Whether it's President Obama crooning its earnest chorus, while calling for racial healing in an emotional eulogy; or former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's performing a moving version of the song for injured veterans, "Amazing Grace" is having a national moment.
The new Broadway musical Amazing Grace, about the enduring hymn and its slave-trader-turned-abolitionist composer John Newton, bolsters this spotlight chapter. America's cultural climate couldn't be more resonant and hopeful. Tragic events in Ferguson, Baltimore and South Carolina remind us that inequality and prejudice must be addressed; race, inherited faith and redemption have become hot topics. In response to the bloody church massacre in Charleston, the state's Confederate flags no longer fly
Speaking before grief-stricken worshipers, President Obama said, "We all have to acknowledge the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, the flag was a reminder of systematic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now."
Laiona Michelle, an emotional center in the play Amazing Grace hopes that the production, about Newton's change of heart, after miraculously surviving a harrowing storm at sea, provokes similar transformation around conversations about race - from pain and shame to salvation and courage. Michelle's role in the conversation is pivotal, and she has so much more to say.
Let's begin by talking about your current gig, playing Nanna in Amazing Grace. How did you score the role and how has the character developed since your initial reading to now?
Six years ago I workshopped a new project with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival called "Nobody". It was the Bert William's story and I played Bert's wife, Lottie. I was looking forward to the upcoming production but, to my surprise, the character "had to be a light-complected black woman." I was crushed. I have always prided myself on working on new material and developing new characters. So often, though, once the groundwork is complete projects would continue without me for one reason or another. But never in a million years did I think my complexion for a black female role would come into question!
For a while I did not audition for anything. My agent told me to shake it off, that there was a new show called Amazing Grace that was about to have a workshop reading. I read for Gabe Barre along with Christopher Smith, the writer, and I was immediately cast in the role as Nanna. At that time the script had a lot of promise but needed work. It was, nonetheless, right up my alley. I love dissecting scripts! I was thrilled to sink my teeth into such an important piece of art. I was given a new start. And who knew this show would be my Broadway debut?
At age 11 you wrote in your journal, "I want to be in an important piece of art on Broadway," and you recently said Amazing Grace is that piece. Why should everyone, black or white, go see it?
For me Amazing Grace is not a musical. It's an experience. There truly hasn't been anything like it on Broadway. I believe it marks the first time that slavery has been exposed and fully tackled on the Broadway stage. I also believe that Amazing Grace is perfectly timed for the world we're living in today. This show can be the springboard for new conversations about race, equality and civil rights for all human beings. Yes, it is a faith-based show, which may scare some people. Mainly, though, it's a story that carries the universal message of love.
Tell me about some of the emotions you feel portraying Nanna.
Nanna is the most complex character I have ever played. I've always been the leading or supporting lady. With that I often had a lot to say and do onstage. Through Nanna's lens that is different. She is quiet, still. She is a very active listener, strong yet tremendously graceful. I get to explore an inner life that I never had on stage. Nanna is deeply wise, secretive and very surprising. Every day I play this role I gain new information. When the journey is complete I'll have to thank her for the new lessons that I learned in such a deeply rewarding role. People feel a connection to this character that is tangible. I am grateful for this.
You have a most unique first name. What does it mean and where does it come from?
My auntie Bernadine Smith named me Laiona. It means female lion. Whenever I'm afraid or doubt myself I dig down deep and I remember the courage and the fierceness of the female lion. The lioness is a very focused animal. Acting requires a high level of concentration and focus, so I embrace the lioness spirit inside of me.
Can you talk about your family, its Jamaican roots and growing up in Springfield, MA?
My grandfather grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. As a young boy he and his siblings had to work long hours in the blazing sun in order to support the family. My grandfather only had a third-grade education, so he was a laborer. But life didn't stop there for him. His mother knew he was destined for more than just working with his hands. Although he never mastered reading, he knew how to count money and was brilliant with numbers. He was sent to the United States on a boat alongside several other young men.
They came to Florida to cut sugar cane. In his free time he played his trumpet for coins and worked as a carpenter. To make a long story short, he met my grandmother and the two of them saved every dime and moved to my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, where he invested his money and opened the first black barbershop in downtown Springfield. Through blood, sweat and tears, my grandfather raised eight children, all of whom graduated with higher level degrees.
My grandfather had a true "rags to riches" American dream story. He instilled in me a strong work ethic, and was in many ways my father. There is a old joke: Whenever one says that they are Jamaican, the other person will then ask, "How many jobs do you have?" It's really just a complement based on strong a work ethics like my grandfather's.
What are your most satisfying acting roles so far?
I've always loved the opportunity to play real people like Ida B. Wells and Dinah Washington. I really do love taking on the challenge of immersing myself fully into these profound trailblazing human beings. When I was a little girl I used to hate history class. I really did. So boring! But it's a large part of what I do as an actress. My library is full of history, biographies, culture awareness and human behavior. It's what I love about acting: the development and exploration during the homework process.