BWW Interview: Zonya Love - From Bessie to Celie to Effie

The much-beloved musical DREAMGIRLS, which delves into the backstage drama of The Supremes fictional girl group The Dreams, is coming to the Hobby, with Zonya Love tackling the role of Effie White. Today we catch up with Love as she readies for opening night to talk about her journey, the soon-to-be-hers showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," and the important lesson Effie can teach us all.

DREAMGIRLS has pretty much been in production somewhere since it premiered in 1981, and of course there's the film version that won Jennifer Hudson an Oscar. Do you remember the first time you encountered DREAMGIRLS? What was your first impression of the show?

Zonya Love: I was indirectly introduced to DREAMGIRLS. I needed to find a song to use for the Eastern region Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Irene Ryan Competition in 1999. At this point I had no musical theater knowledge or experience. One of my professors at North Carolina A&T State University - my undergraduate program - suggested that I sing "I Am Changing" from DREAMGIRLS. I remember liking the song but that was the extent of my opinion at the time. I didn't see the show until 2009 when the show was performed at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Since then, I have seen it several times and each time, when I hear the first few beats of the cow bell at the beginning of the show, I get goose bumps.

Recently, in our own Houston Press, you said, "I wanted the opportunity to get my hands on Effie and sing her material." What makes Effie such a special character? How do you relate to her?

Zonya Love: Effie is such a relatable character. I see so much of her in me, as well as the people around me. Her struggle is the epitome of the human struggle. She just wants to be appreciated, validated, and most importantly loved. I think that is something that we all strive to accomplish in our time here on this earth. Whether it's something we seek in others or something we seek within ourselves ... I was blessed to play the role of Celie after Fantasia [in THE COLOR PURPLE] on Broadway. While playing that role I learned just how important it is to find love within myself first and then the love from others will come. Playing the role of Effie gives me the opportunity to explore that journey again, finding self-love. Although I am sure I will get something out of taking that journey each night, I am most pleased by the possibility of someone seeing themselves in Effie, taking that journey with me and choosing to appreciate, validate and love themselves.

How do you approach a character like Effie, or like Bessie Smith in THE DEVIL'S MUSIC - characters that are already so iconic (or, in Bessie Smith's case, legendary) that many people already have an idea of them in their head?

Zonya Love: Let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed playing Bessie Smith in THE DEVIL'S MUSIC at Milwaukee Repertory Theater last year and pray for the opportunity to take that journey again.

Now to get to your question, as with any character that I play, whether the character is fictional or non-fictional, a lead or an ensemble member, the first step to any character that I play is for me to get as much information as possible. I read the script, autobiographies, the biographies; I look at pictures; research the time period. I study whatever accessible material available that will inform me of this person or character. This information is the foundation on which I build the character. Once I have the information - the character's truth and essence, I infuse my isms to create a real and honest portrayal. If I start from a place that's honest and true, I trust that the audience will be receptive to my portrayal, even if it is different from what they've seen before.

On a side note, I believe that although fictional, Effie White is a reincarnation of Bessie Smith.

I spoke recently to N'Kenge, who originated the role of Mary Wells in MOTOWN THE MUSICAL, about just how much audiences respond to the music of the Motown era. The music of DREAMGIRLS (from Henry Krieger with lyrics by Tom Eyen) captures much of that same spirit. Why do you think people respond so favorably to this music?

Zonya Love: Although a fictional musical, these songs are extremely reminiscent of the Motown sound so much so that I think it sends people down memory lane as if they were listening to Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, The Supremes or The Temptations. Also, the music is fun. You can't help but to tap your feet, snap your fingers and clap your hands. If you are anything like me, you just might take it a step further and start dancing. The music is vibrant and each song takes you on a journey.

I think that we can safely say pretty much everyone in the audience every night will just be waiting for "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Do you expect to feel the energy and excitement building for that number? Is it exciting? Or is it stressful?!

Zonya Love: I do hope to feel every inkling of the audience's energy throughout the entire show and I am sure my cast feels the same way. I have a feeling that people are coming to the show especially to hear that number but honestly, I am trying not to think about it. My hope is that they will walk away learning more about Effie and why she gets to the point of needing to sing this song. If I can be transparent, yes, there is excitement and stress involved but my goal is to go through the journey and live moment to moment, rather than think about "And I Am Telling You" until I get to it. That helps keep my stress levels down. [Laughs.]

Now a little about you! You've had experience in different mediums and, as TUTS artistic advisor (and DREAMGIRLS director) Sheldon Epps says, you're a triple threat. How do you think this range helps you as a performer?

Zonya Love: A triple threat? Wow! Thanks Sheldon! This could be a long answer, but I will keep it short by saying that I cannot take the credit for my range as a performer. I am so grateful for the people who have influenced me to get to where I am today. In addition to having the capability to sing, act, and "move" (still working on becoming a dancer), where would I be without the professors, directors, musical directors, choreographers, cast mates, friends, family members, the church, and my BIV family who have all in some way planted seeds that have broadened my range as a performer? Each experience that I have presents me with something new to add to my performance arsenal. I am then able to use that new thing during the next show, the next concert, and even the next audition. I honor that and am thankful.

And finally, what do you think is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Zonya Love: Eat more bacon! [Laughs.] No, seriously, I think the best advice that I have ever received and am blessed to pass on to others is to be yourself! We all have an idea of whom we think we should be because we get inundated, whether blatantly or subliminally, with messages and images of who and how we should be. So we live life opposing our natural way of being to appease others or to fit in. Although my father, Zander Johnson Sr., raised me to be me it was only within the last decade that I was truly comfortable and confident living in my beautiful brown skin. And let me tell you, no one can be me better than I can be me. Okkkddrrrr! Snap! Snap!

DREAMGIRLS runs from April 4 through April 16 at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-315-2525 or visit $38.50 to $126.

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