The award-winning actress, singer and writer Laiona Michelle, who has appeared in popular TV shows such as “The Blacklist” (2013) and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” also shines as a theater powerhouse, portraying iconic Black women such as Dinah Washington in the play, “Dinah Was,” and winning the NAACP Hollywood Award and the Barrymore and Carbonell awards for her performance as Ida B. Wells in “Constant Star” in 2005.
Michelle spoke with the AmNews about “Little Girl Blue,” a new play that she wrote and stars in about timeless musician Nina Simone, about Simone’s influence in her own life, her journey as an actress in New York City and how she let her Black brilliance shine in a culture that undermines and works to dim the light of determined and talented Black artists.
“Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” opens at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., Jan. 29, 2019 and runs until Feb. 24.
AmNews: When did the first spark, the very first morsel of the idea of “Little Girl Blue” burst from your subconscious to the front your mind?
Michelle: The show is speaking to all the little girl blues out there in the world. The ones that have the desire to do something that may appear to be unreachable. I know when I was a little girl, I was always drawn to Shakespeare. I remember going to see my first Shakespeare play, which was Romeo and Juliet, and I saw that Romeo was a Black male. I was so shocked. I thought, “I didn’t know we could talk like that.” I thought it seemed so far from me, and I became more attracted to [theater].
When we think about art, oftentimes when you’re young it feels like it’s unreachable. For Nina, in particular, I picked the title because she always wanted to be known as the first Black classical pianist. She was born a child prodigy, and she recognized [musical] notes as a baby. So, that’s all she wanted, and that was one of her biggest heartbreaks. I think the walkaway for this show is for young people to feel, you can have that, too. Art is for everyone. Whether you want to be a ballerina or in opera, art is colorblind. She lived in a time where, it just wasn’t like that. I think now, the word “inclusion” is everywhere, which is very important.
I’m talking for all those little blue, Brown, Black girls and boys out there, or whoever identifies with wanting something that seems unreachable.
AmNews: Let’s talk about Black brilliance and Black female intellectualism, and how it relates to that fear of exclusion that we’ve been taught generationally. How did you break free from that feeling of your dreams being unreachable?
Michelle: First of all, I had an incredible family that always instilled in me very high level of competence. I went to Alabama State [University] for my undergraduate degree, but I really wanted to go to Julliard. I coached myself for my audition [for Julliard] and I threw it all out there, and crashed and burned. I didn’t get accepted. It was a rough blow for me. I thought about just going to New York to be an artist, and my mom made me pause and said, “No, you’ve got to go train if you really want to take theater seriously.” So, I stubbornly accepted the HBCU book, and I found the first school that said it had theater and that was Alabama State University. That was the only school I applied and went to the program, and met the best of teacher of my whole life, Dr. Tommie Tonea Stewart. She is still my mentor. She really validated me. She worked very hands on with me that I wasn’t used to. It was scary. She pushed me hard, recognized my talent and really sharpened my skills.
Then, Brandeis University was looking for a Black male to complete their graduate class, and [Dr. Stewart] slipped them a tape of me [laughs]. So, they saw this Black girl and gave me a full scholarship. It was incredible, but I’ll say that I always wanted to do incredible work. I knew that. At Brandeis, I was like their leading lady, playing all types of roles that were colorblind, which was very rewarding for me. But when I got to New York, I found out that wasn’t the case. There were categories that I had to be placed in. It was very disappointing, but I stood firm and decided that I only wanted to work in workshops and new plays. I did a ton of new plays and I found that in doing new plays, I was attracted to working closely with the writers and helped develop my roles. I think it’s important that we write our own stories because nobody can tell it better.
I found that I was in a position where there were white men writing for Black women, and so I’ve grown to learn that we need to write for ourselves and that’s happening. There’s so much room at the table now where that is happening, and through years and years of complaining and standing on the sidelines, I was encouraged by my manager, who said, “Why don’t you write your own thing.” So, I started to take myself seriously as a writer. I’m really excited. “Little Girl Blue” is so important, and I felt a responsibility for telling Nina’s story.
AmNews: Why Nina?
Michelle: I grew up with Nina. Even when I didn’t understand her as a young person, I was attracted to her. I could hear the message inside the music, and as I’ve grown up, I realized that there’s so much story there. She was [also] telling my story and so many women of color’s story. I think Nina is timeless. During her time, she took so many blows. She really wasn’t heard. She was labeled as being the “angry Black woman,” and I wanted to quiet those voices around her because her anger was necessary. I think now, everyone is angry. We live in a world where there is so much anger, and everyone wants to listen. We are leaning toward everyone’s message