A Life in the Theatre: Lillias White

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Lillias White
Lillias White, a Tony winner for The Life, plays the matronly life force of Fela! on Broadway.
Lillias White
Lillias White


Lillias White won the Tony, Drama Desk, Peoples Choice and Outer Critics Circle Awards in 1997 for her role as Sonja in The Life, the Cy Coleman musical about the lives of prostitutes. She won an Obie Award in 1990 as Hennie in William Finn's Romance in Hard Times. Her other Broadway credits include Barnum, Once on This Island, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the original production and 1987 revival of Dreamgirls. White, 58, won an Emmy Award for her regular role on "Sesame Street." She is currently appearing at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in Fela!, the new Broadway musical about the life of the African composer and performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, portraying his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

What is it about theatre and singing that you love, that drew you to them, that made you want to make your career as a performer?

My mother and father had a really bad marriage, and I think that I probably got involved in performing so I could escape. I had a gift of song. I had this voice, ever since I was a little girl.

My Aunt Lillias was one of the first dancers in the June Taylor Dance Company on the Jackie Gleason TV show. I was her special baby. I was named after her and I was her world when she was a young adult. She used to dress me up in beautiful dresses with petticoats and pinafores, with big bows in my hair. My grandmother would have big dinners every Sunday and they would put me up on grandma's dining table after dessert and I would perform for the family. My mother used to take my brothers and myself to see the show at Radio City Music Hall on a regular basis. She couldn't afford to take us to Broadway shows, but she would buy the original cast albums — Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, all these fantastic albums. I didn't know what the shows looked like except when I saw excerpts from them on TV. But I liked these songs. I liked those voices. I listened incessantly to my records. I sang everybody's voice. From Annie Get Your Gun. I'd sing, "Anything you can do I can do better — yes I can — no you can't — yes I can."

Tell me about school, and growing up.

I was born and grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. In elementary school, at P.S. 167, I was picked by a teacher to do the announcing for the May Day dance gala — I would say things like "This is Class 302, doing the polka." I got involved in shows in junior high, and at George W. Wingate High School in the 1960s I took part in the sophomore, junior and senior Sings.

After I graduated, I got a good job working for General Electric in the law department, and at the same time I got involved in African dance, as well as in the Black Power movement. I got a half scholarship to the Alvin Ailey dance school, and I got into City College. I took music courses and speech courses. My speech professor was Joseph A. Walker, who wrote The River Niger, which won the Tony Award for Best Play. I was also in a music class with his wife, Dorothy Dinroe-Walker. It was a choral class. One day I was singing from a book, reading music, and she walked past me and said, "Who is that? That's you." I thought, oh my God, I'm doing something wrong. But I wasn't. She and her husband invited me to join their theatre company, the Demi-Gods. I changed my major to theatre. That's how I got into theatre. I was grabbed and pulled into it. I was with them for almost seven years.

When I left I did a show called Soledad Tetrad, written by Owa, at the New York Theatre Ensemble. I played the Jin of Sin. I got reviewed. The critics liked me.

After that I went to audition to replace someone in Hazel Bryant's production of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner. I sang, and got the part. The producers of the bus and truck company of The Wiz were friends with the producers of The Amen Corner. They were looking for a Dorothy understudy to go on the road. I auditioned and I was on the road with it for 14 months of split weeks and one-nighters. I started out doing the small parts, and then the girl who played Dorothy left the show and I took over the part. It was my first Actors' Equity show, my first Broadway show on the road. I went on to the road companies of Ain't Misbehavin' and Tintypes.

What was your first show on Broadway?

Barnum [as a replacement in the role of Joice Heth, an African-American slave billed as the oldest living woman]. I was doing Tintypes. We were in Palm Beach and I came up to New York on my day off to audition at the St. James Theatre. I sang my audition song, "Don't Rain on My Parade," from Funny Girl. Cy Coleman, the composer, and Joe Layton, the director, were at the back of the theatre in the dark. And Joe said, "Well, can you do any circus stuff?" Some years back, I had done a production of Waiting for Godot in Brooklyn with an all female cast, women in clown face and costume, and I had learned how to juggle. So they gave me beanbags to juggle. I hadn't done it in a while, so the beanbags were falling on the floor. I picked the beanbags up and said, "It gets better." And Joe laughed. He said, "O.K., you've got the job." They told me on the spot.

What was it like replacing Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls (and then starring in the 1987 revival)?

Incredible. I got to work with Michael Bennett. I had to wear a fat suit, because I wasn't heavy enough. I wasn't as heavy as Jennifer Holliday. They wanted that look. They gave me the fat suit for the first act, and for the second act I lost it and you saw this svelte Effie come out for the rest of the show. With Dreamgirls, I learned a lot about myself — about how to take care of myself, what not to do, getting rest, pacing myself, staying me and knowing that who I am as a person was appreciated.

Lillias White and Kevin Mambo in Fela!
photo by Monique Carboni

How did it feel on Tony night in 1997 when you won the Best Featured Actress in a musical award for The Life? We worked on The Life for a long time. We did lots of backers' auditions in the course of the ten years it took to get it on Broadway. So winning was a dream come true. I did not take it for granted that I would win. People just kept saying to me, "You're going to win the Tony." I said, "Don't tell me that. I just want to do the show."

I still get chills when I think about hearing my name that night. My children were in the audience. My mother was there. I got messages and presents and flowers from all over the world. It was almost like I could feel my friends in their living rooms shouting when they heard my name.

Tell me about Fela!

It's something very different for Broadway. It's exciting to be in a show that's so off the beaten path.

You play the composer's mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a renowned fighter for women's rights in Africa in the 20th century — and a role model for her son. Tell me about her. She was a remarkable woman. She really cared about the people of Africa. She was an educator — very stern and strong-willed. She went up against the powers that be in Nigeria in order to better the lives of Nigerian women, and the women of all Africa. She died tragically. She was thrown from a window in her compound and suffered injuries that she later died from. She got very depressed — she couldn't grasp why this was done to her and her family when all she was trying to do was change things, improve things.

She was also a great influence on Fela. She took him with her to rallies and meetings, and he heard the speeches she made. Her determination probably rubbed off on him.

In the 1970s you were involved in the Black Power movement. Has that experience helped you understand the character you play?

I think that everything that has happened in my life has influenced every role I've played. I certainly understand her spirit as a fighter.

Finally, is there a role you'd like to play that you haven't played, something in the theatre you'd like to do that you haven't yet done?

I'd love to do Mame, Hello, Dolly!, Momma in Gypsy. But I really want to do more drama. I'd love to be in a modern version of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. I will always sing. If God gives me breath I will always sing in a club, in a living room or on the stage — I'll be somewhere in the world singing a song as long as I can. But I'd like to take my career on a different path. I would love to do more drama — in film, on TV and of course onstage.

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