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BWW Interview: Patrice Covington Talks About Playing Erma Franklin on GENIUS: ARETHA

BroadwayWorld had the pleasure of speaking to Patrice about her role, her research, and how she defines "genius."

BWW Interview: Patrice Covington Talks About Playing Erma Franklin on GENIUS: ARETHA

Broadway star Patrice Covington will play Erma Franklin - the legendary older sister of Aretha - in the upcoming NatGeo series "Genius: Aretha," starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role!

From 20th Television and Imagine Television Studios, GENIUS: ARETHA premieres Sunday, March 21, at 9/8c on National Geographic. Episodes will be available the next day on Hulu, culminating in a celebration of Aretha Franklin's birthday, with all eight episodes available to stream by Thursday, March 25.

Covington starred on Broadway in "The Color Purple." Her other stage roles include "The Heart of Rock & Roll," "Motown the Musical," "The Book of Mormon," and "Dreamgirls."

BroadwayWorld had the pleasure of speaking to Patrice about her role, her research, and how she defines "genius."

Read the whole interview below!

Can you tell me how you got involved with Genius: Aretha? What was the audition process like?

Absolutely. I'd done many little stints with many singers. I was on tour with Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera in 2020. And while I was in Vegas with Christina Aguilera, I got this self tape audition, which I already quite used to doing at the time.

But the timing of this particular audition was not great, because Christina Aguilera runs a really tight ship. We had rehearsal all the time, and it was just very hectic.. I had no idea how I would ever get the audition done in time and who was going to help me with it. Because, you know, a group of band members is not the same as having people in theater around you.

Luckily, my fellow background singer Matt Cusson's wife is an actress, and she had trained him up on how to do a self tape. So he helped me and we knocked it out! We got it done super quick. It was probably the fastest I've ever done a tape. I didn't have time to really watch it back and analyze it. I just sent in what I had. And it's truly just a wonderful example that what is or you will never pass you by. I am really, really grateful.

What is it like to tour the country with somebody like Stevie Wonder or Christina Aguilera compared to filming a TV show or performing in a musical?

Stevie Wonder is a global legend. Nobody doesn't know who Stevie Wonder is. I bet babies know who Stevie Wonder is. And it was just wonderful to learn and be guided, and, more than anything, to have my my talent affirmed by him.

The opportunity to sing with him came at a time where I was very discouraged in my career. I just wasn't booking. I was like, okay. I need a job, I need money.

And I actually had plans - I was gonna go be an agent. And then somebody called and said, "Stevie Wonder would like to meet you." I was like, "Meet me for what?!"

And so, you know, when I finally got to him, he said, you know, "You're supposed to do this." He had no idea that I was going through at the time. And he said, "You're supposed to be in this industry. You are extremely talented. You belong here."

So you went from this gig where you're working alongside a legend to one where you're playing a legend. What's it like to play a real person?

I love telling the stories of legends that. It's happened to me quite often, with Motown the Musical and with Stevie and now with Aretha and Erma Franklin.

It is risky, you know, because you want to get it right and you want to make sure they're portrayed in the best light that they would want to be portrayed in, but also you want to tell the truth.

I particularly loved playing Erma Franklin because she's Aretha's big sister. And I'm a big sister in real life, and I know how much influence I have on my little sister. And so it was wonderful to learn how much Erma Franklin influenced her little sister. Areth is the legend that we know and love, but Erma had such a big influence on her life, her music, and her career.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Erma while you were playing her?

So there's this song that we all know and love, and nobody has any idea that it was her song. The song is "Piece of My Heart," which we all know by Janis Joplin. But Erma Franklin actually originated the song.

What did you do to prepare for the role? Were you able to study interviews and recordings?

You know, there is not a whole lot. There's a little but on YouTube University, I got what I could from there. Some people have done a few just like stories, kind of like video dissertations, if you will, on YouTube about her. I watched all of those, and I googled some things.

I had a wonderful influence, who unfortunately passed away, in Allee Willis, who was the lyricist for The Color Purple. We became very close - she's the one who told me about the Janis Joplin song, actually. And then, you know, she's a Detroit girl as well. And she just heard a lot about what the community felt about the Franklin family, and how people were influenced by them through their activism and through gospel music and Motown music.

Where in your history has Aretha Franklin popped up? Were you inspired by her coming up as an artist?

OK, well, when I was a little girl, you know, I would hear Aretha Franklin on Saturday mornings and then get up and do the chores. But her music is truly just embedded in the fabric of my life.

You know, music is so powerful. We can go back and remember the first times - a family reunion, or a concert, or a party where there was an Aretha Franklin song playing.

And then, of course, there's "Respect." You know, it's always cute to see a little girl singing "Respect." It's always in some kind of musical revue. So I've always been aware. But one of my biggest memories is she had a gospel album, which is to date the best-selling gospel album of all time. And my father was a minister of music. So I was very, very familiar with her gospel album.

What's what's something that surprised you as you got to recreate the collection of these really famous voices?

Not really surprising, but it was intriguing and exciting to do the background vocals because Caroline and Erma - her sisters - were the background singers for most of the records. So another kind of full circle for me was singing background for these people and then getting into this TV show where I'm still singing background.

What are you most excited for audiences to see when they get to watch the series?

I am excited for people to see that it was more than just "Respect." And the way she developed music - she couldn't read music at all, but she could play so many instruments and teach other people how to play their instruments.

And beyond her music to just see that she was an activist and she had this way of making music activism.

How would you define "genius"?

It's unexplainable. It's kind of like the Seven Wonders where, you know, it's just God. There's no other explanation.How can they have this talent? How can we have this level of intelligence? There's no way to explain it by book. I think it just means God-given and unexplainable.

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