Queer actor talks about becoming an icon in ‘Tina’
Rich Lopez | Staff Writer
When Parris Lewis found out that she would be playing Tina Turner in the musical based on the singer’s life, it wasn’t the big moment one would expect. But Lewis does remember that she started that day as a member of the cast and ended that day as an icon.
Since then, the actor says, it has been an honor to play the role,
“It’s quite a feat to cover the iconic Tina Turner, from her powerhouse dance moves to her voice, and some days it feels impossible. But some days, I know I got this,” she said.
Lewis switches out playing the role with Ari Groover, and both have brought Tina: The Tina Turner Musical to North Texas. Tina is running at the Music Hall at Fair Park for Broadway Dallas through Feb. 4, then moves on to Bass Hall in Fort Worth to run Feb. 6-11.
When she was presented with the role, Lewis was already with the show. In year one, she was playing Tina’s sister, Eileen, but she also understudied the lead. She said in her second year, she kind of fell into the role of Tina.
“Oh yeah, they told me that night that I would be playing Tina, but it felt different that time,” she recalled. “The next day, I was in the role. I had just played Eileen that afternoon. Plus, I was preparing to leave the tour at that time.”
A big change like that kept Lewis onboard. The actor/singer/dancer said playing the role as the understudy was one thing. But to officially be the lead — the star — definitely took things to a new level.
“I talked to my partner in New York, and we thought this was going to be a great thing for me as an artist to lead the tour,” Lewis said. “I wanted to have the full capacity. Being in the role feels different, so I wanted to experience that and not feel like being on the edge of the role anymore.”
Since then, Lewis has found that Tina Turner is giving her an education while she embodies the rock star legend.
“She was a shining example of hard work and dedication — especially in the Black community,” Lewis said. “She had to fight for her access while experiencing racial prejudice, while experiencing Ike [her former husband and music partner] and finding her own worth once she was on her own.”
That, alone, resonated with Lewis as a Black woman. But in other ways, it paralleled her own queer experience.
“That worth starts from the inside when the world doesn’t always accept us,” she said. “What makes us authentic makes us acceptable, and, within our own community, we find that in our chosen families or our tribes or our own families if lucky.”
Playing the role of Tina has also been a somewhat existential experience for Lewis. In her own research, Lewis found she was diving less into the singer’s music and moves and more into her depth.
“Telling her story keeps me present, and I’m reminded that first, we’re all human beings,” she said. “Tina was a human being, so every day is not a great day. Finding those ways to relate to her in her own struggles, I think, helps me tell her story.”
Since her high school days in New York, Lewis had a strong feeling about her place. Her voice teacher once called her a Renaissance woman, and that stuck with Lewis. She wants to accomplish everything she can and do it all while being authentic.
“He was a gay man, and I thought he was trying to shade me,” she said with a laugh. “But I learned what it meant, and I liked it.”
Lewis would find her authentic self in a variety of ways — through singing and dancing, through athletics. She was feminine but presented masculine.
Lewis grew to eschew pronouns and labels [Editor’s note: Lewis did allow for she/they pronouns to be used for this article] and embrace a flexible, fluid outlook.
“That’s the beauty of people. We can be so many things. I know I’m a good time,” she said. “I don’t want to identify one way, but I grew into myself uncomfortably. I had to find my own spaces where I felt safe. I’m in the LGBTQ community, but I invite people to find their own and not even let our own community define them. It really is a great feeling.”
But how does it compare to being onstage as an icon like Tina Turner?
“Well, in those moments, I am a rock star,” she said.