The International Cast on Broadway Series – Oneika Phillips
Photos taken by Roberto Araujo for The Ensemblist
The Ensemblist and TheatreArtLife got together to find out which Broadway cast members are not from the USA. In this International Cast on Broadway Series, we talk to those who have come from all corners of the world to perform in NYC. We ask them about their work, their life and the path they took to living the Broadway dream. This is Oneika Phillips, born in Guyana and raised in Grenada.
Oneika, tell us what your heritage means to you and how that is manifested in your craft?
Heritage to me is my birthright. Mine is one of rebellion, revelry, struggle, celebration, connectivity, rhythm, color, nature and resolve. It is wholly West Indian and my inheritance.
My parents – Guyanese and Trinidadian – met in Jamaica at The University of the West Indies, birthed me in Guyana, raised on Grenada. My paternal grandmother, a Grenadian, lost her Trinidadian husband when my father was 5 years old. She hoisted her britches, caught a boat back to Grenada from Trinidad and raised her five children in the mountains of the island with the help of her sister.
Before this, are my ancestors who were forced into the brutality that was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the indentured caste system. Despite schemes to rip apart, overwork, undo, torture, destroy… I am here. My presence on the planet is an INSISTENCE of their survival and thriving against every and any odd. Because of this fortitude – this absolute determination through generations – I am here. So when I say inheritance, I mean that sincerely.
From the North of the archipelago to the South we are a uniquely African, Amerindian, East Indian, and European tapestry of histories both fortunately and unfortunately woven together. We are a mural of survivors turned thrivers. This lineage of cross-hatching cultures creates an alchemy that is uniquely Caribbean. It resonates in the rhythm of the music, the taste of the food, the lilt and song of our accents, the way we interact, the way we dance, the way we persevere.
There are aspects to that heritage that in the past creative teams may have encouraged be made subtle or removed completely. Today however, there is artistic push back from people of color to have those characteristics moved from the fringe to the forefront. So, I absolutely thrive in situations where my craft calls for my authentic self, one way or another.
My heritage manifests in my craft through the way I present on stage, the singularity and strength of my movement, my contributions in the rehearsal space, my interaction with and impact on cast members, my carriage, my poise, my speech, my discipline. It also manifests in my impatience, temperament, competitiveness and ambition. My very willingness to stay in the business of 99 “nos” to 1 “yes”, is rooted in the tenacity inherited from my parents and my ancestry.
My craft spans acting, singing, dancing, speaking, and more recently writing. I think eventually this is where my heritage and culture will ring loudest: using the written word and storytelling to reflect my cultural tapestry, history, folklore and fantasy. Stay tuned!
If you were to pick the highlight of your career thus far from a personal development point of view, what would that be and why?
The most thrilling highlight of my career was earning my first Broadway show. That story itself is an immigration chronicle. I almost lost the contract because, at the time, I was not a permanent resident but held an artist’s visa (the elusive O-1). That generational tenacity tho! There was no way on God’s Blue Earth I was going to achieve my lifelong dream, only to lose it to paperwork.
I created a case for exception with Actors’ Equity because both the show and I were/are exceptional. I wanted to represent myself because I knew my story best. With insistence I took the case all the way to top Union representatives. I still have the emails.
A quote from one reads “To get here I was not simply invited, but attended an audition that hosted over 100 women. The absolutely unique requirements of the show itself, not to mention my ability to understudy a lead role, speaks to the specificity and singularity of my talent, and stands as a strong reason as to why I was hired. I was fairly and duly selected at an open call and slated as the best in the room and the best asset to the production.” (Tying back to ancestry, heritage and innate fortitude). Against all odds, my argument to the Union – along with my deep, sincere commitment to the work – won me allowance to retain my contract, understudy 2 lead roles, swing 12 tracks, and be an integral factor in this historical production.
The show was Fela! This musical was before its time. It was ahead of the pack, so very brave and absolutely unparalleled. An African story told by Black bodies led by a Black choreographer and director (Bill. T. Jones). It was a picture of how bold and expansive Broadway can be when it motivates for diversity and inclusion of stories that are usually marginalized but deserve the space to be told. That was a hell of a season: Fela!, West Side Story, Fences, Memphis, La Cage, A Free Man of Color, American Idiot, Scottsboro Boys – Representation was sparkling.
The indelible impact on personal development includes 5 lessons:
- Defend what you know you are worth and what you deserve by being prepared and organized.
- Representation matters. There is an excitement, inspiration and electric spark ignited when people see themselves in unexpected places and spaces. We, people of color, must insist our stories not only be told but are worth investing in.
- Fearlessness is a concept not a reality. What has become more important to me than being fearless is being *brave*. Bravery is forging forward despite inevitable fear. Cause, let me tell you, live theatre will constantly throw your heart into anxious, nerve-wracking moments, especially as an understudy or a swing.
- Your dreams come true can be wonderfully exhilarating and absolutely exhausting. Don’t believe the hype that if you do what you love you never work a day in your life. Trust me, you work even harder at it, because you give a damn.
- Read your damn contract!
Tell us about your path from Grenada to New York City. What was your first break?
*GAH!!* This story is its own book! It’s imperative to note that, while I call Grenada home, my journey actually begins in Guyana, my mother’s home country and where I was born. Then my entire family moved to Grenada, home of my paternal grandmother and where my father grew up. I was naturalized there, earning citizenship through lineage.
My family has moved from Guyana, South America to Grenada, to Eritrea, East Africa, to Barbados, to the United States. We are true migrants. Nomads even! Each move was based on career opportunities for my father who worked in agricultural economics, including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. It’s an immigration saga that is colorful, difficult and triumphant. Through every leg of that journey, I danced one way or another.
In Grenada, I was a young girl from a small island with an enormous dream – I just didn’t know how enormous! Through a fortuitous opportunity I met Elizabeth Bergman, the then Chair of the Dance Department of Shenandoah University and Conservatory, while attending a Summer Dance Workshop in Trinidad. She saw my diamond in the rough and planted the seed of attending university for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance. (At that time, I was thinking of studying law).
Fast forward to acceptance to the Conservatory, while simultaneously attending the Byrd Business School in pursuit of a Bachelor of Business Management (a pact between my parents and me). Fast Forward to graduating magna cum laude as a double major and very determinedly heading to New York City for an internship at CNBC, in completion of the Business Degree. Finally, I was here! I climbed the corporate ladder from intern to marketing coordinator to marketing manager. I was thriving and content in my growth.
However, my 9 to 5 meant attending auditions was damn near impossible, so dancing was restricted to weekends and small gigs. Small though they were, this kept the spark for professional performance lit. At the time, that looked like a career in concert dance to me. Perhaps Ailey, Momix or Pilobolus. Then two serendipitous things happened: my marketing firm was bought out by a larger one that completely changed the dynamic of the company. The joy and thriving slowed to a grind and at 20 something I already felt like everything greyed over.
At the same time, a friend mentioned that a Harlem based dance company, Forces of Nature Dance Theatre Company, was looking for dancers for a tour. I took the proverbial leap of faith. I resigned from marketing and prayed to all the gods the wings would grow, spread and fly when I threw myself off the cliff! Abdel Salaam’s “Forces” – as we affectionately call the company – was the ground from which my seed in professional performance burst. The dynamic and enthralling choreography blended dance and theatre that effectively veered my gaze toward music theatre.
Then the breakthrough: West Side Story International Tour. Encouraged by the same friend who nudged me to professional performance in the first place, I attended the audition as green as ever to music theatre. My talent cut through the noise and suddenly I was packing to travel to most amazing places and perform on most prestigious stages on the planet! That friend is fellow West Indian, Nicole DeWeever, who now runs an outstanding performing arts program in her home country of St. Maarten called Art Saves Lives. Thanks Nicole!
You traveled world-wide for the 50th Anniversary Tour of West Side Story. Was there a location that was a highlight for you?
Traveling with the West Side Story International Tour expanded my entire existence and outlook. I experienced personal and professional metamorphosis taking in the character, culture and traditions of each country and city. Undoubtedly each holds its own highlight. Athens, Madrid, Tokyo, Tel Aviv to name a slither! One exceptional memory is from Lyon, France. The cast performed at the Ancient Theatre of Fourvière – a 2000-year-old outdoor amphitheater.
As patrons entered each was given a cushion to sit on as the seating is ancient arena stones. We were told by the producer that if the audience liked the show they would stand in applause. OK…normal. If they found it exceptional, expect them to fling the cushions in excitement and approval. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but then came the end of the show to take our bows. I entered to bow as Anita and there it was: cushions being hurled through the air towards the stage as the audience erupted with applause.
The orchestra sat in an open area at the front of the stage and clutched their instruments from the rain of falling cushions. I certainly had to dodge a booty protector or 2! Thrilling! Hilarious! And a touch precarious. The palpable excitement cut like a knife through the muggy outdoor open air. The cast and musicians reacted with deep, honest appreciation and gasps of delight. That audience was on its feet and the bravos rang through the air. I’ve never had a bow like that before or since!
Also on the West Side Story tour, you ended up getting the lead role of “Anita”. What was it like to step up into this role?
Stepping into the role of “Anita” was so satisfying and challenging. It required care and accountability for how I treated this young Puerto Rican woman’s story. She found her tribe and her love and was content. She was fighting for what she believed was her rightful place “in America” yet was always ready to electrify with her innate fervor. I connected to her Caribbean-ness – that relation to rhythm and movement – her loyalty to her man and house, her protective nature. Here was an opportunity to bridge my story of coming from the Caribbean to America and having it reflected through a fictional, yet very human and relatable character. Not to mention, “Anita” is one of the most famous roles in American music theatre. I wanted to step into that confidently.
Under direction by Joey McKneely, it all required immense work. It’s my proof that with a shift in perspective and consistent preparation, “no” is paving the road to the one mighty yes! For almost 2 years I watched in great admiration as Natalia Ziza and Lana Gordon shone in the role. In the quiet (and with encouragement from both women and dance captain, Jacquelyn Scafidi) I worked my ass off to discover my voice, improve my acting and nail the dancing.
I had come from concert dance and sometimes winning the role seemed so far away…but not unattainable. I was persistent and went back into that audition room despite being told twice I wasn’t ready. Then one day, I was. And that beautiful “yes” came. I finally achieved the role that has been played by the legends – Rita, Chita, Debbie Allen. I treated her with reverence and respect as I played out her story on esteemed stages all over the world. It is one of my proudest achievements.
You have been dancing since as your father says it “before you could walk”. What is it about dance that you are drawn to?
Dance is the exploration of space that extends far beyond walking, standing or running. The notion that energy extends from us far past the edge of our limbs and a thru line can be drawn from my arm to the edge of the universe! I love that! Dance expresses that. It takes banal human energy and converts it into a rotating, extending, leaping, contorting, reaching, grounded 360-degree experience of space and time. Plus dancing keeps you strong, disciplined and proud. It allows expulsion of energy that otherwise might be wasted or become malignant. It might break you, but it saves lives. That is all…and everything.
What has been your most favourite piece of choreography that you have performed / created?
“Emergency Room”, choreographed by Executive Director Abdel Salaam about his Mother and performed as a soloist with Forces of Nature Dance Theatre. In it, a table is brilliantly used as a metaphor for a gurney, operating table and even death bed. It must be pushed, pulled, manipulated sideways, upright, balanced on two legs, thrown to floor! All while steadying myself to express the angst of a nurse in an ER who is simultaneously battling emergencies of the mind. It is a grueling and exhilarating piece to perform.
Honorary (cheat) mention here: “A Wedding Dance“, a love story written by Lynn Nottage and featured dance vignette in Christopher Gattelli’s “In Your Arms“. It was an exceptionally moving piece to perform. Chris encouraged my dance partner, Adesola Osakalumi and me to insert elements of African and Caribbean movement to tell the heartbreaking story of a newly married couple in an unnamed African territory, disrupted by bandits and thieves as they embark on a long journey across the desert. Having the autonomy to help create the piece by inserting personal heritage was a privilege that made it all the more expressive.
Dance or Broadway? (Or don’t make you choose?) and why.
Both! Each is a language in and of itself and different people speak different ones. Musicals resonate differently from plays which resonated differently from concert dance. Sometimes you want movement to tell the story, sometimes a song, sometimes a monologue.
From a professional/onstage longevity perspective, Broadway offers opportunities for dancers to expand into by honing singing and acting as our resumés grow. The more you have the capability of performing at the highest levels, the longer and more fruitful your career is likely to be.
From a wealth building and business stand point, I do think dancers need a strong and dedicated union but the economics of the industry don’t truly allow for it. Broadway performers have the backing of the Actors’ Equity Association which helps facilitate production contracts with strong base salaries, benefits like health care and pension, and overall care throughout the contract.
Dance, however, stretches far beyond the stage. It is a part of nearly every culture on the planet. It bonds societies and breaks barriers. Plus, we all know, a party ain’t a party without dancing to make it hype as all hell!
Tell us a little about the Broadway First Class and the reading program for children hard of hearing and why you participated.
Broadway First Class is a remarkable arts and literacy program that exemplifies inclusivity. The program is the brainchild of Dr. Gary Wellbrock for children who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-allied (including children of deaf adults “CODAs”). Gary attended Amazing Grace on Broadway and shared his enthusiasm at having some of the cast read selected stories to the children. The opportunity aligned perfectly with my personal interest in volunteering in areas of literacy and storytelling.
I’ve since had the privilege of being a guest of the program twice and hope to return again and again. The stories are read by Broadway guests as an American Sign Language interpreter ensures not a single word is missed. It is an exceptionally touching experience as the children light up with questions and stories of their own. The experience prompted me to learn sign language. I’m terrible at it and likely sign at the equivalent of a child learning her first words. Still, learning of and being expanded by deaf culture is very gratifying.
Gary is brilliant at selecting books that resonate with the readers and their personal stories. I have had spinal surgery twice – on my cervical spine (neck) and my lumbar spine (lower back). Done four years apart, both were cutting edge procedures that ensured my return to the stage (shout out Drs. Eli Baron and Daveed Frazier). So in my own way, I am bionic! My first book – “Franklin Goes to the Hospital” – told the story of Franklin the Turtle breaking his shell while playing soccer and having to go to the hospital for surgery. It was the perfect way to share about injury and time away from the stage to heal.
My second book – “After the Fall” – is an awesome story of Humpty Dumpty after his fall, finally facing his most daunting fear of ascending the wall from which he fell, only to have his cracked shell burst open from pride and transform him to a soaring bird! My gosh! It perfectly simulated my experience of returning to stage after more than a year off to proudly play in the 12 time Tony nominated and hella fun, Spongebob Squarepants.
What personal projects would you like to undertake or goals you would like to achieve in the future?
I love this question. I am committed to writing a Caribbean based children’s book and eventual novel. There I said it! I think it is imperative that those voices that have been marginalized or valued to lesser tiers use all the modern platforms of globalization and technology to be seen, heard and respected. I want to draw relevance and recognition to all the beautiful humanity my heritage holds. This is one of my most important goals to be achieved. This… and winning a slew of awards for incredible performances in impacting and outstanding productions of all sorts. *BIG CHEESY SMILE!* HOLD ME TO IT!!
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Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist