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Singer finds her voice in Juneau

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ericka Lee never thought of herself as a singer. Though she grew up singing in church and studied musical theatre in college, she still didn't think she could sing.

"I had the worst ear out of my entire family," she said. "If I sang a bad note, they would correct me, which is good. They were helping me out, but it made me so self-conscious."

Self-consciousness and stage fright dogged Lee throughout her training and early performances in musical theater. It wasn't until she moved to Juneau and started working at Perseverance Theatre that Lee evolved into the confident singer audiences can see in Perseverance's current production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," in which she plays jazz legend Billie Holiday.

Lee grew up in a musical family. Her father was the band director at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and played trumpet for a stint with the popular Philadelphia soul group, The O'Jays.

"The rule in my father's house was that you could do whatever you want to do as long as you play an instrument," she said. "And you could not get out of it. You had to sing in the church choir, and that's all there was to it."

Lee's mother was an opera singer and played flute, her sister played piccolo, and Lee played piano and electric bass, an instrument she'd like to get back to one day.

Lee fell in love with the blues when she was 11 and named B.B. King's version of "Stormy Monday" as key in inspiring her interest in music.

"I heard that song and listened to it over and over again, and I learned all the words. After that I was hooked," she said.

While studying musical theater at Howard University, Lee met former Perseverance Theatre artistic director P.J. Paparelli who "was on the scout for some new actors," she said. Paparelli invited her to sing in Perseverance's production of "Hair" in 2006.

"It was my first professional musical, and I was so frightened," she said. "I never, ever thought of myself as a singer, and that I could accomplish that," she said.

Lee was invited back to perform in five other Perseverance plays and musicals: "The Laramie Project," "Tommy," "Noises Off," "Yeast Nation" and "Lady Day."

The Perseverance roles have been challenging both musically and theatrically, Lee said, but she uses the challenges to push herself to overcome fears and be a better actor and singer.

"I learned more here than I did in school because I did shows back to back, and in each show I gained a new strength," she said. "In each show, I sat there and I watched somebody - something that I admired that they had. And I learned it. And I'd embody it, and produce it myself."

Lee said she used to rely on her friends and co-actors to build up her confidence to go on stage. Now she's learning to do it herself.

"That's a step for me. That I have to do it myself, and I don't have a crutch. Which is good; I gotta grow up," she said.

Flordelino Lagundino has worked with Lee in four Perseverance shows. He described her as a positive person who works hard, is easy to get along with and is "always smiling."

"She's done a lot of supporting roles, but what's nice ... is she's expanding her range, not just as a singer, but as an artist," he said.

"Her character (in "Lady Day") is going through a lot of difficulty," Lagundino said. "I think Ericka has been able to personalize those things and find things within herself in order to share that with the audience. It's not necessarily Billie Holiday telling the story, but Ericka herself."

Though her ultimate goal is to live and work in New York City, Lee named the art scene and the community of Juneau as high points of being here.

"The people are, for sure, the highlight," she said. "This is the first thing that I fell in love with. I was amazed that everybody was so nice! There's so much great stuff going on here. It is the land of opportunity. And I really think it is still the Last Frontier."



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