Rachel Spencer Hewitt
OnStage Columnist - New York/Philadelphia
I closed my broadway debut right before 2016 opened it’s calendar squares to black history month. As I exited the Music Box Theater, I soaked in the lights lining Broadway marquees: Forest Witaker starring in Hughie, Lupita N’Yongo and the history-making cast of Eclipsed, Les Miserables which celebrated and mourned the youngest and first black Jean val Jean, and now – the Music Box Theater with Audra MacDonald in Shuffle Along. The titles and names in these shows pulsed with life, reigning halos on the passer-bys below. Stretched before us, Broadway radiated with the rewards of a movement that previously existed only in the hearts of actors of color outside closed doors who are now seeing their faces above them. If we’re paying attention, we just may see the beginning of historical legacy forming here and now, a moment in time that deserves our attention, support, and exploration. One of the best ways to support a movement is to get to know the change-makers.
Months ago, I saw signs of this movement in the passion and actions of a young actress and friend: Amber Iman. I interviewed her in hopes of better unpacking the need for change and the steps being taken to see it materialize. What unfolds is a fearless determination, a call to action, and some defining moments of a legacy in the making.
I first met Amber Iman on the tech stage of Paula Vogel’s off-Broadway play A Civil War Christmas. Hurricane Irene had just passed over New York, but for a small and resilient troop of actors, a new storm was about to hit in the form of powerhouse vocals a soulful heartache: “Meet Amber Iman,” director Tina Landau beamed as she gestured to the new actress who had just joined the cast ten days before opening. Fresh as the newly-built floorboards underfoot, Amber gave a timid smile before diving into a whirlwind rehearsal that resulted in a performance of rave reviews and, very quickly after, rising as Broadway’s Nina Simone in the all-too-short-lived SoulDoctor. She now calls the Music Box Theater her home as she begins previews for Shuffle Along as a cast-member and the honored understudy to Audra herself.
What was your first “wake-up call” as an actor in NYC?
I moved to NY in January of 2012 like a genius. It was cold and I was broke. I moved in with a guy I didn’t really know and he turned out to be a professional a**hole. One day I had an audition for RENT at 10am. He hated loud noise in the morning. I put on 3 layers of clothes and put a blanket around my shoulders, took a cup of hot tea and some turkey bacon, and walked outside to the park across the street to warm up! I was singing at the top of my lungs, scaring away the squirrels and the children. In that moment, I knew that something had to change. In order for me to be successful, I had to find a way to live and be at peace. I had to create a home environment that would allow me to breathe and stretch and be me, fully. If I didn’t find that, I wouldn’t survive here. I was prepared to audition and work, but I wasn’t prepared to live in NY as an actress. I’m still figuring that out!
You made a bold decision not to pursue NY directly out of college – was that decision a practical choice/gut choice/both?
I had a full ride to Howard University – which was awesome because I graduated without debt – but I also had never worked a job in my life and didn’t have a dime saved, so moving to NY immediately just didn’t make sense. Also – all the kids who graduated before me, all of whom were incredibly talented, were all living in NY but working at Starbucks…They were all doing something wrong. I wanted to figure out the common denominator and not do that!!! They were all moving without equity cards, money, agents, or full knowledge of how to navigate NY.
I decided to make my own path.
What did you do before coming to NY?
I moved back to ATL because growing up in that theatre community meant I knew how to navigate it. I knew all the theatres, which companies offered equity contracts, etc. and I knew that my mom could help me with what I didn’t know. I came up with a plan that was kind of brave and brazen, now that I think about it! I called the biggest casting director in the city and introduced myself.
“You don’t know me, but I just graduated from Howard University with a BFA in Musical Theatre, and I’m looking to work in Atlanta. Could I come perform a monologue and song for you on your lunch break?”
She was quiet for awhile. Nobody had ever asked her anything like that, but I think she liked my initiative, and we set a date. After I performed (while she ate a sandwich and drank a Coke) she said, “I really like you.” Afterwards she gave me a list of 3 shows she wanted me to audition for. I booked the first one I auditioned for and got my equity card!
When I moved back to Atlanta, I made a list and gave myself 3 years to accomplish everything on it. I wanted to get my equity card, save money, network, and book shows, and possibly work towards securing a NY agent. Fortunately, I did everything (except save money, lol), but after 3 years, I packed up all my crap and moved up here!
How did the culture and spirit of your hometown influence you as an artist growing up/how does it influence you now?
Born and raised in Atlanta, GA. My mother is an actress so I grew up as a rehearsal room kid. I got the awesome opportunity to grow up around old school actors and singers and artists, full of wisdom and advice and love. Just being under the watchful eye of big black women and men (lol) who loved me was invaluable. My idols growing up weren’t the famous names. They were local ATL actors, some who had Broadway credits, some who traveled the world, and others who never left the city – but they schooled me and shaped me and encouraged me. I still hear their words in my head and visit them when I go home, so I carry them with me even now.
How did the opportunity auditioning for Nina come about?
I was actually on the prowl to audition for something else, lol. I’ve known Kenny Leon (Tony award-winning director), since I was 3, and he’s like an uncle to me. He directed my mom in shows in Atlanta and directed me in shows over the years. I heard a buzz about “Holler If You Hear Me”, which he was directing, and my agents were having a hard time getting me submitted. He produces an annual event, the August Wilson Monologue Competition for high school students (which is awesome), and I was going to the competition to see the kids perform but also to see if he could get me seen. While waiting to speak with him, I started talking to one of his colleagues who was also also India Arie’s manager. I was griping about not finding work. She asked if I had heard about a couple projects and then brought up Soul Doctor. India Arie was playing Nina but they were looking for a stand-by as India would probably only do 5 out of 8 shows a week. She asked me to send her my head-shot and resume, and she would get me seen. The next day I got an email from the director and casting director, and my agents called me with an audition the next day.
Long story short, India passed on the show and instead of being the stand-by, I was Nina freaking Simone in my Broadway debut. The story behind my audition process is seriously a Lifetime movie.
What did you learn in filling the shoes of a performer with such a legacy?
I was scared when we first started. When you’re playing someone who walked the earth, someone who has children and siblings who are still living, it’s incredibly intimidating because I wanted to honor her. I didn’t want my portrayal to be a caricature and I had to find the right balance of me and Nina to make her a complete and whole woman on the stage and in the confines of the text. I learned that I was much stronger than I thought. I also learned that work is work. I thought that Broadway wold feel different (like unicorns and pixie dust), but it’s just like working anywhere else. You have a job to do and a story to tell. Of course the perks and the paycheck are amazing, but you have to stay focused on doing your job and staying grounded.
Many actors perceive booking Broadway as the end all be all. What surprised you most about post-broadway life?
I realized how much I’d failed to plan. I thought it would take me 10 years to get to Broadway. It happened a year and a half after I moved to NY, and I woke up one day and said, now what???! I realized that I hadn’t thought past Broadway. After you do one show, do you want to do more? TV and Film? Teach? I needed to think about my life and what I wanted – not just for my resume but for my career, for my personal life, for my happiness and stability and sanity. For so long, my happiness was directly related to my employment.
But if I don’t do a show for a year or longer (which happened to me), how will I maintain my happiness and peace? I’m still attempting to answer those questions.
What was the toughest part of post-broadway life?
Thinking that offers and money and agents and TV shows and Tony awards would be knocking my door down and actually waking up to crickets and tumbleweed…. lol. I had imagined this great post-show life and didn’t have a plan B. It was mostly just ignorance – I just didn’t have a full knowledge of how things work, and I thought people would know me and hire me and life wold be easy. It was a huge wake up call. I closed Soul Doctor in October of 2013 and my next salaried gig was in February of 2015…….I did tons of readings and workshops and even a show that was closed by the producers before our final dress-run, but I didn’t see my name on a call board for a year and a half. I struggled financially and emotionally and fought depression, it was really tough to overcome. But I knew that something else was in store for me and that my job was to say sane and bide my time.
You host a web series – what was your vision/impetus to create/put yourself out there this way?
“Unemployed and Working” was born out of post-Soul Doctor depression. I asked a friend why nobody was talking about living and surviving the actor struggle, because I know that there are at least a million people going through what I’m going through. He said, “Amber if we sat around and talked abut it, we’d all jump [off a building].” I looked on actorsequity.com for unemployment support groups, I searched Facebook…..found nothing. I wanted and needed to find a way to encourage others and myself, to talk about unemployment in a way that was honest and open but also uplifting. The idea for the show came to me during margaritas with a friend, as do most fantastic ideas, and I felt challenged to make it into a reality. It happened way too easily which made me think that something was wrong. I had a meeting with Broadwayworld.com within a week of creating the idea, and they asked me what did I need and how soon I wanted to start filming!
The pursuit of Broadway already has its challenges, but what is the biggest struggle for an actor of color specifically in pursuit of broadway and other creative successes?
Let’s be clear that there are many, many, many struggles. The struggle has so many parts and pieces….. all of the issues seem to be the biggest struggles.
A lot of people think that the problem is a lack of plays/musicals/shows written by people of color or telling our stories. That’s not it. I do countless workshops and readings of shows written by people or color, telling powerful stories that need to be heard. But there aren’t enough people of color in the positions to produce, green light, or finance these shows. How many casting directors in NYC are people of color? How many producers and directors of color are sitting behind the table and actually making the big decisions? It starts from the top down. I like to use the term “the wrong people are getting the right money”.
When money is on the line (and let’s not forget that Broadway is a business focused on money making, not art making), people are going to go with the safest, most lucrative choice….and that doesn’t usually involve people of color – unless its a jukebox musical and we are singing and dancing, then it’s bound to be a hit! If you aren’t aware of this as an actor, and you move to NYC with bright eyes and big dreams, you’re in for a rude awakening.
The biggest struggle is moving here with huge dreams and aspirations and realizing there isn’t really room for you at the table.
Is Broadway changing for the better in terms of diversity?
We have a super-duper long way to go. We are currently at Stage 1, level 1. I think that diversity is at least apart of the conversation, there’s an awareness. But its not yet seen as a problem that needs to be fixed – and that’s the problem. There’s so many things that have to be discussed and changed on the other side of the table and in the world before we see change on the stage. We have to change the way people think and feel and also the way people want to see people of color on stage, the way people will accept us on stage. Until people want to see people of color singing and dancing as much as they want to see us weeping and bleeding, things won’t change.
What stories do you want the Broadway of the future to tell?
All stories, universal. I want to walk down Theatre Row and see marquees full of faces of all colors, and not just celebrities. I want the world to be represented.
What makes a legacy?
Hard work. Sacrifice. Failures. Triumphs. Pushing boundaries. Asking questions. Giving back. Challenging the norms. Challenging yourself. Pissing people off sometimes (lol).
What do you hope makes up your legacy?
I want to be remembered as someone who worked hard and stood up for what was right.
I want my legacy to be filled with hits and misses, but I want it to be clear that I kept going.
I’m outspoken and I don’t care. That doesn’t always work to my advantage, but I’m tired of foolishness. Things won’t change if I sit quietly, so I have to speak up. I’m not an angry Black woman, I’m just ready for change. I want to be known for doing good work. I want to inspire and uplift and encourage people, especially little chocolate drops that look like me. I try to live by the quote, “We must lift as we climb.” I want to give as much, if not more, than I receive.
You did a photoshoot on legacy performers. Can you tell us a bit about the vision for that project?
Broadway Legacy is the brainchild of Christian Dante White, who is such a light and a visionary. He’s partnered with photographer Brent Dundore to create an online catalogue of art and information that will highlight and celebrate African American Theatre. I like to think of it as “us celebrating us”, refusing to wait for others to realize and honor our greatness.
Amber’s dreams and determination echo what many voices of actors of color have been championing for for decades. Most recently, Playbill.com announced a $2 Million grant rewarding theater programs for diversity in every position. Only the beginning, but an important start to the “right money” finally going into the “right hands.” If you’re feeling discouraged by the celebrity blanche-wash of the Great White Way while you’re still rehearsing in the cold, take a walk down W 45th and catch Amber and her cast in Shuffle Along and be inspired by and support the determination. Catch a bit of Amber’s glow and be part of a legacy in the making.