Previous ArticleNext Article

Broadway's Newest Act

Comments

“I have a love for August Wilson’s work,” says Heather Alicia Simms, one of the stars of Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom now on Broadway. “I think he’s one of those playwrights who’s able to encapsulate timeliness with history.”

Heather, who plays Dussie Mae, the love interest of both Ma Rainey (Whoopi Goldberg) and Levee (Charles S. Dutton), may be new to Broadway, but acting has always been a part of her life. The Brooklyn native with Jamaican roots has made appearances on Third Watch, Law & Order and the soap opera As The World Turns. In addition to television, Heather, who caught the acting bug when she was a little girl, also nabbed a role in Amiri Baraka's play, Meeting Lily, which was put on by the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. Says Heather: “I wanted to be an actress when I was four years old, {but} I revealed that I was an actress after college. I auditioned for a performing arts high school, and I was accepted but my parents said no. I was devastated. I felt like they were denying me my dream.”

But, the twenty-something actress wouldn’t let this dream be deferred. She studied her craft at Tufts University and even started the Tufts Black Theater Company while she was an undergraduate. “We didn’t see ourselves represented in the Tufts drama community,” Heather says. “And we felt we had a voice that needed to be shared and that’s what we did.”

For Heather, the sky is the limit. In addition to her Broadway turn, she has a part in Head of State, Chris Rock’s directorial debut (in theaters March 28), and is also working on some screen plays and a pilot episode for a television series.

ESSENCE.com caught up with Heather in between shows and talked about Broadway bloopers, her legacy and what it takes to succeed in the acting business.

Tell us a little about the play and your character Dussie Mae?

The play is set at a recording session for Ma Rainey in 1927 Chicago. The play is about all of the problems of getting this recording session done, including the problem with white producers and black music. It deals with religion and relationships. It’s just a rich August Wilson play filled with all of these issues.

You are taking the stage with two well-respected actors -- Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton -- how does it feel to work with them?

In the beginning it was just euphoric and the euphoria {was} kind of like ignorance is bliss. But I can honestly say I am more than euphoric right now. They are not only fabulous actors, but really good people. I’ve worked with Charles in the past {on the now defunct NBC series Homicide: Life on the Streets but I hadn’t worked with Whoopi. Whoopi is one of those women who I {always} wanted to know more about. I wanted to know how she had become this Oscar-winning actress, who’s also producing theater, film and television series. I started reading everything I could about her at the beginning of last year and ironically at the end of the year, I was working with her. I think that in rehearsals and even outside of rehearsals, they have been two of the most gracious actors. There is always just this free-flowing of ideas when it comes to both of them, so there are no divas, no egos, it’s just work and play.

Being live on Broadway, I’m sure your cast has had its fair share of bloopers. Do you have any you’d like to share?

Not in this production but I remember doing this show once and my line came on a hip movement. It was kind of like I thrust my hip one way and I said a line and thrust it another way and said another line. And I thrust my hip and I couldn’t remember the line and I kept moving my hip and the two guys that were in the scene with me were like ‘what is she doing? Why is she doing this dance?’ I am looking at them like ‘please say something because I can’t remember my line.’  But, they were getting such a kick out of me thrusting my hip that they were just like ‘you’re on your own.’ {When that happens} I think it’s the kind of thing where inside you are raging, but you never let {the audience} see you sweat. But if you are with a good supportive cast, they will try and help you out and bring you to where you are supposed to be.

Broadway and film are two completely different genres -- where does your heart lie and why?

I want to do it all! They are two completely different genres, but it’s {still} acting. I think because variety is the spice of life, we never want to become bored as actors. You know people will ask actors, especially {those} in Broadway shows for two years, ‘well how do you keep it fresh.’ I think there are ways to keep it fresh, but you may also need to take a break, even if it’s just a couple of days. I think when you do a variety of genres, it allows for those breaks and helps keep it fresh.

How do you plan to distinguish yourself from other actresses in film and on Broadway? What is going to make Heather stand out?

I am just going to be me. My personal background and where I am from and the things that I do and enjoy make me unique. I don’t think there is anything I can do to say ‘hey world look at me, here I am.’ I think if there were, I probably would have already tried it by now {laugh}]. But when you see actresses going to auditions you pretty much get a sense of who each one is and you know that each one is coming with their own special gift. When I was auditioning for this role, I had people calling me like, ‘girl, are you going in for this role? You’d be perfect for it.’ And, these are actresses that were also auditioning. Don’t get me wrong, not that these women couldn’t have done the role, but these are women that I was like ‘girl, are you going in for it? You’d be perfect for it too.’ But nah, I think we pretty much know our own strengths.

What do you think it takes to succeed in the acting game?
I think any actor who makes it through and when I say makes it through I don’t mean making millions and millions of dollars, but they keep at it. {They say} ‘for the rest of my life until my dying breath I am an actor' -- they are warriors. There is no other industry, no other profession where a person has to get up every morning and prove they can do their job. It’s like you’re interviewing for your job every Monday and not knowing if you are going to have it at the end of the day. If you really want to be an actor and not a novelty then studying is the name of the game. And we study not only by going to class, but by going to see theater, going to see films and watching and reading and listening to others’ experiences. Also, being open to what is going on in the world. If we don’t know what’s going on in the world or what happened in the past, then we are going to have a limited amount of material to mine from it. As actors that is what we are constantly doing; we are mining, mining for history and emotions, and that’s important.

What would be your second profession if you couldn’t act?

I’d probably be a journalist {laugh} because I like talking to people and finding out what’s going on with them. And, {I've always loved} Walter Cronkite. I used to watch him and he always seemed  to have a grip on what was going on in the world. He almost seemed like he had control. And even when you watch him now, on tapes, it’s like wow. Everything was OK because Walter Cronkite was there, {but} that’s my own illusion.

When all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered?  What would be your legacy?

That I possibly opened up some doors, and the doors I came through that were already open I opened further. That I {never}] slam doors in anyone’s faces. I did some service.

« Previous Entry
A Funky New Blues
Next Entry »
Soul Sisters With Purpose