With a repertoire that includes everything from Gershwin to Motown and Patsy Cline to Beyoncé, it’s safe to say that performing artist Keewa Nurullah can do it all.
The native South side Chicagoan was born to artistically and musically inclined parents who nurtured her creativity very early on. By the time she began classes at the esteemed Whitney Young Magnet High School (the alma mater of first lady Michelle Obama), Nurullah was already committed to a life in the arts. She immediately took to the school’s choir and dance company before being accepted into a summer musical theatre intensive at New York University. She was then one of only 20 students accepted into the University of Michigan’s exclusive Musical Theatre BFA program.
After completing her studies at Michigan, the triple-threat performer went on to appear in a number projects on and off Broadway including The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Monty Python’s Spamalot, in addition to touring with Disney’s musical, On The Record.
Rolling out recently sat down with Keewa to discuss her start in entertainment and her highly anticipated upcoming show, Throw Mama From the Train: Songs and Stories from a Pregnant Gypsy.
What did you see as a little girl that made you know you wanted to take up entertainment and performing?
On a trip to New York City as a kid, I saw the Broadway production of Black and Blue. It featured Ruth Brown and a young Savion Glover, and I was mesmerized. It was very glamorous, with beautiful showgirls and spectacular dancing and singing. I had never seen anything like it!
Tell us about your first “big-time” gig that gave you butterflies?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have more than a few highlights to my performing career so far. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of ‘butterflies’ is a show that I did in Las Vegas not long after college. I was in the production of Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Wynn, and, just before the curtain went up, we got word that there were more than a few comedy heavy hitters in the audience. I was so nervous! At the end of the show, when the house lights came up and we took our bow, I could see Robin Williams, Steve Martin, John Cleese and others giving us a standing ovation. It was a crazy experience!
Name five performers who’ve been influential to you in some way.
Eartha Kitt was a true triple threat. She was an original. There was and never will be anyone like her. She was an activist, and she was unapologetic in everything she did. Carol Burnett was never ‘funny for a girl’. She is just as funny as any man, and watching her show as a kid inspired me to explore my comedic side. Tina Turner has a strength and confidence onstage that I always try to channel when I’m performing for incredibly large crowds. She always appears to be in control and never afraid. Not to mention her crazy sex appeal and endless energy! Diahann Carroll has had incredible crossover success, and she broke many of the boundaries that make it possible for me to do what I do. Her career is never ending, and she refuses to be put in anyone’s box. Audra McDonald, for my generation of theater performers, is as good as it gets. Her voice is smooth as silk. Her acting gets better and better with every production. She has the most Tony awards of any actor, and she’s the only actor to win a Tony in every category (Leading and Supporting for both Musical and Play categories).
How did you come to discover your unique formula of mixing singing and stand-up comedy in your shows?
I knew that I could make people laugh in conversation. And I knew that I could play a funny character on stage. But I never knew that I could make an audience of strangers laugh (without playing a character) until I just tried it. I started writing down the jokes or funny things that would come into my mind during the day. I pieced together the jokes that related to the same theme, and, the next time I had a concert lined up, I tried them out between songs. Some of them flopped, but enough of the jokes landed that I knew it was something I wanted to continue doing.
Tell us about your new show, Throw Mama from the Train: Songs and Stories from a Pregnant Gypsy? What can audiences expect?
Most of the people who come to my shows for the first time think that they are ‘one-woman’ shows. That I’m going to put on a baseball cap or a head scarf and impersonate people from my neighborhood. Noooooo! A little less theatrical and very unscripted, my show is in a traditional cabaret format. I’ll be singing some old standards, pop, and rock songs and, in between, telling stories and jokes. I’ll talk about my adventures performing on the road and overseas, and I’ll also talk about the latest development in my life: my first pregnancy!
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to young artists?
Talent is not enough. Continue to study, because your craft can never be perfected. Begin to develop a serious work ethic. Be someone who is focused but enjoyable to work with. And don’t let your ego get out of control. You can always, ALWAYS be replaced.
Any favorite quotes or affirmations?
‘You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” –Maya Angelou
What’s next for Keewa Nurullah?
What’s next is somehow improvising a character I’ve never played – a mother!! I’m excited. I’m excited to see how it will affect my acting and the depth I’m able to provide to the characters I play. I’m excited to continue pursuing my dreams with an additional audience member. And I’m excited for the comedic moments that children instinctively bring to life. Bring it on!
Keewa takes the stage for Throw Mama From the Train: Songs and Stories From a Pregnant Gypsy at Davenport’s, located at 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago on Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m
Find out more about Keewa at keewanurullah.com.