The world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, first organized in 1871 to tour and raise funds for college, shattered racial barriers in the U.S. and abroad, entertaining kings and queens. For centuries, the bold a cappella African American ensemble born on the campus of Fisk University has blended their rich voices together sharing a heritage of suffering, strength and endurance. Now, these well-known uplifting spirituals and hymns including “Wade in the Water,” “Ain’t That Good News,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” can be seen in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in this a cappella performance. To purchase tickets for the show, go to Arena’s website.
Katherine Thomas takes on the role of alto Minnie Tate, who was one of the youngest members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This will be Katherine’s Arena Stage debut, but she has been most recently seen in Ragtime and The All Night Strut! She answers our My Career Choice questions.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Watching my eldest sister sing “Your Daddy’s Son” in a local musical revue, when I was 6, and singing along to OBC Recordings with both of my sisters throughout my childhood.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
Ever since I started singing musical theatre music, as a kid, I’ve been so attracted to the way I could convey emotions through singing songs of this genre. The way the music supports or drives the lyrics in a good musical theatre song, can have huge effects on a listener. I love experiencing those effects and I love creating them. I love telling stories, and especially through song. It has always felt natural.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
At seven years old, I started doing the local summer musical, in my hometown, Kenosha, WI, with my two sisters. I continued to do so, every summer, up to high school. I started voice lessons in 8th grade. My high school had (still has) a very strong theatre program, led by Holly Stanfield. She really had the biggest impact on me and my decision to do this as a career. She was a central player in my preparation for this profession. I was super blessed to get into my dream musical theatre program at the University of Michigan, and graduated in 2012.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
The amount of people who were encouraging greatly outnumbers those who were discouraging. I’ve always had very supportive, friends, family, and mentors.
Katherine Alexis Thomas
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
In 2013, I did doubt my decision, and I stopped auditioning and performing for a few years. I moved from New York City to Chicago, to be near family. I let my Equity card get revoked. My self esteem was at a plateau and I didn’t believe I had what it takes to do theatre. I didn’t really make a career change, but I worked day jobs, and occasionally sang backup for my sister’s band for about three years.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
In 2016, I heard Brenda Didier – a Chicago based director/choreographer, who I’d worked with in high school – was doing Dreamgirls at a Chicago theatre I grew up seeing my eldest sister perform in. With knowing Brenda, and being familiar with the theatre, and the show, it just felt like the time to jump back in. After the longest break from performing I’ve ever had, I was nervous to audition, but it felt like if I was cast in that production, I’d be in a supportive environment. I was cast as Lorrell and really fell in love with her character. It felt like I was finally my full self again once I was performing.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Growing up, and even into college, I really struggled with body image shame and insecurity. I was overweight as a child, and was frequently reminded of it. Being biracial also became more confusing when applied to the world of theatre. For years, as an adult, I ruled myself out for certain roles because, based on previous casting, I’d been conditioned to think I’m not skinny, light, or dark enough to play them. I love to sing golden age soprano ingenue songs, but never believed I’d be cast in those parts. I must say, this is still a work in progress. I see a small amount of African American and biracial women being cast as leads in golden age musicals, but not enough, in my opinion. I needed to shift my mindset from “waiting to see women (other than Audra McDonald , who is an icon) who look like me represent in these types of roles” to “I am going to be a representation for women who look like me, and play these types of roles.”
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
If I had the skill to play an instrument, I’d say that would be one of the most useful, but unfortunately I play air guitar only. I have to say that being patient and trusting are super important, useful skills. As actors, I believe a lot of us think so much about the future because we know most productions, or shows aren’t permanent. I know, for me, it often occurs while I’m already in the process of performing one project – if I don’t have something lined up, I’m thinking, “oh shoot, what will I do when this ends? Will I have to go back to my day job? When will I book something that’s open ended or long engagement?” I constantly need to remind myself to trust that I am where I’m meant to be, doing what I’m meant to do (even when I’m working my day job), and my path is unique to me. I have my goals, and I must be patient while I work toward them, and truly lean into the experiences that strengthen me as an artist and human along the way.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the fact that I can say I am doing what I dreamed of doing as a child.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
My greatest piece of advice for those entering this profession is to get to know yourself deeply, outside of this profession. Get to like who you are when you’re not on the stage or in the audition room. Take time to get to know people from all walks of life. At some point, most of us spend a lot of time not booking gigs. It can take a toll on your psyche and really create doubt if you don’t truly believe in your own potential and/or multifaceted capabilities. If you know, in your core, that you are an artist, and you don’t have to question it, then anyone you meet, and everything else you do or experience outside of this art form, can have a positive influence on your artistry. As Stanislavski put it, “Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.”
Top: (L to R) Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Zonya Love (Georgia Gordon), Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) and Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.