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Actor Jeannette Bayardelle returns to ART in Shida

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Actor Jeannette Bayardelle returns to ART in Shida
Jeannette Bayardelle

The multi-talented actress, singer, and composer Jeannette Bayardelle returns to the American Repertory Theater (this Wednesday through Friday), in her one-woman show titled Shida.

Last seen at the A.R.T. in the 2009-2010 holiday musical Best of Both Worlds, Bayardelle is no stranger to the rigors and challenges of playing multiple roles. She understudied 11 roles in The Color Purple, including the character Celie, before taking over the leading role from LaChanze in her Broadway debut. She received an NAACP Theater Award as a Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her performance.

Bayardelle said she learned valuable lessons about herself playing the role of Celie.

“I learned patience, knowing what battles to fight, what battles not to fight; and how to fit into a cast that has already been set,” she said. “It was a good experience.”

Set to a score of rock, jazz, R&B and gospel musical, Shida is based on the life of Bayardelle’s childhood friend, Rashida, whose aspirations of becoming a writer were almost derailed by her struggles with substance abuse. The idea for the show came about while Bayardelle was performing on Broadway in the revival of Hair (coincidentally directed by A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus). At the time, Bayardelle told her agent that she wanted to do more, that she didn’t just want to perform in shows. She wanted to create them. Bayardelle thought of her childhood friend Rashida and about her life story and the inspiration for the one-woman show came to her. “I decided to contact her,” said Bayardelle. She told Rashida that she wanted to create a musical about her life. “We met two days later and I got her permission and the rest is history,” said Bayardelle in a recent interview with the Banner.

Traveling the world the past 10 years performing, Bayardelle loves to play women overcoming adversity because it gives her another platform.

“Honestly I love those roles,” she said. “There’s such a reward at the end, for me as well as the audience. You take the audience on this journey filled with pain and they see you triumph at the end.”

Shida, which also includes a book, music and lyrics by Bayardelle, is about second chances, redemption, and ultimately about having faith in oneself. Rashida did see the show “and absolutely loved it,” said Bayardelle. “She cried through most of it the first time she saw it. After we were done, she said, ‘Thank you for making my story, thank you for not making me ashamed of what I’ve been through.’” According to Bayardelle, Rashida is happy and excited to see her life on stage. “She’s the one who gave me the freedom to tell the story. She let me do what I felt like doing creatively,” said Bayardelle.

Growing up in the Bronx, Bayardelle never thought about being on Broadway. She knew she would perform, probably sing R&B, but never imagined Broadway.

“I wasn’t interested in the whole Broadway thing until I was in high school,” she said.

She attended the High School of the Performing Arts, LaGuardia in Manhattan. There, she said, “My eyes were open to the world of Broadway, hanging out backstage, going on auditions.”

Bayardelle was hooked, but the path to Broadway wasn’t always an easy one. In a field that’s more often filled with rejection than acceptance, Bayardelle’s philosophy is to continue to “push past the no’s.” She believes that once you’re past a no, “there’s a yes lurking around.” She’s kept a positive attitude but has also worked very hard and has studied her craft to get to where she is today.

Most people assume or think that performing is easy.

“They think it’s like a hobby,” said Bayardelle.

She adds that often the public doesn’t realize the work that goes into it: “Rehearsing eight hours a day, understudying 11 different parts — it’s like you’re in school all over again. You’re constantly studying, constantly learning, constantly trying to do better, trying to pick up on who you are or aren’t as an actress. There’s a lot that goes into being a performer.”

The one piece of advice that Bayardelle would offer to young girls of color who are interested in performing and being on Broadway is, “I would tell them to make sure you hone your skills, make sure that you’re at your best, never let a ‘no’ stop you, and be good at what you do.”

Bayardelle certainly follows her own advice. “I realized that God gave me a gift. I can sing. [She laughs joyously]. I can’t even hide it. This is what I do. These are things that I do best and it would be a shame to let a ‘no’ stop other people from benefitting from the gift that God gave me. That’s what keeps me going. I’m not going to let a ‘no’ stop me. I can do these things very well. So, I know I was meant to do this.”

The American Repertory Theater presents the musical Shida at the Oberon November 5, 6, and 7 at 7:30 p.m. The Oberon is located at 2 Arrow Street in Cambridge. Tickets: $25 General Admission. To purchase call 617.547.8300 or go online at: americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/shida-new-musical-development.

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