Cynthia Erivo Brings ‘Legendary Women’s Voices’ to the Kennedy Center

We spoke to the Tony-Award winning performer before her upcoming DC performance.

Cynthia Erivo may as well call the Kennedy Center home. Having previously performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, the intimacy between Erivo and the musicians is strong. For her upcoming two-night show with the NSO Pops, Legendary Women’s Voices, Erivo hopes that people will be surprised by some of the pieces she has picked to perform. “Nostalgia” will also be served up.

“I want this performance to feel luxurious, satisfying, and full of wonder and fun,” Erivo said in a recent interview.

Cynthia Erivo. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
Cynthia Erivo. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Directed by Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, Legendary Women’s Voices will allow Erivo to put her own imprint on songs by some of the greatest female singers of all time (Nina Simone, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Beyonce, to name a few.)

Not knowing Erivo is being disconnected from the tail of her rising star. With acting and singing chops, songwriter credits, and as someone who is reflective about her position in culture and society, Erivo rocked the theater world when she received the 2016 Tony for her Broadway debut as Celie in The Color Purple. The role also won her an Emmy and a Grammy, and her forthcoming role as Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet could place an Oscar within her reach.

Erivo credits her team for her phenomenal success. Her team never “mocks” any of her ideas, but instead works to bring them to fruition by finding opportunities for her. She hopes that her success permits people, but young women in particular, to know that “anything is possible,” for example standing in front of the NSO and performing. Dreams do become reality.

Her can-do attitude influences people so much so that “A Brief Guide to Being a Cynthia Erivo Fan” has found its way onto the Internet. What drives Erivo is knowing that she inspires other musicians. Her mother’s sacrifices and sister’s support and enthusiasm keep her going as well. She feels really good about where she is now. And, “to truly sit in contentment is what success means to me,” she says.

Cynthia Erivo performing in 2017 with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Cynthia Erivo performing in 2017 with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Scott Suchman.

While from a distance Erivo’s career appears all fun and easy, hard work and perseverance undergird her success. “The whole experience was challenging,” she says of preparing for her role as the iconic Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic Harriet. Although Erivo prepared as much as she could for the role, she could not anticipate how it would feel “being in the elements in all kinds of weather, sometimes for 18 hours, and being sleep-deprived and wearing a corset.”

Her goal in portraying Harriet is to make the “connections” to Harriet as an enslaved African, a woman of a certain historical moment, a wife, a lover, and a heroine, and to convey the humanity of Tubman to the audience.

Erivo reminds us of a historical fact often lost when examining the life of Tubman, pointing out that Tubman’s activism spawned from “her love for her first husband John Tubman,” a free African American. Because marriages between enslaved and free African Americans were not legally recognized, Tubman endeavored to change her status. If she could not purchase her freedom, she would run away with her family to freedom.

“It started with heartbreak. She couldn’t come away with her love, so she came away with her family. [Tubman’s activism] came from such a pure loving place,” says Ervio. “I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that.”

The future looks bright for Erivo. In ten years, she hopes to own a production company, have more than one album released, land more movies, return to Broadway, and perform her own music before a symphony orchestra.

Despite her hectic schedule and numerous projects, when Erivo has down time she listens to Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Etta James, Phil Collins, Elton John, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, whom she refers to as the “vocal bible.”

She looks forward to breathing new life into the work of some of these singers at the Kennedy Center next week.

Cynthia Erivo: Legendary Women’s Voices will be performing on April 5 and April 6, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.