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Omaha Reader 11/09/06
Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha's north side, she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career on Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder, her dream comes true Thursday, Nov. 9 when a revival of Les Misérables opens at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed in the program as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.
Before Les Miz is over, the 28-year-old no doubt will get a chance to display her bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY's Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.
Fame's story about young performers' big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, “Mabel's Prayer,” which highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It's very, very personal.”
It all began for Smith at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother, the late Pauline Smith, and mother, Llana Smith, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother's urging, Smith and her two older brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she'd crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and fine that neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim, “You sure can sing, Quiana,” Llana Smith recalled. “We were just a real creative house.”
Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children's Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative … so diverse,” he said. “She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she's so fun that it's hard not to like her.”
Performing still was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”
She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice for Dreamgirls and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive director Linda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda's husband) cast her as an ensemble member.
When the leading lady phoned in just before rehearsal the evening before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death in the family, Mike Runice followed his instinct. In classic a-star-is-born fashion, he plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.
“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It's up to you, kid.' I don't know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it's such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage.”
What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.
“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early,” she said. “From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”
Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “If it wasn't for that experience I'd probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn't bad, but I wouldn't be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”
In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsibility she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,'” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”
Learning the Biz
To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith's stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.
Smith dreamed of doing Les Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I'm going to be on Broadway …' She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know … she's on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who's pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he's sure, isn't far off. “Once the right role shows up, it's a done deal.”
A scholarship led Smith to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she studied drama for two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs out east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo-soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn't as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”
While she's had few doubts about performing being her destiny, her certainty faltered when she received repeated rejection from college theater arts programs. She sought her dad's counsel. “I said, ‘Dad … how do I know this is for me?' He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it's what you breathe, right? It's what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?' I was like, ‘Yeah … ' ‘OK. Then that's what you should be doing.' And so I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca [College].”
Smith and a classmate became the first black female grads of the New York school's small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,” she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, it doesn't have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R & B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”
Her experience inspired an idea for a book she's collaborating on with her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith. Accompanying her father's profile photographs, she interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We're rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don't take anything from anybody. They're divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say no. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.”
Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who's Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.
Blowing the House Down
Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe's Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show's star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn't go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. I learned … about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”
For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Smith was a regular cast member. Then she ventured twice to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Blues in the Night.
“We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador,” she said. “People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”
She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she's on the cusp of something big. “It's a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it's not me that's doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly because it's taken some people years and years to get to this point. It's nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That's what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”
While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she's sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I'm a leading lady now. I'm a leading lady every day,” she said. “It's not about having a great voice. It's not about being a star. It's about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It's about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life … and I think I've got that.”
Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin's wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother's Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She'd like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.
Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She's not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyoncé in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in … ” She wants it all — a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and, yes, even performing opera.
Smith's contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple , which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.
Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network's BETJ mini-series, “A Royal Birthday.” The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz offshoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from “CSI” and gospel artist David Hollister.
Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she's fine with that, too, she said, because “I'm doing something I truly love.”