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Tony Nominee Montego Glover on Blacks on Broadway

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The New York Times just ran a front page story on the target marketing of Broadway shows to African-American females and despite some of the theater's overall attendance numbers being down, the momentum for Black audiences is up -- particularly for the hit show "Memphis," the recipient of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. ESSENCE.com interviewed the star of "Memphis" Montego Glover to get her perspective on this growing trend. Montego is an acclaimed young African-American woman, having been nominated for a TONY this year in the category Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her moving portrayal of Felicia. Montego also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award" where she was an understudy for Celie and Nettie. Most recently, Montego spent her Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. -- at the invitation of the Obama Family. More on that later! ESSENCE.com: First of all, congratulations on the huge success of "Memphis" -- winning the TONY this year for Best Musical, and you being nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. That must have been a milestone night for you as well as the rest of the cast? MONTEGO GLOVER: Yes, it was. We've worked so hard as a creative body to make "Memphis" the best piece of art that it can be, and it was so thrilling to have the show and the hard work recognized. ESSENCE.com: You must have a very close bond to this character of Felicia that you play, having played her since "Memphis" started -- in four regional productions before it hit Broadway. That is unusual, sometimes a play will come to Broadway with a big name -- an established star -- but they chose to cast you, who became a star while bringing Felicia to life. Tell me about that. GLOVER: Having the opportunity to originate the role of Felicia Farrell and play her on Broadway really is a gift. All actors want the opportunity to create a role and I'm especially blessed because I got to see her all the way through, and continue to play her nightly to further the creative process. It's a dream. ESSENCE.com: You saw the article on front page of The New York Times, "Broadway Sees Benefits of Building Black Audience" by Patrick Healy (June 27, 2010). "Memphis" was a pivotal example in this piece. It said using focus groups of women to understand the specific appeal of Felicia -- the young Black singer with a beautiful voice in turbulent times. What did you think of the targeting of Felicia to be more of a focus, particularly for African-American audiences? GLOVER: I think that people, no matter what kind of people they are, like to see themselves reflected in art and "Memphis" succeeds in doing just that. One of the great strengths of the show is that it is so accessible, and that's because our audiences no matter who or what they are see themselves, their hometown, a life experience, or hear a musical sound that they recognize. The presence of Felicia Farrell in "Memphis" is no different. Women, African-Americans, artists, people in love, all relate to her because she is all of those things and so much more. ESSENCE.com: After realizing the potential impact of Felicia, producers changed the tagline of "Memphis" before opening on Broadway from "The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll" to "His Vision, Her Voice, the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll." Why do you think that was so effective? GLOVER: The heart of "Memphis" is a man who loves a woman and the music she embodies. And the tagline is so effective because it is the absolute distilled truth: Him. Her. Love. Music. ESSENCE.com: "Memphis" producers told the Times they would estimate 25 to 30 percent of their audience to be African-American. Other plays and productions using diversity strategies have had similar success. "Race" producers reported their outreach bringing in 40 percent of seats in their audience being Black, with the revival of "Fences" (starring Denzel Washington) reflecting the same results. What are your thoughts on these growing numbers? GLOVER: It's marvelous. Again, anyone who enjoys theatre should see it, and it's particularly helpful if those people coming to the theatre can see themselves or their lives in the piece. But that familiar feeling is not limited to race, it's the story, the journey that is most engaging and important. So those numbers of African-Americans attending the theatre are wonderful, and as they continue to grow my hope is that we're introducing a new generation of African-Americans to the theatre. ESSENCE.com: When First Lady Michelle Obama visited Manhattan, she brought Sasha and Malia to see "Memphis." Did you know they were coming? Did it make you nervous? GLOVER: I did know the First Lady was coming. No, I wasn't nervous. I was very excited for us, Mrs. Obama and the girls. ESSENCE.com: You say there is a message to "Memphis." What is that message? GLOVER: The message of "Memphis" is that if you know something is right and true, don't let anyone take that certainty away from you. Pursue that truth to its highest degree. The closing number of our show says it best: "And if you listen to the beat and hear what's in your soul, you'll never let anyone steal your rock and roll." ESSENCE.com: How does that message become part of the texture of the growth in Black audiences to Broadway shows? GLOVER: I've had so many young African-Americans write me or tell me at the stage door how much they enjoyed, appreciated, were moved by my work, and how much they desire to do the work I'm doing right now. I always say to them, if you love acting, the theatre, then follow it as far as it will take you. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't want this too. And I have to believe that those same young men and women are part of the African-American presence in the theatre now, and will be the actors and actresses onstage drawing people in the future. ESSENCE.com: Your debut on Broadway was in the legendary "The Color Purple." What was that experience like? GLOVER: Truly wonderful. A learning experience, and one I'll never forget. ESSENCE.com: You were an understudy for both Celie and Nettie. Tell me about the first night you were on as one of these iconic characters... GLOVER: It was thrilling. When I got the word that I was on for Celie I remember thinking that I wouldn't tell anyone, not my agents or friends or family. I'd just do the first one for me and maybe invite people for the next time. Then I realized, almost in the same breath, that I hadn't worked as hard as I worked to back away from the experience. So I invited everyone. I mean everyone! They all came. I did the show and as I was were taking bows I remember standing behind the act curtain waiting for my cue. The curtain rose, I lifted my head, the light hit my face and the sound of the applause was deafening. I was so glad I chose to share this moment because it is a moment in my history I will never forget. ESSENCE.com: You were born in Macon, Georgia, and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Did you sing in church choirs? GLOVER: I didn't sing much at all in church. But I was there every Sunday and lived for the music. ESSENCE.com: How did the experiences of those early years spur you on to become a professional performer? I saw you perform in a benefit Rosie O'Donnell had for "Rosie's Kids" that honored Queen Latifah. Your voice is amazing. It seems like it was a gift from early on. GLOVER: Thank you. I sang mostly in school, and while the music there was not gospel, that was a good thing. At church I got to sit in a pew and experience the sounds and feelings of gospel, and at school I got exposure to other musical forms that strengthened my knowledge. So when I entered my training as an actress, musicality was very natural. And because my foundation in music had been broad, I found that I could easily access different styles. That has been a real asset as an artist. ESSENCE.com: Race and racial tensions in the South play a prominent backdrop in the unfolding drama of the "Memphis" storyline. Having grown up in the South, did it give you additional insight? GLOVER: Sure. My character and I have very similar backgrounds but we're separated by over 50 years, and that makes a huge difference. The people in that space however, are my great aunts and uncles, my grandparents and my parents, and I spent time talking with all of them about that time as I dug into my own life to begin work on Felicia Farrell. ESSENCE.com: The First Lady and her daughters clearly became fans of yours! The President and his family invited you to Washington to perform at the Fords Theater Fourth of July concert. What was that like? GLOVER: Meeting and performing for the President and First Lady was so very special. They are gracious, welcoming, so kind and have a glow about them that made me feel at home. ESSENCE.com: Performing for a Black First Family is beyond the wildest dreams of Felicia. Did you reflect on that when you were invited for such a momentous occasion? GLOVER: Performing "Colored Woman" from Memphis -- a song and a piece that mean so much to me as an artist -- for them just felt like the stars were aligned. I had the opportunity to share the best of what I am as an artist with our President, our First Lady, and our nation.\ It was an honor.
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