UPDATE: Richardson-Whitfield’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the workshop for A Lady Must Live has gone live. To donate, find the campaign page HERE (or on page 2, after the interview that follows).
S&A’s interview with Richardson-Whitfield follows below.
In the upcoming bioplay A Lady Must Live, Salli
Richardson-Whitfield is set to play legendary singer and actress Lena Horne. The show will explore a
major span of Horne’s life, taking place “backstage
after the first preview of ‘A Lady and Her Music,’ as Horne wrestles –
emotionally and physically – with her ghosts, struggling to rework her show to
recount her life story with more candor and complexity.”
The project has been in the works for years,
and Richardson-Whitfield and her team will soon launch a fundraising campaign to workshop
the play. Recently the actress made time to talk with Shadow And Act about the
process of transforming into Lena Horne, as well as her other upcoming
JAI TIGGETT: Back in 2011 we saw your performance as Lena Horne
for the Jenesse Silver Rose Gala. Is that where this project started?
That just really sparked something. After that event, so many people came up to
me, some of which she knew Lena and said, “Oh my God, you were Lena.”
I’ve always had a love For Lena Horne and I’d really love to do it as a movie,
but she loved singing and being on Broadway in New York. She actually left
Hollywood to go back to performing on stage. So I thought that it should be a
Broadway show, because that really was true to her heart.
So then you have to find the right
playwright. I got very lucky that I had to go to London for a convention. My
manager knew this playwright [Rikki
Beadle Blair], and I went to see his play and it blew me off my feet. I had
breakfast with him and talked about it, and he wasn’t quite sure. But then we
found a way to get into the story and get it written. And now we need the money
to do the workshop. The workshop is the first step of a production, and then
you present that for the really big investors to take it to Broadway or start
in LA at one of the bigger theaters.
JT: Are there still plans to eventually make it into a film?
SR: Yes. Part of it is that I really
wanted people to identify me in that role. People are always throwing around
singers’ names that could be Lena Horne. But I think this role deserves an
actress who happens to be a great singer to do it. Because Lena was a
powerhouse, she has a great story to be told, and I think it needs to be done
“People are always throwing around singers’ names that could be Lena Horne. But I think this role deserves an actress who happens to be a great singer to do it… it needs to be done right.”
JT: Not everyone knows you as a singer. But apparently you‘ve been singing for years?
SR: It’s funny, because I literally
was just at Regina King‘s house for
a housewarming party. There were maybe 20 women she had over, and I had the
nerve to play it for Jill Scott and
Regina, and Lisa Leslie was there
too. So about 30 seconds into it Lisa goes, “Is that you singing?”
I go, “Yeah.” And I’ve known Regina for 20 years. Regina
goes, “What the hell?”
I said, well I came to LA kind of trying to
do both, but acting kicked off. I’ve always loved doing this kind of music – the
old standards, the kind of stuff that Lena did. I don’t think you’d really get
a record deal for that as a young girl. So it’s just something that no one
And so then once I decided to do this, it’s
like any muscle – if you don’t use it, it’s not ready. So I literally have been
back with a voice coach for the last few years. The whole time I’m developing this,
learning all of her songs, I started performing in clubs. If you’re doing a
Broadway show, you’ve got to be ready to sing every night. And if you’re going
to be Lena, you need to know what it’s like to perform in those clubs and really
own that. So it’s been a journey of being really ready and prepared for this.
JT: Tell me about researching her for this role.
SR: There are so many books, and there are a lot of interviews and
tape on her. She does this amazing Ed
Bradley interview where they say he got more out of her than anyone has,
ever. So for me, it was just seeing that, and then the playwright is the one
who had to do the real research to come up with his take on what our story was
going to be.
JT: She lived such an interesting life, was very outspoken, and was actually blacklisted in the ’50s for her political views. Did you learn anything about her life that surprised you?
SR: It was mostly that she was so
angry, because she talks about how she was angry for years. And that was also
what drew the playwright in to find what his story was. I didn’t realize that
being put up there as this beauty icon, but being hated for it, affected her so
much. Because all of us, we see entertainers and we just see this smiling face.
I didn’t realize how hurt she was from this business, from years of thinking
that you’re going to be in a movie and they decide to cast a white woman in
your role. Or you’re in a movie, but when they go to the southern states they
cut you out of the movie. That kind of stuff after a while will make you
There’s a lot of things that I deal with as a
black actress, where you know that if I was a white actress with the amount of
work that I’ve done, no one would dare ask me to audition for this or that, or
argue about money. You really have to step back and find a way not to get
bitter or annoyed or have a thing against this white majority that runs this
business. She had an anger about that, and I think it’s something that black
actresses and actors in general have to really check and not let it seep into
your soul, because it easily can happen. So I think the story is so important,
because it really is something that hasn’t gone away.
JT: You‘ll be playing her from age 5 to 65. That‘s a huge scope.
SR: It sounds a little crazier than
it is. I think there’s only a scene or two, when the ghost of her father comes
to visit her in the dressing room. It’s almost like a change comes over her and
you see that little girl come out as she talks to her father about the love
that he didn’t give her. So as an actress you’re changing in demeanor, in
context of what’s going on, feeling like that little girl when your daddy’s
there with you.
JT: Has the rest of the cast been chosen?
SR: I’ve always had in mind for Jenifer Lewis to play Lena’s mother.
When the playwright started writing, we sat down with Jenifer, and when we did
our original table read Jenifer was there reading it. People see Jenifer in all
these movies, but they don’t realize this is a woman who’s been on Broadway
with Meryl Streep and Bette Midler and she’s amazing on
stage. So as long as Jenifer is available, it’s Jenifer.
JT: Do you plan to direct again? We know that you directed a short
film called Grace a few years ago as
well as some episodes of Eureka on
SR: Yes, that’s a hard one. I
directed a thing for Mekhi Phifer
and his producing partner Inny Clemons
recently as a show they’re shopping. It’s a hard one to push through and
especially on these network TV shows, it’s not just a white club, it’s a male
club. And unfortunately I don’t have 100% of my time to devote to it, I’m also
acting. But there are a few smaller indies I’m working on directing. It’s going
to take time but eventually I’ll start doing more. Just like this project, it
may take me a few years, but I don’t quit.
JT: You worked on Grace
with Ava DuVernay, and also starred in her first feature I Will Follow. Do you plan to work together again soon?
SR: It’s funny, because Ava and I
are actually talking about a particular project, and I just saw her when I was
in Atlanta. We happened to spend the day together. Every movie she does doesn’t
necessarily have a role for me, but she still has become one of my best friends
through that process of doing I Will Follow and that being her
first film. We just really bonded during that film, so it’ll definitely happen
again. I’m so proud of her.
SR: I only can tell you a little
bit, because I’ll get in trouble. But I’m playing an old friend of [Mary Jane’s]
that seems to have a perfect life – the children and the husband, and the
career, and everything. So I think that maybe it’s something that’s hard for
her to deal with. Chris Spencer
plays my husband. I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything else. But I’m doing
five episodes so far, so it’s almost half the season.
JT: For A Lady Must Live,
you’re launching a fundraising campaign to get it going. What do you want
people to know about the campaign?
SR: There’s a reason I’m doing it this way. At
least for this first step of us doing the workshop, I really wanted to have a
certain amount of control. That’s why we’re doing it this way, because it’s not
like I’m asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I really need that
help and support because it’s just such an important story to be told.
I really need my friends and my fans and my
family to help me make this happen, not just for me, but really to get another
one of our icon’s stories out there, and done right, and done by us, not a
movie about us that’s directed and written by people that aren’t us.
Thanks to Salli Richardson-Whitfield for the in-depth conversation.