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Behind The Scenes

Valisia LeKae: From The Sunshine Band To Motown Land

The star of the new Broadway hit Motown: The Musical sat down with for a little Diva Talk. Valisia LeKae is Diana Ross but in this one on one interview she steps outside of that character to let us know more about the Nashville born, church raised, superstar she’s always been. She talks about her musical influences, including Same Cooke and Tramaine Hawkins, her journey to New York, how Motown: The Musical came about, as well as playing Deena Jones in Dreamgirls and how the roles are very different.

Question: When did you start performing?
LeKae: I started very early on in the church—in African-American churches and things like that. We have things like the Sunshine Band, and so I think it was probably around the time when I was six when I started singing in church, and then from there, it went from elementary school to different programs and wherever else they would have me! [Laughs.]

Question: How did Motown come about?
LeKae: Motown came about in January of 2011. I heard about them having auditions for this show, and I remember e-mailing or calling my agent and saying, “You have to really get me in for this because, you know, I am Diana Ross.” [Laughs.] And, they’re like, “Okay. I hear auditions are coming soon,” so I was like, “Okay.” I gave him a week, and I think by then he emailed me the sides and what the character breakdown was, and I immediately went into my obsession with trying to find out everything, and I had my one audition with the director and the musical director at the time, and he was looking at me and saying, “Are you doing something with your voice because you have all these ‘isms’ and you sound like her?” And, after that audition, I know they called my agent…

Question: And, you also played Deena Jones in Dreamgirls…
LeKae: I did. That came about very weird because I remember auditioning for North Carolina Theatre, which is one of the theatres that I love, and going in for [the role of] Lorrell, and having that whole audition process be about Lorrell, so when my agent called me, he said, “Hey, you got the job for the North Carolina Theatre, but they want you to play Deena Jones.” Not that I had a problem with that, but I didn’t read for Deena Jones, I didn’t sing for Deena Jones… He said, “No, they really want you for Deena Jones.” That was another experience where it wasn’t a difficult audition… And, what was so great was that we got to use the original Dreamgirls costumes, so we got to use the costumes that were in the Broadway show, and I could look at the back of my tag and see “Sheryl Lee Ralph”! And people over the years who were in those outfits, [including] Terry Burrell, who was in my first Broadway show… I was in one of her outfits. I could see those outfits, and we got to use the fur and everything from the original Broadway production, and for two weeks, we were living! We were living on the stage, and it was such a great production, and such a great town with a wonderful cast, so I got very lucky with that one.

Question: For Motown, how did you go about approaching playing Diana Ross? Did you want to imitate her sound? What was your thinking?
LeKae: No, I can definitely tell you that I’m not doing an imitation of anything. If you asked me to do an imitation, it would probably suck because I wouldn’t even know how to go about approaching that. [Laughs.] I wanted to make her as human as possible because being in this business, [people] can come off larger than life and big icons and untouchable and so many things, and people forget that they’re just like us. Stars are just like us—they’re human, they cry, they get upset, they laugh, they do all sorts of things, they make mistakes. So I wanted to really approach her in that manner because, to me, that’s who she is. After reading so much about her, I found so many things that were alike…growing up in the church just like she did and singing, and sort of wanting to be a dancer when I was younger, and the thing about love—wanting to share it and give it. That, to me, is such an important part of her journey, not wanting to let her fans down and wanting to serve her purpose in this world and also give the people everything that they wanted. She got to be such a songstress and a storyteller through her journey, and I really wanted to emote all of those things. I don’t do an imitation of her. I’m an actress, and I study my craft to portray this woman in a way that people would understand her, and I would hope that she would be proud. She started off when she was 15, and she was an unknown, and then she became this woman, this person, this icon. I am an unknown and Motown is so larger than life—it’s something that everybody experienced through their lifetime—I can sort of bring my own life into this role of…taking this journey with her and understanding it. So it wasn’t very difficult for me to channel her because we’re sort of going on kind of the same journey… When I go on that stage, and when I’m performing and entertaining for people, there is nothing else I’d rather be doing because the people—for two-and-a-half hours—are removed from everything that could possibly be wrong or right in their life, and for that moment, they are laughing and living and loving and crying, and I get to be a part of that, and I think that was something that was so important to her.


Written By

Drew Shade is a theatre artist and enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity and excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. He is the Founder/Creative Director of Broadway Black, Off-Book Podcast & The Antonyo Awards. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” – August Wilson


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