TALKS: Laiona Michelle is Nanna in Amazing Grace on Broadway

Laiona Michelle Headshot

Laiona Michelle

Amazing Grace, the new Broadway musical currently playing at the Nederlander Theater is a biomusical about John Newton and the story behind the famous Christian hymn published in 1779. The tale also features fictitious characters who add to the historical drama, such as Nanna. Talented Broadway newcomer Laiona Michelle plays Nanna, a vital character who…. well, let’s just have Laiona Michelle tell you. AIC writer Halle Morse caught up with Laiona to learn all about Nanna and her journey to Broadway.

Arts in Color: Tell us about the role of Nanna in Amazing Grace. What are the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character Nanna?
Laiona: With any role that I play I always start with the above question before I even begin my research. This helps me to find my way into the character.  Nanna is gentle, loyal, kind, strong and graceful. She’s a lioness. She struggles with her personal fears which at moments throughout the show gets the best of her. She is able however to find the light within her personal darkness. I truly identify with all of these characteristics in my personal life.  Nanna is also very nurturing and maternal and she is deeply wise. I’m not a mother so these characteristics I drew from my personal grandmother because they were not as tangible for me to tap into. Nanna is more like me than any other role that I have ever played. I must say that it has been a thrill exploring such a full character.
Laiona Michelle as Nana in Amazing Grace

Laiona Michelle as Nana in Amazing Grace/Credit: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog

AIC: What was the casting process like?
Laiona: It was a short casting process for me…which is unusual. I’m used to getting one or two callbacks to sing for the casting directors and then the creative team but in this case I found out immediately. I auditioned for the director Gabe Barre. I read a monologue and sang a spiritual acappella. I was cast in the reading six years ago. I continued with the project as it went into workshops years later, followed by the first production at the Goodspeed Opera House, then to the Bank of America theater and now here on Broadway. What a journey.

AIC: How did you prepare for the rehearsal process?
Laiona: When I found out that Amazing Grace was going to Broadway I didn’t have very much time to prepare. I was headed to Washington DC to work on a new project but I had to immediately turn it down for this amazing opportunity. I only had a couple of weeks to get ready for rehearsal. I immediately immersed myself into research. I was on an emotional roller coaster. I’m still on that ride.

AIC: What has it been like working on a brand new original musical?
Laiona: It has been a true collaboration. Our writer, Christopher Smith, is new to the business. This is his first musical. He was very open to hearing opinions from a room full of actors and creators. I can only imagine that he must’ve been overwhelmed. I’ve never been in the creative process where my voice was not only acknowledged but really heard. We played and cried and laughed and explored and shared so much together. It really has been an amazing experience.

AIC: You’ve been with Amazing Grace since it opened at the Godspeed in 2012. What has surprised you most about the journey to Broadway?
Laiona: The biggest surprise has been the fan mail and meeting the audience at the stage door. I really look forward to shaking hands and hugging the folks that traveled near and far to see Amazing Grace. There really truly is nothing like opening up a piece of fan mail from someone who was deeply moved by your performance. It’s humbling.

AIC: Where are you from? When did you decide to become an actress?
Laiona: I’m from rom Springfield, MA, but my family roots trace back to Kingston, Jamaica. Let my mother tell it and she would say that I’ve been “acting up” all my life. Ha! I really have. I’ve always sung in my church choir, acted in my school plays and even participated in my share of pageants. Although I never took home a crown, I always got the trophy for the talent segment. Ha! I guess it was a very natural transition for me to pursue this as my career. So I studied, went to school at Alabama State University and trained under my mentor Dr. Tonea Stewart. I continued my education and earned my MFA from Brandeis. Although I have a master’s degree I continue to study and work on my craft.

Laiona Michelle and Rachael Ferrera in Amazing Grace

Laiona Michelle and Rachael Ferrera in Amazing Grace/Credit: Joan Marcus via Broadway.com

AIC: In addition to theater, you’ve been featured on television several times. Do you hope to do more TV/film?
Laiona: Absolutely! Let’s just say that if I was a casting director I’d call Laiona Michelle in for Orange is the New Black. Ha!

AIC: What advice do you have for aspiring actors, particularly artists of color?
Laiona: Don’t limit yourself. The world is changing and change is a beautiful thing. Think outside the box and take risks. Being safe is boring.

AIC: Our site is called “Arts in Color.” What does it mean to you to be an artist of color?
Laiona: It means that you must always respect those who came before you and remember those who are coming up under you. I really believe that. It is our responsibility to keep each other accountable. We must always give 100%. ALWAYS.

AIC: What is next for Laiona? How can our readers stay up to date with you?
Laiona: I am currently working on my woman show about the life of Nina Simone. You can also follow me on twitter @LaionaMichelle or www.laionamichelle.com

Amazing Grace is currently running at the Nederlander Theater.
For tickets: 877-250-2929, amazinggracemusical.com
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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Have you seen the show? What did you think? Leave a comment below!

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