Exclusive Interview with Shaleah Adkisson

By Sheila Wickouski

Shaleah Adkisson; Photo Courtesy of Arena Stage

Arena Stage’s world premiere of Jubilee, running through June 9, brings to life the story of Fisk University’s world renowned a Capella ensemble.

Shattering racial barriers, Fisk Jubilee Singers appeared before royalty, as they shared through their rich voices, the heritage of suffering, strength and endurance. 

Shaleah Adkisson takes on the role of Mabel Lewis, one of the founders of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Mabel was born to a former enslaved woman in New Orleans, and at eight years old ran away to find work. She was 13 when she joined the ensemble and five years later she founded the Jubilee singers and began touring. Following is an exclusive interview with Adkisson.

What is some of the background research you did for this role?

The Arena Literary Department sent the cast a fantastic dramaturgical packet in early March with information about the original Jubilee Singers and specifics about the members/characters we’d each be playing. 

That’s where I got my first glimpse into the life of Mabel Lewis. Since we’ve been in rehearsal, I’ve done some additional research via the internet: finding what I can by just Google searching her name, pairing that with what I already know of post-slavery America and trying to put the pieces together for myself from there.

My job now is to look at all of the pieces and try to get a clear picture of the 13 year-old who joined this group of singers and how she fit into their world as well as the world we’re creating with this show. 

Jubilee has over three dozen songs. How does the music tie the characters together in this story?

Music is what brought the Jubilee Singers together in the first place. In this story, the music is essentially the thread that weaves the tapestry together and seems to create an indelible bond amongst the characters. Those of us playing them must have a great deal of trust in each other in order to navigate these arrangements with virtually no one person at the helm. 

Your career has included a variety of musical styles, but Tazewell Thompson’s play is an innovative approach because he uses 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.” Has this style made the process different from your previous work on the stage? What do you think this music adds to the performance?

My musical foundation began in church and was nurtured through much choral singing—particularly in a cappella ensembles—so I assumed this production would feel very familiar.  

HOWEVER!  Singing in church or performing in a concert as a member of a chorus is WILDLY different than what we’re being asked to do with Jubilee!

This process has been like no other theatrical experience I’ve had. And I think the stakes feel higher than usual for me because we’re dealing in reality: walking in the shoes of a woman (and a people) who helped pave the way for me is important. I want to do my best to honor her legacy and, by extension, the legacies of all the original Jubilee Singers. 

Additionally, I think this music is its OWN character in the story! The songs in this production have such rich history; just saying some of the titles paints vivid pictures in the mind. That richness paired with Dianne Adams McDowell’s arrangements and music direction is going to take audiences on a truly unforgettable emotional journey.

What do you think audiences will take away from this production? What do you think you’ll take away from this production and from Mabel Lewis?  

I believe audiences will leave this show feeling absolute jubilation! From the songs, which are part of the very foundation of America, to the story of these young people and their honorable mission to save a foundering school, I think anyone who sees Jubilee will be moved and inspired.

From this production, I hope I take better breath support from singing long phrases in a corset!

In all seriousness, I know I’ll take away a family. This cast is so special and working with them alongside our creative team and all the folks at Arena who take such good care of us brings me such joy.

From Mabel, I hope I take a little tenacity and a lot of loyalty. Tenacity from the little girl who fled a bad situation, changed her name and embarked on a new life all on her own; loyalty from the woman who gave of her talents to save a school and, when that was accomplished, kept showing up to watch it grow.

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