Awa Sal Secka has built up a loyal following in Washington, D.C., after a string of high profile performances in musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Into the Woods, The Wiz, Cinderella, and Avenue Q. This month she will appear in Blackbeard at Signature Theatre. She took time out from rehearsals to answer our questions. To purchase tickets for Blackbeard, go to Signature’s website.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
When I was in elementary school my sister was gifted a CD of the Grease soundtrack and I remember listening to it on repeat and bringing it in for show-and-tell and it being the best thing ever to me. I’d never realized how much that experience of hearing a story being told through music would lie dormant in my mind until I needed it, until I needed theatre, as a means of expression and as a profession. After that occurrence, I moved away from theatrical things, and fell into music.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
That I get to do what I love for a living! This is the thing that I enjoy the most in my life, so I’m grateful that I get to do it every day AND that my doing it keeps me alive!
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I went to school for music education and intended to be a vocal pedagogist. I wanted to teach people who couldn’t afford it how to sing properly so that they could make a living doing it. I found that while I was learning music theory, the deeper we got into it, the more the learning process was stripped the music of all of its story and it’s life. It became math to me, and it made it very difficult for me to enjoy absorbing the material – it became something that I couldn’t love. I did some thinking and considered theater as a good medium of story and music, and then it stuck and I loved it! I graduated from Montgomery College with an associates in theater performance, and it was the best decision I ever made.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Some people were discouraging, but it was out of love and I recognize that. No one really thinks of theater as a way to make a living or to be fulfilled financially. I understand that concern and can appreciate it deeply, but at the same time I knew that telling stories through music was something that I wanted to do. I never knew how to get there, but I knew I wanted it. Theater wasn’t a part of my upbringing or my parents culture, so discovering it in my young adulthood I think was a part of the reason why I could be forward enough about it being my career that even when there was concern and discouragement, I didn’t have the wherewithal to pay it any mind. I was so focused – as opposed to if I was younger I’m sure it would be harder to ignore those things and I’d second guess my choices and maybe not end up doing it at all.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Never. I’ve considered other careers to help supplement in terms of making a living, but I never have regretted doing what I do.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’d definitely say it was in 2016 when I did Jesus Christ Superstar a Signature Theatre! I was just five or so years into performing and it was becoming more and more frequent. That was the first big house I’d worked at, and I was in a featured role; it was the first time I pushed myself as a vocalist and as an actor and a dancer and it really changed so much for me, opened up my world in so many ways and I’m so grateful to Signature Theatre for that.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I definitely have to say that performing is a full-time job and you can forget yourself sometimes. Then life will remind you and re-center you and it’s hard to be ready for that. And it can be hard to leave life away from the rehearsal room or from the stage, especially with a job that’s so centered on the idea of communicating feeling. Especially since so many of the stories we tell are always so, so parallel to us. So I’ve learned to either use it or lose it. Those inevitable things that we feel as human beings whether it be stress or emotion or tension – if they come along, if I can use it in the show then I will, if it works within the truth of the storytelling. If I can’t then I must let it be, and give myself back to the story.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I’d say my ability to connect emotionally. I think that my toolbox as an actor is not yet full and I don’t think it ever is. I think there’s always room to learn more about your craft and what you can do to share and communicate information as an actor. That said, I think on a base level, I connect emotionally to people very deeply and very sensitively which makes it a lot easier for me to understand the perspectives of my characters. That’s really come in handy, especially when I haven’t particularly agreed with the actions of my character.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’d say I’m most proud of being able to perform on stages with the people who taught me, and the people I looked up to you when I was in school learning how to kind of put together my toolbox! Being able to sing beside folks like Bobby Smith and Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton and be in the same building with Kenyatta Rogers and Ines Nassara is a dream come true. How often is it that you get to work with the people who gave you the courage and the tools to be what you wanted to be? I’m very blessed in that way, and forever grateful.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Never stop, never stop, never stop. No matter what, if you know in your bones that this is what you’re supposed to be doing, just keep moving forward. There are going to be times where it seems like nobody sees you or nobody’s listening. That’s okay! If they’re not, keep doing it for YOU. The people who are supposed to see you will, and they will help you when the time comes – there are going to be times when you feel like you are mistaken and that this is not right for you. I beg you to dissuade that feeling in yourself and to just keep pressing forward. It is so worth it once you get to where you want to be!