Entertainment

After 'Hamilton,' NC native is up for a Tony for portraying disco queen Donna Summer

Ariana DeBose is a first-time Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," in which DeBose portrays Summer at her disco-queen apex.
Ariana DeBose is a first-time Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," in which DeBose portrays Summer at her disco-queen apex.

Ariana DeBose was late in calling, and apologetic about it.

"Sorry," she said over the phone from New York City. "I was picking up my Tony tickets, and it took longer than expected."

That's "Tony" as in Tony Awards, and DeBose is a first-time nominee this year. She's up for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," in which DeBose portrays Summer at her disco-queen apex.

DeBose, born in Wilmington, spent her formative years in the Triangle and graduated from Wake Forest-Rolesville High School. In 2009, she was one of the Top 20 contestants on Fox's reality competition, "So You Think You Can Dance."

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Actress Ariana DeBose, photographed in 2016, is up for her first Tony Award. Ethan Hill Ethan Hill / REDUX Pictures

She has earned plaudits for her work in Broadway productions including "A Bronx Tale," "Pippin," "Motown: The Musical" and as a key member of the ensemble cast in the original 2015 version of the smash-hit musical "Hamilton." (The touring version comes to Durham this fall.)

But "Summer," which stars DeBose and two other actresses as Donna Summer at different stages in life, is her highest-profile role to date. The production debuted on Broadway this spring, and LaChanze, another cast member, is up for Best Actress in a Musical.

We spoke with the 27-year-old before she heads to Radio City Music Hall Sunday night, hoping her name gets called. Her date? Her mother, Gina DeBose, a Wake County middle school teacher.

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Ariana DeBose is a first-time Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," in which DeBose portrays Summer at her disco-queen apex. Joan Marcus

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Q: So do you have your ensemble all set to go for the Tonys?

A: Yes, and I am very excited. I'm wearing Prabal Gurung head to toe. He dressed me for the opening night of "Summer," which was such a good experience I asked if he'd do it for the Tonys, too. "Of course," he said.

Q: After playing Mary Wilson of the Supremes in "Motown" and now Donna Summer, who might be the third leg of that trilogy?

A: Oh my goodness, I have no idea — at least not yet. Although I did play Diana Ross for a minute in "Motown," so that could be it. I was the understudy, and the leading lady was diagnosed with cancer, so I went on a lot and played the role for a while. But if that doesn't count, the completion to that cycle has yet to be designed, which is exciting.

Q: What's it like singing as Donna Summer in her hit-making prime?

A: In her heyday, she just had hit after hit after hit. So that's what I do, sing hit after hit after hit. The crazy thing about her is she really was a one-take wonder in the studio. She rarely had to record multiple times, so it's been a real challenge to try and master that. Singing eight shows a week, trying to harness the mastery and consistency she was able to deliver has been a challenge, and a good one at that.

Q: How often do you get back to North Carolina?

A: It's more rare than I'd like. I've been pretty harnessed to New York since this show started. But the wonderful thing is my mom is a public educator at Wakefield Middle School, which means she has summers free. So it's great when she gets to come visit for long periods of time. She's my date for the Tonys.

Q: Are you working on anything as a next project yet?

A: I have no idea what's next. Whatever it is, I hope it will be fabulous and exciting and challenging. For now, I'm just really thrilled with what I have before me with this show, which I love. I'm happy to do it for a while, as long as body and voice will allow.

Q: What was it like working with Robert De Niro, who co-directed "A Bronx Tale"?

A: He was great. I won't say he's a man of few words, but choice words. He says it like it is and he always has, which I really appreciate. He recently came to see "Summer," and it was great to have him in the audience and come back to see me afterward. It's my first experience with someone of his caliber, and he was a privilege to work for. He told me he thought the show was wonderful and I was, too. That meant a lot. I mean, it's Robert De Niro.

Q: Are movies a goal?

A: Eventually I'd like to work toward film and television, which seems like the next logical challenge. I've danced for camera before, done a few TV gigs, and I loved it. It's a different set of skills, a few of which I still need to harness. But I've never been afraid of hard work. I'd love to make movies, the challenge of it. They're almost always shot out of order, so you have to figure out where your character is in a moment, even if you haven't yet shot the moment that got you to that place.

Q: At what point did you know that acting could be your full-time career, without having to wait tables on the side?

A: Well, I still don't rule out that I might have to wait tables one day. You just don't know what will happen. But by the time I got to "Hamilton," I was able to take a breathe: "O.K., Ari, it seems like people in this industry like the work you're putting out there."

I had enough credits under my belt to be taken seriously, at least as a dancer, and I'd also become known as someone who could cover for leading ladies. So if things go your way and you wind up on a show like "Hamilton," being an active creator in that process, that's a sign you're doing OK.

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Daveed Diggs, center, is Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton.” North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, back row far left, was a key member of the ensemble cast. Joan Marcus

Q: A few months after you left "Hamilton" in 2016, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a show where actor Brandon Victor Dixon made a curtain-call speech pleading for inclusiveness. What was it like watching the controversy that erupted over that?

A: I supported them. I thought what they did was very respectful. There was no pointing of fingers or anyone saying, "You don't represent me." "Hamilton" was written and created by Americans, for Americans, about America, as told by America now. Everything the show stands for was embodied in that moment.

I have to give it to (Pence). He didn't leave, and he listened to the speech. That's the power of good theater, a show like that becomes a platform you can use. The point of art is to shake people's minds and talk about real social issues.

The Tonys

The Tony Awards, hosted by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, will air at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday on CBS.

These are the nominees for Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Ariana DeBose, "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical"

Renee Fleming, "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel"

Lindsay Mendez, "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel"

Ashley Park, "Mean Girls"

Diana Rigg, "My Fair Lady"

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