(Marcus Stern photo)
|Stephanie Umoh, Daisy Wyatt, and Colin Donnell, Johnny O’Brien, are performing in “Johnny Baseball” at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through the end of June. (Marcus Stern photo)
|Stephanie Umoh and Colin Donnell star in “Johnny Baseball” as Daisy Wyatt and Johnny O’Brien. (Marcus Stern photo)|
At just 24 years old, Stephanie Umoh is off to a great start. Born and raised in Lewisville, Texas, she moved to Boston after high school to study musical theater at the Boston Conservatory. As a student, she performed in a number of plays including productions mounted by the SpeakEasy Stage Company and New Repertory Theatre.
After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Boston Conservatory, Umoh moved to New York City and within a year and a half she landed the role of Sarah in the Broadway revival of E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Time Magazine later named it the best musical of 2009.
Umoh now stars as Daisy Wyatt in the world premier of the musical “Johnny Baseball.” Written by Willie Reale and Richard Dresser — and directed by the American Repertory Theater’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus — Johnny Baseball traces the origin of the infamous Red Sox curse to a love affair that existed between Daisy and her white boyfriend, a fictional Red Sox pitcher named Johnny O’Brien.
Is Daisy Wyatt a difficult character to play?
It’s the most challenging role that I’ve done so far because Daisy Wyatt has so many layers, especially being a woman of color in the early 20th century. She’s fallen in love with a white man and has a child while all at the same time trying to establish her career as a jazz singer.
Which aspect of Daisy’s life do you identify with the most?
I come from a biracial family. My father is Nigerian and my mother is white American, and I can only imagine what they must have gone through in the 1970s. Although that time wasn’t as bad as the 1940s, I think that they were constantly dealing with those issues whenever they were married — and living in Texas too.
Also, I identify more with Johnny because coming from a biracial family and living with my mother and being raised by whites, I didn’t really see color for a long time, and so I didn’t really understand why the separation because I wasn’t separated. I was black and my family was white, and so it didn’t make sense to me and that was how I was raised.
Then there was a point in my life in high school that I had to start categorizing myself and hanging out with certain people. You feel pressured to do that, and certainly Daisy was pressured to not be with a white man and just stick with black people. I definitely experienced some of those pressures being a young black girl.
How do you feel about “the curse” in the play being attributed to a black person? Do you think that’s stereotypical of the white male writers of the play to shift the blame?
Those are definitely things that you think about, but in this situation it is a little different. I think that the writers wanted to bring to light the things that went on in Boston during that time. I don’t think that the writers were trying to say that they knew what we went through. I think they wanted to say that the curse was because of racism and hate, which will cause destruction in people’s personal lives and relationships. It keeps people from living their dreams and I think that’s exactly what they were trying to say. It’s easy to just look at it as a racially charged show, but I think it’s deeper than that.
Which parts of the story are factual?
It’s fictional, but the history of the Red Sox is accurate. The story of Willie Mays is not completely factual. He did not try out for the Red Sox at the time that he does in our show. The writers were very careful at crafting the story, especially the timeline of the Red Sox because they didn’t want to upset the fans.
One review of the play said that it targets three segments of the population that are the least likely to see a play. Do you agree?
It’s been a big mix of people so far. Yesterday, a man stood up during the curtain call and he had on a full [Red] Sox uniform. The very first performance we had, people wore their Sox gear and it was so wonderful to see this. Also, at the very last moments of the show, which captures the moment of the 2004 game, the audience claps as if to relive that moment.
We are getting theatergoers who are also Sox fans, and people who don’t know what’s up in baseball. The show is not just about baseball. It has a really neat storyline, so someone could come not knowing anything about baseball and still get it.
Are there plans for the musical to go to other states?
Well, they haven’t discussed anything with us about taking it out of state so far. It’s really been about getting it up off the ground here in Boston, and everyday this past week we’ve gotten new script pages, so they’re still refining the play. It would be interesting in New York since it’s being advertised as a show about the Red Sox and most of New York consists of Yankee lovers. I’m not exactly sure how that will go over. I think they would probably have to market the storyline more.
Did you always want a career in musical theater?
I wanted to be a doctor. I had plans to study biology up until my junior or senior year, and then I started doing theater as an extra- curricular activity, and I loved it so much that I decided to go for it.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Well, let’s see. There was one show that sort of brought me out of my shell, and it was “The Little Shop of Horrors.” It was the very first musical that I had ever been in. I played Bag Lady; she had a solo in the beginning of the show. I had never performed in public before, but it totally brought me out of my shell. There was also a show called “Hunk!” and it’s the story of the ugly duckling and I played Ida, one of the leading roles in the play. It was during one of those performances that my theater teacher brought me aside and said, “You have to do this … in life.” Her words stuck with me, and I could tell her passion so I started changing my mind.
You just finished the Broadway production of “Ragtime.” How did that go?
I actually played the role before, in Boston at the New Repertory Theatre. I was 20 years old and in my sophomore year in college. Playing it again, I already knew all the music so it wasn’t difficult in that aspect, but I was challenging myself to take it further and go deeper into the character, and make new discoveries. After all, it was four years later and I think I’ve grown up a bit.
What was the challenging thing about the role the second time around?
I was trying to overcome myself, psychologically, because it was my first Broadway show and it was a little scary, so it was that aspect and also the intimidation.
What was intimidating about it?
I was sort of living my dream role, which was my Broadway debut. That was crazy, and also Audra McDonald originated this role and sort of put her stamp on it. People come in having certain expectations about the delivery of it and so that’s what made it extremely intimidating to me. It was all a whirlwind of things happening so fast and I couldn’t even catch up, personally speaking. I felt like I was outside of myself throughout the process. I had to give myself some time to breathe.
How easy or difficult was it to get the part in “Ragtime?”
It’s a weird thing because I was in New York City for about a year and a half before I was casted. I auditioned for the role of Sarah twice. You never know if you’re going to get anything, so I always kept it in my mind that there was a possibility that I would not get this or that role.
What are some things that you’re working on beyond “Johnny Baseball?”
Since I’ve been here, it’s been kind of hard to go on auditions in New York. Sometimes when you’re so busy with the show it’s impossible to find new work. I’m enjoying my time in Boston, and it’s great to get out of the city of New York. I used to live in Boston, and it’s nice to be back. I’ve been taking it easy and I think I’ll figure out what to do next once I get back to New York.
Have you thought about going into film?
Definitely. That’s something that I would like to see on the horizon, but right now I really want to get my feet on the ground in the theater world of New York.
What about music?
I’m not that interested in that because I don’t think it’s as satisfying for me as live performance is. On stage, I get to sing and become a character and do multiple things at once.
Who are some of your role models?
Well, this is sort of a little expected, but for a long time I admired Audra McDonald because she showed me that you don’t have to be a black woman and always play black roles. That really inspired me in college. She made clear to me the fact that you don’t have to be pigeon-holed into a certain way of performing or have a certain type of voice as a black woman. To be a black woman means you can have any voice you want. That really influenced my craft and while I don’t want to be Audra McDonald, I certainly wouldn’t mind her career, but I also want my own path, my own journey, my own style, and I want to be my own actress.
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