There’s nothing about actress Katrinah Carol Lewis that screams fan girl. But that’s exactly what she felt like when she saw her idol Audra McDonald performing at CenterStage in October.
McDonald, a six-time Tony Award-winning actress and singer, was leading the audience in “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady” when she heard Lewis’ voice from the second row.
“Oh my goodness, you have a beautiful voice,” McDonald said from the stage to Lewis, who’d been doing her best to mentally connect with her all night. “What do you sing?”
Lewis concedes that at that point, excitement and nerves prevailed.
“I sing what you sing,” she managed to get out, a fact attributable to McDonald’s repertoire, and the fact that it’s in the right key for Lewis.
McDonald was having none of it: “The world already has one of me. You be you. The world needs you.”
Any singer would’ve appreciated the compliment. Especially from McDonald, whose performance last year as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” not only earned the actress her sixth Tony Award, but also made her the first person to win all four acting categories. Her message carried a special benediction for Lewis at this juncture, because she’s about to perform the role in TheatreLab’s production of the play, which opens this month.
“It was a really beautiful moment, especially launching into ‘Lady Day,’ from a woman I respect and idolize,” Lewis says. “It was almost like the universe was saying, ‘You’re OK, here’s a message you have to pay attention to.’”
Naturally introverted, Lewis acknowledges there are times she needs a reminder. As much as she loves being onstage, singing, acting and inhabiting a character, afterward she tends to be nervous talking with people.
Growing up, singing gave her the greatest pleasure and brought positive attention. By the seventh grade, she was taking voice lessons at Levine School of Music in Washington, while discovering her powerful attraction to musical theater. After playing a tree — “I know, so clichéd, right?” — in a skit she’d written, she burst into tears of happiness. “I love this. I love pretending,” she recalls.
High school and membership in the National Thespian Society propelled her to Virginia Commonwealth University and a new set of drama-kid friends, few of whom were black like her. Like scores of others, Lewis saw the university as a step to a big-city career. Eleven years later, she’s firmly entrenched in local theater.
“There’s a vibrant scene here. I found out that Richmond is a place small enough that I don’t get lost,” she says. “It’s an embarrassment of riches, the roles I’ve played in the past five years, roles I wouldn’t have been able to in other cities.”
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” presents a new challenge: a one-woman show. When director Deejay Gray contacted her months ago about the role, she immediately agreed, acknowledging that she’s been terrified ever since. “I hope to give a live feel for her essence,” she says. “I’m not trying to impersonate her, I want to share the spirit of her.”
Lewis has done plenty of homework attempting to understand the woman and her iconic sound in preparation for “Lady Day.” She’s read several biographies trying to suss out influences such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and watched old footage to capture her speaking voice. Holiday’s records have been on constant repeat to help her glean the particulars of the legendary vocalist’s phrasing.
“I’m not trying to be Billie Holiday, but I am trying to emulate some of her phrasing and capture her speaking voice,” Lewis says. “But at the end of the day, I’m telling the story through my instrument.”
Gray praises the sense of empathy she brings to her work.
“Katrinah really cares about the characters she’s portraying and fights for their life,” he says. “She’s not at all afraid to be vulnerable, which is a quality you can’t really teach or train someone to have.”
“There’s some anxiety that lives in this body,” she says. “But I think it’s good because it spurs the work ethic. There’s no place for me to hide in this one.” S
TheatreLab’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” runs Nov. 12 through Dec. 12 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. Call 505-0558 or visit theatrelabrva.org.