Renee Elise Goldsberry event on Friday night

Warning: Shameless Fangirling

Tony award winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry talks with Wake Forest School of Divinity professor Derek Hicks on stage at Wait Chapel on Friday, February 1, 2019 as part of the Arts of Leading conference.This past Friday night, I went to the keynote address of the Arts of Leading conference, with none other than Renee Elise Goldsberry, actor and singer extraordinaire. Ms. Goldsberry originated the role of Angelica in Hamilton and won a Tony Award for it. It was an unbelievable event – maybe the best WF event I can remember in a long time – and I am going to try and do justice to it here.

First I have to say, I was a little nervous going into this event. You know how you can like a celebrity so much just based on the work they do (whether an actor or a star athlete or whatever) and you are anxious that the reality of seeing them as a person vs. on stage might break the spell somehow? Let me tell you, in this particular case, she is way more amazing in person (and I had already imagined her to be pretty darn spectacular). I told a friend after the event that I legitimately lament that REG and I are not best friends. Because she displayed such honesty, charm, intelligence, kindness, and leadership – and oh yeah, TALENT – that she is someone you just want to know better. A total delight.

She was interviewed by her friend Dr. Derek Hicks of the Divinity School (also who I don’t know but wish I did). This had almost a fireside chat feel, like you were a fly on the wall of a deep conversation between friends. But one of REG’s great gifts is that even in a room of 1,000+ people, she genuinely connected with the audience. Made eye contact. Smiled. Looked around for reactions and responded to them with enthusiasm.

I won’t do justice to the full content of the talk, so here are some bulleted highlights (paraphrased).

  • She keeps old reviews. One of them that she liked a lot came from Ben Brantley, co-chief theatre critic of the New York Times [aside, wonder if she knew he has a WFU connection – his late father was a legend at WF, serving as director of communications for 30+ years!?!] Ben referred to her as a “spark plug of musical wit and vitality.” [I can totally see why.]
  • Dr. Hicks asked her about ‘blowing up’ as in stardom. REG was really thoughtful about this, and mused that has she blown up re: her career generally? Yes. But blown up as in ‘if I am on a red carpet with Cate Blanchett in front of me, do people see me?’ not as much. She said that with so many things, you have to decide how you take it – so she chooses to believe that yes, she has blown up!
  • When asked about her family today, she had what I thought was potent and powerful advice for students re: marriage: the most important thing is to marry someone who is a positive influence on you. If you have person at home of great character and integrity,  you’ll probably sway that way too. She beamed when talking about her husband (and I always love when people do that).
  • In Hamilton, there was a list every night of famous people in the audience. She did not want to know who was on the list beforehand (“I do NOT want to know if Beyoncé is watching the show!) But Lin Manuel Miranda not only wanted the list, he wanted to see it before anyone else. She said that rather than being daunted by any famous people, he would say “the wizard should be afraid of ME!” That kind of confidence is certainly attractive.
  • When Dr. Hicks asked if she had ever not gotten a role, she laughed [had she been Southern, she could have said “bless your heart” – would have been perfect]. She said that even TODAY, post-Hamilton, she doesn’t get 95% of roles she auditions for. But she said you just have to keep showing up. She said that success can’t be defined because “someone picked me” and confessed that the ones who get daunted and never try are great, because they help those of us who do show up and try.
  • A really poignant moment was when she talked about losing her first child in the second trimester of pregnancy. And that she feels some sense of obligation to be honest and transparent about those hard times to give hope and light to others. She thanked her kids during her Tony acceptance speech [which now makes the speech that much more meaningful to watch].
  • When asked about early leadership influences, she had a music teacher who she’d mocked during class by mimicking her. Rather than punishing her, the savvy teacher said ‘we have a singer’ and brought her to the front of room to sing. She admired the leadership of the teacher, who recognized that the loud, troublesome voices can be redirected in positive ways. That made a huge impact on her.
  • She was asked about leadership in her artistry. She said she is not in a show to be great herself, but to be a light to other people and to lift other people.
  • She talked about the importance of not saying “no” to ourselves about anything, and to push our boundaries. She said that her pianist pushes her in a good way. After she comes off stage from a performance thinking she killed it, he will tell her ‘we need to work.’ What he means is he wants her to try new things, push herself.
  • Dr. Hicks talked about hearing from her spouse early on that Hamilton was going to be something incredible. REG agreed and said she knew from the getgo that Hamilton would be amazing, but did not have any conception of how big big could be. She likened it to a cultural moment where we were all on the same page – like back in the 80s with Who Shot JR? Hamilton appealed to everyone no matter their walk of life. She also worked extra hard during the early reads and workshopping of Hamilton because she didn’t want to be the actor who started as Angelica but got replaced before the debut.
  • She credited Lin Manuel Miranda with writing strong female characters – which others may not have done.  Thinking about Angelica, she said that women [then] were “powerful before we had a hashtag,” that they were so powerful in their corsets. She said Lin thinks Angelica is the smartest person in the musical: she can’t run for President herself as a woman, the only power she has is talking to the men in their ears to shape history.
  • Asked about a dream roles, she said it would be Sarah Vaughan the jazz singer. REG loves celebrating the women who came before. She told a story of workplace inequity with Sarah Vaughan: that if she came late to rehearsal or a performance, the musicians would stand in circle and spank her. [Whoa.]

They then transitioned out of the interview/conversation and into a performance. She said she was going to sing a couple of songs that we would not know [cue the audience’s collective heart sinking that there would be no “Satisfied” tonight]. As an artist, REG said she felt compelled personally to pick songs that inspire us to love, and to remind us in these fractured times that we have more in common than we realize.

She launched into a fabulous rendition of “People Get Ready.” We all knew this from Hamilton and her other shows, but this woman has a serious set of pipes. What a voice – and such an expressive face while singing.

The second song was from an album by Lizz Wright, a jazz and gospel singer (did not get the title). Before the song, she taught us the chorus and would have us be her backup singers (so cool!)

Tony award winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry performs on stage at Wait Chapel on Friday, February 1, 2019 as part of the Arts of Leading conference.Then she said she had time for only one more song. And that since we had come out to see her, it would be rude if she didn’t sing the one thing we wanted. AND SAID SHE WOULD SING “SATISFIED.”

At this point, the 1,000+ people in Wait Chapel collectively lost their minds. I had hoped that she would sing it, but despaired that she would not because it is not strictly a solo and maybe it would be too hard. But she told us to sing the other peoples’ parts – which we did.

And she launched into “Satisfied,” and it was incredible. I have not had the good fortune to see Hamilton, but Angelica is my favorite character and “Satisfied” my favorite song. And I honestly thought never in my life would I be fortunate enough to see her sing it live. Never not ever. So this was like the biggest gift in the world that you didn’t think you were going to get. Thank you, REG!

Honestly, she is just so alive and vibrant and thoughtful and kind. She thanked the sign language interpreter at the end, thanked the band and the crowd. She just seems like a person you want to gravitate toward because of her seeming kindness and general amazingness. In my next life, I want to be her BFF.

 

— by Betsy Chapman ’92, MA ’94

 

 

 

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