Before the lights went out at the Super Bowl two weeks ago, Beyonce's halftime show included a brief (and not-so-surprise) appearance from her former Destiny's Child bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, who arrived onstage via spring-loaded platforms. Though each found herself propelled into the air that night, neither could compete with the career heights of Mrs. Carter herself, whose professional achievements have overshadowed those of her compatriots since they disbanded in 2005.
But Williams, who hails from Rockford, hasn't been idle in the intervening years. In addition to her solo output, the Illinois State University alum has carved out a legitimate musical theater career that brings her to the Arie Crown Theater this month with the national tour of the Tony-nominated "Fela!" based on the life of the Nigerian Afrobeat musician and political activist Fela Kuti (who died in 1997).
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: An email from the "Fela!" publicist called you a Chicago native. Not to split hairs, but you're from Rockford.
A: No, no, no: I am from Rockford. And I always show Rockford love. But trust me, when I land at O'Hare, I say, "I'm home!" You know what I mean? Illinois! I'm home! I don't care if I'm in Peoria, I'm home! And when I'm not traveling, my home is outside of Chicago. That's where I live.
Q: When you perform at home, is there less of the showbiz baggage?
A: I don't get into all that Hollywood stuff, even when I'm in Hollywood. I'm from the Midwest. When people meet me, they're like, "Oh my God, you're so down to earth," and I'm like, "Is there another way to be?"
Q: Well, you were part of Destiny's Child, which had this persona of "we are strong diva women."
A: We are strong, and I demand respect. But I can demand respect while still smiling with you, while still laughing with you, while still going to get a Maxwell's Polish. But it doesn't really kick in until we get onstage. When I perform, and when the lights come onstage and my outfit is on and my hair and makeup is done, that's the time when I can be that diva and the person I used to dream of — the Diana Ross, the Whitney Houston, the Mariah Carey. But (offstage) after all that, you turn it off.
Q: People who aren't familiar with Fela's music or the show tend to mispronounce his name as "Fella" rather than "Fay-la."
A: My first name is Tenitra, so I've heard all kinds of different pronunciations. I'll say, "Don't try it. Just call me T." Or just call me Michelle, which is my middle name. When I go to the airport and go up to TSA and security, they'll sit there and look at the ID for a minute, kind of wondering, and they'll say, "Ten-ee-tra?" and I'm like, "Yes!"
Q: How did you get involved with "Fela!"?
A: I saw the show on Broadway, and then I was in London when the show opened there, so I said, "Let's go!" A good friend of mine studies (Fela's) music, and he introduced me to the music about four or five years ago, and before you know it I'm YouTubing him because the groove, you could play that bass line for hours.
And then a couple months ago I went to an audition for "Super Fly" (the musical based on the 1972 blaxploitation film set to debut on Broadway this year) and ("Fela!" director) Bill T. Jones was there. I'm not ashamed to say, I didn't get that part. But I get a phone call a few months later saying, "Hey, they loved your audition and want you to do 'Fela!'" so I pretty much auditioned for 'Fela!' without realizing it.
Q: In addition to Roxie Hart in "Chicago," you've played Shug Avery in "The Color Purple" and Aida in "Aida." Do these characters have something in common?
A: I think Shug and Sandra (in "Fela!") might have some similarities in terms of empowering people. Shug wanted to empower Celie and give her a voice and identity. Sandra wants to do the same thing for Fela, as far as teaching him. He was very passionate about what he believed in, and even though he knew there was government corruption, he didn't have all the facts. And it was Sandra who said, "No, you have to read these books." He didn't know Americans had the same struggles that they did in Nigeria, and we did. The struggle is universal. There are corrupt places everywhere. And she was like, "Honey, you need to know all the facts before you get out here truckin'."
Q: What's the difference when you're singing in concert versus in a musical theater setting?
A: In concert, the cool thing is if you get tired or forget the words, just put that microphone out to the crowd and say, "Sing!" Not with theater, honey. And when I'm singing in concert, I control that stage. You can't tell me where to go. But when I'm on a theater stage, there are marks telling you where you've got to be, because if you're not standing in the right place and a piece of scenery comes down, your head might get whacked off.
Q: Is there a Destiny's Child reunion happening?
A: Aw, man, you know what? We just happened to reunite for this compilation album. We said, let's give the fans one new song. And as far as I know, that is the only reunion that we will have. People think there's going to be a tour and a new album and stuff, and that's not anytime soon.
When: Tuesday through Feb. 23
Where: Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: $20-$70 at ticketmaster.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun