Dallas — Denise Lee’s third Dallas Cabaret Festival is downsizing a bit this year, moving from the Women’s Building in Fair Park to the much more intimate underground, lake-level space at the Bath House Cultural Center, July 5-7. But it’s not downsizing in talent. You could argue that 2018 has some of the biggest names so far, including Saturday’s headliner T. Oliver Reid, currently starring in the Tony Award-winning revival of Once On This Island.
Or, in possibly the biggest coup since the festival begin, opening night will feature Tony Award-nominated actress Saycon Sengbloh, whose Broadway résumé includes the original runs of Aida, The Color Purple, Fela!, and the Tupac musical Holler If You Hear Me, plus a standby for Elphaba in Wicked. She was Tony-nominated for Eclipsed, the play by Danai Gurira (Michonne on The Walking Dead)—for the off-Broadway production before it transferred to Broadway, she won an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award for that role. She was also off-Broadway in the Signature Theatre’s revivals of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Red Letter Plays (Fucking A and In the Blood) and Katori Hall’s Hurt Village. On TV, she had a recurring role on the hit Scandal, as Angela Webster.
Local audiences may remember her in the world premiere of Will Power’s Stagger Lee at the Dallas Theater Center in 2015, which also featured Denise Lee. On Thursday, the Cabaret Festival is themed “Not Your Mam’s Broadway,” and includes local performers Angie McWhirter, Jodi Wright, Denise Lee and Walter Lee, with music direction by Norman Williams.
Saycon Sengbloh, who was born in Atlanta to an American mother and a Liberian father, will make an appearance that night as a special guest. We chatted with her to talk about cabaret, what she’ll perform, and her career.
You can buy DCF tickets here.
TheaterJones: You have quite the NYC and regional theater résumé. How did it work out so you could participate in the DCF?
Saycon Sengbloh: I met Denise on the show Stagger Lee when I was in Dallas that year; she was in the show as well and I just thought she was a dynamic amazing talent! We stayed in contact here and there, and she called me up one day and asked me to participate in the festival.
You're not doing a full show, so what kind of material will you do? Do you have a full cabaret show that you've performed?
We will be doing some popular songs from the musical theater and I will also add some soulful songs that are also popular as well. I love for everyone to be surprised, that is my preference!
I have a show that I do that features what I like to call Vintagepopsoul, which is also my Instagram name! Being a fan of Tina Turner and Martha Reeves inspired that. That’s me, Saycon Sengbloh singing lead on “Dancing in the Streets” on the Motown the Musical Original Broadway Cast Recording. This style of music resonates with my Southern and soulful upbringing and love for stars of yesterday. In the recent years I’ve been in a show about West African artist Fela Kuti and Caribbean artist Bob Marley and I am currently working on a new set featuring my love for music from people of color throughout the world and music that is inspired by my African roots as well. Tropical Glamour is coming!
What are the challenges of cabaret, where you have to keep the audience engaged through stories and banter between songs?
Honestly I think that cabaret shows are wonderful. And people who go to see them arrive ready to have a wonderful time. In those moments you have an audience of people who have come to see you and learn more about you, and they seem to want to hear the stories from your career and your experiences, the cabaret audience is the most captive audience! There’s no challenge in that!
The space you're performing in here is tiny. Is that preferable with a performance like this, because of the intimacy?
Intimate spaces are always nice. I like to adapt, whether the space is large or small, and give the people a great show!
You've done some terrific musicals on Broadway (Wicked, The Color Purple, Fela!, Motown the Musical, Aida, etc.), and have played incredible roles in plays written by black women. What did you learn about craft and theater from writers Katori Hall, Danai Gurira and Suzan-Lori Parks?
I must honestly say that the shows I did with those wonderful writers were extremely impactful in my life and my career as an actress. Time constraints and events never gave me enough time to spend with those women; they each have a lot on their plates. I did Hurt Village by Katori and she is now developing a TV series and wrote a play about Tina Turner. Danai wrote the Tony-nominated Eclipsed, and I got my own Tony nomination from that play and she is a part of the huge Marvel Black Panther films. Suzan-Lori Parks wrote In the Blood and I played Hester, one of my most challenging roles to date, a role that changed my life and my approach to life forever!
Is there an upcoming theater performance you can talk about?
I just returned from Aspen, Colorado, where I was a part of the Aspen ideas Festival, an important gathering of journalists, teachers, and think piece makers. I was one of six Broadway performers presenting moving powerful scenes from culturally significant plays .You never know where the chips may fall but I have been a part of a lot of developmental projects before they go to Broadway.
A recent one is The Secret Life of Bees [by Lynn Nottage and Duncan Sheik.] We’ll see what happens with that. But people can also hear my voice on the new Westworld Mobile App as the matron of the saloon, Rose!
» You can read more about the Cabaret Festival and the line-up, with info on tickets and beneficiaries here. In the interest of disclosure, a portion of the proceeds from the Thursday night concert will benefit the new non-profit Metropolitan Arts Media, which now runs TheaterJones.com.