Interview: Deon Releford-Lee of TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL at Ohio Theatre

Releford-Lee enjoys playing the roles most might steer away from

By: Apr. 24, 2024
Interview: Deon Releford-Lee of TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL at Ohio Theatre
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Interview: Deon Releford-Lee of TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL at Ohio Theatre

Deon Releford-Lee never met Tina Turner. Yet after spending so much time in TINA: THE Tina Turner MUSICAL, Releford-Lee remembers an incredible sense of loss when he heard Turner passed away May 24, 2023 in Küsnacht, Switzerland.

“I remember reaching out to the people I knew who were on tour with this show,” Releford-Lee said in a telephone interview from Appleton, Wis. “I don’t know how to describe it, sorry. I was just very, very sad.

“She felt like a family member, like someone I don’t see often enough but she was always going to be there at the family reunion. She felt like a distant cousin or an Auntie.”
Releford-Lee plays Ike Turner in TINA: THE Tina Turner MUSICAL which dances its way through Columbus May 7-12 at the Ohio Theatre (39 E. State Street in downtown Columbus). Ari Groover and Zurin Villanueva split the role of Tina Turner, each playing four of the eight performances a week while Roz White (Zelma Bullock), Wydetta Carter (Gran Georgeanna), and Sarah Bockel (Rhonda) all play major roles. The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts announced the musical was coming to Columbus April 3 last year, 50 days before Turner’s passing.

If there was an artist worthy of a musical, it is Turner, who won 12 Grammys and is one of three women to make it into the Rock-And-Roll Hall of Fame twice – as a duo with Ike Turner (1991) and as a solo performer (2021). Carole King (inducted as a writer with ex-husband Gerry Goffin in 1990 and as a solo artist in 2021) and Stevie Nicks (1998 as a part of Fleetwood Mac and 2019 as a solo artist) are the other female two-time inductees.

Written by Olivier Award-winning playwright Katori Hall, the musical includes most of the icon’s songs and takes the audience through Turner’s harrowing journey through poverty, abuse, obscurity, and eventually her accession to the throne as the “Queen of Rock-and-Roll.”

Releford-Lee grew up watching Angela Bassett’s and Laurence Fishburne’s Oscar-nominated performances in the 1993 Turner bio pic, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

During his stints on Broadway and the national tour with the musical, Releford-Lee has played every role available to him in the show. However, taking on the role of Ike Turner, the singer’s abusive first husband, has been his greatest challenge.

“People know me as this light, fun person,” Releford-Lee said. “They have a hard time seeing me play a character like that because it’s so different from (who I am).

“I want people to know (Ike) was a person and to recognize some of his contributions to music. He was a trailblazer in a time when it wasn’t easy to be a black man.”

Releford-Lee was able to channel his experience of being racially profiled in Omaha during one of the tour’s stops into his performance.

“Having that experience helps me tell Ike’s story as authentically as I can,” Releford-Lee said. “Focusing on those human parts of Ike help me relate to him.”

He paused and his voice then dropped an octave for added emphasis, “That does not justify or excuse the things Ike did. Those things were deplorable.”

From the time he started acting, Releford-Lee has gravitated toward edgier roles.

“(When I first started acting) nobody knew what to do with me,” he said. “I took a liking to playing characters other people didn't like to play. I was willing to do everything and throw enough things at the wall to see what would stick.”

Finding TINA: THE Tina Turner MUSICAL is something that stuck for Releford-Lee. One of his favorite parts of the tour is seeing how Turner’s music still touches people.

Tina Turner is a huge iconic star and when people hear this music they get nostalgic,” he said. “They remember a time in their life where they heard the music for the first time and it takes them back. People come to the stage door, cry, and share their testimonies. That's just beautiful.”


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