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Nkeki Obi-Melekwe delivers power, grace in her portrayal of Tina Turner on Broadway

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as Tina Turner. (Manuel Harlan)
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as Tina Turner. (Manuel Harlan)

This week, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe steps into the lead role of Tina Turner in the award-winning Broadway musical of the same name.

But the actress is hardly a newcomer: Obi-Melekwe played the role in London in 2018 and then on Broadway during matinee performances since the show opened there in 2019. Now, the 25-year-old powerhouse actor rises to the spotlight in the story of Turner’s abusive marriage to Ike Turner, her decline and then ascent to stardom after leaving him.

Obi-Melekwe says that after being on “this Tina journey for a couple of years” that officially taking over the Tina role feels like the logical next step, though she admits that she has big shoes to fill following Tony-award winning actor Adrienne Warren.

Still, she focused on her own portrayal.

“I do my best to be really honest about the joy that [Tina Turner] always had, even though she went through so much violence,” she says. “Even just adding a little bit of a smile when you think you shouldn’t is what Tina would do.”

Watch on YouTube.

The show is an intense one — not shying away from the violence and abuse Tina suffered at the hands of Ike, played by Daniel Watts. It weighs heavily on the actor.

In fact, Watts says he was worried that his performance would be triggering for the real Tina Turner when she came to see the show.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch that,” he says. “Because we go there. We fight.”

“That’s one of the harder parts about playing this role is I have to fight these Black women every day,” he says. “I have to do it before the show to make sure we’re all on the same accord and then I have to do it again during the show.”

Watts, who has acted with both Warren and Obi-Melekwe, says working with his new co-star brings different dimensions to the show and to their interactions on stage. That includes small things like Obi-Melekwe’s height.

“Nkeki, when she’s in heels, we’re more eye to eye with each other. Ike has to work a little harder to feel as powerful as she is,” he says. “And she stands in it in a way that almost makes Ike intimidated from the beginning.”

But he says there’s a joy in her character as well as a grounded-ness.

“She smiles at times when Ike does not like her smiling. Things that get under his skin,” he says, adding that smiles are also infectious.

Obi-Melekwe feels a connection to Tina. The singer’s movement and voice come from her experiences, Obi-Melekwe says, so the actress feels compelled to be as honest as possible in her portrayal of Tina’s life.

“It’s not going to be this sugar-coated thing,” she says. “It’s going to be as rough and as gritty and as dirty and sexy as her life actually was.”

During the performance, Obi-Melekwe runs up and down 15 or so steps in high heels while singing and dancing. She says that some fans have expressed semi-serious concern on social media that she might accidentally injure herself.

“I have that fear at times, for sure,” she says with a laugh. “But I have worked really hard, especially coming out of quarantine and back to the show, to make sure I’m really strong.”

When it comes to playing Ike, Watts says there was a little trepidation about becoming a character who is widely reviled. But, he says, “you cannot tell Tina Turner’s story without Ike Turner. It’s why we love her journey so much that she overcame all of this horror.”

“So when you have a character that has no redemption,” he continues, “what do you do with him? So for me it was to try to give him as much humanity as possible.”

Watts says he hoped to make Ike into less of a monster.

“I do care about what audiences see — predominantly white audiences and there’s a presentation of Blackness on stage and what does that look like,” he says.

Ike’s early experiences — having his music stolen, not being allowed to sleep in whites-only motels on the road during the peak of his success — caused a pent-up rage within Ike that Watts understood based on his own experiences of racism, Watts says. The actor adds that having therapy helped him deal with these issues and continue to help him play the role of Ike.

While Obi-Melekwe says she had heard Tina Turner’s music growing up and knew the broad outlines of the singer’s story, it wasn’t until she auditioned for the role that she really got a sense of the power of Tina’s music and of her story.

Watch on YouTube.

And Obi-Melekwe has thought about what it would be like to be in Tina’s shoes.

“It just breaks me open and I get really emotional,” she says.

Obi-Melekwe had the privilege of meeting Tina Turner several years ago after winning the Tina role for the London stage.

“Wow, just being in her space felt very holy,” she says. “Like sacred in some way. And she wanted to get a sense of who this person was who would be telling her story.”

She says she later overhead Tina Turner tell one of the musical’s producers: “There she is, that’s the next generation.” The actress says she felt “bestowed and blessed” by the comment.

“It’s an honor to keep her story going,” she says.

And the show, Obi-Melekwe says, succeeds in that way: “I can only imagine what it would feel like for her knowing that in five countries in three different continents around the world, that people are applauding for her.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young and Todd Mundt. Miller-Medzon also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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