‘Rainbow’ Connections

Amara Granderson’s visions of Broadway came into focus on the stages of Oberlin.

April 21, 2023

Tyler Applegate

Granderson peforms alongside her "for colored girls" cast.
Amara Granderson (center) with her Broadway castmates.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich, New York Times/courtesy of Amara Granderson

Amara Granderson ’17 was all of 9 years old when she first took to the stage. A native of Brooklyn, New York, she’d been exposed to theater throughout her childhood on outings to the city with her family. One of those trips came in 2013, when she experienced a performance of Shakespeare’s iconic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged by a director named Justin Emeka.

So when Granderson arrived at Oberlin as a first-year student in the autumn, it was no surprise that she found herself drawn back to the spotlight. She selected a major of Africana studies, but quickly started forging ties with Oberlin’s theater faculty too. One of them was the same Justin Emeka who made an impression on her months earlier. Emeka has been adapting and directing plays since his own graduation from Oberlin in 1995.

“She has an incredible charisma on stage and a very creative sense of humor,” says Emeka, who routinely casts Oberlin students and alumni in productions he directs. He cast Granderson—in her sophomore year—in the world premiere of Stick Fly, a play he directed in Seattle. That same year, she starred in the debut of What We Look Like, written by her good friend and fellow Obie B.J. Tindal ’16. In her senior year, she portrayed The Lady in Red in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, a choreopoem that explores the lives and challenges of young Black women in America. 

By the time commencement rolled around in spring 2017, Granderson was fully committed to performance. “I wanted to continue to better my craft, and wanted to see what I could do with more training,” she recalls.

She continued her studies in an MFA program at the University of California, San Diego. There she overcame pandemic limitations by presenting a virtual showcase with her classmates, using clever editing to make it seem as if the performers were together—when in reality, they were filming from their own bedrooms. It captured the attention of talent agents and managers, and launched Granderson on a yearlong marathon of flights to Los Angeles for TV gigs, followed by return trips to New York to scour for stage opportunities.

In fall 2021, she submitted an audition for a Broadway revival of for colored girls, directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown—the first Broadway show in more than 60 years to be directed and choreographed by a Black woman. Granderson knew she would thrive if given the chance, and a few short weeks later it happened.

“All my dreams came true in one phone call,” she says, recalling her first disbelieving words to her manager: “Broadway? Do you have that in writing?” The show opened in April 2022, with Granderson in the role of The Lady in Orange. 

“It felt like a perfect fit,” she says. “I knew I had to be here.”

The production was met with immediate success, selling out each of its initial dates—including many audiences peppered with Granderson’s Oberlin friends and former castmates—and extending an additional month. It went on to garner seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.

The payoff meant everything to Granderson, who still vividly recalls her first angst-ridden visit with director Brown. “Surrounded by all these professionals, I came in doubting my own ability,” she recalls. And what has she gained since? “A confidence and intention that I did not have prior to the show in the way that I do now.”

Recently, Granderson reconnected with Emeka in Pittsburgh, to perform in his adaptation of the same classic she saw him direct 10 years ago, now recast as A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem. Granderson played the role of Lysandra, a gender-bent version of Shakespeare’s Lysander. 

She continues to audition and perform all over the country, with her sights set on returning to Broadway. Her message for young actors—and one she follows herself—is to “always be open to learning new things. If you expand your abilities, you’ll always have opportunities in acting.”

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