The star of Donna Sum­mer’s hit mu­si­cal on speak­ing up for queer women of colour like her­self in New York City, and why she isn’t here for any of your toxic la­bels.

Gay Times Magazine - - CULTURE - Im­age Joan Mar­cus Words Si­mon But­ton

For Ari­ana DeBose, the im­por­tance of Black His­tory Month can­not be un­der­stated. “You have to know where you’ve been in or­der to know where you’re go­ing,” says the Broad­way star, who is cur­rently bring­ing the house down in Sum­mer: The Donna Sum­mer Mu­si­cal. “The thing about the his­tory books is that tra­di­tion­ally they’re not writ­ten by peo­ple like me - they’re not writ­ten by women, they’re not writ­ten by peo­ple of colour, they’re writ­ten by white men. That’s why it’s great to cel­e­brate all eth­nic­i­ties, like there’s a Na­tive Amer­i­can His­tory Month, and rightly so.”

The ques­tion of whether Black His­tory Month has a spe­cial res­o­nance for the LGBTQ com­mu­nity brings a re­sound­ing: “Of course. Let’s be real, when was the last time you read about a queer black woman in the his­tory books or a gay black man?” Speak­ing in more gen­eral terms, the ac­tress – who was in the orig­i­nal Hamil­ton en­sem­ble – adds: “It’s very rarely men­tioned that Alexan­der Hamil­ton had sex with men. In my opin­ion the LGBTQ com­mu­nity is thriv­ing and in or­der to cel­e­brate us why wouldn’t we want to cel­e­brate the sto­ries that have come be­fore us? It’s a very tragic story but the fact we’re able to talk about Whit­ney Hous­ton and ac­knowl­edge she loved a woman - that’s amaz­ing.”

27-year-old Ari­ana hap­pily came out pub­licly a few years ago and, speak­ing down the phone from her Man­hat­tan home, de­clares: “I feel I have ab­so­lutely noth­ing to hide about who I’m with and who I love. But be­ing a black queer woman can be com­pli­cated. In fact, I walked down the street ear­lier to­day hold­ing some­one’s hand and this older African-Amer­i­can gen­tle­man looked at us and was like ‘You gay bitches, go to hell’. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to me that that’s what you still get from a cer­tain fac­tion. I live in New York City, which is meant to be one of the most ac­cept­ing cities in the world, yet things like that still hap­pen.”

How did she re­act? “You have a choice; to­day I chose to ig­nore it, to­mor­row per­haps I will choose to have some­thing to say about it. But the only way I can lead is by ex­am­ple. I choose to be open and I don’t ac­cept any­one else’s truth about me. That’s his view and it has noth­ing to do with me.”

Hav­ing trained as a dancer in her home state of North Carolina and com­peted on So You Think You Can Dance? be­fore break­ing into mu­si­cal the­atre, Ari­ana feels the arts are a haven for the queer com­mu­nity. “I’ve al­ways felt re­ally safe to be my­self,” she says, “so when I started dating women pub­licly, it wasn’t a thing. Com­ing out to me wasn’t a big deal. I was just liv­ing my life and liv­ing my truth. Be­cause of the na­ture of our work in the arts, we are very lov­ing and very ac­cept­ing and that’s why I of­ten say ‘If you want real change you should start with the arts’ be­cause that sort of hate doesn’t breathe within our com­mu­nity.”

If Ari­ana doesn’t la­bel her­self as gay it’s be­cause she doesn’t like la­bels in gen­eral. “I work in a busi­ness that con­stantly tries to put me in a box, like ‘You’re just a dancer’ or ‘You’re just this or that’. Also, my mother is white, my father was Puerto Ri­can, so I don’t iden­tify with any spe­cific eth­nic­ity ei­ther. When I walk down the street, I present as black and I do have African-Amer­i­can lin­eage, but I’m also part-Ital­ian.

“If I choose a term it’s ‘hu­man’ be­cause I be­lieve hu­mans should be al­lowed to love who they choose re­gard­less of gen­der. For me, it’s about en­ergy and con­ver­sa­tion and that tan­gi­ble but elu­sive thing of chem­istry that you can’t quite put your fin­ger on. It could be a man, it could be a woman, I’m just in­ter­ested in know­ing and lov­ing a hu­man.”

Since com­ing out she’s been of­fered a few “queer-iden­ti­fy­ing roles” and has an in­ter­est­ing take on that. “I think it’s more about try­ing to find the per­son who is com­fort­able within that type of char­ac­ter. I will say, I’ve watched plenty of tele­vi­sion series and plenty of movies where I’m watch­ing a char­ac­ter who is sup­posed to present as gay and I don’t buy it for a minute. I’d rather put my­self for­ward be­cause I’m com­fort­able with women and com­fort­able with pre­sent­ing that type of story and I know it’s gonna be hon­est rather than watch some­thing in­au­then­tic.” In the Sum­mer mu­si­cal, Ari­ana is Disco Donna to Storm Lever’s Duck­ling Donna and LaChanze’s Diva Donna. Sign­ing on for the show about the Queen Of Disco, she didn’t know much about Donna’s back­story - which, the play re­veals, in­cluded sex­ual abuse, drug ad­dic­tion, even near-sui­cide. “I only knew her name and her voice so I was in­trigued. I also found I could iden­tify with her. The im­pres­sion I got is that she of­ten felt un­der­es­ti­mated and I’ve felt that in cer­tain phases of my ca­reer. It’s im­por­tant that in 2018 we pay at­ten­tion to sto­ries like Donna’s and that we don’t back­track. She came up at a time when you didn’t speak up for your­self and you lit­er­ally did what you were told, but she fought for what she wanted.”

Then there’s the fact Donna was a role model for women of colour. “She was a fe­male artist of colour who ap­peared to be sex­u­ally free,” Ari­ana says of a woman who recorded Love To Love You Baby as if she was hav­ing a 17-minute or­gasm. “She wasn’t like Diana Ross and the Supremes. She was her own thing. She did things no other woman had done be­fore her.”

LGBTQ fans flock to the show and the stage door, sužes­t­ing that all is for­given when it comes to Donna’s al­leged ho­mo­pho­bia. As ad­dressed in the show, the born-again-Chris­tian ap­par­ently made an odi­ous re­mark about ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.

“And that’s some­thing I wres­tled with, whether we should in­clude it or not,” Ari­ana ad­mits, “be­cause al­though she wrote a let­ter to ACT UP af­ter­wards, she didn’t ac­tu­ally apol­o­gise. She quotes scrip­ture and says ‘I love you, Donna’ but that’s not re­ally an apol­ogy.

“But through talk­ing to her fam­ily I learned that as her life was com­ing to a close, she saw things a bit clearer. My con­clu­sion is that while she was an icon she was also a hu­man and we all make mis­takes. Part of telling her story is ad­mit­ting she was hu­man and you can love some­one and not al­ways like the things they do. That’s where I landed with that.”

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