After appearing in Bring It On and Shuffle Along, Adrienne Warren won plaudits for her portrayal of Tina Turner on both sides of the Atlantic. She tells Howard Sherman how the lockdown has enabled her to focus on her work with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which uses the arts to challenge racism and bring about social change
For a year, Adrienne Warren lit up the West End as Tina Turner. After the musical Tina opened at the Aldwych Theatre in April 2018, critics declared her “stupendous” and “astonishing”. The BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz hailed “a 24-carat, all singing, all dancing, bona fide star”.
The show rested on Warren’s shoulders and most agreed it was driven along by a seemingly boundless energy. She had transferred that energy to Broadway with the show in November and was still thrilling audiences when lockdown hit.
Speaking a day after the announcement that Broadway performances would not return before 2021, Warren said she was using the period to rest from the extraordinary exertions of the musical. Continuing to push herself as hard as she does while playing the role simply to stay ready to restart at any moment would be a disservice to herself, she adds.
Instead, Warren has used this intermission, born out of the pandemic, to focus on the work of an organisation she co-founded with five other theatre artists in 2016: the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.
The group, which was set up to use the arts as an integral part of social change work, describes its mission as “a direct response to the nation’s pandemic of racism and police brutality”, which has since expanded into exploring issues of criminal justice reform, education equity and immigration. Having been focused on her work in Tina, first in London and then in New York, she now has time to reconnect with the organisation and giving back to her community.
“They have been running on their own without me,” says Warren. “So now it’s time for me to come back home, so to speak. It’s been nice to create a space for myself outside the performer.”
‘The Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again forum showed us the amount of willingness right now within our industry’
She says that this reconnection has been true for all of the founders, who have all been doing their own work in various facets of the industry. The most visible recent initiative of BAC was its early June forum Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again. It comprised three days of live online conversations about issues facing black theatre artists, one day solely for those artists and the other two open to the theatre community at large. It attracted about 5,000 live viewers on each of those two days. Warren participated both as a panellist and a moderator.
Warren says: “It’s been non-stop since the forum. I’m very happy about that because the forum showed us the amount of willingness right now within our industry, specifically with some of the higher stakeholders within our industry. We have been in contact with a lot of producers, a lot of higher institutions.”
She continues: “BAC is in the process of specifying how we can best be of service to everyone that has ever enquired about anything with us. And I think that starts by asking: what are the coalitions being created right now? What’s actually happening right now in this moment of enlightenment? I think a lot of people feel like they want to do something and there has been this major call of action. So, one of the first things we’re doing is getting all of those groups and all of those like-minded people together to discuss what’s already being done, what is being created now, how can we support each other.”
Warren’s own experience in the performing arts began with community theatre work in her Virginia hometown of Chesapeake. A seminal experience came when she was cast in the title role of Annie, a character typically seen as white. She didn’t fully appreciate the hubbub that surrounded her casting at the time.
Warren says: “I saw a moment being birthed out of what made me different – the colour of my skin – which is very complicated for a 10-year-old. It was the first time that I had really experienced any success in my theatre career and it was also the first time I experienced my success being harmful to another community. That is what I am now realising as an adult.”
Warren continues: “That was a very complicated moment for me because here I was, a young, black girl in the south who was being supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, being supported by black magazines, being supported by community. But then there were also people within that community that seemed to be angry at me because I was taking away an opportunity from another girl who was a white girl. History showed me this was for her and not for me. So it was very complicated.”
As profound as that experience was in retrospect, Warren’s youthful goal was focused on sports, and she still considers herself an athlete. She says that it was only when she stopped growing and realised that her dream of a career in basketball would be out of reach that she shifted her energy to theatre. Eager to get to New York as quickly as possible, she attended Marymount Manhattan College in New York, where instead of focusing on singing and dancing, she wanted to shore up her self-defined weakness: acting.
Looking back to her college years, Warren notes the relative dearth of stories about, and works by, artists of colour, adding that it’s not that such work isn’t being created, but instead it is not being supported.
The repertoire had an effect on Warren during college, she says: “My focus was taking songs that maybe you wouldn’t think someone who looks like me would sing and trying to find my voice and my style within that music. That ended up equipping me with a fantastic tool to go out into the industry when I graduated and to remain true to myself, or at least be able to hear my own voice in music that wasn’t necessarily written for me.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
An anniversary production of Dreamgirls starring Jennifer Holliday at Theater of the Stars in Atlanta. I was in the ensemble and was the dance captain.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That me being myself would be enough.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Audra McDonald and Tina Turner.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Preparation is key.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, except I really like to connect with my co-stars and my cast beforehand.
How are you coping in lockdown?
I am taking it day by day. That is the easiest way for me to say it: moment by moment.
What was the last show you saw live in the theatre?
Have you been enjoying other culture in lockdown?
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries. I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin and other books I was looking forward to reading but never had the time.
Warren began working professionally immediately after graduation, having secured an agent while still in college, and only three years later starred in her first Broadway musical, Bring It On, adapted from the film of the same name about cheerleading rivalries. With a creative team that included Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, Jeff Whitty, Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex Lacamoire, she remembers the experience as being somewhat startling.
“Starring in my first Broadway show was equally exciting, terrifying, and humbling – that moment when I realised: I am supposed to be the leader now, I’m supposed to be leading this company, but I don’t even know what I’m doing.” She adds that while she had a great time, “I learned that Broadway is hard.”
‘A dry spell after my first Broadway show encouraged me to open my mind. It got me back in acting class’
Following Bring It On, Warren said she experienced a bit of a dry spell for the first time, but feels it was a valuable reality check. “It encouraged me to open my mind and open my eyes to the fact that I had more to learn,” she says. “It got me back in acting class, it got me back in dance class. That was a very pivotal moment for me, because it took me out of my comfort zone. Yeah, I had starred in my first Broadway show, but I still had a heck of a lot of work to do. I am of the mindset that the work never stops. If it weren’t for the dry spell, I don’t think I would have really got that lesson.”
With her next Broadway show – Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed – Warren admits to experiencing imposter syndrome. “I couldn’t believe I was in the rehearsal room I was in with George C Wolfe and Savion Glover,” she says. “Let’s just start there: I couldn’t believe that I was getting choreography from Savion Glover every single day. I was humbled by that moment because here I was, someone putting on tap shoes. How dare I put on tap shoes in a room with Savion Glover…” The show, a look back at the creation of Broadway’s first all-black musical in 1921, had a cast that included Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry, as well as her co-founders of BAC.
Warren enthuses about being inside Shuffle Along as a rare moment in theatre history. She says: “There was no guarantee these people would ever be in the same room again working on a show. You know what I mean? You just walked in knowing that you were experiencing such a rare moment. I just wanted to come into the rehearsal room every single day with my heart and my mind open to absorb as much as possible.”
Of her process during the show, Warren says: “I remember watching Audra like a hawk. Like watching how she attacked her work. What are the questions she asks? Like I was full on rehearsing with them, but also studying them like a football coach watching a game. I was in heaven and I learned so much during that period.”
The show played for only 100 regular performances following previews, which was both frustrating and galvanising for Warren. She says: “We were the quote-unquote black show, actually telling a black story and we were silenced that year. It did nothing but feed into our point that our voices are constantly muffled and it constantly feels like we’re screaming into a pillow. It just goes to show that we could have a Justice League of black royalty theatremakers and artists in a room and we can still be muffled and silenced. That was deafening. I think all of us are somewhat scarred by that moment.”
BAC produced its inaugural event, Broadway for Black Lives Matter, in August 2016, which featured artists including McDonald and Mitchell alongside policy experts and activists.
Then came Tina in London in 2018, which told the story of the iconic singer from childhood until nearly 50. Written by Katori Hall, it was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who had helmed previous jukebox musical smash Mamma Mia!.
For her role as the iconic singer, Warren credits casting director Bernard Telsey, who was familiar with her work as a rock singer, including a stint with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra while still a senior in college. But she still confesses her surprise at landing the gig.
“It came out of nowhere,” says Warren. “I thought there was no way I would possibly be given this opportunity. They were going to give this to Beyoncé or something. There’s no way this is happening.”
Even as she talks about making the role her own, Warren says that it started from a place of studying Turner. “I had to be the strongest me I could be; vocally, physically, mentally as well,” she recalls. “How does she dance? How does she move through space? How does she form her vowels and how does she attack her consonants? Those very mechanical nuances were where my energy was first put. As I began to get that down a bit more, I began to realise that the key to this performance would be finding her within me.”
Warren says Turner encouraged her to move beyond mere impersonation. “It became important to find Tina within Adrienne,” said Warren. “Tina was a part of that process and journey. Once she signed off on my performance, she encouraged me to take more liberties, to find my own style and my own voice within it. When she gave me that go-ahead, it empowered me and gave me the confidence to go even further with it.”
In the current intermission, new groups have emerged in the theatre community to address racial inequity within the field, as well as in society at large. They include the group that generated the We See You, White American Theatre / The Ground We Stand On letter, as well as Black Theatre United, which includes a number of artists who also were part of Shuffle Along (Warren calls them the “original gangsters”).
Warren says the Broadway Advocacy Coalition will be working collaboratively and intersectionally with these and other groups with similar concerns and goals.
‘We have to recognise that the problems in our industry are in direct correlation to the problem outside our doors’
Of the next steps for BAC within the wider theatrical community, Warren says: “We have a public pledge of accountability that over 5,000 people have signed now. That is just one way to start for our non-black allies – or advocates, I would say. To say that they are committed to doing this work to lead to a more equitable community and to lead to a better community for all of us.
“We have a unique moment right now. While we’re having these communities, we have to recognise that the problems within our industry are in direct correlation to the problem that’s happening outside our doors, outside our theatres and that they both feed into each other.”
Warren says that BAC isn’t trying to teach people, but rather create opportunities for enlightenment. “I don’t think we ever try to point our finger at anyone or wag our finger at anyone in an accusatory way,” she says. “But rather let’s just look at the problem here: let’s acknowledge it, let’s see it, let’s see one another, and then let’s try to investigate and try to take steps – tangible steps towards solutions.”
Born: 1987, Chesapeake, Virginia
Training: Marymount Manhattan College (2009)
Awards: Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for outstanding actress in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (2020)
Agent: Gersh Agency