First recording of lost James P. Johnson blues opera 'De Organizer,' libretto by Langston Hughes
Jamie Sherman Blinder
By Sydney Hawkins
When Nkeki Obi-Melekwe (MT ’18) was a young girl growing up in the Bronx, she remembers many of Tina Turner’s songs playing in the background of her Saturday and Sunday mornings.
By the time Obi-Melekwe heard those hits coming from her father’s stereo, some of them would be more than 40 years old—which is why many found it hard to believe she could step into the title role for “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” last spring at just 22 years young.
Obi-Melekwe, a first-generation Nigerian American who moved with her family from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina, when she was 9, admits that while she had always been aware of Turner’s music, she was more interested in the divas that were on the radio at that time.
“I have always been a big fan of pop music, and my favorite singer back then was probably Christina Aguilera,” she said. “To be honest, my knowledge of Tina Turner was pretty limited.”
You’d never know it by watching her powerful portrayal of the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll”—a role that she performed five nights a week, from its premiere in April 2019 until early October at the Aldwych Theatre on London’s West End.
In addition to starring as Tina, Obi-Melekwe has also appeared in the recent Off-Broadway hit “Alice by Heart” at the MCC Theater and “Half Time” at the Paper Mill Playhouse since graduating from Michigan’s Musical Theatre program in May 2018.
“Though I had been in musicals in high school, I had very little professional training in voice or dance until I came to Michigan—it’s where I learned most of what I know as a performer,” she said. “Taking on a versatile title role like Tina Turner comes with a lot of responsibility, and I don’t think I would have been prepared to do that without my experience there.”
While at Michigan, her roles in SMTD productions included “Green Day’s American Idiot” (Rebecca) in 2015, “The Drowsy Chaperone” (Chaperone) in 2016, and “One Hit Wonder” (Fiona) in 2017. She also participated in a memorable halftime show at Michigan Stadium in 2016, where she sang Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.”
For her stint this year in London from April to October, Obi-Melekwe succeeded 2019 Olivier nominee and original cast member Adrienne Warren. She has joined her in New York City this fall to make her Broadway debut, where she’ll continue to perform in the title role for all Wednesday and Saturday matinee performances of “Tina” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for the foreseeable future.
The “jukebox musical” incorporates more than 20 songs by Turner, from early hits like “Nutbush City Limits” and “Proud Mary” to later singles like “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” “The Best” and “Better Be Good To Me,” which Obi-Melekwe was asked to sing for her audition.
The show takes audiences through Turner’s life story in two acts, which includes scenes from her childhood in Nutbush, Tennessee; her tumultuous, abusive relationship with Ike Turner as a young adult; her comeback as a rock ‘n roll star in her 40s; and her mother’s death, which happened when Turner was 60.
In preparing to take on the role, which Obi-Melekwe admits she thought she might be too young to be considered for, she did a “ton of research.” She listened to Turner’s discography nonstop, read both of her books, attended several performances of “Tina,” and even turned to her parents, who first introduced her to Turner’s music.
“Tina Turner’s story is truly unbelievable, and right away, I asked my mom and dad if they remembered reading or hearing about her life in the news when they were growing up, if all of it was known to the public,” Obi-Melekwe said. “They were both like, ‘Oh yeah, everyone knew about her.’ And even that knowledge added another level of understanding for me.”
Obi-Melekwe also traveled to meet the superstar in person at her home in Switzerland, where she has lived for the last 25 years with husband Erwin Bach.
“Meeting her was surreal. A lot of people think of her as a sexy, high-energy diva, but the real Tina is so much more down to earth than one would expect. She went through so many things in her life that nobody should have to live through, and through this process, I’ve grown to admire her resiliency,” she said.
“I also learned that she’s Buddhist, and I think that was my way into understanding her—she approaches all aspects of her life through her spirituality. I could feel that just being in her presence, and that’s what I try to bring to her character on stage.”
According to Obi-Melekwe, playing Turner for two-and-a-half hours each night requires an immense amount of strength and stamina.
“There is a lot of physical and emotional care that goes into being able to perform this role,” she said. “I have to treat myself like an athlete and I’ve never done that before; everything in my life has become more regimented. However, I’m lucky to have a great team around me that helps me with those things.”
As part of the announcement of her West End debut, director Phyllida Lloyd also stressed the challenge that playing Turner presents.
“This role must be one of the most demanding in world theater and requires a human being of exceptional gifts and massive inner strength,” she said. “Nkeki has both. Nkeki just has that thing—ferocious power—without which you can’t even think of playing Tina.”
Obi-Melekwe’s triumphant return to New York City in October for her Broadway debut will bring her full circle—back to where she was born and where she first heard Turner’s music flowing throughout the house as part of her father’s weekend playlist.
Only this time, it’s not just a song playing in the background, it’s her dream come true.
Jamie Sherman Blinder
Jamie Sherman Blinder