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Audra McDonald, from Broadway to DC to London

Broadway singer Audra McDonald, who grew up in Fresno
Broadway singer Audra McDonald, who grew up in Fresno Autumn de Wilde

Seven months after the birth of her first child with Will Swenson, Audra McDonald is going full-speed in many directions.

Friday night, she brought her trio to the Music Center at Strathmore in suburban Washington, D.C., for an evening of American musical standards.

Last year she headlined “Shuffle Along,” George C. Wolfe’s ambitious adaptation of a forgotten 1921 show that pioneered black artists on Broadway, until she stepped away, unexpectedly pregnant with her second daughter at 45. She played Madame de Garderobe in Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and has another project in the can, a movie of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1994 off-Broadway “Hello Again.” This treatment of the 1897 sexual circle “La Ronde” debuts June 4 during the Toronto LGBT Film Festival; McDonald’s romantic partners are played by Cheyenne Jackson and Martha Plimpton.

Next month McDonald – who grew up in Fresno –will be in London’s West End reprising her performance as the late-career Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” – another haunted, addicted figure after McDonald starred in the controversially revised “Porgy and Bess.” She won Tony Awards for both roles, making her the most decorated Broadway performer ever.

Recently she found a few minutes to chat by phone with The Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley from another dot on the concert route (Los Angeles) about all this performing, and about her well-known activism – find her on Twitter: @AudraEqualityMc.

Q: Who has been harder for you to live with: Bess, or Billie?

A: Actually, James Baldwin wrote that Billie Holiday should have played Bess in the film. I try to leave them at the theater as much as I can. They’re both heavy. Billie is harder; it’s just me and the band, so in some ways it’s heavier lifting. “Porgy and Bess” has a huge cast, lots of characters.

Q: The movie “Hello Again”: How musical is it, how racy is it?

A: It’s very musical, and I haven’t seen everything, but it’s one of raciest things I’ve ever done. I had a great time doing it. It seemed like all my scenes were shot very late at night, so there was a like dream-like quality to my time on the set. It was shot all over New York City.

Q: “Shuffle Along” is still on your website. Will we ever see another full-blown production of that?

A: I’m sorry it didn’t run longer. It was an incredible piece of theater, and I was proud to be part of it. George Wolfe is forever not only the artist and the leader and the mentor, but the educator, too, making all of us aware of this incredible group of people that history had forgotten. I would hope it would have a life down the road.

Q: What’s your favorite music to sing now?

A: Right now, I have about six more concerts singing this repertoire I’ve been doing a couple years. Then I’m going to move on, and in another year or so I’m starting a new concert.

Q: What’s motherhood like at 46? Does Sally travel?

A: Yes. She’s 6 months old. She’s sleeping in the hotel room now. I just stepped out onto balcony to talk to you.

Q: Was there a specific turning point for you about being public in your stances? You’ve long advocated for Marriage Equality, and you’re active with Covenant House (a shelter for homeless youth in New York City).

A: Basically when I joined Twitter, because of that terrible Proposition 8 in California (banning same-sex marriage). The fact that so many of my friends and family were affected, I was devastated. I felt I had to speak up.

Q: Can you translate that into performance?

A: I certainly find a way to talk about what I believe in during my concerts. I understand I have fans who might disagree, but … they’re coming to see me. I’m not there to lecture, but I make it known. Sometimes I have to find more universal ways to talk about what I believe in. Because most people believe in human dignity and love, maybe in some of my concerts I can change some people’s minds, or open their minds little.

That is always in back of my mind, what legacy I’ll leave my children and grandchildren. Will they see that great-grandmom was loud about what people needed to be loud about? There are different ways of doing that – whether in concerts, or the work I do on the national board for Covenant House, or marching or donating, whatever, whenever. Trying to be a good citizen of the human race.

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