Mikki White may be known more for her singing than her acting, but she likes a challenge. Fort Wayne audiences have the opportunity to see her challenge herself in a big way in her next production: a one-woman show about another singer/actress, Ethel Waters.A former Miss Fort Wayne Black Expo winner and Miss T.E.E.N. Indiana, White says she was a friendly child who was active at school and “pretty mature for my age. I always hung around older folks because I thought they were interesting.”
White says she was always interested in music and theater, but things didn’t always turn out as expected. As a freshman at Elmhurst High School, she tried her best to win a supporting role in the school’s production of Peter Pan.
“I auditioned for the role of Wendy since she was the female lead,” she says. “I knew it would be a struggle for my parents to bring me to rehearsal each morning by 7 a.m., so I marked on the audition form that I would not accept any other role.”
The casting decision was down to her and another student. “She was a senior. Very pretty and very popular, with blonde hair and blue eyes,” White says. “The director asked her, ‘Would you cut your hair for the part?’ She said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ He then asked me, and I said ‘No.’”
The next day, White was surprised to be given the lead role of Peter Pan. The pretty blonde was cast as Wendy. White says now that she hadn’t even realized Peter Pan could be played by a girl or she would have listed it as the role she wanted.
She comes from an extremely musical family; she and her family sang in church, and later her siblings began to record R&B music. They struggled to break into the music industry but never quite reached the super stardom they had dreamed of.
Nevertheless, they came close. White writes in her autobiography, Purple Reigned on Me, about how she and her sisters talked their way into Paisley Park recording studio in Minneapolis. This led to a gig as Prince’s backup singers for several years.
White returned to Fort Wayne where she continues to perform. “I have cut two CDs. I wrote all the lyrics and sang all of my background vocals. I have sung for many people, games, concerts and events.”
She has also performed in several stage plays, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Two Trains Running at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre. She learned a great deal from watching her fellow actors in those productions.
“I am influenced by any actor’s passion and ability to make me forget I am watching a performance,” she says.
White also believes in the power of theater to make audience members both empathetic and self-reflective. “Sometimes one can appreciate their life better by looking into the life of someone else,” she says. “I try to live through the characters I play.”
Her current role gives her plenty of opportunity to put those lessons to work. She is starring in the First Presbyterian Theater production His Eye is on the Sparrow.
“This show makes me reflect upon my own life,” says White. “It makes me think about the choices I’ve made and what’s important. Ethel never had any children, and I can identify with her as someone who has struggled with that as well. During every scene I learn a little more.”
The production poses a unique challenge for White. Aside from music director and show pianist Jeanette Walsh (who happened to have been the music teacher at Elmhurst when White attended), she is essentially carrying the one-woman show entirely on her own.
“I have never taken part in a play where I sing, dance, and do absolutely everything by myself,” she says.
Such a role requires an even deeper level of preparation than usual. Over the years, White has come to learn the importance of rehearsal – sometimes the hard way.
“I wrote a song and had performed it many times,” she recalls. “As a matter of fact, I had never practiced the song, ever. Well, I happened to be in a performance, and I starting singing my song. I totally forgot all the words and had to make absolutely everything up, including the chorus. Moral of the story: always practice and do not take for granted that you do not need to prepare.”
Thom Hofrichter, the director of His Eye is on the Sparrow, can attest to her level of preparedness.
“Mikki is one of the hardest working actors I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “She brings to rehearsals a wonderful sense of self, a great work ethic and a terrific disposition. She is a kind human being and is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.”
Hofrichter calls the casting of White in this role a no-brainer.
“One person holding the stage for 100 minutes over the course of two hours is a daunting task,” he says. “Mikki is a seasoned performer, having done many theatrical shows since her high school days and working professionally around town in many clubs as a jazz singer.
Rehearsals have run the gamut of emotions for White.
“There are times I get teary-eyed,” she says, “but many parts of her story make me laugh.”
The production touches on many of the personal tragedies Waters encountered in her life, including poverty, childhood neglect, and marital abuse.
“There are issues in her life that I cannot personally identify with,” says White, “but this is where acting comes in.”
White says that Waters’ story is an incredibly moving one.
“The story hits upon some serious issues like racism, inequality as a performer, and sexuality,” she says. “There are some high points and some sadness – real life.”
Hofrichter hopes audiences will take away some valuable lessons from the production. “Ethel Waters was a remarkable woman who grew up under extremely trying circumstances, and still found a way to thrive. I hope people will realize that no matter how distant from God your life may take you, there is always a path back.”
He also thinks the show is an important history and cultural lesson on racism.
“Audiences will be reminded how horribly racist our country was in the first half of the 20th century, and how many of those problems still linger with us,” he says. “There is an old saying, ‘The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons.’ I don’t think this country has yet expunged all of the sins of our forebears. And until we can address some of these residual inequities, the all too frequent racial tensions in this country will not magically disappear.”
With all that in mind, White is concentrating on learning her lines, songs, and choreography so she can do the late Ethel Waters proud. She says she feels fortunate not only to possess the talent to perform but to have the flexibility as well. “I have the ability to manipulate my schedule, learn choreography and songs and manage my work and family life without pulling my hair out,” she says with a smile before adding, “kind of.”
By day she is a human resources manager for SCP Limited.
“It’s a job I absolutely love,” she says. She also keeps active – working out, playing volleyball, and recently walking the half marathon in Fort 4Fitness.
“I have always been interested in singing and drama, but I never got involved in sports when I was younger,” she says. “But I have always liked to challenge myself.”
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July 11 • Foellinger Theatre