ON NOVEMBER 6, 2019, the night before she opened in the starring role of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Adrienne Warren developed a herniated disk in her back—though she didn’t know it yet. She just knew she was in pain. Her friends came over to her house and put her into a hot bath, then an ice bath to soothe her muscles. They fed her chicken to get her protein. “I was crying,” she remembers, “because I knew that Tina was there, and Oprah was coming, and all these people were counting on me, and I couldn’t walk.” Her doctor helped, but there wasn’t time for diagnostic tests, so the next day, Warren made it to the theater, barely. Backstage, Daniel J. Watts, who plays Ike Turner, held her upright. Then the curtain rose, and Oprah and Tina and everyone else watched Warren dance and sing on her own. “No one knew” the extent of the injury at the time, she says. “I had to get through.”
When the reviews came in that night, critics were tepid on the musical itself—but described Warren in terms typically reserved for acts of God: She “rocks the rafters,” said the New York Times; at New York, we called her work “gigantic” and “tidal”; The Hollywood Reporter praised her “incandescence.” To shine that brightly, Warren was setting herself on fire, doing six nights a week with actress Nkeki Obi-Melekwe alternating for Wednesday and Saturday matinees, a format reserved for physically punishing roles (your Elphabas, your Evitas, your Evan Hansens). Her go-to during “River Deep—Mountain High” involves hitting and modulating a wail over a key change, producing a sound like a jet engine on a runway. She sustained it for nearly five months, even as she physically fell apart: “I had a lot of injuries that just could not heal themselves because I never had time to sit down.” By early March 2020, she could feel herself accelerating along the rails of what’s typically considered success in theater. Tony season was in April and May, and people were predicting a win. “It was the moment you wait for forever,” she says. “And then the track just disappeared.”
At first, the shutdown was a relief: She could rest and heal. Then she began to mourn the loss of the show and the seeming end to a chapter of her career. And then, as protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor received muted responses from Broadway institutions, Warren’s grief gave way to something else. She had channeled all this work into a so-called theater community, and it could barely eke out statements in support of Black lives. She considered, and publicly spoke about, quitting the stage.
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