As “Show Boat” steers its way into The Portland Opera Season, The Skanner News interviewed Angela Renée Simpson, who plays “Queenie” in the production.
It is Simpson’s first return to the Portland performing arts scene since she was in a 1995 production of “Porgy and Bess.” Simpson talked with us about how she got to the stage, what her character means to her and how The Portland Opera is taking on the racially charged “Show Boat.”
Here are excerpts of that interview, edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: How did you get into musical theater?
Angela Renée Simpson: Well, I've been an opera singer for over 27 years now. I did my first “Show Boat” in 2006 in London. It was the first time I've done a musical since high school. My biggest thing was movie musicals. I thought that singing and being in a movie were the two best things, ever, in the world. That's what I wanted to do, movie musicals, but as I was growing up they stopped making them.
I was content to sing musical theater when I first got out of college, but the program I was in, I had to avail myself of classes in classical music and opera. I told myself if I didn't like it after two years, I would leave. Well, I did like it and I took to it, my voice definitely took to it and that's what I've done since college.
I am getting kind of the best of both worlds now that the opera companies have decided to do these traditional musical theater pieces in their seasons. I am doing a musical theater piece in an opera house, so it kind of works out for me.
TSN: Tell me about your “Show Boat” character, Queenie.
ARS: She cooks the meals, she oversees the other people who are hired to clean the boat and to prepare the boat for shows. I want to say she's a jack of all trades. I like the fact that she doesn't take any guff from anybody, especially when she is called the n-word in the beginning of the show.
My back-story with her, my big question is, "was she a slave?" The time period is maybe only 12
years after the emancipation proclamation, so was she a slave? It’s something I haven't answered yet. She's very strong willed as you see with how she acts with her husband. I think she is respected, I think, to a point. She's treated like an equal, in some respects.
I like the role, I like the fact she's funny. I like the fact she speaks her mind. I like the fact she knows what's going on. She's one of the few eyes on the boat that sees everything that is going on, on the boat.
TSN: What is your favorite line?
ARS: My favorite line has something to do with flapjacks and popcorn, let's say that. Flapjacks and popcorn and my husband, Joe.
TSN: “Show Boat” tackles some controversial racial topics. Did the production do a good job of exploring these issues?
ARS: I think it is very brave of them to keep the words as far as dialogue is concerned. I think the people of Portland are very conscious about and sensitive about the n-word being used. I'm very glad they are using the word. I think if you whitewash history, then you tend to repeat it. If you don't remember what was done, somewhere down the line, it will repeat itself.
(The Director) Chris Mattaliano was very, very adamant about preparing the audience for what was about to be said. I myself am a person of shock value -- just don't tell them, just do it and see what the repercussions are afterwards.
Art is not supposed to be easy, it is not supposed to be nice and sweet all the time, it is supposed to make you think. I've done this role in different productions, at least about five of them, I am the first character that is called that word and to hear the gasps in that audience, I think it's great.
I don't have any problem with the word, it was during that period, that's what they were being called. As long as it stays on stage, it's perfect, but once we come out of that, then it’s a problem.
TSN: What will Portland audiences get out of seeing “Show Boat?”
ARS: Oh my gosh, they'll get a little smatter of everything; a little opera, a little vaudeville, a little musical theater, definitely a lot of comedy, a little bit of dancing. They'll get a little bit of everything for every audience member.
Bob Kingston, (the Portland Opera's resident historian) said, "Theater changed when it came to ‘Show Boat,’ it was never going to be the same after it."
It was the only piece that had incorporated music into the storyline of what was happening on stage, as opposed to just having comedy reviews and little skits and things like that, that were separate and had nothing to do with each other. “Show Boat” was the musical theater piece that put those things together and moved the music along with the story.
I think the audience is going to like it because of the spectacle of it. And the comedy, the dialogue is great, people are going to laugh a lot, which you normally don't get to do in an opera house. So I think the audience is really, really going to enjoy it.
Get ticket information at www.portlandopera.org.