Tell us about your early career?
M W: When I graduated from The College of Wooster, I decided to move back home to Cleveland, teach and do community theatre. It was really good for me because it helped me to develop and truly see myself as a performer. After being home for a couple of years, I started to get the itch to move to New York to pursue Broadway musicals. I was traveling back and forth from New York to Cleveland auditioning. I landed a play “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” by Eugene O’Neill and started rehearsal a week before the 9/11 attack. Needless to say, I found myself wondering if New York was the right place for me to be. It was haunting and beautiful at the same time, as the cast became an instant family and I think it made our performances even more special. I did want to get back home for some time to feel safe again. Fortunately, I landed my first professional acting job at The Cleveland Play House, so I was able to return home to perform and receive my Equity card. It’s really nice to be able to say my professional career started in my hometown of Cleveland. I later moved back to New York and landed my first Broadway show, “The Lion King.” I toured for about two and half years. I took a quick break to have my son, Micaiah, and shortly after we were on the road with “The Color Purple.” Very exciting.
What was your high school and college experience like within the arts? (were these institutions supportive?) – What do you think of the major arts funding cuts and its effect on young people?
In high school, I actually didn’t act or sing much, except in front of my mirror at home. :) I really developed my writing and I was also a violinist in my high school orchestra, eventually serving as the concertmaster. I was an athlete too, so I was busy. What I loved about Shaker Heights High School, although it wasn’t a performing arts school, was that it had and had and still has great music, theatre, and visual arts programs. Being in the orchestra for me was wonderful because it was a great outlet to express myself, but it also really developed my ear for music. In college, it wasn’t until the senior year that I got back on the acting stage. For me, that was like hanging out with an old friend I hadn’t seen in forever and having a really great time!
As far as cutting funds on arts programs, I think it’s extremely detrimental, especially now. To cut out exposure to the arts is cutting out a huge, very important part of our culture and I also believe it stunts young people’s growth. It’s like not letting a newborn child listen to soothing music. It seems absurd, right? As a young girl, the arts was always available to me and it was important to my mother that I always took advantage of expressing myself and learning creatively. It’s important for young people to belong to something positive that allows them to emote, harness their energy and be applauded for it, whether its arts or sports or debating, etc. Even if they do not pursue the arts as a career, it is extremely beneficial for their development and can help them become more assertive and intuitive. It’s a way for them to become better communicators and leaders. As a young student, the only way I could ever give a speech in my school classes without feeling like I wanted to run out and hang myself was if I prepared and performed a skit to convey my thoughts and ideas. Now for me, it’s much easier for me to speak in front of people. But my practice came from my years of performing. With all the major cuts, I can’t imagine how many of our young people are being starved of that real nourishment, that sense of belonging, and creative flow. Many of my fellow performers have said that had they not had some type of artistic outlet, they wouldn’t know where they would be. It literally saves people’s lives. Although technology and social media advances are wonderful, I think if overused can really rob young people of their own creativity, their ways of dealing with life in general. I could go on and on. It’s a major problem.
What theatrical event was the turning point in your career?
The most pivotal instance is when I was a senior at the College of Wooster. I hadn’t been on an acting stage since I was in the sixth grade when I took my first acting lessons and performed at Karamu House. I went out on a limb and took an acting class with a new professor (at the time) Dale Ricardo Shields and auditioned for a show he was directing For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enuf. He cast me as the “lady in red.” It was a real breakthrough for me. I was finding my voice again. Suddenly I felt like me again, like I was back home. I wanted to keep that feeling for the rest of my life, whether it was through singing or acting. It goes back to telling stories and telling them well. I love that feeling…
Where there any tough times or events in your life that you triumph?
One of the toughest I would say would be 9/11 attacks. It was the biggest shock to my system and the worlds of course. Being in the midst of the events, literally on my way to rehearsal and being trapped underground, finally coming out of the subway to experience what looked like a war zone, finding a safe place..all of it was very traumatic. When I had the chance to leave, I stayed away from NYC for a while because I didn’t know how I would feel. But NY was always in my dreams and I went back. There were a few times I would walk down the street and suddenly feel a panic attack coming on. I remember running into a Starbuck’s and shutting myself in the bathroom to breathe alone and get away from the noise of the streets. Sometimes hearing a loud plane overhead would terrify me. When I got the tour of The Lion King, it was nice to be on a Broadway show, but further from my unease. Now when I visit NY, I love it. I miss it sometimes, especially because I have family and more friends there.
How do balance career and motherhood?
I believe I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have the family I have. My mother especially is an angel. When I was in Chicago with “The Color Purple,” I hired a babysitter during the week to watch my son when I was working. But on the weekends, my mother would fly on Saturday morning from Cleveland to Chicago to watch my son and then get on a late overnight bus back to Cleveland on Sunday so she could go back to work. Talk about SUPPORT!! Micaiah was seven months when I started working again, so I was on the tired side, to say the least. When I came back home, I was very deliberate about just being with my son without taking on a big theatre job where I would be away from him almost every evening. He was only two when I returned to Cleveland. I re-directed my energies. I recorded an album, perform locally, started a new business, and every now and then I’ll be out of town for a few days at a time. With my schedule not being so “traditional,” I’ve been able to really be with him. We’re very close. Now that he’s a bit older (he’s six), I feel like I can take on more extensive projects and he still feels supported. My whole family is so supportive. My mother, my sister are great. My father comes up from Columbus as well to take him out, just so I can get away and do nothing! :) It’s definitely a balancing act.
What do you love about “life” itself?
I love that you can create your life. Once I understood the power of faith and pursuing your dreams,
What is your favorite genre of music? (if you had to list just one?)
Wow, that’s a tough one because, on any given day, I could be listening to classical or gospel or jazz or r&b or rock or reggae. I would say though, if you put on a classic Stevie Wonder album like, “Songs in the Key of Life” or “Hotter than July,” I would be satisfied. I love how he can merge so many influences into his own style while saying something amazing all at the same time. I can groove to his music, dance, think and be inspired. We classify Stevie as R&B but he’s pure genius. My favorite music is Stevie Wonder..haha!
Thank you, Mariama
~The End ~INTERVIEW~