The first version of “Cinderella” Destiny McNeill saw was a 1997 version starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.
“I knew that Cinderella was originally white, but the first version that I saw, she was African-American. To me, that is what Cinderella looks like,” McNeill says.
She’s not sure if parents intended for her first exposure to the fairy tale to star a person with similar skin tone to hers and if the lesson was that anyone could be Cinderella, she didn’t completely buy in.
“Brandy is a celebrity,” McNeill continues, “and I’m not.”
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Yet she auditioned for the role in Raleigh Little Theatre’s annual production anyway two years ago. She didn’t get the part then but she didn’t give up. This year, she’ll be starring in the show – a local tradition with three decades’ history – as RLT’s first African-American Cinderella.
Call it a dream come true if you want but it came afters years of hard work from the ambitious, tenacious young actor. “Don’t tell me ‘no,’ ” McNeill says, “because then I’ll come even harder.”
McNeill was born in Texas, but moved often while her mom pursued a doctorate in computer engineering. It was in Atlanta that McNeill got a taste for dance, which is still her passion. At 14, the family moved to Guilford County. Dance was too pricy, so McNeill turned her attention to theater. She tried out for “High School Musical” and didn’t get the part, but the rejection lit a fire – she knew musical theater was what she wanted to do. Her 11th grade year the family moved again, this time to Cary, and McNeill became active in theater at Green Hope High School. It was then that McNeill got a chance to perform at Duke Energy Center in Raleigh. If she wasn’t hooked before, playing a reputable professional stage did it.
“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she realized. “I don’t think I can compromise and do anything else.”
Today she’s a senior at N.C. State University with her sights set on musical theater graduate school. This semester she’s taking 16 hours – it’ll be 18 in the spring – all the while acting in local productions. She knows that when she auditions for grad school programs that she’ll be competing against people with extensive conservatory and art school backgrounds. She works constantly to give herself the same skill set.
“I am forcing myself to continue to audition for all these shows and stay fresh and active in the theater arts community,” she says. Still, getting “Cinderella” came as a surprise. “When I got the call, I was kind of like, ‘are you sure that you want me?’ ”
McNeill’s talking technique as much as anything: Cinderella is a classically trained soprano, an operatic singer, while McNeill is an alto who tends toward a jazzy belt or a sultry vocal approach. Learning to inhabit this role and sing in a classical, operatic style can only increase McNeill’s skill set, however, and she’s excited to apply herself.
Still, McNeill knows that her Cinderella will take on some of her own personality. McNeill is outspoken and aggressively pursues what she wants, while Cinderella has a quieter spirit.
“I don’t want Cinderella to be this meek and mild pretty girl who can sing,” she says. “That’s not me and that’s not what I want Cinderella to be.” McNeill identifies with the first moment Cinderella says no to her stepmother. She hopes young girls in the audience see Cinderella’s strength as she asserts herself and take the lesson to heart.
“Sometimes I feel like girls are too quiet about being open and honest, especially in a roomful of men,” McNeill says. “I don’t want my daughters to be that way and I hope I can give the girls who come see the show a ‘yes we can’ type of attitude.”
McNeill knows, too, that not every girl in the audience grew up like she did, watching Brandy play Cinderella. To many of them, princesses are white by default – only a handful of Disney’s princesses, for example, are another ethnicity. McNeill hopes she can open their eyes to what they can achieve.
“For little girls who are brown, of any ethnicity, to see another brown-skinned girl as a Cinderella, as a princess, I think is going to blow their minds,” McNeill says. “That is going to let these girls not only that you can do anything or be anything, but that not all the princesses are white.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4, 10-11 and 17-18; 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 5-6, Dec. 12-13 and Dec. 19; 1 p.m. Dec. 20
Where: Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, Raleigh Little Theatre, Pogue St., Raleigh.
Tickets: $28 the first Sunday; $27 members, all other tickets start at $33
To buy: 919-821-3111 or http://raleighlittletheatre.org