Checking In With… Tony Winner Leslie Uggams, Star of Hallelujah, Baby!, King Hedley II, Roots, Thoroughly Modern Millie, More

Interview   Checking In With… Tony Winner Leslie Uggams, Star of Hallelujah, Baby!, King Hedley II, Roots, Thoroughly Modern Millie, More
"We are at a moment in America where we can finally make meaningful, lasting, systemic change."
Leslie Uggams Joseph Marzullo/WENN

As the temporary shutdown of Broadway and theatres around the world continues, Playbill is reaching out to some of our favorite artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.

The series continues with Leslie Uggams, who won her Tony Award for her Broadway debut in Hallelujah, Baby! and was also Tony-nominated for her work opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell in August Wilson's King Hedley II. The stage and screen star, who boasts one of the richest, most exciting voices in musical theatre, was most recently seen on Broadway opposite James Earl Jones in the Broadway revival of On Golden Pond, and her Main Stem credits also include Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes, Jerry's Girls, Blues in the Night, and Her First Roman. Uggams earned an Emmy Award for her work on television's Fantasy and appeared as Kizzy Reynolds in the groundbreaking and award-winning miniseries Roots. Among her other numerous screen credits are recent appearances in Empire, New Amsterdam, Deadpool 2, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Deadpool, Nurse Jackie, and The Good Wife.

Leslie Uggams at work at home
Leslie Uggams at work at home

What is your typical day like now?
Groundhog Day! Get up late, skip breakfast, eat lunch, call friends, video chat with family, watch the news, make dinner, stream a movie, binge a series, read, go to bed, rinse, repeat. Oh, and clean. Lots and lots of cleaning! I don’t dare go out. My husband will run to the bank, and that’s about it. We order our groceries online and get the occasional take out delivered. On the one hand, living in NYC is hard because we’re stuck in an apartment with no deck or patio. On the other hand, we are blessed with lots of restaurants and delivery services.

On that note, I absolutely must extend my deepest gratitude to all those essential workers who are putting themselves at risk so that I and my family can stay safe at home. And to all you people getting back out there now that businesses are opening up again, wear your masks. It’s not for you. It’s for the healthcare workers, first responders, grocery clerks, restaurant workers, delivery service providers, public transit employees, pharmacy staff, and family members you see at home who may be extra vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions or compromised immune systems. Wearing your mask is an act of caring. Think of yourself as a superhero determined not to be a super spreader.

Watch Tony Winner Leslie Uggams on Stars in the House

Leslie Uggams in <i>Throughly Modern Millie.</i>
Leslie Uggams in Throughly Modern Millie.

What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
Well, we are in the midst of a landmark cultural and political shift right now that should absolutely encourage everyone to read up on Black history. Start at 1619 and move forward to present day. Dedicate a good portion of your streaming time to documentaries, films, and series that enlighten and demonstrate the undeniable need for the Black Lives Matter movement. I recently watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and while it’s a very tough movie to watch, it tells some brutal truths that must be learned—about the compounded trauma experienced by Black men fighting, and reliving, the Vietnam War. It asks the question: Will any amount of reparations be enough to repay the debt owed for 401 years of bondage, oppression, and violence? Watch it with your family, then discuss.

Others are the Michelle Obama documentary, Becoming; Ava DuVernay’s 13th and When They See Us; Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son; the original Alex Haley’s Roots. It’s important to hear the hard truths from Black voices, not filtered through the White Savior trope. That’s why I’m proud to be a part of the PSA that was just released. We need more Black artists writing, performing, directing, and producing Black stories on the main stage—and not just in February!

Of course, we also need some lighter fare to help us escape these dark times. So, for pure laughs, Grace and Frankie and Schitt’s Creek are my favorite go-tos.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams in King Hedley II.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams in King Hedley II. Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus

What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation?
Gosh, even though we are all experiencing this communal grief, anxiety, fear, depression, and outrage, we also are processing this collective trauma in very personal ways. First, I think it’s important to understand that there is no right or wrong way to be feeling, so be gentle with yourself. We can only take care of today, so try not to worry about things beyond our control. It also helps to acknowledge those strange thoughts and memories that seem to creep into our consciousness out of nowhere. And if everything starts to seem overwhelming, seek help. Doctors and therapists are doing telemedicine. You are not alone. Also, definitely reach out to friends and family regularly, whether you are living with them or living alone. I call folks every day, and I video chat with my children and granddaughter. We have to overcome the physical isolation through other forms of contact. It’s amazing how comforting it is to hear a friend’s voice or see a loved one’s face on the screen.

I also meditate and highly recommend it. I use a phone app that guides me through the process. Like so many others, I find it difficult to fall asleep. By listening to a sleep meditation, I often fall asleep before the session has ended.

Finally, take breaks from the news (I really should take my own advice on this one)! Listen to music, go for a walk if you can do so safely, take a drive if you have a car. Fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and a change of scenery can be very refreshing and just the lift you need.

Hallelujah, Baby!_Broadway_Production Photos_1967_X_HR
Cast of Hallelujah, Baby! Friedman-Abeles/New York Public Library

How are you keeping your creative juices flowing?
I have been so very lucky in that regard! The ah-mazing Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley introduced me to the wonderful world of Stars in the House by having me as their special guest on June 1 (aka Leslie Uggams Day), and again on June 2! They also invited me to play Madame Arcati in a live reading of Blithe Spirit on Plays in the House. The brilliant Schele Williams directed, and we brought this old chestnut back to life for the 21st century by doing it with a fully diverse cast. Unfortunately, some troublesome poltergeists messed with my WiFi the first time we went live, but after a few weeks of upgrades and overall tech wizardry by my daughter, I was ready for round two. And it was magical! I’m telling you right now—when the lights of Broadway are back on, this same cast must do a revival with Schele at the helm. I mean, Merle Dandridge, Angel Desai, Montego Glover, William Jackson Harper, Kendyl Ito, and Thom Sesma. It was delicious!

I’ve also installed a sound studio in my closet (!) in order to do voiceover work for a new Netflix animated series scheduled for release in 2021. And, I just finished looping a scene for The Ravine, a wonderful new mystery-thriller based on the popular novel by Robert Pascuzzi. Next, I’m just waiting to hear when it will be safe to return to the set of Dotty and Soul, a movie we were filming in Oklahoma when the shutdown was ordered. Truly, I am very grateful that I have been able to keep busy. The walls of a New York City apartment can start to close in after three months at home!

James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in <i>On Golden Pond</i>
James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in On Golden Pond Photo by Scott Suchman

Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
Well, we were scheduled to open Blue at the Apollo on Mother’s Day. Hopefully, we will still be able to do it at some point. We had a virtual table read via video chat not too long ago, and it’s pretty amazing how well it clicked, all things considered. Given the monumental importance of the Black Lives Matter movement at this point in time, I think it would be very meaningful to have Blue be one of the first plays produced upon Broadway’s return.

What organization(s) would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
It goes without saying that theatre, film, and TV have come to a screeching halt, and artists on stage or screen and off are out of work all over the country. So, The Actors Fund is the first that comes to mind. Traditional unemployment insurance doesn’t cover gig workers, and the PUA (special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) program is full of loopholes that make it very hard to qualify. The Actors Fund is a godsend and fills a huge gap.

People should also support the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU. These essential organizations work tirelessly for the rights of minorities and the underserved. I also think that the work of Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight is critical in registering people to vote and in fighting against the heinous voter suppression efforts that target Black and Brown communities especially.

Finally, Black Broadway artists have launched two very important initiatives in the past two weeks. We See You, White American Theater, and Black Theatre United are working to advance diversity efforts and inclusionary practices in theatres across the country. We are at a moment in America where we can finally make meaningful, lasting, systemic change. It’s going to take a lot of learning, a lot of discussions, a lot of advocacy, and a lot of action. But I feel a sea change coming with these protests. We in the Broadway community need to be joining in leading that charge.

READ: Checking In With… Tony Winner Tony Shalhoub, Star of The Band's Visit, Monk, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, More

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