love an underdog, which I was when I came to the U.K. They have followed my success and stuck with me. That being said, theatre fans all over the world are loyal and rooting for you to win. Especially if they know you have put in the work. The Broadway audience is always so electric, and I miss that. It is Broadway, it is iconic. So it feels so good to be home. I have missed the food and, more importantly, my family and especially my Mama. Performing my concert for my family is going to be a crying event.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow actors, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I want them to be aware that we are here and we have been here. And the only thing that is stopping us from being truly successful is opportunity. I want there to be diversity, not just on stage but throughout the industry. The producers, the Broadway League, the people writing the checks, the writers, the crew, management, agents, casting. That is the only way we will make a true change. I would also like for them to stop celebrating what should already have been done in the first place. And not just make BIPOC artists the understudy or alternate, but the lead full time. We have earned it. We should have access to lead parts, too.
What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
Be kind to yourself. Even your favorites, the ones you think are doing the best, are struggling too. Reach out if you need help and stay connected to people who nourish your spirit and believe in you. In business, I would say, “Be like a race horse” and put your blinders on and run your own race. It is so easy to compare your journey to other people’s, especially now. No one’s path is the same. And just surviving right now is okay, too. You will be thriving again soon enough.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past year-and-a-half that you didn't already know?
I learned that this business was not created with me in mind and I had to create my own space. Not just a seat at a table but build a new table where everyone gets a plate. I learned that you can’t wait on anyone to make you a star—you have to do it yourself. Make your own opportunities. Create your own lane and niche. We are more than the roles we play. We are fully realized artists with untapped gifts inside us that the industry and our own self-doubt have kept pushed down. I have released myself from that and will use and explore all of my gifts fully.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
I would look at the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. They are making some real headway and change. Also, The Loveland Foundation, which helps women of color receive treatment for mental health issues. I think unearthing the traumas we face and really talking through them will help us to heal as a culture, making us better equipped to face the fight ahead.