After 34 years, Broadway’s longest running show has finally elevated a Black woman to its leading-lady role.
Performer Emilie Kouatchou recently took over as Christine Daaé in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s enduring hit musical, “Phantom of the Opera.” She had first joined the company last fall, but as an alternate for the role – now, she’s a full-time cast member.
The Chicago-born singer and actor studied musical theater at The University of Michigan, earning her degree in 2019. But then, 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic hit, which took its toll on her career — as it had for countless other women. Without performance opportunities to pursue, she had considered applying to business schools, before Broadway reopened and she received the fateful call that led to her starring moment.
Now, she’s – rightfully – enjoying the spotlight. “Humility is great and all, and being kind and humble is very important. But I’m very conscious of not allowing myself to be small, especially in a situation like that,” Kouatchou said to People magazine when recalling her first post-show bow after portraying opera company ingenue Christine. “I just wanted to feel like I could take up as much space as I could … because I felt like I deserved it.”
Kouatchou is aware that it’s not just her talent that earned her the spot, but also, a combination of timing and long-overdue public acceptance. “It took this long for any Black woman to play Christine, but there have been so many talented Black women who could have,” she points out, adding that it’s part of a larger problem. “I just think that Black women, especially in theater, have to be — and it shouldn’t be this way — ten times better and work ten times harder.”
Research bears her assertion out. A 2020 study found that just about two thirds of all roles in Broadway shows are portrayed by white performers.
Kouatchou is hoping that her own success will open doors for others. “I’m honored that it’s me, and I’m honored that I’m making history, but I’m really excited for when it’s not even a question, it’s not even a thing, the first Black Christine,” she noted to People.
But if anything, she adds, it’s already inspired those who would come after her. “I’ve had a lot of girls reach out, and say, ‘Hey, this is a dream role of mine, and you’re making it possible for me to achieve that goal.’ At times when I’m just so in my head about what I’m doing in the show, it’s a great reminder that [playing this role in and of itself] is something.”
(Featured Image Credit: “Phantom of the Opera” Official Facebook Page)