Every once in a while, Broadway productions would come through L.A. for auditions, and I went for The Lion King. I was engaged, and was all set to get married in a vineyard in Napa Valley and spend my life making independent movies. My fiancé Alexis — now my husband — had just become a lawyer and passed the California bar. While I was planning my wedding, I got offered a yearlong contract to play Nala in New York. I was on the phone discussing the opportunity with my mom and she said, “It’s a year. Why would you not? Wasn’t Broadway part of the dream at some point?” So I packed my bag and took my two dogs and left [with my husband eventually following], thinking I would be back in L.A. in a year. Six months into The Lion King, I got cast on One Life to Live, which meant another four years in New York. That was in 2002. And here I am in 2016 playing with my kids in Morningside Park.
At the beginning of my time on One Life to Live, I was very frustrated. This was a time in my life when I felt extremely marginalized. The formula of soap operas makes it really hard for an African-American to get any traction. There’s always a family that’s central to the story on a soap opera, and if the show loves you, you will turn into the long-lost brother or you will get married, which is easy to do for a white character. But as an ethnic person, they bring you on to be smart. You get to be the lawyer or the doctor for the family. No one sees where you live, they never bring you home. There might be one episode in February where they talk about your family because it’s Black History Month. Your character might be on once every three weeks. You walk into a room and you say something really smart and noble, and then you walk out. And you only make money when they write for your character. You couldn’t win the game as a person of color, no matter how talented or beautiful you were.
But after the first couple of years, they put me in a love triangle and it just blew up. The love triangle was interracial, there was drama, there was a war between fan groups — it was the best thing that had ever happened to my career. I was featured in magazines and I was being voted a fan favorite character. I was being asked to co-host The View. At the same time, I was doing Shakespeare in the Park, being seen by the elite New York theater community and getting unbelievable reviews. I had high visibility and there were moments throughout this period where people said, “This is it.” But it doesn’t necessarily make you A-list. I was probably G-list most of my life.
In 2014, I was first approached about Hamilton. I didn’t know the creative team, but I knew the producers. I went to audition because they needed to see me rap. The last thing I thought was that it was a job I would get. They were looking for a Nicki Minaj type and I didn’t think they would see me as that when I walked in the door.
I was initially hesitant about auditioning to be in a workshop of the show because there’s no guarantee that you’ll be in the show. With two young children at home, I didn’t think it would be a good idea. But I ended up listening to a demo of Lin-Manuel Miranda singing my character’s song in the first act and it changed my mind. I immediately felt like there was no world in which I couldn’t be a part of this. I had to at least try. If I didn’t get the job, then maybe I could invest in the project financially. Maybe I could be friends with them. They didn’t take my money, but they did give me a job.
The real blessing for me in winning the Tony was the opportunity for the testimony. I think you have to chase your life even harder than you chase your career. I was very clear when I was trying to have children that that was my priority. You feel like you’re risking choosing one or the other when you do that, but the celebration for me was that I chased both family and career very hard, and the fact that I could celebrate having my children and that Tony award was a miracle.
I won’t last the life of this show. I know that there’s a time to stay and there’s a time to let someone else do it. I don’t have a burning desire to fill in the blank — be a movie star, do this, do that. I have to love my husband and raise my kids and use this platform that my career has given me in a way that is responsible and worthy of the gift. And I know that if I do anything else, it’s going to be a really strong woman.