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Lillias White: From Brooklyn to Broadway

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Lillias White has never been a stranger to show business. Her mother worked for Billie Holiday. Her grandmother worked for Marilyn Monroe. And her aunt Lillias, for whom she is named, was a June Taylor dancer on the Jackie Gleason show. So, when White said she wanted to pursue a career as a performer, there were no obstacles from her family. One hundred percent support helped her move from Brooklyn to Broadway. Now, decades after beginning her illustrious career on the stage and screen, White realizes the privilege of having had that support.

“My grandmother would have big dinners every Sunday and mandatory attendance to be at grandma’s house on Sunday for Sunday dinner. And, of course, it was the most beautiful food. And after the homemade desserts, homemade ice cream and cobblers and cakes and pie and my grandmother would have my grandfather clear the table and he would have to go and do the dishes. And they would put me up on top of my grandmother’s dining room table and I would sing and dance for my family,” she says.” I was always singing and there was always music going on at my house, all kinds of music. I had uncles and aunts who were artists. My uncle was a painter. He did murals and portraits and everything, and my aunt did wood-cuttings. So I had artists in my family and they encouraged me greatly to do me, to be me.”

With the matriarchs of her family having experience around highly successful women in show business, White was also warned of the dangers that could lie in her path. Her mother saw “a lot” while working for Billie Holiday. Her advice to her daughter was not to do drugs and never to move to Harlem, which was at the time a place with a lot of ways for a young woman to get into trouble.

But White always goes her own way. Asked if she listened to her mother, she bursts into laughter. “No! I live in Harlem now; I’ve lived here for over 30 years!”

White won a Tony award in 1997 for her portrayal of veteran prostitute Sonja in Cy Coleman’s The Life. She won a Daytime Emmy for her role on Sesame Street. And she was the voice of Calliope in Disney’s movie, Hercules and has appeared in numerous other films and television shows. She’s been in Broadway productions of Barnum, Dreamgirls, Carrie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Fela! and Chicago, to name just a few, as well as off-Broadway productions such as Primary Stages with Billy Porter and Tariq Trotter’s Black No More. And she’s performed concerts and cabaret shows around the world and recently released her first solo studio album Get Yourself Some Happy.

The support she had early in life has enabled White to pursue a successful career performing, although originally it was dancing that she had her heart set on. “I was always intrigued and enamored of the ballet…I just wanted to be a ballerina. I wanted to be in toe shoes.”

But, she says, she always could sing; it was a gift that came to her as a child. “I was always singing. It was something that was just incidental to me,” she recalls. Becoming an actress and singer in musicals may have had its roots in her earliest theatrical experiences, which she remembers in vivid detail.

“My mother used to take us to Radio City Music Hall. We went twice a year. We went to see the Christmas show and the Easter show every year. And there was no Ticketron or anything, so you had to go to Radio City Music Hall and wait in line to buy tickets,” she recalls. “And my mother was never late; she always got us up early. In the wintertime she’d bundle us up in really warm clothes and we’d carry thermoses of hot chocolate and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we’d get on line all cozy and warm—in the cold, but we’d be warm—and we’d wait for the box office to open. We would be the first ones in there, and there were many times when we sat in the first couple of rows.”

But White is also no stranger to film and television. While she admits “film is incredibly tedious,” the results you get with it are “worth the squeeze,” she says, explaining “I have a friend who says ‘the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.’ Well, I think that TV and film are definitely worth the squeeze and especially if it’s something that people can relate to it adds an exciting element to it.”

Still, like many performers, for White, the immediacy of the audience interaction onstage is extremely rewarding. With all the roles she’s played in top Broadway shows, asked if there’s a role she’d like to play that she hasn’t, she says thoughtfully, “I would like to play a role that I haven’t seen written yet. A love story that ends not tragically. I would love to see a love story between a Black man and a Black woman who maybe go through some kind of trial or some kind of something, but then they come out of it and they are still loving and encouraging. And you know, with pretty songs, and beautiful music, and good choreography… Something that leaves people feeling enlightened, and encouraged about life and love. And something that has some comedy to it, as well. I think that you know, particularly right now in our world, there’s so much to be sad and mad about. You know, personally, I want to laugh, I need to laugh.”

After a moment, she adds, “I’d also like to be in a long-term, high-paying, enjoyable TV show.”

Lillias White will be performing and in conversation with Seth Rudetsky at Art House, 214 Commercial St., Provincetown as part of the Broadway at the Art House series. For tickets ($50-$75/$100 for VIP) and information go to the box office or visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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