It's about an hour before showtime, and 16-year-old NicKayla Tucker, of Laurel, is obviously enjoying the last-minute preparations for her NicKayla & Friends concert Saturday at the Comfort Inn in Beltsville.
Dressed in Nike pants and a muscle T-shirt, she joined her dancers in a number, stood back and watched, gave them a few instructions, and rejoined the action, smiling throughout and exuding an energy that's contagious.
"Hey, can you play 'No Permission,' " she asked her sound crew in the back of the auditorium, a song she wrote and planed to perform for the show. When the song was over, she continued a few dance steps, strummed a few notes on her guitar and then took a break to run down the aisle to hug relatives who were in town from Delaware for her concert.
When it was showtime, first Tucker, who attends Riverdale Baptist School, performed a duet with a classmate, then other students performed skits and monologues before Tucker returned for the first act of her solo performance.
While singing, Tucker slowly walked down the aisle from the rear to the stage. Dressed in a short ballerina-style skirt, with a glittering silver top and matching stilettos, her strong voiced filled the room with original, and old and new cover tunes, showing the range of her voice, which went from deep to high-pitch notes.
Tucker played the guitar, danced solo and with backup dancers, and engaged the audience by going up and down the aisles in certain numbers, and showing her humorous flair in introducing songs.
The auditorium was packed. Tucker said she thought this was going to be a small gig when her mother approached her about doing it. Although it was the first time she said she's performed solo in this type of setting, she showed no signs of nervousness before or during the show.
"I never get nervous, but this is a bit different because I've invited a lot of my school friends and they haven't seen me do this," Tucker said. "They see me acting goofy at school, but not in concert on stage."
Performing in front of large crowds seems to come natural to Tucker. Last year, she was a cheerleader at Laurel High School, and when she was only 4 years old, Tucker won three nights at the Apollo Theatre's Amateur Night Competition in New York and came in second overall.
In 2007, when she was 11, she starred on Broadway in "The Lion King." Tucker played the role of the young Nala, the best friend of the lion cub Simba. She wowed audiences four times a week for more than six months in the role.
Prior to that, she spent seven months on the road as a member of the national anniversary touring cast for the musical "Annie." In 2006, Tucker had a role in an episode of "Law and Order SVU." She also did a Coca-Cola commercial and has a new demo CD that includes several songs she wrote.
With a résumé like that, you'd think Tucker might have a big ego, but that's not so, said her mother, Ardia Tucker.
"She's still a teenager and my little girl," Tucker said. "I like that she can be a teenager and still interested in doing productive things. I'm glad she has had the opportunity to explore and attain her dreams."
When on the road, NicKayla Tucker's grandmother, Phyllis Tucker-Saunders, travels with her.
Tucker's mother, who had a real estate business and now works in sales at the Gaylord Hotel, would visit them on weekends and stay as long as she could. The visits were a bit less frequent when Tucker was living in Los Angeles for a time. There she starred in a pilot for a television sitcom, "Village People," which can be seen on Hulu.com.
"It was my first Los Angeles pilot, and I had a lot of fun doing it," she said.
Tucker has worked hard at fine-tuning her skills as an actress, singer, songwriter and, in recent years, a guitar player. She is determined to make it big in the entertainment world with one of her many talents. She said after her contract in "The Lion King" ended, she did a workshop for the musical "Radio Girl," but it didn't make it to Broadway, so she came back to Laurel.
"I was in eighth grade and going to school at the Performance School of New York but my mother said it was time for me to come home, so I came back," she said. "But I started going back and forth to Los Angeles whenever I could."
Tucker laughed when she recalled that one of those trips to Los Angeles with her grandmother was supposed to be for two weeks, but through her determination, it lasted much longer.
"I packed for a month because I was going to find a way to stay," she said with a laugh.
And she did. Through a manager who liked her work, she met with executives from top studios, such as Disney, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, who did not have roles for her then, but asked her to stay and wait it out.
"My mom let me stay two more weeks but when I came home for the holidays, I got a call for an audition and was right back on the plane," she said. "I looked a mess, but after I auditioned, I got the call back the same day to film 'Village People' the next week."
Even though the sitcom did not get picked up, Tucker, who has a positive outlook on life, did not see this as a setback for her career.
"The only way to be sane in this business is to have an unshakable confidence and I said to myself, 'That was not the one,' so I kept on pushing," Tucker said. "Everything will happen in God's will."
Tucker's faith is important to her.
"I liked Laurel High, and I would go back, but I also like being in the house of the Lord daily and my mom wanted me to be in a small, Christian school," Tucker said, referring to Riverdale Baptist.
In addition to doing concerts like the one at the Comfort Inn, Tucker is pushing her CD, a calendar, and singing in Washington outside Union Station and on the National Mall. She's trying to raise money to move back to Los Angeles to be near the major studios. When she thanked her audience for coming out, everybody laughed when she pointed out that her CD and calendar were on sale in the back and said, with a laugh, "I'm trying to get back to LA because singing on the street has not been going so well."
Tucker said because she realizes there are not a lot of roles available for teenagers, especially black teens, she wrote a script she plans to star in about a black ballerina who wants to dance on Broadway in the "Nutcracker."
"I wrote it with an LA writer, and it may end up being an independent production if a studio doesn't pick it up, which I hope they do," Tucker said. "I always say if your ship doesn't come in, you go to it or you build a ship," she said with a confident laugh.