Sure, Nikki M. James won a Tony Award for her current performance as the sweet, dreamy African village girl Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon — but there is one benefit to occasionally stepping away from Uganda, as can be witnessed in her cabaret show, which premieres tonight at Joe's Pub...at the Public Theater, and in New York Theatre Workshop's recent Fetch Clay, Make Man. "I get to wear shoes!" James exclaimed jokingly while chatting with TheaterMania about her ventures away from her current home at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
You made your cabaret debut at 54 Below in June. Why did you decide to bring it back with another performance at Joe's Pub?
I had so much fun, and I really wanted to do it again. I wanted to tweak it a little bit also. I really want to be the kind of person who develops these kinds of shows for myself over time. I felt like I didn't want to put it away. It took me almost a year to actually finish that show. It's really personal and fun, but not soul-bearing. I was nervous about doing it. I didn't know what to expect. I would get someplace with it and then I would stall out. I would be like, 'Oh, never mind, I can't do this. Nobody's going to want to come see this. I can't sing this song, there's no way.' I had a friend who was really encouraging me and kept getting on my case. Now that I've done it I want to do it over and over again. I'm so excited about Joe's Pub.
Telling your story to the audience came so naturally to you. It felt like you were having a conversation with your fans.
That's the way I want it to feel. Those are the kind of cabaret shows that I like. I want people to walk away from that experience feeling like they know me, not a performer or a character. It's not put on, it's not deep, I don't sing in French or anything like that. It's just a good time with several laughs. It's really casual in the sense that I wrote it for myself, but I go off-book a lot and make mistakes. I curse a little bit, much to my mother's chagrin. Having done The Book of Mormon for as long as I have, you get really comfortable with those F-bombs!
What have you learned from telling your story?
The show is really an evolution of my life in musical theater. Not just my professional life, but also my love of musical theater as a fan. I look at roles that I played in high school, and where I come from in Jersey, and falling in love with Rent. I realized musical theater isn't just what I do, it is actually who I am. It shaped my life, it shaped my personality and my taste. There's nothing better than having written something and having people think it's funny. I spent my career delivering lines that other people wrote! To trust myself in that way, it was really kind of cool.
What will people be most surprised to learn about you?
I'm the biggest nerd there is. I think my show is pretty nerdy; I put together all of these weird little medleys that make me giggle. I'm like a twelve-year-old girl. '80s stuff is my favorite.
What is your guiltiest confession about your '80s self?
Probably how much I love Disney musicals, always and forever. Ariel [is my favorite]. That's not even a hard question to answer. It's something about her being an outsider. The movie also came out when I was about nine years old, so it was the perfect one for me to see. When I heard they were doing it on Broadway, I remember calling my agent and being like, 'I could be Ariel, right?' And she was like, 'I don't think so.'
What will you take away from your recent role as Muhammad Ali's wife, Sonji Clay, in Fetch Clay, Make Man?
She's a real person, and that's something I've never really done. I played Cleopatra, but she's been dead for at least five hundred years. The thing that's interesting about Sonji is that she's such a real woman. I could read interviews that she's given, and I read firsthand accounts from other people talking about what it was like to be around her. There's a photograph of her with her husband where she sort of has her hand on her hip, and that's something that I peppered into my performance. Playing someone real is a different kind of responsibility. I will also take away what it feels like to grow up a little bit onstage. I play ingenues a lot; I'm so grateful for it, and I'll do it for as long as people will allow me to, but I have the ability to play more of a grown-up, slightly more complex and complicated person.
You have said that sometimes musical theater actors are not taken seriously. Why do you think that is? Do you think that you have finally proven them wrong?
I hope so. It's like anything in any field. When you're very good at doing one thing, it's hard for someone to imagine that you could also be as good or better at another thing. I think that it's also the kind of messages that we often tackle in musical theater, and the way in which we tackle them. I mean, most musicals are musical comedies; it's kind of where the musical comes from. But you take a little bit of all of these characters with you wherever you go. Nabulungi might have a little extra pop in her step now that I have played Sonji, I don't know. But those are the kinds of things that keep you fresh, and I want to be able to do Mormon for as long as I possibly can; I absolutely love it and the way that I can keep doing it is by every once in a while getting to do something a little new. I am really lucky.
When you look ahead ten years, which roles would you like to have seen added to your résumé?
I would love to do Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but I'm not a soprano, so that won't happen anytime in my life. I would love to do Sarah in Ragtime. I want to do anything Audra has done, but we won't be playing the same roles. I'm sure many people feel this way, but she was the first black woman I saw onstage who was doing roles that were written not specifically to be played by black performers in a professional setting. I love her for that, and I think she has the kind of career that shows such intense diversity; she's got a great sense of humor, and she's got incredible depth, warmth, and sensitivity as a performer. She has the career that I would love to have in my life. She also happens to be a pretty awesome person, which makes everything she's done even the more impressive.
When you perform at Joe's Pub, is there any chance we will get an update about your new film, Lucky Stiff?
I can tell you now that it's a new Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty movie musical that we shot last year. I hadn't really heard a lot about it, but I'm going down to the Savannah Film Festival at the end of this month, and I'm going to get to see it for the first time. I'm really psyched and totally nervous about it! I hope everyone's proud of it.
Nikki M. James at Joe's Pub premieres tonight, October 21, at 9:30pm. For tickets, click here.
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