Arts·Black Light

Why Canada's biggest R&B divas are doing musical theatre

It's more than just a gig. Jully Black, Janisa and Deborah Cox reveal why they love the stage.

It's more than just a gig. Jully Black, Janisa and Deborah Cox reveal why they love the stage

Jully Black stars in Caroline, Or Change. The musical, which takes place during the Civil Rights Movement, plays Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre to Feb. 16. (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Obsidian Theatre)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

Earlier this week, Jully Black made her musical theatre debut with the opening of Caroline, or Change. Playing now at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, the musical marks a new chapter for the woman dubbed "Canada's Queen of R&B."

Black is a Juno Award-winning performer, and since the late '90s she has been an indelible presence in the Canadian music industry. She's also branched out into acting with 'Da Kink in My Hair (both the stage production and television show) and hosting (CTV's eTalk) — and in her spare time, she checks white privilege on national television. She's a household name for Canadian R&B fans, but Caroline, or Change may introduce her talents to a whole new audience. 

In recent years, numerous stages have welcomed the talents of Canadian R&B singers: Juno-winning artist Divine Brown (Obeah Opera, Rent, Little Shop of Horrors); rock and blues singer SATE, a.k.a. Saidah Baba Talibah (Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene, for colored girls..., Treemonisha). And perhaps one of the most internationally recognized names in the world of R&B, Canadian singer Deborah Cox, has performed in numerous Broadway musicals including Aida, The Bodyguard and Jekyll & Hyde.

Deborah Cox (centre) performs in the finale of The Bodyguard. (Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Deborah Cox)

This movement is not unique to Canada. Artists south of the border including Brandy, Usher, Mýa, Toni Braxton, Jennifer Hudson and Heather Headley have all tried their hand (or maybe I should say their vocal cords) at musical theatre. All of this crossover between two of my favourite worlds — R&B and theatre — made me curious: why are so many R&B singers doing musicals?

In Canada, theatre companies have been grappling for years with the reality of shrinking numbers and very white audiences. A 2016 Canada Council study found that Canadians from racialized groups, immigrants and newcomers are less likely to attend comedy and theatre. R&B stars bring talent, but also marketing potential. They could attract an audience that wouldn't usually consider a night at the theatre.

But that rationale doesn't fully answer the question of why R&B singers are venturing into the theatre, and particularly the high-octane, uber-expressive world of musical theatre. These are two very different arenas. The untouchable cool of the music industry is a stark contrast to the impossible earnestness of musical theatre. Think about the differences between the Grammys and the Tonys. Only one of those shows could endure having Neil Patrick Harris host multiple years in a row. These worlds are miles apart.

To answer the question, I called three women who've had experience in both worlds: Jully Black, Deborah Cox and Janisa.

When I asked Black why so many R&B artists are turning to musical theatre, she talked about the unique sound and stage presence that she and her contemporaries bring to a production. Their well-honed skills as performers might be difficult to find in someone fresh out of theatre school.

"I think we bring to musical theatre what the schools can't teach," she told me. And in the theatre, she's found that her voice and her talent are held in extraordinarily high esteem. "There's an appreciation; there's a love I've never felt before. Never — I'm not exaggerating — ever in my career have I experienced it."

So does that mean she didn't feel the same appreciation from the Canadian music industry? Black is careful to state that she remains incredibly grateful for all the success she's had in her career. But she also says: "It's no different than dating. Sometimes you don't know what you want out of a relationship until you compare what you didn't have in the last relationship."

(L-R): Jully Black, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Alana Hibbert, Samantha Walkes and Stewart Adam McKensy in Caroline, or Change. (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Obsidian Theatre)

It's no secret that despite an overwhelming amount of talent, the Canadian music industry has struggled to support and retain their Canadian R&B artists. Recall the singers who arrived in Toronto from Jamaica during the '60s and '70s; they created groundbreaking music, but racism kept their songs off the radio. And then there were the artists in the '90s and early 2000s who struggled to build audiences in a country that had no tour circuit and few venues for anyone not performing rock music.

Some of our biggest names including Tamia, Melanie Fiona and Deborah Cox left the country in order to find success. More contemporary stars such as Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez and DVSN have the benefit of the internet and an industry less dependent on record labels. In this post-Drake, globally connected world, they are finding ways to carve spaces for themselves without making a permanent exit. But for those who are entering into their third or fourth decade in the biz, the ongoing hustle to reinvent must be exhausting.

I'm tempted to run with this budding theory and proclaim the theatre world as the antidote to a music industry too slow to change. It's the all-loving, all-welcoming embrace of affirmation providing the support, recognition and celebration the music industry refused to give. But I need to chill. Although Jully Black is positively glowing in her praise, this is only her first musical theatre experience and it may be an outlier.

I asked R&B singer Janisa (a.k.a. Ania Soul) about that idea of "appreciation" Black told me about. Janisa played the narrator in Factory Theatre's 2016 and 2017 productions of Salt-Water Moon, which Now Magazine named Toronto's best theatre show of the decade. She noted there was a lack of representation in the Canadian music industry that might encourage R&B singers to transition into theatre. (Canadian theatre isn't particularly known for its leadership when it comes to diversity, but that's another article for another day.)

There was also a more practical reason that led her down this path. "There's not enough work," she says, and finding the right gigs in Toronto "is a tough thing." Instead of chasing opportunities outside of the country, "you go to the stage." As a mother, being rooted in one location was a priority for Janisa. Theatre became a place where she could make money, but also keep her instrument sharp and push her brand.

Janisa in Salt-Water Moon. (Photo: Michael Tan)

Speaking with the three singers, I began to realize their experiences in musical theatre have led to more than steady work and professional appreciation. As solo artists, much of their careers were focused on their individual artistry, record sales and brands. As Black told me: "The music business, and to be an artist, a lot of times it was very narcissistic. It's very self-serving and there's people that, whether they want to or not, they have to serve your needs."

Although there is a ton of ego to be found in theatre (believe me), it remains a world deeply rooted in collaboration, and that shift stood out to Black. "With musical theatre, we are a company. We are there to make the other person look good, in fact."

It's also a world that requires the development of new skills and muscles. Cox has starred on Broadway and in shows that toured across the country, performing daily for weeks on end. Although she had experience touring and performing as a recording artist, this required a whole new skill set. "I realized very quickly that I had to develop that discipline and regimen so that I could have the stamina to just keep going and to do that many performances," she told me. 

She also recognized that musical theatre would give her a chance to push herself, and her vocal abilities, in new ways. "I wanted to show that I can sing different styles. I didn't want to just be limited by just doing one style of music. I wanted to be outside the box."

Deborah Cox stars in The Bodyguard. (Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Deborah Cox)

Cox recently released a new single ("Easy Way") and she's currently in the studio working on an album, her first in more than 10 years. Her theatre experience has impacted her craft and artistry. "I think it gave me the ability to be a little bit more fearless."

That desire to combat fear was one shared by Black. After the death of her mother, she began to look for something that would push her past her comfort zone. "I wanted to go into something that was going to scare me and stretch me vocally and even in my surroundings. I went in by myself. I didn't know anybody and it felt like the first day of school." 

Black says it's hard to measure the growth she's experienced being a part of the show, but it's given her a life-altering shift in perspective: the ability to be present. "Even in this moment that I'm speaking to you, I'm sitting upright. I'm feeling the chair under my bum and I'm present and I'm speaking and I'm rooted. I'm not thinking what you're gonna ask next."

"Imagine in life being able to literally listen to what each of us are saying, hang on to every word before we formulate our next thought. It's life-changing. It's been the best thing ever because it's the most present I've been since caring for my mom." 

Black's performance in Caroline, or Change is already receiving rave reviews and the Queen of R&B has decided, just like Deborah Cox and Janisa, to plant her flag in the world of musical theatre.

Jully Black (right) and Evan LeFeuvre in Caroline, or Change. (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Obsidian Theatre)

Caroline, Or Change. Featuring Jully Black, Damien Atkins, Oliver Dennis, Keisha T. Fraser. Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Robert McQueen. Presented by Obsidian Theatre and Musical Stage Company. To Feb. 16. Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.