Neo-soul artist India.Arie is the latest in a long line of talented R&B singers bit by the acting bug. Arie, 32, is set to star in a Broadway revival of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The play, based on the book of poems by Ntozake Shange, was nominated for a Tony award in 1977. The book, a women’s studies classic, presents several women of color discussing their experiences at a certain time in the United States.
It’s a bold step for Arie, but she’s in good company. In fact, I’m having a tough time thinking of an R&B artist who hasn’t tried her hand at acting on stage or screen. Some of them gave such good performances, they got in the running for Hollywood’s biggest honor, the Academy Award.
One of them actually won it. Of course, I’m talking about American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson, who brought home the Best Supporting Actress award for Dreamgirls. Hudson is the biggest success story on our list, although her castmate Beyonce, (Carmen: A Hip Hopera, Austin Powers: Goldmember) isn’t exactly hurting for parts. Alicia Keys (The Nanny Diaries, Smokin’ Aces) seems to record an album and film a new movie every other year. Keys just finished shooting another: The Secret Life of Bees.
Let’s not forget those ladies we don’t hear on the radio every day:
What would the 1990s have been like without gigantic theatric performances by singing stars Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard), Brandy, who had her own television series, Moesha, and Janet Jackson, who knocked critics out with her acting in Poetic Justice opposite Tupac Shakur. (Although, with Jackson, we get in slippery territory because technicality she was an actress before she was a pop star, and that’s a whole ‘nother list. See: Lauryn Hill, Jennifer Lopez, Donna Summer.)
The beautiful Aaliyah gave powerful performances in Romeo Must Die and The Queen of the Damned and was set to appear in both sequels to The Matrix before she died in a tragic airplane accident in 2001.
You youngins might find it hard to believe, but talented thespian Queen Latifah started her career as a rapper. Latifah showed Hollywood what she could do when they gave her a sitcom in the 1990s, Living Single (Yes, they were handing out sitcoms like crazy in the 1990s). Fast forward a decade and Latifah is a bona fide Hollywood star with critically acclaimed performances in Set It Off,Beauty Shop and Chicago for which she, too, was nominated for the Academy Award. (Notice I didn’t mention the stinker Taxi?)
Speaking of stinkers, one of film history’s most colossally awful movies was the vanity project of Mariah Carey. The goofy Glitter gave so many people joy for all the wrong reasons. (Raise your hand if you had Glitter parties at your house.) Carey might be the first R&B singer that we can in good faith advise: Stick to your day job.
Music was in the genes for gorgeous Nona Gaye, daughter of soul legend Marvin Gaye, but she stepped out from daddy’s shadow when she parlayed her singing career (which included a three-year collaboration with then boyfriend Prince) into a brief feature role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. (Unfortunately, her episodes never aired.) Just mention of Prince reminds me to add sexy singer Apollonia, his Purple Rain co-star, to our list. (Apollonia later appeared on Falcon Crest, which just makes me giggle.)
I saved my favorite performance for last: Who else but diva Diana Ross could steal the show from all of these upstarts? The original R&B superstar, Miss Ross may not have not won that Academy Award for which she was nominated, but her portrayal of tragic jazz singer Billie Holiday in the 1972 Lady Sings the Blues was riveting. It’s even more satisfying since the film’s producers were laughed out of town for casting her. Ross was a Hollywood newbie, fresh out of the Supremes, but her careful research, dedication and raw talent made Hollywood eat their words once they saw her on-screen.
Which of these singer-turned-actors is your favorite? What performance most impressed you? Is there a lady of R&B you would like to see in a certain role?