* Welcome to the 10th installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every Thursday on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at email@example.com. I’m listening.
Last November, I wrote this blog post. If you’re too lazy/busy to read, I’ll fill you in.
A young woman I know, Lucy Shulman, attended the Broadway production of Chicago with her grandmother. Lucy suffers from social anxiety, and, as she waited at the rear entrance of the Ambassador Theatre, froze when it came time to ask Amra-Faye Wright, the show’s star, for an autograph. Lucy penned this heartbreaking account of the incident for my blog.
Unbeknownst to Lucy, I looked up Amra, found her lovely website and alerted her to Lucy’s polite. The next day (like, the very next day), Amra responded, and promised to send a signed photograph to Lucy. Which she did.
That, to me, speaks of the character of Amra-Faye Wright, Broadway superstar, native South African, major Reggie Bush fan and today’s Quaz guest. She made her Broadway debut in Chicago in 2006, and has emerged as the show’s signature face. She’s a marvelous singer, dancer and actress, as well as one helluva interview.
It’s my great honor to welcome Amra-Faye Wright to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: You made your Broadway debut at the Ambassador Theatre in 2006. I imagine this must have been a huge moment in your career—but I wonder why. In an interview you called Broadway, “The place where I should be.” So what I mean by this question is—everyone seems to talk, talk, talk about Broadway. But why is performing in New York any bigger a deal than performing in Los Angeles or London or Monte Carlo or, for that matter, Gary, Indiana or Newark, Delaware? I’m actually being serious, as dumb as it might sound. If people are people, and audiences are audiences, what difference does it make where the performance takes place?
AMRA-FAYE WRIGHT: I can’t speak for the greater American audiences, but I can say that any time South Africans, and therefore most probably any other foreigners, go to a Broadway show, they expect to see something that is of a standard they won’t see anywhere else. If this is true of audiences, it’s also true for performers. Broadway is considered the goal of all your training, and the pinnacle of a stage acting career. It carries with it the history of performances by the actors you idolized. The connotations are endless. As Frank Sinatra put it, it’s “the cream of the crop, top of the heap, A number one!” It’s the reason why A-list movie stars clamber over each other to be in a Broadway show.
J.P.: I know a guy, Tommy Shaw, who sings and plays guitar in the rock band Styx. I’ve asked him how he gets motivated to play the same song for the, oh, 5,00oth time. Your world is different, but not entirely. And I’m fascinated—you’ve probably played Velma Kelly, what, 1,000 times? So how do you stay motivated? How do you get up for performance No. 876, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when maybe you’d rather be out picnicking in Central Park? And do you ever have moments on stage when you’ll be thinking, “Boy, I wonder what’s gonna happen on American Idol tonight?” or “What’s that rash on my ankle?”
A.F.W.: Sure I have those moments (Celebrity Apprentice—hooked!).
I’m motivated by a number of things. One is money. This is how I make my living. No performance, no rent! Sure, there are easier and more stable ways to make a living, so I have to say that’s probably about No. 5 on my motivation list. Actually it’s quite simple: I love to perform. I’m never blasé about it. It has taken sweat, blood, guts and massive sacrifices to be able to perform this role on Broadway. I never take it for granted. On days when my body feels less than human, I warm up longer, and sometimes, because you focus more on those days, you end up doing your best performance. When that happens, when your performance comes together, the reward is magical.
J.P.: You speak English and Afrikaans, and a bit of Xhosa and Zulu. Last year you learned the entire Velma Kelly dialogue in Japanese—a language you don’t speak. Then you performed in Japan. I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been. So, Amra-Faye, how hard was it? And how nervous were you for that first performance?
A.F.W.: Terrified! I learned the script phonetically. The plan was to learn the script like that and then once I got that under my belt, I would take on the Japanese language. However, I developed a system of memorizing sounds and syllables (sometimes the word would remind me of a Xhosa sound, or a color or a memory) and when I tried to learn Japanese as a language, it interfered with my system. The problem with my system was that if I lost my place, I was in deep trouble, and also … I didn’t know what the other actor was saying to me word for word! ( I knew the gist of it because I know the English script so well). So I was terrified of the day that I would lose it on stage. Fortunately, that never happened!
I learned that I have a terrific short-term memory, and that fear is relative. After all, I wasn’t saving lives out there.
J.P.: According to your biography you grew up on the Eastern Cape in South Africa. What was your childhood like? Were you an average South African kid? Were you the popular dancer? The shy nobody? And what started you down this path … of being a performer?
A.F.W.: I grew up running barefoot in the streets and on the beach. We had no TV in South Africa until I was a teenager, even then it was only a few hours every night and I was not interested in the least. I grew up in a small town and took ballet lessons as a hobby. As kids we made up plays from the movies we saw. The one theatre in my town produced amateur productions and I got involved in that. But I had no real aspirations to have a career on the stage. I didn’t know what I wanted until I was 27, when I had my very first audition to be in a professional dance show. When I got the job, I realized I might have some real talent, and that’s when my first spark of ambition showed itself. It would be another seven years before I realized I had a voice!
J.P.: Give me your absolute greatest moment on stage; and your absolute lowest moment on stage.
A.F.W.: Greatest moment was the 10th anniversary of Chicago on Broadway, the final curtain call, I was on stage with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, and many other stars and as Bob Fosse’s name was mentioned a silver leaf floated down from the proscenium. I’m a very practical person and I’m not into signs and zodiac stars etc, but I got the warmest feeling that I was absolutely in the very place I was supposed to be.
The lowest moment was having to perform a show after hearing that one of the dancers and a dear friend had passed away from the AIDS virus.
J.P.: When I entered your name into the Internet Movie Database, I came up with Sarah Faye Wright, who was born in 1983 and played Ashley in The House Bunny. I’m no detective, so I’m thinking this is not you. Which means you don’t have any experience of performing in film. I’m wondering, with your incredible skill set and background, why? Has this been a conscious decision? A lack of opportunity? Neither? Both?
A.F.W.: I’m a true opportunist—if the opportunity arises, I take it. I guess that would be true of screen acting. I’ve never sought it. I have a feeling it might not be something I would love that much. No applause? Most of all, no arc of performance. You can’t carry the audience on a journey of discovery with you. That’s the editor’s job in movies … I think I would love the salary though!
J.P.: I don’t get cabaret. What I mean is, well, I don’t get it. Bluntly. I don’t have an appreciation of it, or any sort of real grasp. Please explain to me why this is one of your passions … why you love it so much and what it gives to you.
A.F.W.: Cabaret is the art of interpreting a song within the context of your story, be it biographical or educational. Traditionally, audiences who enjoy this genre have a deep appreciation for the American Songbook, composers such as Gershwin, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, etc. For the most part cabaret singers excel in story-telling and breaking through the fourth wall of the theatre to involve the audience in an intimate experience. It’s a whole different set of skills necessary to perform in this genre. I grew up listening to jazz standards on the radio, and I have had many opportunities to perform with big bands and jazz ensembles. Most of all, I have hundreds of stories to tell. Putting those stories into a form and illustrating them with songs is a very rewarding experience.
J.P.: Here’s an odd one, but I’ve always wanted to ask. Why the heck, in 2011, do so many performers still smoke cigarettes? I don’t know if you’re a smoker or not, but I know tons of actors who are. Is it insecurity? Boredom? And have you seen it change over the years?
A.F.W.: Ha! must be the company you keep! Where the heck do they smoke in New York City?
J.P.: You grew up in South Africa when apartheid reigned. I have never, ever, ever asked a white person this, because it’s sorta awkward and probably stirs some very uncomfortable memories. But since this is over e-mail, and you can’t hit me with a shoe, I’ll ask: What was that like? Were you aware, as a kid, how wrong it was? Did your family know how wrong it was? Or, as was the case in the U.S. through much of its history thru the early 1960s, was it so ingrained in culture that it was just sort of accepted as the way things are?
A.F.W.: Wow! I generally try to avoid this subject and surprisingly few people ever ask me about it. And now I will probably take the rest of the day to write and delete a million times!
It’s a difficult question to answer without coming across as the poor little privileged white girl. It’s hard to have empathy for white South Africans from that era, whether you opposed apartheid or not. I guess like Germans after World War II, you are lumped together with the people that created the horror.
I cannot claim to know how it felt to be a black South African at that time, I had friends who told me, I saw things, and I was there, but we were separated, and I did not experience it. All I know are my own experiences, and this is how I perceived it:
Living under the shame of apartheid emotionally crippled my entire generation of white South Africans. While black South Africans struggled just to survive the everyday inhumanities of that time, my peers struggled to cope with the knowledge that our existence was based on lies, deceit, cover-ups and hypocritical leadership. There were many movements and underground organizations such as The Black Sash who continue to do great work, and were comprised of mostly women campaigning against inequality and repression, but for the most part our efforts were futile and the danger of being ostracized was real.
Historically, the question that haunts every society which has had to deal with injustices in their midst is, Why didn’t we try harder? There is no one answer to that, not everyone had a social conscience, and it’s always easier to pass judgment in retrospect.
When I was a child, I accepted things as they were. Black children went to their own schools, I assumed they were receiving the same education as me. There were times we played together, but both black and white kids simply accepted that we would all return to our own “places.” There were instances which confused me, such as I remember hearing about black scholars burning down their schools and believing the propaganda fed to my parents and reported in the papers. I couldn’t understand why any children would want to burn their schools down. As I grew into a teenager, the truth began to dawn on me … education was not free for black children, the conditions were close to impossible for any learning to take place, and eduction was forced to be in English and Afrikaans, and not in their native language. More and more I became aware of what was going on in my country, the terrible stories came to light. My school friend from art class had access to BBC broadcasting (no TV in South Africa until I was about 15—only radio), and came to school with stories we could hardly believe. Stories of the true nature of Steve Biko’s death while in custody were whispered, and Donald Woods, the editor of our town’s left wing newspaper, The Daily Dispatch, went into exile, and the warnings from my parents were constant.
Propaganda filled my parents with fear of “the Communists!” who were supplying arms to the “terrorists!” wanting to kill us all in our sleep! (These are things I heard all the time). Fear was everywhere. Even though we were living the free life as white South Africans, the grown-ups were always terrified of something. There was no freedom of press, and propaganda was rife. But the winds of change were beginning to blow, and they were so afraid I would get involved. Arguments broke out regularly at the dinner table … our family was split in it’s beliefs. My father was very liberal, my mother not so much. It was a commonly held belief that apartheid, which had apparently been invented to protect the white population, had pushed black South African’s to their limit and the result could only be massive bloodshed. (No one could have foreseen that the forgiving spirit of Nelson Mandela would dissipate all that anger and bring all colors of the Rainbow Nation of South Africa together). Riots and uprisings became commonplace, and white university students, away from their parents, finally found their voices and the courage to speak out against the system, and were protesting, and being locked up. I took the first opportunity I could to get out, and became an AFS exchange student when I was 18 and spent a year in Kansas City, Missouri.
It seems to have been a pattern where young white people in South Africa would spend their youth protesting for change, and then when they married and had children, they turned into their parents, full of fear for the future.
I returned to South Africa after my year in Kansas City, at age 20, and lived a pretty secluded life on a farm. Funny thing, my headman, who was a Transkeian and of the Xhosa Tribe, allowed me to think I was running the farm, but in reality, he was completely in charge!
For six years while on the farm, I was able to forget the circumstances crippling the rest of the country. But within a few years Mandela would be released and I would be witness to the miracle of peaceful change. That was when I began to see myself as a South African, and not as some displaced soul on borrowed land.
J.P.: In 1999 you returned to South Africa to create the principal role in Elvis Las Vegas. I tried Googling this, but with little success. What is Elvis Las Vegas? And, more important, why do you think people in South Africa care about Elvis? I’ve never fully understood the appeal.
A.F.W: OK, this just made me smile! South African audiences are a peculiar lot. You can never be sure what will work there. But one thing you can be sure of … they love a compilation show. This was a huge extravaganza of costumes, sets, dancers and a “kicking” band. I rose out of the stage on a staircase that would put MGM to shame. I never understood the Elvis appeal either, I’m not a big rock ‘n’ roll fan … apparently millions in South Africa are.
J.P.: I love going to Broadway. Love it, love it, love it. But I don’t exactly love paying $100 or more for tickets. My question is—are the prices justified and, if so, how? And can the argument be made—and I’d love for you to make it—that going to the theatre is 10 times better than going to a movie (considering it’s about 10 times the price)?
A.F.W.: Yes! It is 10 times better than going to a movie! The problem is you only ever realize that when you are sitting in the theatre and the curtain goes up. The thrill!
Of course it’s worth the money. The people who would pay $100 for an outfit, or a pair of shoes, a meal for two with wine, a mani/pedi, a massage, or … hello, a movie for two with popcorn, drinks etc. plus the inevitable stomach ache after are the same people who moan about paying $100 for the incredible thrill of seeing a live Broadway show. And lets not begin to talk about the price of tickets to a sporting event. … how am I doing?
Having proved that its better than a movie, I really would also love to see theatre ticket prices lower. But I guess there are things I don’t know about, like producers having to cover a great deal of things including union payments, benefits, safety measures that take care of us, and keep us in a position to continue doing live theatre.
It’s a matter of priorities. Teach your children to love theatre—the live experience in real time is emotionally enriching.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH AMRA-FAYE WRIGHT
• Why, when South Africans and British sing songs in English, do they rarely have a noticeable accent? You, Elton John, the Stones, etc … etc—you’d think everyone is from Cleveland: I’ve always wondered why, too! Maybe we all want to be American! Ha!
• Mel Gibson offers you $5 million to play Mary in The Passion of the Christ II: Jesus Goes to Chicago—do you take the gig?: Cool, I always wanted to be in a Mob movie!
• Reggie Bush or Vince Young?: I had to look them both up. Even though Americans believe football is a world sport, and there’s even a world series, right? Nobody else in the world knows anything about it. BUT … I’ll take Reggie Bush! (Know anything about rugby? There’s a world cup for that, too!)
• Five things in your purse: Phone, credit card, stilettos, lipstick, laptop.
• Celine Dion or John Lennon?: John Lennon.
• In all your travels, have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I always think I’m about to die in a plane. I take calming pills and I recall nothing.
• I’m an absolutely dreadful dancer. How long would it take you to teach me to be mediocre?: I’m an absolutely dreadful teacher. It would take too long.
• Estimation—how many times have people said to you, in some variation, “Great legs!”: I’m trying to read into this—does this mean that you’ve seen my legs and you think they’re great? Or do you just ask this of everyone? Just want to know, because I happen to have really good legs! And, OK, estimated answer: Once a week for half a century.
Quaz 1: Wendy Hagen
Quaz 2: Chris Burgess
Quaz 3: Tommy Shaw
Quaz 4: Russ Ortiz
Quaz 5: Don McPherson
Quaz 6: Frank Z.
Quaz 7: Geoff Rodkey
Quaz 8: Meeno Peluce
Quaz 9: Karl Mecklenburg
Quaz 10: Amra-Faye Wright