Interviews

Interview: Amid a 40-Year Career, Hell’s Kitchen Tony Nominee Kecia Lewis Finally Gets Her Flowers

Lewis plays a truth-telling piano teacher with a secret in the new Alicia Keys musical at the Shubert Theatre.

Her resume is dotted with legendary original productions: DreamgirlsBig RiverAin’t Misbehavin’, Once on This Islandand The Drowsy Chaperone to name but a few. She was a stirring Mother Courage at Classic Stage Company and brought the house down at the Atlantic as rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And now, after a stage career that began in the 1980s, Kecia Lewis is finally a Tony Award nominee.

Lewis plays a mysterious figure in the Alicia Keys musical Hell’s Kitchen. Book writer Kristoffer Diaz tells us all we need to know about Lewis’s wisdom-filled piano teacher, Miss Liza Jane, to move the plot along, but in Lewis’s deeply moving, astonishingly lived-in performance, you can see her whole life in the way she carries herself. And Lewis uses two of Keys’s songs — “Perfect Way to Die” and “Authors of Forever” — to great effect, bringing the audience to collective tears not once, but twice in two-and-a-half hours.

With the benefit of hindsight, Lewis is accepting the “bouquet after bouquet” of flowers that are being thrown her way, first in the forms of Lortel and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Featured Performer. Her philosophy is simple now: after a four-decade career, she’s thrilled just to be seen and accepted.

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Kecia Lewis, a Tony nominee for Hell’s Kitchen
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is it like, at this stage of your life and career, to go through the Tony Awards gauntlet, and all the other awards?
It feels like I’m getting 40 years’ worth of flowers thrown at me. Just bouquet after bouquet after bouquet after bouquet, and it smells lovely and feels lovely. It doesn’t feel like when I was younger, and I wasn’t being recognized the way I thought my work should have been. It doesn’t feel like “it’s about damn time.” It feels like “Oh, my God, thank you for seeing me. Thank you for getting it.” It’s beautiful. It’s just really beautiful.

Did you see a way into Miss Liza Jane from the moment you first read the script?
I knew who she was. I immediately thought about some teachers of mine that I had at the High School of Performing Arts, and then at NYU in college. Because I had seen this type of woman before, this type of teacher before, I knew where to go. As I started working on it with Michael Greif, she became really, really clear.

I’m grateful because most of the time it doesn’t happen that easily. But it also speaks to where I am in my life and my own personality. I think it’s a great synchronicity when things work like that and join together. Marie and Rosetta is probably the only other time that I can recall I felt that way about a character that I created.

I’ve admired your performances in so many shows and when I saw this at the Public, I was floored by how you so forcefully manage to stop the show just through your stillness.
I appreciate that. I have to say, when you use the word stillness, the first person who came to my mind is Leslie Odom Jr. He has a lot of power in his stillness. Working with him on Leap of Faith, I had never met a young actor with that much command of himself, and I was curious as to what that was. The more that I watched him and spent time with him and then became friends, I realized it’s his stillness. He has it even in his singing, which is amazing to me. So, thank you, that’s a big compliment to me.

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Kecia Lewis and Maleah Joi Moon in the Broadway production of Hell’s Kitchen at the Shubert Theatre
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Did you know that, particularly “Perfect Way to Die,” would lead to the entire audience sobbing at the end of the first act? Was that the ultimate goal?
Never. That never came into a conversation or a thought. The only thing we were talking about was delivering the truth of the song. It wasn’t too, too hard for me to understand, because I was a single mom raising a young Black man in New York City. I understood all that Alicia was trying to say, and what Michael wanted to make sure that I was conveying to Ali. At a certain point in the song, there are moments where I forget about Ali and I’m thinking about Miss Liza Jane’s backstory and such, but it was never intentional for it to hit people like it seems to hit people.

How do you react to being able to hear the response to the power of your work on the other side of the footlights?
The primary thing that I’ve wanted to do as an actor is make people feel. I thought it would be absolutely magical to be able to say, sing, or do something that will cause another human being to think about things in another way, and maybe consider doing something in their life a different way, to really get into somebody’s heart and move them. Even in comedy I feel the same way. To get somebody to laugh from their gut is such a gift. So many people try and fail, but some people do it masterfully. And so, it means so much to me when people talk about that. Very often, it actually brings me to tears.

Miss Liza Jane is such a mysterious figure in the play, and yet your performance allows us to know everything about her.
Reading it, she was a mystery. We don’t know much about her. It would be easy as an actor to play off whatever the audience response would be to her. I didn’t want to do that — I’ve done that as a younger actor and it’s very unsatisfying. You kind of feel like a ship with no anchor, drifting from one night to the other and using whatever blows in your direction. I very much did not want that to be the case with her.

I worked on her backstory up until a week or two into rehearsal for Broadway. I reached out to one of my acting mentors who is 79 years old and still coaches and had him work with me on Liza Jane. It reminded me of utilizing the imagination for the backstory. As we get older, we tend not to rely on that as much. We tend to put everything into a reality-based way of playing. And he said, “use your imagination.” That fluffed her up even more for me.

I love that about acting. I love the science of it. I love that there’s always something new to discover. Even Shoshana Bean and I, we have one scene together and we keep finding new things and playing off each other. It’s like, “What’s going to happen tonight?” Let’s see where she’s coming from, let’s see where I’m coming from. I look forward to it.

There are not many shows where everybody has a full arc, particularly people of color. Usually, the lead has a full arc, but hardly anyone else. And the way Michael directed even the ensemble, they all have their own arc. It’s very satisfying as a performer. You feel, by the end, that you have really left everything on the stage. There’s nothing left to say.

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Kecia Lewis as Miss Liza Jane in the Public Theater production of Hell’s Kitchen
(© Joan Marcus)

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