Small Wonder — Newcomer Shalita Grant Grabs a Tony Nod in Her Broadway Debut
By Marc Acito
"I'm constantly scared," admitted Shalita Grant. "I mean, all the time. I walk down the street and I'm like, 'That scaffolding is gonna decapitate me.'"
But the 24-year-old graduate of The Juilliard School — whose debut Broadway performance as a voodoo-practicing mystic in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike earned her a Tony nomination and a Theatre World Award — is determined to face her fears. "I think it's okay to be afraid," she said, "but it's not okay to let it rule your life."
Watching Grant convulse with abandon and boss her megawatt co-stars around onstage, you'd think she wasn't afraid of anything. In a play where stars David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver receive entrance applause and soap opera hunk Billy Magnussen cavorts in nothing but Calvin Klein briefs and a smile, Grant doesn't exactly steal scenes. She certainly borrows them, though.
Her biggest fear in originating a role in a new Christopher Durang play, however, wasn't the part itself, which she modeled on her great-grandmother, a bi-polar Evangelical who speaks in tongues. No, her biggest challenge was simply getting up the guts to talk to Weaver.
Grant participated in the very first reading of the play, a late-season contender that walked away with six Tony nominations and the award for Best Play. Durang, who heads the playwriting program at Juilliard, knew Grant's work and invited her to read the first act at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where the play premiered. Weaver, a close friend of Durang and an interpreter of his work since they attended the Yale School of Drama together, joined the cast in the second reading to play Masha, a role Durang created specifically for her.
"I turned around," Grant recalled, "and there's this goddess." Not only was the newcomer star-struck, she was also intimidated. "And I'll tell you why: she's nine feet tall!" the 4'11" actress said. "I didn't talk to her at all. She was ordering soup and I was really hungry, but I was like, 'I'm not ordering with her. I'm just gonna look at her and watch her eat. I'm not worthy.'"
Grant agonized through another reading without speaking to the star. "I barely looked at her. She was just so awesome." It was only after they finished that Grant summoned up the courage to speak. "I had all this stuff built up for this woman," she said. "But I was like, 'Put on your big girl pants and go talk to her, you nerd.'"
They were the only two left in the room. Grant took a deep breath — and burst into tears.
"I'm a big baby," she said. "But she was so wonderful and graceful."
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