Salli Richardson as Lena Horne

UPDATE: Richardson-Whitfield's Kickstarter campaign to fund the workshop for A Lady Must Live has gone live. To donate, find the campaign page HERE (or on page 2, after the interview that follows)

S&A's interview with Richardson-Whitfield follows below. 


In the upcoming bioplay A Lady Must Live, Salli Richardson-Whitfield is set to play legendary singer and actress Lena Horne. The show will explore a major span of Horne's life, taking place "backstage after the first preview of 'A Lady and Her Music,' as Horne wrestles - emotionally and physically - with her ghosts, struggling to rework her show to recount her life story with more candor and complexity."

The project has been in the works for years, and Richardson-Whitfield and her team will soon launch a fundraising campaign to workshop the play. Recently the actress made time to talk with Shadow And Act about the process of transforming into Lena Horne, as well as her other upcoming projects.

JAI TIGGETT: Back in 2011 we saw your performance as Lena Horne for the Jenesse Silver Rose Gala. Is that where this project started?

SALLI RICHARDSON-WHITFIELD: That just really sparked something. After that event, so many people came up to me, some of which she knew Lena and said, "Oh my God, you were Lena." I've always had a love For Lena Horne and I'd really love to do it as a movie, but she loved singing and being on Broadway in New York. She actually left Hollywood to go back to performing on stage. So I thought that it should be a Broadway show, because that really was true to her heart.

So then you have to find the right playwright. I got very lucky that I had to go to London for a convention. My manager knew this playwright [Rikki Beadle Blair], and I went to see his play and it blew me off my feet. I had breakfast with him and talked about it, and he wasn't quite sure. But then we found a way to get into the story and get it written. And now we need the money to do the workshop. The workshop is the first step of a production, and then you present that for the really big investors to take it to Broadway or start in LA at one of the bigger theaters.

JT: Are there still plans to eventually make it into a film?

SR: Yes. Part of it is that I really wanted people to identify me in that role. People are always throwing around singers' names that could be Lena Horne. But I think this role deserves an actress who happens to be a great singer to do it. Because Lena was a powerhouse, she has a great story to be told, and I think it needs to be done right.

"People are always throwing around singers' names that could be Lena Horne. But I think this role deserves an actress who happens to be a great singer to do it... it needs to be done right."

JT: Not everyone knows you as a singer. But apparently you've been singing for years?

SR: It's funny, because I literally was just at Regina King's house for a housewarming party. There were maybe 20 women she had over, and I had the nerve to play it for Jill Scott and Regina, and Lisa Leslie was there too. So about 30 seconds into it Lisa goes, "Is that you singing?" I go, "Yeah." And I've known Regina for 20 years. Regina goes, "What the hell?"

I said, well I came to LA kind of trying to do both, but acting kicked off. I've always loved doing this kind of music - the old standards, the kind of stuff that Lena did. I don't think you'd really get a record deal for that as a young girl. So it's just something that no one knows.

And so then once I decided to do this, it's like any muscle - if you don't use it, it's not ready. So I literally have been back with a voice coach for the last few years. The whole time I'm developing this, learning all of her songs, I started performing in clubs. If you're doing a Broadway show, you've got to be ready to sing every night. And if you're going to be Lena, you need to know what it's like to perform in those clubs and really own that. So it's been a journey of being really ready and prepared for this.

JT: Tell me about researching her for this role. 

SR: There are so many books, and there are a lot of interviews and tape on her. She does this amazing Ed Bradley interview where they say he got more out of her than anyone has, ever. So for me, it was just seeing that, and then the playwright is the one who had to do the real research to come up with his take on what our story was going to be.

JT: She lived such an interesting life, was very outspoken, and was actually blacklisted in the '50s for her political views. Did you learn anything about her life that surprised you?

SR: It was mostly that she was so angry, because she talks about how she was angry for years. And that was also what drew the playwright in to find what his story was. I didn't realize that being put up there as this beauty icon, but being hated for it, affected her so much. Because all of us, we see entertainers and we just see this smiling face. I didn't realize how hurt she was from this business, from years of thinking that you're going to be in a movie and they decide to cast a white woman in your role. Or you're in a movie, but when they go to the southern states they cut you out of the movie. That kind of stuff after a while will make you bitter.

There's a lot of things that I deal with as a black actress, where you know that if I was a white actress with the amount of work that I've done, no one would dare ask me to audition for this or that, or argue about money. You really have to step back and find a way not to get bitter or annoyed or have a thing against this white majority that runs this business. She had an anger about that, and I think it's something that black actresses and actors in general have to really check and not let it seep into your soul, because it easily can happen. So I think the story is so important, because it really is something that hasn't gone away.