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People to Watch: Whitney White and Kecia Lewis

A busy director with a new play about Queen Margaret at Hudson Valley Shakes, and a Broadway veteran cooking in ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’

Whitney White

The busy director (Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, On Sugarland) also has an original play, By the Queen—a contemporary take on Queen Margaret and the 15th-century War of the Roses—up at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival June 15-Aug. 31.

First theatrical memory?

My mother took me to see a Cirque du Soleil show in Chicago called Quidam when I was very, very young. I will never forget what it felt like to be transported into that world. I didn’t even feel like I was in reality. I feel like I’ve been chasing that ever since.

Last memorable theatrical experience?

An Enemy of the People, Amy Herzog’s adaptation. That play is such a quintessential look at the tragedy of the commons, and that staging was so well suited to the ears of today. It reminded me that theatre has the power to communicate ideas that stick with you.

What are you reading?

“Discourse on Colonialism,” an essay by Aimé Césaire. It was first published in 1950, and the way that he’s looking at survival and labor, it reads like it was written now. It’s a quite loud cry for systemic change. It’s pairing with all of my work really well.

What music are you listening to?

My favorite question. I’m listening to some Khruangbin—I hate to sound like an aging millennial, but it chills me out. I’m also listening to this DJ I love named Andy Stott, whose stuff is industrial, electronic.

Where is home to you?

I am very much a Midwestern girl; I grew up in Chicago, and my family’s there. But New York is really my home now, because it’s where I’ve had the good fortune of making my art. Every day here I see something that fills me with hope and something that makes me want to keep making theatre.

What’s your greatest fear?

Taking things for granted. Both myself and other people are all so fortunate, and it goes so fast. I’m always afraid that I’m missing something or not enjoying something to the fullest.

Whitney White in an earlier Shakespeare-inspired play, “Macbeth in Stride,” at American Repertory Theater in 2021. (Photo by Lauren Miller)

What gives you hope?

People. I’m one of those people persons. You know what I mean? I like being among the people. I like making theatre. I like going to concerts. I like talking to strangers. I like happy accidents. People restore my faith and hope in everything.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

You know what? That question is the whole reason I wrote By the Queen. Seriously, I keep asking myself: If I could be in a room with my younger self and my future self, what would I say to those women so that they could keep going? I’m still trying to find that answer.

What’s your favorite place you’ve visited?

I have two answers. Athens, Greece—not to sound like a cheesy theatre person, but I did feel it when I was there—like, this is the birth of Western theatre. I was totally hypnotized. And Philadelphia. There’s art everywhere, and there’s a group of Black men that ride horses around the city. Philadelphia for me was such a mash-up of what cities could be.

It’s not theatre unless…

You feel something. Theatre is not an intellectual exercise for me. Theatre that feels like it’s trying to be smarter than everybody is hard for me. But everyone knows what it’s like to love.

Kecia Lewis

The Broadway veteran and powerhouse vocalist whose credits include Mother Courage, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Once on This Island makes an illustrious return to the stage in a Tony Award-winning performance for her role in the new Alicia Keys musical Hell’s Kitchen.

First theatrical memory?

Being told that I was cast in Dreamgirls right after I auditioned for Michael Bennett and Michael Peters in June 1984. They were looking for the person who would understudy Effie in the company. I was 18 years old.

Last memorable theatrical experience?

Marie and Rosetta at Atlantic Theater in 2016. I won an Obie Award. It was a two-hander with myself and Rebecca Naomi Jones. It was satisfying on every level as a woman and a performer. I didn’t grow up listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but as I got older, I became familiar with her music.

Favorite place you’ve visited?

Most recently, Cozumel, Mexico. I went on a cruise just before we started rehearsals for Hell’s Kitchen, and it was actually where I did the least. I just walked around the town, enjoyed the people, shops, weather, and vibes. I made a mental note that I want to go back and stay for a week.

Where is home to you?

Home to me is my relationship with God. It’s the center for me. It’s the center of my peace, my work, and my mental health.

Kecia Lewis and Maleah Joi Moon in “Hell’s Kitchen” on Broadway. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

What’s your greatest fear?

That my son won’t be able to cohesively and holistically enjoy his life because of the state of the world.

What gives you hope?

Younger generations of people with old-school mindsets about life and what’s important.

What music are you listening to?

I listen to a lot of gospel and a lot of prayer and soaking music. I listen to that more than anything. I think my brain is tired from words, words, words.

When something cool happens, who’s the first person you call?

My aunt or my son.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Listen to your gut. It rarely steers you wrong.

What teacher or mentor has shaped your journey the most?

Anthony Abeson. He was my high school acting teacher who I gleaned the most from. I actually coached with him for Hell’s Kitchen. He’s almost 80 and still coaching via Zoom.

If you didn’t work in the theatre, what would you be doing?

I’d be an attorney. I despise injustice.

If you could change one thing about the theatre, what would it be?

I would change its fear of telling new stories and unfamiliar stories to the powers that be. If something is unfamiliar, it’s an immediate no, and that is frustrating.

What’s next for you?

Of the goals I set for myself as a young actress, I have one that I still reach for: to be a series regular on a hit TV show that is saying something important in the world.

It’s not theatre unless…

It’s real.

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