Ariana DeBose is on a roll: the 27-year-old Raleigh native made her Broadway debut at 21, originating a role in Bring It On: The Musical; she’s competed on So You Think You Can Dance; and she was an original member of Hamilton, the musical that shattered records on Broadway and is now touring nationally, including a stop at the Durham Performing Arts Center this November. Meanwhile, DeBose moved on to create an original role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which debuted in April for an open-ended Broadway run. She is one of three actors who each play Donna Summer in a different stage of her life, and DeBose represents Summer’s disco heyday. The role has already garnered her first Tony Award nomination (the award ceremony takes place this month).
With no plans to leave New York any time soon, DeBose says she’s still a hometown girl at heart. “I am absolutely still a Southerner. Most of my family is in North Carolina and they are my greatest support system.” Walter recently spoke to the singer, dancer, and actor to discuss her latest act, her Triangle roots, and the eternal craving for biscuits and barbecue. –J.A.R.
Congratulations on your Tony Award nomination!
Thank you, it’s exciting. I didn’t see it coming! I was really shocked, but totally honored. What we’ve created with Summer is a triple-threat role; it’s not the type of role that you see on Broadway all the time. The awards are June 10, but just to be nominated is an honor.
What did you know about Donna Summer before this production?
I knew her music. My mom and I would “Donna Summer-cise” in the living room together, doing push-ups to her songs. I knew the voice, but I didn’t exactly understand who she was. I did know she looked like me, and I knew she sang, and that was cool. For this role, I’ve learned more about her as a human. What I have discovered is that Summer influenced every style of music that came after her. So many artists have been inspired or influenced by songs that she wrote or sang: Beyonce has sampled Love to Love You Baby. She created her own genre. And she was the woman in the group, an active collaborator. I love that.
You play Donna Summer in her prime disco years. What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
A very eclectic array. My grandmother would play Motown tunes and songs of the ’60s. My mom would listen to everything from Donna Summer to Enrique Iglesias to Kenny G to The Sound of Music soundtrack. And I loved Celine Dion, she was the voice of my childhood.
Favorite Donna Summer song?
I Feel Love is so iconic, and that beat—it’s hard to beat.
You have credited much of your success to the Triangle performing arts community you were part of as a middle and high-school student. Do you remain in touch with teachers and mentors?
Oh yes. My band teacher from Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, Shannon Norman, was in the audience for opening night of Summer. I talk to a lot of my art teachers from West Millbrook Middle School and WFRHS. High school was one of the happiest times of my life. I was surrounded by many strong women; I learned a lot about being a leader there; I was part of seemingly every arts department that was available to me. It was wonderful. I also regularly talk to Terri Dollar, who now runs Artsplosure, and Paige Holland Hamp, who used to run an organization called Embrace Uganda and instilled in me the importance of charitable work to balance performing. Since moving to New York, I’ve met Lauren Kennedy Brady (a Broadway star and current director of Theatre Raleigh), and she’s become an important resource.
What about North Carolina do you miss most?
I miss downtown Wake Forest. It’s quaint and kind of eccentric, and I used to love to walk through the seminary. There are a ton of colleges around me in New York, but a New York City college campus feels quite different than that small-town feel of my childhood.
When you do return home, what’s your first stop when you get off the plane?
Bojangles or Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q
What’s the hardest part of being a Broadway performer?
I often think it’s stamina—I never stop. Especially with Summer, the way my character functions is to tell part of the story, then go offstage, then return to tell more of the story, then go back offstage. It takes mental stamina to stay in the story. I’m also singing and dancing and acting: the physical stamina, the vocal stamina, and the mental ability to be present to say the words honestly is a challenge.
What’s the most fun part?
Entertaining. There’s a lot of the job that is sheer entertainment value. It’s a joy for me because I can see the faces of the people in the audience and they’re having a good time. They’re singing with us, they’re dancing in their seats, they’re dancing in the aisles. It’s instant gratification: I can see that what I have done over the last 100 minutes of the show has had a positive effect on those people, and that’s all you can ask for.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learned so far?
It’s not always going to be quote unquote perfect. You’ve got to take the pressure off of yourself and know that if you’re doing your best, that is enough.
What’s next for you?
The sky’s the limit at this point. I feel so blessed. I consider myself a blessed individual, but I also acknowledge the success I’ve been able to create is a combination of talent, perseverance, hard work, and right-place-at-the-right-time. I never thought I’d have a Tony nomination before 30 years old. That’s amazing, thrilling. Right now is all about Summer. Next, it will be less about just going to get another job and more about considering what story I want to tell. What story do I feel drawn to, do I feel people need to hear? And, will it challenge me? I like to be challenged.
If you go see the show in New York City: thedonnasummermusical.com