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Award-Winning Actress Adrienne Warren Visits DeSales Theatre Students

by Tom McNamara ’92, M’21 Nov 17, 2023
AdreinneW News

Tony Award-winning actress Adrienne Warren tried to relax. 

She was preparing for the moment she was going to sing in front of her idol, the legendary singer and performer Tina Turner, AS Tina Turner. Warren had just been provisionally cast as the soul singer in the musical biography, “Tina.” And now was the time to sing for the woman herself for approval.

As a child, Warren learned Turner’s songs from her parents while growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, singing the lyrics as well as performing Turner’s signature moves in her mother’s shoes.

But at that time, Warren had a different dream. “I was an athlete. I wanted to play basketball for [women’s basketball coach] Pat Summitt at Tennessee,” she said to about 60 DeSales theatre majors on October 25, “but I got a concussion and my dad said, ‘You know that theatre thing? Maybe you should give that a try.’”

That “theatre thing,” which became Warren’s passion and career, was one of several topics she spoke about during her talk with the students, who also had the opportunity to ask questions. Patrick Mulcahy, professor of theatre and head of acting, had invited Warren to campus and served as moderator.

Mulcahy asked Warren about her education at one of Virginia’s Governor’s Schools, which had an arts curriculum, and her undergraduate years at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. While there were performing opportunities for Warren as an undergrad, she remained focused on her studies. “My parents had a rule that I needed to earn a degree before I started performing,” she said. 

After earning a bachelor of arts degree in theatre, Warren performed in “The Wiz,” “Dreamgirls,” and her Broadway debut in “Bring It On: The Musical.” After that she started a series of conversations and singing auditions for a project that she knew nothing about. Warren said she took “a leap of faith” and that mysterious project turned out to be the 2016 stage adaptation of “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” 

The show, written and directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Savion Glover, featured Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter. The adaptation received 10 nominations at the 2016 Tony Awards, including a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Warren.

In 2018, Warren was cast as Tina Turner, bringing her to the moment where she had to perform in front of the woman herself. “I didn’t look at her until I sang ‘Proud Mary,’” said Warren during an interview with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.” “And then I saw her singing along with me and dancing and I went ‘whew, OK, it’s OK.” 

In addition to her performing career, Warren is the co-founder, along with actor Britton Smith, of the Broadway Coalition Advocacy, which unites artists, experts, students, and community leaders to use storytelling to combat systemic racism. The group won a Tony Award in 2021—the same year Warren earned her Tony for Tina. “Artists are vital to the human experience, but artists need to show they care,” said Warren to the students.

In response to student questions, Warren said to find your community and try to surround yourself with people who will support you. And that the performing industry does not define you. “Don’t sacrifice yourself for your career.”

Asked by Mulcahy for a final piece of advice for undergraduate theatre students about to launch themselves into the world, Warren said, “Do the best you can at everything and lean into what makes you uncomfortable. It will make you great.”

“It is all about being kind and being prepared,” she said. “Be kind to everyone.”