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Tendayi Kuumba: An ‘Unpredictable Journey’ to Broadway

September 2022

Tendayi Kuumba, C'2010

When she was 15, Tendayi Kuumba, C’2010, set her sights on Broadway. She already had the moves and chops to make it there. She began dancing at age three and made her musical theater debut at 7. By age 10, she snagged her first role in a jazz opera. After attending the North Atlanta High School of Performing Arts, she matriculated to Spelman to study drama and dance. Fast forward eight years — after multiple stints choreographing and performing for various New York dance companies — and the multitalented, self-described “old soul” received an offer that landed her on a clear path to the Great White Way.

David Byrne, who needed to add to his band of mostly musicians a dancer and vocalist for his critically acclaimed “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” asked her to join his show, which at the time was on a 27-country tour.

“The journey has been unpredictable,” said Kuumba. “The call came at a time when I was least focused on getting to Broadway. It’s when I started focusing on my own creations that it came along — when I was at my most in terms of owning myself as an artist. And it came in a nonconventional way. I’m glad my name was in the right room, and I had the right network.” The role as a dancer and vocalist was a natural progression in Kuumba’s career.

Before joining Byrne’s tour, she performed and choreographed with Urban Bush Women, which connects movement, sound and storytelling. “It’s second nature to me to have music, dance, movement all in the same chord,” said Kuumba, whose dance background is a combination of modern ballet, tap, hip-hop and West African, and whose musical background is jazz and musical theater. In September 2021, “American Utopia,” which received a Special Tony Honor, returned to Broadway at the St. James Theatre (it premiered at the Hudson Theater in 2019) … and it was curtainup on Kuumba’s Broadway dream. She also was in Spike Lee’s acclaimed film version of the concert, which won two 2021 Primetime Creative Arts awards and was nominated for a 2022 Grammy award. The film made its world premiere opening at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival; began streaming on HBO Max in fall 2020; and played in movie theaters nationwide for a one-night-only theatrical event Sept. 15, 2021.

Just two weeks after “American Utopia” closed on April 3, 2022, Kuumba was playing Lady in Brown in Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” which ran through June 5 at the Booth Theatre. Broadway is replete with entertainers who are triple threats, but as an actress, dancer/choreographer, vocalist and songwriter, Kuumba is a rare quadruple threat. She credits the “beautiful liberal arts” experience she received at Spelman for her versatility. “Knowing we were not at a conservatory made us push our love for the arts even more,” she said. “It also gave us the freedom to do many different things,” including pursuing different disciplines and collaborating across genres.

The experience also wove together a close-knit community of SpelHouse friends, who more than a decade ago helped Kuumba heal from a terrible accident that threatened her dance career and who, today, are coming to see her dance across the Broadway stage. “I love what Spelman has been to me in terms of a sisterhood, as a HBCU family, as a community,” she said. “They don’t always think of HBCUs in the arts community, but there are many of us out here supporting each other.”

By Vickie G. Hampton, a full-time editorial consultant specializing in editing writing and publication management from concept to delivery.

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