Although she never performed on any area stages in North Texas—aside from high school, that is—Stephanie Umoh is proud to call this area home, and it is the place where she developed a love for theater. She's one of those rare talents who moved to New York and instantly started getting stage work, which led to playing the role of Sarah in the recent Broadway revival of Ragtime, which closed on Jan. 10. She was just 23 when the show opened (she turned 24 on Jan. 9).
The turn resulted in mixed to favorable reviews, with Ben Brantley of The New York Times, perhaps unfairly, comparing her and co-star Quentin Earl Darrington, as Coalhouse, to the actors who originated those roles in 1998, the great Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Brantley wrote: "Mr. Darrington and Ms. Umoh don’t have that commanding presence, though they’re more than adequate."
TheaterJones had been trying to score an interview with her for a while, and we finally got this e-mail Q&A after Umoh's first major gig in New York was over. Don't worry, you can bet you'll see her in something big soon.
TJ: What schools did you attend in Texas?
SU: I was born and raised in Lewisville, and lived there all of my life. I attended Hedrick Elementary and Middle School, then Lewisville High School.
Did you do shows at any Dallas/Fort Worth theaters when you were here?
I auditioned for a few things in Dallas, but I was never cast. I started really late, as a sophomore in high school, and I was too busy with school to really commit to anything outside of school.
When/how did you fall in love with theater?
The first musical I ever auditioned for was Little Shop of Horrors my sophomore year of high school. I was terrified! I was cast as “The Bag Lady” who does the awesome solo that opens up the show. Until then, I had never really sung anything in public, so you can imagine how terrified I was. Eventually in rehearsal, I had to sing in front of the entire cast and I remember exactly how I felt when I was finished. I felt like I was born again and finally being “the real me!” It was the most amazing feeling in the world to finally come of out my shell and begin to let my light shine because for so long I wouldn’t allow it to. It was also during a time when I was sort of experiencing an identity crisis―so I found refuge in theater and in performing because I was allowed to be myself.
How did you end up in New York?
Directly after high school, I attended The Boston Conservatory for college. I had never even been to the East Coast before and my family didn’t really have the time or money to visit beforehand, so I was taking a huge risk. The Boston Conservatory accepted me with a scholarship, so that was a huge incentive. I packed up my things in July of 2004, and headed eastward. In college, I began doing professional theater in and around Boston and slowly began to make a name for myself in the Boston theater scene. I wanted to make sure I was always performing, so when I wasn’t doing a show professionally, I was involved in the school shows. I kept myself quite busy between performing and classwork, but I figured working hard is the best preparation for New York City―my next destination. The Boston Conservatory puts together a showcase for the graduating seniors. The senior showcase is a huge introduction into New York. Casting directors, talent agencies, etc., are all in attendance. It is a great opportunity to find and sign with an agent. I was fortunate enough to sign with an agency that was the perfect match for me, Nicolosi & Co. I am still with them. After graduation I packed up my things, rented a U-Haul with a friend, and moved to New York.
Did you have any gigs in New York before landing Ragtime?
I did a few minor things in New York before Ragtime. My first gig was a show called Bonnie and Clyde―written by Rick Crom and Hunter Foster. It was done at the annual New York Musical Theater Festival and I was cast as an ensemble member. From there, I went on to do a workshop of a show called Tin Pan Alley Rag with Roundabout Theater Company, in which I played one of the leading roles, a character named Freddie. That workshop was a big deal for me because I was working with director Stafford Arima (director of Altar Boyz) and actors John Lloyd Young (Tony winner for Best Actor in Jersey Boys), Michael Boatman (from the TV series Spin City), and Peter Freedman (who created the role of Tateh in the original Broadway cast of Ragtime). That show was picked up and headed to off-Broadway for a limited run. After Tin Pan Alley Rag, I was cast as Sheila in Hair at Connecticut Repertory Theater and worked with director Gabe Barre, who directed The Wild Party off-Broadway. Shortly after that, Bonnie and Clyde was doing another workshop and I was asked to be a part of it. This time, I would be working with Sutton Foster, Debra Monk, Mark Kudish, Chris Seiger and Will Swenson. At the time, four of them were nominated for Tonys so I was honored to even be in the same room as them. That was a big deal for me. After that, I did two other workshops, Luck! And Time After Time. Somewhere in between those two workshops is when I was cast in Ragtime.
Tell me about that audition.
The audition process for Ragtime was pretty typical. My first audition was for the casting director, the director and the music director. I was nervous, but I knew the material extremely well, so that allowed me to sort of relax. They worked with me in the room and gave me a few things to work on for next time, and I got a called back! I knew the next audition would be the most important one because they wanted to see if I had made any adjustments from the previous time and they wanted to see if I had made any progress. My second audition was with the casting director, director, music director, Lynn Ahrens, and a few producers. Again, I was nervous but I wanted it, so I wasn’t going to let silly nerves get in my way. The second time around was probably my best audition. It went very well and I became very confident that I had a real shot at it. They called me back for a final call and all of the same people were in the room, but add Stephen Flaherty and more producers. This time, the pressure was on. I had to prove to even more people that I was the one that they wanted. I finished the material and the director (Marcia Milgram Dodge) approached me and asked me if I would like to play Sarah in Ragtime on Broadway. No kidding, right there in the room. I was in disbelief for a few seconds but then I finally came to and, obviously, said “yes!”
Was it daunting to take on the role originated by one of the most acclaimed and awarded Broadway actresses of our time, Audra McDonald?
Yes. After I accepted their offer and signed my contract, it began to dawn on me what I had agreed to do. To me, recreating a role Audra McDonald has done in the theater world is like someone recreating a famed Whitney Houston song. I felt uneasy for a long time and very unsure of myself about the task I had agreed to take on. Over time, I realized that this production of Ragtime has a completely different meaning then it did 12 years ago―new show, new audience, new time, new meaning. I am also my own actress and my interpretation would be completely different than Audra’s was. She is a brilliant actress and I have always looked to her for inspiration, but it was important for me to be confident in my interpretation and to know that I was chosen for a reason.
What have you learned from the brief run of that musical, about being a working actress?
I’ve learned that just as easily as something is given to you, it can be taken away. I have learned that although critics are highly respected, they are only one person’s opinion―the best thing as an artist is to stay away from reviews, good or bad. I have also learned more about the business aspect of Broadway and let me tell ya, they don’t call it “show business” for nothing.
What was it like when the producers told the cast that the show was going to close?
It was almost like being told that you’ve lost a friend. To be so passionate about something you’ve helped create, and then have it taken away from you with no pity, is heart wrenching. We are all walking away from this experience with full hearts and pride―no one can ever take that away.
What has been your favorite part of working on Ragtime?
The cast. I was so fortunate to work with such a loving and passionate group of people and Ragtime has by far been the best theatrical experience for me. I have made lifelong friends and I will always consider them to be my family. I cannot even express how much love and support existed between us. If nothing else, I could always rely on the presence of greatness that existed in all of us.
Your mother is white and your father is Nigerian. Have there been any challenges with being a bi-racial actress trying to find work in New York?
I haven’t run into any specific challenges, but I know that there are and always will be challenges for the black actor. Some of the common ones being heightened competition and the lack of opportunity for work. Fortunately, there are several multi-cultural shows currently on Broadway (Fela, In the Heights, Race, Memphis, etc.) so there is great opportunity and plenty of room for diversity right now on Broadway.
What’s next for you?
There have been no direct offers yet. Business is still just a little bit slow right now since we’re just out of the holidays. I am currently working toward a few things, but nothing is promised and competition is stiff.
Do you want to stick with stage for now, or branch out into film/TV?
I am open to anything. My first love is and always will be theater and I would like to establish my roots here in NYC and work towards growing as a stage artist. I don’t have any experience in TV/film and it’s completely foreign to me, but I do plan on breaking into that industry one day―hopefully sooner than later.
What do you see yourself doing in five years?
In five years, I see myself doing something that makes me happy―that’s the most important thing to me. Whether it be on stage or on camera, as long as I’m proud of the work I am doing, happy, growing, creating, and inspiring people, then I feel fulfilled.