Motown: The Musical Diva Valisia LeKae Opens Up About Cancer Battle and Love from the Broadway Community
By Karu F. Daniels
Earlier this year, Valisia LeKae made a splash on The Great White Way playing — what many thought was to be — the role of her lifetime as Diana Ross in Motown The Musical. A little over six months after the Berry Gordy-produced show became one of Broadway's biggest box-office hits of 2013, the Tony Award-nominated performer discovered she has ovarian cancer.
Last week, LeKae, who's been on leave from the Charles Randolph-Wright-helmed tuner since August, shocked the theatre community when she made her official withdrawal from the show and revealed her diagnosis via Facebook.
"As a 34 year old, African American woman, I feel that it is important that I share my story in order to educate and encourage others about this disease and the fight against it," she wrote. "God has given me another role to play and like all my previous roles, I plan to go all in, only this time I plan to Win!"
"I don't think it's nothing that anybody else in my position wouldn't have done," LeKae told Playbill.com about making the brave and very public announcement. "It's just another way for me to use my voice and be an advocate for this disease that I have now. I wanted to talk about it. I just wanted people to be aware."
The day before the declaration, LeKae — whose Broadway credits include The Book of Mormon and Ragtime — had surgery (unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) for clear cell carcinoma of the ovary performed by the highly-sought Dr. David Fishman at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital.
"Her cancer is associated with genetic inherited cancers, yet she has no family history," Fishman commented, citing that the cancer can be very aggressive and survival can range from 40-90 percent. "She required an operation and will need six rounds of chemotherapy."
According to LeKae, there weren't any symptoms or anything alarming to make her think she had the disease — outside of what she chalked up to being related to women's wellness: "Being a woman, we face menstrual issues every month, and I've had reflux and all that other stuff for a while but nothing that would make me think that I had ovarian cancer. So long story short, no, I wasn't feeling anything. I went to have my check-up and I had a cyst, and that was the only thing we saw in the sonogram."
With its near 60 songs, rigorous dance routines and hundreds of costume changes, Motown The Musical is an arduous undertaking for any of its performers, more so its leading stars. Recovering from surgery and with chemotherapy on the immediate schedule (through April), multitasking wasn't an option for LeKae. "I need to dedicate 100 percent of my time to getting better," she said. "It requires your full attention... The backstage show is just as busy as what's happening onstage. There's constant movement for me. Once I start, it just doesn't stop. So it's really important that I just said, 'I'm going to have to just take a step back from my career as a singer, actress, dancer and performer and use my voice in a different way — as an advocate for this disease that I've now been diagnosed with.'"
LeKae's fellow Motown The Musical cast members have rallied around her with an outpouring of love and support. On Facebook, ensemble member Ephraim Sykes posted a photo of LeKae in a makeup chair with the words: "Cheers To A Warrior. #heroine," while her leading man Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Gordy, wrote that he was "so uplifted by the love being shown to my darling."
When she found out more details about her diagnosis and treatment plans, LeKae instructed her agent to inform the show's producers first. Soon after, she called a pre-show meeting at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with her "Motown Family," which consisted of members from the cast and creative teams.
"I explained to them what I was going through and what I was diagnosed with, and I never have seen a group of people rally the way I've seen them rally. And, immediately, Ryan Shaw led us into prayer. We all got together in that house and prayed together. They lifted me up so heavily and so mightily, and when it was over, I got to hug each and every one of them. They stayed in that auditorium and allowed me to hold each and every one of them down to the last person.
"It's pretty amazing you get to experience so much love and so many people who are willing to say, 'We are here for you,'" she continued. "And my producers have been amazing in making sure I have everything that I need and checking in on me. We built that family over two years ago when Brandon and I started doing that reading in 2011, and we have a close relationship, so they have been some of my biggest supporters and I thank God that they're in my life."
She added, "I'm hoping that my story will give someone the bravery to just go and say, 'I need to go in and check in on myself' because early detection is the key to everything. The sooner you get in there and know about what's going on with your body, the more you can do.
"My career doesn't end because I've been diagnosed with cancer. If anything, it continues to soar."
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