Da'Vine Joy Randolph says she's been guided by good and powerful spirits.
There were the spirits of the African-American classical singer who inspired her when she was in high school, of an acting mentor who guided her from music to theater when she was in college, and of graduate school teachers who expanded her horizons when she was at the Yale School of Drama.
Now she's a spirit unto herself on Broadway as Oda Mae Brown, the fast-talking, fake communicator to the world beyond — who has more power than she knows — in "Ghost the Musical," now in previews and opening April 23. The show, which originated in Australia and London, is based on the 1990 romantic weeper film that starred Demi Moore as a grieving widow, Patrick Swayze as her dead husband who is desperate to stay in touch and Whoopi Goldberg who won an Oscar for her scene-stealing portrayal of Oda Mae.
Sitting in her dressing room at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Randolph, 25, recalls the moment late last summer when she learned she got the role, just a few months after she graduated from the Yale.
She was in the bathroom of the Port Authority Bus Terminal about to travel to New Jersey "to get a dye job,' she says. "I was in the mood to do something new and I never dyed my hair before and I thought it would be invigorating. I was planning to go to Los Angeles and I wanted to juzz it up."
Then her cell phone rang and her agent asked her, "Are you sitting down?"
"I hate when people say that," she says in a between-you-and-me voice that is part of her disarming, straight-forward personality. "'Noooo,' I said, 'I'm not sitting down so just tell me.' "
She thought the call might be about her audition for a role in a new Quentin Tarantino movie. "I told my parents to keep their fingers crossed for that one because there was a love scene with Jamie Foxx."
The agent told her she was going to be on Broadway.
"I don't know how to explain my reaction,' she says, quietly. "It was like — you know how you wake up from a deep sleep and you're slowly processing things like, 'Today…is…Monday…' It was like that. So I said, 'Broadway? Broadway? For what?' "
The agent said it for"Ghost"— and not for the understudy role in which she originally auditioned. Randolph — who had no New York stage credits — was stunned. When she tried to share the news with family "no one picked up the phone all day. The person I shared the news with was a lady in the Port Authority bathroom."
Making things emotionally complicated was that she couldn't go public with the news until the producers formally announced casting — which would not come for several months.
"I would have dinner with my Yale classmates who would be complaining how hard things were and how they hated New York and I would say, 'Er…yeah, I hate it too."
Singing and Sports
Randolph grew up in Philadelphia and then in Hershey, Pa. when her parents, who are educatorsmoved there as she was entering the ninth grade.
She remembers listening to Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, and imagining herself as a recording artist. But she says high school musicals didn't interest her. "I was the only black girl in this suburban school so because of that there weren't those opportunities."
As "the good class clown, the one who didn't get in trouble, the girl who wasn't with any clique but friends with everyone" she says she preferred athletic games to the stage. When asked what sports she participated in, she says, "All of them."
When she was in high school she saw a choir of African American singers performing classical music "and it blew my mind." It wasn't that she was taken by the classical music but rather the voice and the essence of one singer in particular, Gwendolyn Lentz.
She approached Lentz and asked for vocal training. She became Randolph's teacher and mentor for many years.
Through a classmate, Randolph became interested in Interlochen, the prestigious performing arts summer camp in Michigan.. "Everybody knew about that the place and that it was classically-based except me," she says.