IN Series’ Stormy Weather, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, features the music of Billie Holiday and a stunning cabaret performance by Nigel Rowe as Ariel. In the new Sybil Williams play, Prospero (Matty Griffiths) is seen as a colonizing white European male. The sorceress Sycorax (Michelle Rogers), who receives barely a mention in the original work, is a central figure in Stormy Weather, symbolizing the uncovered voices of indigenous women. Instead of an evil hag, this Sycorax is a young and beautiful queen. Director Alison Wong links the power and magic of Sycorax with the unforgettable genius of Holiday.
Ariel, as played by Nigel Rowe, is a wonderfully mysterious presence. A born cabaret performer, Rowe delivers Holiday’s songs with a charm and finesse that is not to be missed.
You can read all about Stormy Weather in my colleague David Siegel’s astute review here.
I had the good fortune to interview Rowe about Stormy Weather, music, and his life and career.
Sophia Howes: How did you develop the character and presentation of Ariel? What are Ariel’s aspirations? Relationships?
Nigel Rowe: A running joke throughout the rehearsal process was that Ariel and me, Nigel, are shockingly similar. It was especially comical because the playwright, Sybil Williams, had met me all of two times, and for a grand total of about 2 hours, and it seemed as if the lines she had written were plucked from my mind. Ariel and Sycorax are spiritual sisters, so to speak, and have been together since Sycorax first landed on the island in 1609. When Prospero landed on the island and eventually had Caliban with Sycorax, Ariel really resented having lost her closest connection–Sycorax–to a colonizing man and the son she had with him.
Can you tell us about your background? Your training? Did you have any mentors?
My background in music has its roots in the classical field. I started voice lessons at about 12 years old, and eventually, after many children’s choirs and years of lessons, enrolled at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, where I continued to focus on classical voice, although I did begin to explore the worlds of musical theatre and jazz. From there, I went to Carnegie Mellon University where I received a BFA in vocal performance. Throughout all of this, my trainers and biggest mentors were my voice teachers, to whom I not only owe the ability to do shows like Stormy Weather, but my love and understanding of music as an art form.
How did you get involved with Stormy Weather?
IN Series is actually one of the first companies I started working with when I moved to DC in fall 2017, and among TYAs (Theater for Young Audiences) and zarzuelas, I frequently perform nursing home concerts with them–a part of their outreach program–where the main focus is songs of the American Songbook–a weak spot of mine. So, having a reputation of singing these tunes at these concerts (in particular, “Stormy Weather,”) this past winter Timothy Nelson, IN Series artistic director, approached me about the possibility of a show featuring these types of tunes, focusing, of course, on those of Billie Holiday, and asked me if I would be interested. To which I immediately said yes! This past summer, we had a workshop of an earlier draft of Stormy Weather and performed on Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center as a part of their Page to Stage event.
Do you think of Ariel as a spirit or an actual person? Does Ariel identify with Billie Holiday? Why or why not?
I see Ariel as a spirit as opposed to an actual person. Throughout the show, Sycorax recounts the various lives she’s lived and Ariel was there for each one. From the abductions from Africa in the 17th century to her love affair in Memphis in the ’20s, Ariel reveals that she was indeed there accompanying Sycorax. I don’t think Ariel necessarily identifies with Billie, but instead, has been enchanted to sing her songs which serve as vessels for Sycorax’s memories.
How did you get interested in music? In theatre?
My interest in music has always been a part of me. From I was a little kid, I knew I had to sing. It’s a bit of a mystery as to where it comes from in my family, honestly, as I’m one of just two musicians in the family, and the other is my sister-in-law! Regardless, my parents have exceptional taste in music, and my growing up consisted of listening to greats like Aretha, Nancy Wilson, Anita Baker, Michael Jackson, Teena Marie, the list goes on and on. My interest in theatre grew out of taking voice lessons. So many of the songs I learned, both art songs and musical theatre tunes, have such a story built into them that ignoring the performance aspect of them was virtually impossible. And once I got into the Academy, there was no escaping performing opera scenes and musicals. I’m particularly fond of Stormy Weather because it combines the theatricality and drama that I love with the music that resonates most with who I am.
What was your best experience as a performer?
This might just be the adrenaline of a great opening week still in my blood, but Stormy Weather has definitely been a… revolutionary experience for me; this music really speaks to my spirit and really resonates with my soul. Feeling that spotlight on me while I get to sing these heart-wrenching tunes is an absolute dream come true.
How do you see your role as an artist? Are there particular artists who inspire you?
These days, my biggest inspiration, beyond Billie, of course, has to be Dinah Washington. The power and grit and heart in any recording of hers are a huge inspiration for me when I sing tunes like the ones in Stormy Weather. Other big inspirations include Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae. But outside of that genre, Spotify tells me that I have a love of an early Aretha Franklin album, a Lianne La Havas track, Emily King, Corinne Bailey Rae, and just about anything from Amy Winehouse.
Is there a specific type of drama or role you would like to do? Why?
I’m always a sucker for roles with some kind of comedic flair to them. I love to make people laugh, and will always gravitate towards roles that involve singing!
Running Time: About 2 hours with no intermission.