For Khalifa White ‘16, it was a matter of when she would perform on Broadway, not if. An alumna of the Musical Theatre BFA program, she has been performing onstage since graduation, working professionally for Norwegian Cruise Lines, the Walt Disney World Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland. Following her dreams to New York City, she performed with regional theaters and was a part of the national tour of School of Rock before making her Broadway debut in the revival of Caroline, or Change.
“Caroline, or Change is my dream,” White says. “I’m getting to use all of my skills. It’s a show where all the words and all the lyrics are important, so I’m able to use everything.”
Caroline, or Change follows Caroline Thibodeaux, a Black woman who works as a maid for a Jewish family in Louisiana during the height of the civil rights movement. While she works, she imagines the household items that surround her — the radio, the washing machine, the dryer — as people, serving as a sort of Greek chorus for the show. White was cast as the cover for Emmie Thibodeaux, Caroline’s daughter, and two of the three radio channels. The musical, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, is currently running at Studio 54 on Broadway through January 9, 2022.
You play multiple characters in the show – tell me about them.
The Radios are kind of like the subconscious of Caroline — the things that she’s feeling or going through, or things maybe she wants to say and doesn’t. I think of Radio 2 as the more Diana Ross character; she’s a soprano, she has a sweeter sound. And I feel like I get more Etta James, Anita Baker from Radio 3. It’s brassier — like big belts, lower notes, more like jazz soul.
Emmie is a teenage activist in 1963 who beheads statues and sasses her mother and thinks that Black people deserve more and should have more. She comes from a poor family where her mother is struggling, but she has these ideals that are so different from Caroline. But in the end, you see how even though they’re really different, they’re both aiming towards a similar goal.
What has the rehearsal experience been like?
Broadway closed the day before our invited dress rehearsal. So, we were in dress rehearsal last year, and at the time, I was at two and half weeks of rehearsal. This year, I was in rehearsal for two days, and then we had an off day, and then we came back, and we went from the rehearsal space to the actual theater, and then on our second day, I was on stage! I was expecting to be offstage taking notes, but I was onstage [as Radio 2]! I’m so grateful to have such a supportive cast because I was really just thrown out there; I was at work for like four days, and then I was on.
Why do you think it’s important that Caroline, or Change is being revived at this moment in time?
[Caroline, or Change] is so good, it’s so deep, and it’s so appropriate. It’s timeless, but [there’s an] irony behind it coming out now with the state of the world and America, specifically with regard to racism, classism, microaggressions and income inequality. You have Caroline, Emmie and Dotty, who are all Black women, and they’re also very different. They’re all advocating for themselves the best way they think, and that’s not the same. I think it makes everyone look within and be more introspective and see how small things can make big changes, and can change you.
What’s your day-to-day routine like?
Currently, I wake up and look at the daily call to see if I have anything extra, like fittings or other things that aren’t rehearsal but are still a part of [preparing]. Then I’ll get up and go to the diner across the street to get my typical breakfast. After that, I’ll try to look at material, listen to the show and sing through the harmonies or things that are not instinctive. I try to run an errand if I can before I head to the show from approximately 12:30 to 10:30 p.m. Then I get home around 11:00 p.m., make some tea, eat something if I haven’t already (or get an Insomnia cookie!), shower and go to bed. And then I wake up and do it again!
How did your time at UCF prepare you for your career and this role?
So many people at UCF helped me get to where I am; Earl Weaver, Judi Siegfried, Mark Brotherton, Kate Ingram, Jim Brown, Tara Snyder, Steven Chicurel-Stein…there’s so many. I learned what musical theatre is in Jim Brown’s class: the integration of music, lyric, song and dance. Everything I learned from understudying Abby [Jaros] in Kiss of the Spider Woman. My preparation at UCF was great for what I needed, so I’m really grateful. For [Caroline, or Change], it took everything I’ve ever learned to book it.
What’s your dream role?
I would love to do Aida again on a grander scale, even if it wasn’t Broadway — like a big regional theater or a big tour, or off-Broadway. And I would love to be Lorrell in Dream Girls; I’ve played Deena before, and no one likes Deena because she wins everything. I want to be the underdog!
What advice do you have for aspiring performers?
I just think that people need to believe in themselves, even if you have a goal and it seems impossible. I don’t know how many times I almost quit. If you want something, whether it’s theatre or not, and you believe that you actually can do, don’t stop. If you prepare yourself the best you can, whether it’s for musical theatre or engineering, being an astronaut or running track, you can do it. Just keep at it, and it’ll happen eventually.