This month, the Tony Awards will celebrate excellence on Broadway and amongst the stellar theatrical community you’ll find Ariana DeBose, hot off Hamilton and debuting as the leading lady in A Bronx Tale. She sings, she dances, she acts and she got her start in Raleigh at CC & Co Dance Complex and North Carolina Theatre. Here, she talks with us about life, Broadway and giving back.
Tell me a little about A Bronx Tale.
I was fresh off of Hamilton, and it was a wonderful opportunity to try something new. My emphasis has been on storytelling through dance so when I got invited to this party they said whatever you want to try, try it. Bob De Niro and Jerry Zaks were our co-directors. Jerry is the king of musical comedy, and Bob knows this story backwards and forwards; he brought such nuance to it.
Do you have formal acting training?
The short answer is no, I have no formal acting training unless you count the school of life, which I’ve been in since I was 18. It plays in my favor more often than not. The roles I do take on are very raw and reactionary. You’re acting on instinct.
Hamilton was an astronomical success. What did it feel like being a part of the hottest show in town?
We haven’t seen a show do what Hamilton has done and to be on the inside was a whirlwind of an experience. I had the privilege to do so many things that I never thought I would get to do [like] sing in front of one of the most beloved presidents of the United States. I never thought I would get to do that. Or that I would get to shake hands with Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand, and all these women who have inspired me. I literally was in the room where it happened. Other people wanted to be in our room. Now that I have left the room, it’s eye opening. It’s helped me try to find a new sense of balance. When you’re doing something that is so much larger than yourself…I found I gave so much of my life to it. Let’s say I didn’t have a life if it didn’t have something to do with Hamilton.
Did you know it was going to be that huge?
It was definitely a feeling of knowing you have something that is so new, so alive and so inspiring. Even the first little workshop that we did, we could feel the energy. We knew it was going to be special, but I don’t think anyone knew it was going to be Hurricane Hamilton.
Do you alternate between dance and acting? How do you decide what’s next?
I love the new show…it has been a new challenge, but I do miss dancing. I’m learning how to balance myself out. If I’m not singing as much, I take a voice lesson. I’m an Aquarius so I don’t like authority figures and an authority figure can be time. These contracts are long, and that’s hard for me because I like change. So when I don’t have the ability to change in terms of work, I have to keep surprising myself.
You got your start in Raleigh.
I began studying at CC and Co Dance Complex, and that’s where I received my formal dance training. I had the opportunity [there] to work with so many different choreographers, most notably Mandy Moore [who recently choreographed the film La La Land] and Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo. It was incredible for someone like me, a young person who wanted to be a dancer. In high school, I became active in my school’s drama department. My sophomore year I auditioned for Grease at the North Carolina Theatre, and that was my first professional job.
How often do you come back to Raleigh?
I get down twice a year if I’m lucky, but my mom loves to travel so she comes to visit me. She teaches at Wakefield Middle; she’s an 8th grade social studies teacher.
What’s the first thing you do when you come back?
Number one, I have to get sweet tea from Bojangles. I get picked up at the airport, and we go to Bojangles.
Do you visit your old haunts?
I visit my old high school a lot. It’s now Wake Forest High School. I’m a regular person and then they hear what I do…They realize I came from the exact same room. That’s a huge thing for me, to try and give back to kids and help them realize they always have choices. I visited Broughton, and I gave a speech entitled Lady Boss. As a 26-year-old LGBTQ bi-racial woman to stand in front of a group of girls and say you can be anything you want to be, that was cool because I saw some eyes light up.
NC has been in the news about LGBTQ issues. How do you handle it?
There are the “you got out just in time” comments. I try to use my platform to open people’s minds. If I can open their minds, maybe in five years we can change some things. What’s more, I don’t feel the current representation is listening to their constituents. We’re all just trying to do the best we can, but it’s that common ground that I’m interested in, and I don’t think North Carolina has been able to accomplish that. When people in power assume there’s only one right way, we have a huge problem.