At the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society, we strive to make women’s history come alive for our visitors. It all starts with our multimedia film experience, We Rise, which chronicles the women of New York City who fought for suffrage while bringing to light myriad social issues, from labor conditions to racism to birth control. The film brings these women to life with vivid readings of their words by New York actresses, recruited for New-York Historical by rising Broadway star Ariana deBose.
Ariana resides in New York City and is one of three actresses playing the title role of Donna Summer in the upcoming show Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. This past fall, she played “Jane” in Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale; directed by Jerry Zacks & Robert DeNiro. A member of the original company of Hamilton: An American Musical, she also appeared in the Off-Broadway production of Hamilton at the Public Theatre, and originated the role of Mary Wilson in Motown the Musical in 2013. Her television credits include The Breaks for VH1 (Yvette), Blue Bloods (Sophia Ortiz), One Life to Live, and So You Think You Can Dance. Ariana received her original dance training at CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, NC and has worked with numerous choreographers from New York to Los Angeles.
In addition to working with New-York Historical to give voice to the women of the early twentieth century in We Rise, Ariana has joined Time’s Up here in New York to combat sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace. For International Women’s Day, she sat down with the Center for Women’s History to discuss her work, her career, and the future of women’s organizing.
Thanks so much for joining us, and for working with us on We Rise. How did you come to work on this project, and what drew you to it?
My dear friend and mentor Diana DiMenna, who co-founded the DiMenna Children’s History Museum with her husband Joe DiMenna (Trustee at New-York Historical), brought me on board the project. It was just shortly after the 2016 election, and there was a general sense of despair and anger in the air. Over a lunch, I had shared with Diana some of my thoughts on the world, most importantly that I believed this was the time to get active in whatever way possible. It was time to use my voice and support and encourage others to use theirs.
She said “Great! Let’s start with this project!” As Diana told me more about the film, I realized that’s exactly what the film does, so of course I said yes. I was brought on board to help cast additional voice-over artists. It was definitely a different hat than I’m used to wearing, but I loved it! I was able to engage some of the most talented, ferocious women to work with us. I was honored they made time in their schedules.
Have you had a chance to see the final product? What do you hope visitors to the New-York Historical Society take away from We Rise?
You know, I haven’t gotten the chance to see it yet. I have been lucky to stay employed as of late (#thatactorlife). However, I have sent friends to see it, and every single one of them has come back incredibly moved by what they saw. Hearing their stories and seeing the faces of the women whose advocacy created lasting change in the suffrage movement, particularly in New York, is powerful. A friend who’s seen the film said to me “I sat there thinking ‘these women, who had no knowledge of my existence, made MY life better. If they can create change, so can I.”
That right there is what I hope people take away from the film. May it be an inspiration for them to become an active participant in the world around them.
You’ve played across the spectrum of American history, from “Hamilton” to “A Bronx Tale.” How do you think about history as you prepare for these roles?
This saying comes to mind: “In order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.” When I look at my career, I would say I specialize in commercial “period” pieces. Every one of them has taken place in a different time and space, and in order to create the world you have to understand the world, and specifically, what it was like to live as a women on that world. That’s where quite a bit of historical research comes in. My work forces me to take a look at societal conditions of any given time period and their effects on women. I must say it can be quite disturbing.
You’re currently getting ready to play Donna Summer in Summer. How do you prepare to play a legendary woman like her? How does learning about her life shape your own understanding of the recent past?
Preparing to play Donna Summer — that’s a question!!! I’ve read every interview, watched every video I can get my hands on, talked to people who knew her. As a company, we went through an extensive dramaturgical period. My research was a beautiful reminder that everyone has something to say. Some folks loved her! She was the disco queen and known for being generous with her fans. She was a ferocious friend to her nearest and dearest and put her family first. But some folks thought she was a pansy, a puppet, a crazy diva; I could go on, but I digress.
Finding my way into the Donna psyche and learning all that I have about her has showed me that while we’ve made some great strides in different areas, we still have a long way to go. For example, the lawsuit between Donna and Neil and Joyce Bogart. She sued for $25 million in damages and for termination of her contract because from her perspective they were essentially stealing from her. This is still happening to artists today. Sure, there may be a few more safeguards in the music business, but I wouldn’t say that means we’ve really made great gains here. In a roundabout way, the musical, and Donna’s life, speak to pay equity and transparency, which is a hot topic right now, and rightfully so!
You’re now involved with #TimesUp, the campaign to end sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace, from Hollywood to housekeeping. Can you tell us a little more about that campaign?
Well, you summed it up right there! The women of #TimesUp NY are currently mobilizing and making plans to further the movement here in NYC. As a reminder, Times Up was created in January! I’m amazed at what’s happened since the start of the year.
I love working with these women because I’m watching us come together to create real, tangible change and provide opportunity for advancement for women through upcoming initiatives. While I’m not a spokesperson for the movement, I will say I am personally inspired by the work I’ve seen take place amongst our committees, which span from legal to research and beyond. Folks can be on the lookout for some exciting events coming up, including an action at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I got involved because Time’s Up NY is committed to inclusion. This is not just about one generation of women, it’s about all of us and what we leave or create for those coming up behind us. What opportunities do we create for them to get involved? There’s a Time’s Up Next Generation committee forming in that spirit that I am particularly excited about. Stay tuned.
As We Rise shows, the campaign for women’s equality has been a long, broad effort, involving diverse women working on many fronts. How might this history inspire a new generation of women, through #TimesUp and beyond?
You are right. The road has been long and broad, and will continue to be for a while. This history gives us a model to build from. Those women proved it was possible to create change. Now, Rome was not built in a day, and revolution is messy. But when you think of all the things we have at our disposal today, we got this! The world we live in today is more diverse than ever before, a fact that we should wield as a strength. But most importantly we have each other. Women are woke! Put our individual strengths to good use and change will come more quickly than any of us suspect.
I’ll leave you with this. History shows us that women are powerful beings. They take action. I hope when my fellow ladies look at history they are inspired to get active however they can. Whether it be volunteering to register women to vote, or donating to an organization that supports women’s rights. Show up for the marches. I also encourage people to join the Women’s History Council at New-York Historical. The council provides opportunities to educate yourself on an array of topics and helps you engage a network of other women from all walks of life.
Catch Ariana as “Disco Donna” in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, in previews March 28 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
We Rise, narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring the song “We Are Here,” written and composed by Alicia Keys, plays hourly on the half hour in the Robert H. Smith Auditorium on the first floor of the New-York Historical Society.
Top Photo Credits: We Rise, Donna Lawrence Productions for New-York Historical Society.