Laiona Michelle wows on Broadway stage

Laiona Michelle wows on Broadway stage

August 21, 2015

The song “Amazing Grace” is so deeply entrenched in American culture that the first few bars instantly call to mind associations like the American flag, fireworks and anything else distinctly AMERICAN. The very build-up of the song ignites a certain measure of pride and romanticism of America’s rather colorful history, though I think that few Americans actually know about the song’s origins. If they did, their entire perception of the song would be altered forever.

Realizing the great amount of potential behind this largely unknown and untold story, creators Gabriel Barre directed the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace” with showings up until mid December. The musical chronicles the life of John Newton, the man known for having penned the inspirational tune, and his evolution from slave trader and owner to abolitionist and proponent for the black cause. His song, “Amazing Grace,” was the result of his enslavement in Sierra Leone, as he was finally able to empathize with the people he had formerly bought and sold. He very explicitly describes his experience with the lyrics “I was lost but now am found.”

One of Brandeis’ own, Laiona Michelle (MFA ’00), whose resume boasts parts in Law & Order, All My Children and various plays and musicals, plays the part of Nanna in the Broadway hit “Amazing Grace.” Nanna is a maidservant from Sierra Leone. Yet the character’s depth goes much farther than this. In multiple reviews of the Broadway performance, Laiona Michelle’s performance has wrought rave reviews for the complexity of her character and Michelle’s overall on point performance, vocally and otherwise. In an exclusive interview with Laiona Michelle, she described the inspiration behind the character: “Nanna is based off my grandmother … I was able to work on developing this world … what she would sound like, what she would look like. It’s a role that you can finesse in your own way and was based off of my two grandmothers. Both worked in service … the body language, the degree she is seen and not heard what it would be like to be in a land that is not her own.”

When asked about the psychological turmoil that comes with this kind of role, and the audience’s reception of the performance, Michelle had this to say: “It’s an emotional show … staying inside of this 18th century world. When you’re tracking it backstage … walking in that person’s shoes … it’s so much fun when I take that curtain call now … when we sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ the audience cries with us … people want to take pictures with me … my grandmother did all this work and now I can share it in this graceful way.”

Originally during her time at Brandeis, Michelle described having absolutely no desire to be cast in roles that were service-based and circumvented those types of roles successfully. Though she underwent a change more recently in her outlook and now feels proud to be able to take on this kind of role for those who for the longest time were not privileged to be part of theater.

Given the very charged nature of the performance, as a multitude of the characters are slaves in every version of the word, their clothing and decrepit state juxtaposed against the very elite and affluent white characters, it is undeniable that the show reminisces a brutal history that cannot be undone and that can be very hard at times to watch. Even so, Michelle’s overall opinion held onto the importance of this and other similar performances for their impact: “The sad thing is that because of the climate of the world today they would shy away from, as they don’t want to talk about political opinions. I am the opposite … I feel that we come to the theater and they want you to tell them how to feel … Theater is supposed to be reachable. It frightens most people. Because we’re exposing and dare I say exploiting.”

Although her first love is undoubtedly live performances, namely plays and musicals, Michelle is currently making the transition to TV and film. Despite the numerous differences between the different media, and Michelle’s ravenous appetite for the presence of a crowd, she also recounted her desire to always put herself out there to try different things. When asked about any future jobs she would absolutely love taking, she responded that she would enjoy “Game of Thrones” and would even consider being fully nude, explaining that, “This is how I live my life. I don’t draw any lines unless I have to. When there are things that are scary for me … I am a very open actress. I don’t know what it is that I want to do … it is about how the art resonates on the page.” With that kind of inspiring attitude it is very possible that the “Game of Thrones” cast might diversify in the near future.

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