by Tevin Gall
In keeping with the previous three years of stage hits – The Sound of Music (2012), The King and I (2013), Jesus Christ Superstar (2014), among others – locally-founded JCS Productions, headed by John Henry Smith, Creative Producer and Chris Smith, Production Manager revived last year’s semi-autobiographical show, Tom Stolz’s Mahalia the Musical, inspired by the life and timeless music of gospel singer and civil rights pioneer, Mahalia Jackson.
In 2015, Music Festival Champion Llettesha Sylvester won the audience over night after night with no understudy. This year, Sylvester steps back into the lead role, but not without some exceptionally good support. Actress and jazz and soul singer, Nataki Lendor, takes the stage at Queen’s Hall to share the demanding-yet-satisfying role and to give her own take on the “Queen of Gospel.”
“I would walk around the house singing “I Will Always Love You’.” Lendor told us wthat when she was eight years old, her mother, upon realising her daughter’s potential, decided to enrol her in the children’s church choir. “I’ve been singing ever since,” she beamed. Blessed with natural talent which was honed by her work with the church choir, music was Lendor’s mainstay, but it was during secondary school that she began to embrace the acting side of the performer that she was to become.
“I went to Point Fortin Junior Secondary, where the music teacher, Lois Lewis encouraged me to join Jeune Agape; that’s when I fell in love with performing.” Under Lewis’ guidance as the musical director of the group, Lendor became acquainted with stagecraft, given the animated nature of Trinbagonian folk music, the mainstay of the choir. It was no surprise that Lendor chose music as her field of study at the Caribbean Nazarene College, where she graduated in 2011.
Becoming the Queen of Gospel
When asked about preparing the role, Lendor explained that she took great pleasure in learning the lines and becoming Mahalia. “I love building a character, figuring out her nuances. This was the most interesting and exciting part of the process for me.” But although she found great freedom in assuming the role and being given the space to portray her own version of the iconic gospel singer, Lendor explained that the challenge of having to remember that Mahalia Jackson was, in fact, a real person was “a little restricting” for her. “Researching her and figuring her out and then adding it to my interpretation made for a more authentic portrayal,” she resolved.
This research process began even before she auditioned for the part. “YouTube was my friend during the process,” she chuckled. Going more in depth into her preparation, Lendor continued, “The director, Raymond Choo Kong admonished me to look at her performances and different documentaries [as well as to] listen to what people would say about her. Inasmuch as the script informs you, there is still so much outside of that that you’d need to know to inform how you’d build the character.”
Describing her character, Lendor told Newsday that quite a few of Mahalia’s traits aligned with her own: “She’s very sassy, she knows what she wants and what she’s about and she’s not going to let anybody tell her otherwise. She believed that if you [weren’t] going to do something with excellence, don’t bother doing it at all.” She continued, “Everybody had their opinion but the most important opinion to her was God’s. I may not be the most outgoing person but when you get to know me, you get all the sass,” she laughed.
Lendor admitted that the parallels between her and her character didn’t exactly pull her out of her comfort zone as an actress but that she would readily jump into the shoes of a character whose attributes didn’t match her own. “I [would] enjoy the challenge; it’s something that I really want to try. It stretches you as an actor and as a person to see things from another perspective.”
How is the story of Mahalia Jackson relevant to a contemporary Trinbagonian audience?
“The Civil Rights Movement was about justice, for everyone to be seen equally. At dress rehearsal, during one of the scenes with Martin Luther King, it hit me after doing it all this time that somebody killed this man because he wanted better for his people. [Many people] are oppressed in some form or fashion and I think that Martin Luther King Jr’s boldness and Mahalia’s support for him [and his cause] are important [examples]. If we all stand up for what we believe in, [our country] would be a much better place to live in.”
“The most powerful parts of the show for me are Mahalia’s scenes with Martin Luther King, Jr and seeing how she supported him,” Lendor told WMN. She expressed that their courage and honesty of expression serve as examples for us all to live by. “To support each other, to be ourselves, to live in our truths and not feel discriminated against or ostracised because of who we are,” the actress affirmed. “I want people to leave knowing more about Mahalia Jackson,” Lendor explained. She related having told some young people about her role and they didn’t know the iconic gospel singer. “That blew my mind,” Lendor told WMN.
Lendor shared with WMN the special sisterhood that developed between her and Sylvester, with whom she shares the role. “I go to her for advice. Aside from being an amazing actress and singer, as a person, she’s wonderful, always encouraging me. As we’re sharing [the role], another person might have responded differently but she really has supported me. I don’t think that I’d have been able to do this without her support.”
The future is bright
Like most actors, Lendor has a list of dream roles that she’d like to play at some point. Rafiki in The Lion King, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and Dreamgirls’ Effie White – the character known for the iconic torch song, “And I am Telling You” – are at the top of her list. With the powerhouse vocals of these three characters, once can just imagine the rich and potent qualities of Lendor’s soulful voice.
The actress and singer plans as her next academic endeavour, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Acting, for which she has already completed the prerequisites within the BA Musical Theatre programme at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A true performer, Lendor revealed that the rigours of musical theatre are a joy to her. “It doesn’t seem like work; it’s something that I enjoy doing that I happen to be paid to do. I want the audience to enjoy themselves with me.”