BWW Interview: RENT'S Joanne, Lencia Kebede, Talks The 20th Anniversary Tour At The McCallum Theatre and More
The McCallum Theatre presents the 20th Anniversary Tour of Rent for five performances, Friday, February 8, through Sunday, February 10. In 1996, an original rock musical by a little-known composer opened on Broadway and forever changed the landscape of American theatre. Two decades later, Jonathan Larson's Rent continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences across generations and all over the world. I had the chance to chat with Lencia Kebede who plays Joanne in this current production, as the tour is making its way to The McCallum, about her personal journey and her journey with Rent. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation.
DG: Tell me about you. Where are you from and how did your life take you to a career in professional theatre?
LK: Well, I grew up in L.A. I was born and raised in L.A., the South Bay - Redondo Beach -where I spent most of my childhood. Then I moved up to Sacramento for high school. I've always loved theatre. I've always been singing in choirs and at church. The funny thing is my Mom forced - well, not forced (she laughs) but highly encouraged - my younger brothers and I to perform in our church Christmas shows. I always thought it was such a drag spending all of those hours rehearsing and all this stuff - and then I kinda realized I was good at it and that I enjoyed the story telling aspect of it and the challenge of it in general. So, I continued performing in high school in choir, in musical theatre, in community theatre, youth theatre programs in my area. And once college came I sorta developed what I like to call a dual-passion being that I had an interest in two things - pretty much equally for different reasons - which ended up being my major in college, which was diplomacy and world affairs, or politics and international relations - umm, but while in college I continued singing in my college Glee Club, so choir, we traveled and toured the world and I took dance classes and acting classes and did the musical theatre thing without having to major in it, which was one of the reasons I chose my college, because of the interdisciplinary education, where I could still study politics and be a part of the musical theatre department without majoring in it. And upon graduating, I spent so much time in college working and interning in the political field, but I still felt like something was sort of like missing for me - and after I graduated I sort of decided "okay, I'm gonna take a break from the political world and pursue theatre", professionally. And that's pretty much what I did. I was blessed to work out of school at regional theatre in L.A. - and then I ended up getting to work for Tokyo Disney for about seven months in 2017 - and then I landed Rent in April last year.
DG: Who has made the most significant in your professional career trajectory?
LK: (pause) That's a good one. (Longer pause) I'd have to say, it's my Mother, for sure. She's not in the industry at all, but her understanding of professionalism and how to problem solve - and always encouraging me. She has been my number one cheerleader and I think her support has been so instrumental in my continued perseverance and my continued drive in the industry cause it is cutthroat ,to say the least, and it is very difficult to maintain a positive spirit all the time and she has definitely helped me through it.
DG: What's the best advice you ever received about pursuing a theatrical career?
LK: That is very easy for me. That would definitely have to be from a vocal teacher I worked with once or twice in L.A. and he said to me, " you have to know the difference between opportunity and worth". And I have used that to great lengths in my life. Beyond theatre, But, definitely in theatre. Just because you're not right for a role doesn't mean you're worth any less. It's simply just an opportunity that isn't necessarily aligned with who you are.
DG: Do you remember the first time you ever performed on stage in front of an audience?
LK: Yes ... roughly. In church. I would have to say definitely in church. I just recently connected with the children's choir director (from my church) and she told me she remembered the first song I ever sang, and it sorta Brough back some memories. So, yes, I vaguely remember what it felt like to be up there, for sure.
DG: What are some roles you have played, besides Joanne, that have made a big impact on your life and growth as an artists and/or your favorite roles?
LK: I would have to say the woman I played just a couple of months before I booked RENT which was Dolores Van Cartier in Sister Act. I realized - (long pause) - the great lengths I can go with my ability to understand myself in a character. I think that that was very instrumental in my ability as an actor and it definitely brought me into my journey with RENT with a different set of eyes and a different mental process in developing a character.
DG: How did you get involved in this 20th Anniversary Touring Cast of Rent?
LK: I was actually rehearsing for another show in L.A. and my agent emailed me with a self-tape audition because the audition was in New York and I am based in L.A. So I sent in a video of a couple of Joanne's songs and literally within the next three hours may agent was calling me saying, "They need you in New York. On these dates, Can you be there?". And I said absolutely. This is one of my dream roles. Not even a question. So, I flew out to New York for a week-long of auditions - it was sort of Monday sing the material you sent in on the self-tape, Tuesday a callback and they added another song, then dance auditions ... and then at the end of the week, I finished Thursday, and by Friday my agent called me and said, "You're gonna be playing Joanne". And I said, "what?". I didn't believe her. I said, "are you sure I'm not covering her?". I couldn't even accept it. It was crazy.
DG: How has being a part of this RENT company changed you as a person or an artist?
LK: Joanne is an amwahing person and I think I identify with her in a lot of ways. I think, professionally, in terms of an actress it has pushed me vocally, physically and emotionally and, personally, just working at this level because it's the highest level of theatre I've ever worked at and I think ... understanding the dynamics at this level. This is the first time I have ever played a role where many great people... famous people ... have come before me and so managing my expectations and the creative freedom to build Joanne from the bottom up without comparing myself to previous Joannes. And that's a personal growth thing. Trusting myself and trusting my own journey.
DG: What do you think that you, uniquely, bring to the show and the character of Joanne?
LK: I definitely think other people who have played it have had undertones of this ... but I think the deep love she has in her heart despite how uptight or judgmental she can seem on the outside, the difficulty she has dealing with with the vulnerable emotions of hers - just the positivity and hope as she grows in herself throughout the show I think is unique to me just because if my own loving nature ... did I answer your question?
DG: Yes, you did. How are audiences reacting to this production nationally? And what do you hope they take away from being in the RENT audience?
LK: RENT fans are the most beautiful thing ever. They are so gracious and so loyal and travel with us from city to city, sometimes. Nationally and internationally we've had lots of positive feedback Andy biggest hope that audiences take with them is the concept of perspective and personal strength. You have the power to view your life in whatever way you want to - positive ways or negative ways. You can remember your life any way you want. I hope our audiences leave with that sense of empowerment that I have to power to manifest whatever I want in my life despite any negativity.
DG: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to pursue a career in professional theatre?
LK: Work and persevere and don't let anybody bring you down. Work to learn yourself and learn who YOU are. Who knows what could happen in any casting at any time. The stronger perception of self that you have the better you'll handle this industry. I would say spend most of your time growing as an individual and challenging yourself and you'll never be unsuccessful that way.
Performance dates and times for Rent:
Friday, February 8, 8:00pm
Saturday, February 9, 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday, February 10, 2:00pm & 7:30pm
Tickets for these performances are priced at $125, $105, $85, and $65, depending on performance time and seating. Tickets are available at the Theatre's website at http://www.mccallumtheatre.comwww.mccallumtheatre.com or by calling the McCallum Theatre Box Office at (760) 340-2787.