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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Anika Ellis of 'Sweet Charity'

In the book and movie The Color Purple, Celie's life of misery is fated, according to her abusive stepfather and husband, because she is ugly. Yet Anika Ellis says one reason she's exulting over being involved in the Color Purple musical is "I relate to Celie."

Anika Ellis has modeled in national magazines, including Essence. She was in the Miss Maryland pageant during high school. In The Color Purple, currently being workshopped in New York, she understudies Shug, the glamorous chanteuse. And she's now on Broadway as one of the dance-hall hostesses in Sweet Charity, who—according to some critics who dismissed the revival—are much too attractive to be working in a place that one character says is dimly lit so customers can't see the girls' worn looks. How does she relate to ugly Celie?

"Growing up...I could tell you some stories, but I don't think that should go on paper," Ellis says with a laugh. "Let me tell ya: I can relate! I'll just leave it at that." Okay, we won't pry into her adolescent angst. But, there were a number of triumphs too. While a senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., Ellis won a scholarship from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts after a week of performance competition in Miami (she had earned her spot in it through an audition tape). The group also named her a Presidential Scholar based on academics.

That was in 1991. In 2005, Ellis is facing the enviable prospect of going straight from one Broadway musical to another. The Color Purple will open later this year at the Broadway Theater, where the recently nixed Mambo Kings had been slated to run. Ellis was in the world-premiere cast of The Color Purple last fall at Atlanta's ALLIANCE THEATRE, and since it began a monthlong workshop in New York in mid-June, she has been dancing all day long, every day, in one theater or the other. She's in the Purple studio from 10 a.m. until her Broadway call time and has to rehearse Purple on Monday—her one day off from Charity.

As Ellis dashes between shows, all the while pushing through the pain from bone spurs and bulging disks in her back, she's reining in a burning desire for a featured or lead role. "Even though it's great, it's a job, and I'm grateful," she says about being in the ensemble, "when I see the lead go on and I'm in the wings watching that, my heart wants to burst out of my chest because that's where I want to be." As an understudy, she played the title role in Aida and has gone on as Charity's friend Helene about half a dozen times so far (she also sang Helene's part in "Baby Dream Your Dream" at the Tony-week Stars in the Alley concert). When she has played Helene, "it was a thrilling, out-of-body, heavenly experience for me. I felt so free on that stage, and I just know that's where I'm headed."

She knows too not to let her ambitions get the best—or worst—of her. "You have to have patience and faith that that's going to happen, instead of looking at it negatively from the point of view 'I should be there' and not appreciating where you are at that moment," Ellis says. "Everything in my life has its own time, and now is my time to cultivate my talent, to make sure that I've prepared myself."

Her role in Sweet Charity is a little bit déjà vu, as she had performed "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug" when she was in Fosse. She admits it wasn't easy hewing strictly to Wayne Cilento's new choreography for Charity. "There's a certain vocabulary in doing Fosse that never leaves you, it's so detailed," Ellis states. Though Cilento was obviously influenced by Fosse, she describes the difference for "Big Spender": "Because in Sweet Charity the show is so liberating within the context of the choreography, it feels good! It feels fun. Fosse's version was more contained, more internal. You had to express yourself without expressing yourself on your face, so they had to get it with a gesture or something."

No previous experience in a number could have prepared her for the "Frug" she was doing on March 11—when the lights suddenly came up and someone carried star Christina Applegate off stage. Ellis had been totally unaware of Applegate's mishap with a lamppost earlier in the evening. When producers decided later that month not to take the show to Broadway, Ellis immediately put out feelers and started getting calls about other work.

Within the week, though, the New York run was back on. The cancellation, followed by a cancellation of the cancellation, left cast members' heads spinning—and bonded them in a unique way. "We were in one mode—'Gotta get another job, gotta get another job, gotta get another job'—and then when we found out [that Charity would continue] there was a sign of relief, but then there was like, 'I was already going that way, to find another gig. I was there!'" Cast members maintained their determination as they refocused on Charity. "When we found out that we were back on, we kept that same energy and mental forwardness and that same integrity for the show. And that's what really brought us together," Ellis says.

Lesson learned: "Nothing is guaranteed, anything can happen at any time, and you have to be ready and willing to change with it, to go with it." It's that kind of life lesson that Ellis shares with her students at Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn. "I let them know that this is an industry that does play on your psyche and you have to know who you are, what you got, and nobody can take it away from you. Intimidation cannot have any role. I try to give them examples of things that I have experienced."

She also has them thinking about a career in musical theater, though Creative Outlet does mostly ballet and modern dance. "This past year I taught some of the older kids the musicals I've been in," Ellis explains. "I gave them that vocabulary so they'll be familiar with Broadway. You want to be able to step into the concert world, and then go into Broadway, be able to cross over." On Ellis' advice, two of her students auditioned for the Boston production of Aida and got in.

Ellis joined Creative Outlet as a performer in 1995, and during her first few years with the troupe she kept a day job and didn't really dance or audition anywhere else. Instead, she worked as a salesgirl at Bebe and other stores—a period in her life that today prompts her to say "What the hell was I thinking?!" A month after Bebe fired her in 1999, she began auditioning for musicals—with instant success. She turned down The Lion King to do the tour of Fosse, which she was in for about a year and a half. Aida followed soon after, and she stayed with that show for almost three years on tour and on Broadway, dancing in the ensemble and playing the small part of Nehebka.

In addition, Ellis has recorded commercial jingles for the Biography Channel and Monroe College, danced in a Sylvania lightbulb commercial that airs internationally, and provided background vocals for tracks recorded in conjunction with the hit solo album (released this spring) by Rob Thomas, frontman of Matchbox Twenty. She also sang backup for Thomas—the mention of whom makes her say, in a high-pitched voice, "Hot! Hot, hot, hot"—at a Manhattan concert earlier this year. On July 25 at the Cutting Room in Chelsea, she'll sing alongside headliner Rhett George—which she does every night in Charity as part of Daddy's (George's) All-Girl Rhythm Choir on "The Rhythm of Life."

On stage Ellis is a disciple in Daddy's hippieish cult, but in real life she takes religion seriously. "I definitely have a relationship with God," says Ellis, who was raised a Baptist and is descended from a line of South Carolina preachers (her father is a gospel singer). "In this particular industry I don't know how people do it without having a strong faith." Her Playbill bio concludes with the greeting "Namasté!" a Sanskrit term—popular among yoga practitioners—that "salutes the divinity in you." Ellis adds: "I always feel safe and secure knowing that God has proven to me already that I'm going to be taken care of."

Because of her spirituality, performing the last three Decembers in Nativity: A Life Story—a gospel Christmas pageant—has been more than just a job. It's also been an opportunity to perform with several African-American stars, including Phylicia Rashad, Lilias White, Stephanie Mills and BeBe Winans. "They were like the aunties or the big sisters that I always wanted. We would have a ball in the dressing room, laugh until my gut was hurting," Ellis says. "They nurtured me, 'cause I was pretty much the youngest. I felt so at home. And the year I was also doing Aida, they knew that I was juggling both, and everyone was so understanding and comforting." Inspired by a Langston Hughes play, Nativity is a faithful, musical telling of the birth of Jesus, in which Ellis has danced the role of Mary (sung by another performer).

There has been a bittersweet edge to Ellis' professional success: Her mother—who had put her in dance classes when she was 3 to give her an outlet for her excessive energy— passed away in 1997. "She was like my rock," Ellis says. "She was the one pushing me in the beginning. So it's kind of difficult in going to the next stages of my career and my life not to have her there in the audience, rooting me on."

Ellis now considers herself a mother—to her year-old terrier Sadie, whom she adopted last November. "They show you who you are very quickly, in dealing with things," Ellis says about what she's learned from the pup. "In the beginning, trying to get acclimated with her, it showed me that it's very easy to take things out on an animal or a child or anyone that is not capable of defending themselves. She taught me such a big lesson: When you feel yourself getting angry or rushing, be more patient. She's taught me how to be more loving, because she is loving unconditional to me." As if she's not busy enough, Ellis goes back and forth to her home in Brooklyn between performances on matinee days to tend to Sadie.

Photos, from top: Anika is all smiles despite a hectic schedule; Anika, far left, and her Fandango cohorts say "Hey, Big Spender!"; Joyce Chittick and Anika performing at Stars in the Alley. [Photo credits: Adrienne Onofri; Paul Kolnik; Ben Strothmann]

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Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels (read more...)

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