‘TINA’ star Roz White on her emotional turn as Tina Turner’s mother

The DC-based actor shares the challenges of performing in a national tour.

Roz White has theatrical bona fides galore: Dreamgirls (national tour); Amen Corner (Shakespeare Theater); Seven Guitars (Arena Stage); Anne and Emmett (Metro Stage); and Black Pearl Sings (Alliance for New Music Theatre). The Howard University and Duke Ellington grad stars as Tina Turner’s mother, Zelma Bullock, in the smash national touring musical ‘TINA – The Tina Turner Musical’ now playing at National Theatre. As part of her recent interview, White shared a few gems and a little gossip from her experience in that musical and others.

DCTA: How does a national tour compare with doing a local show?

Roz White: I love being on the road. You get to work with amazing people. You must remember to work out and eat clean. When you are in a big group of talented people, everybody is on top of their game. And it’s great to see the country again in a different way. I’ve had stagehands recognize me from previous tours.

How did you land this role?

Tesey Agency contacted me in December 2021. They requested a “self-tape” audition. Everybody calls it “tape” these days. If you call it “tape” they know what you are talking about. [Soon after,] I signed with HCKR Agency and went to a call-back audition in New York.

Going up to New York City on a bus and sleeping on couches is something I did in my 20s. It was interesting doing that again in my 50s.

Roz White

What feedback have you received about your role?

It’s a real story and a mini-concert. We are telling an intricate story. Before I took on the role, I didn’t know about Tina’s contentious relationship with her mother. Many people have approached me about the domestic violence in the play, saying they couldn’t imagine going through that kind of [turmoil]. I tell them, “I’m glad you never had to deal with that.”

What did you learn working with the two leads, Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva?

They both went to Howard. Naomi has amazing vocal ability on stage. She’s a fireball. Zurin is in a sorority, The Diva Society at Howard University, of which I am a member. I actually pledged Zurin [into The Diva Society]. So it came full circle for me to play her mom.

How does Tina compare to other national touring shows like Dreamgirls?

I’m happier in this show. In Dreamgirls, the relationships on stage become the relationships backstage; it happens every time. One of my mentors, Jennifer Holliday, warned me about that.

I played Effie, which was difficult vocally. I was only 27. This time around I’m smarter. I know how to rest.

How did you prepare for the domestic violence scenes in the show?

We have a fight choreographer and we learned how not to injure ourselves. We have two cast members who are fight captains. I cried the first week because I grew up in a home with domestic violence. But after the training, I got me a mean right cross! It grew me up as an actor.

How was the rehearsal experience for you?

Being in this show was like being in a big rock band. The rehearsal process was very magical. It was very well organized and no one’s time was wasted. We worked on choreography, acting, and then music.

It was a five-week process. We had two tech weeks because we have two Tinas. With every show it feels like it is not going to work, but it always comes together. It’s the magic of the theater.

How did you like your costumes?

I like the ’50s clothes, and I like the way they fit me. I am shaped differently than the previous actresses in the role such as Dawnn Lewis, who is taller than me. I had several costume fittings.

I read that Tina’s mom smoked cigarettes, so I incorporated a cigarette into my character. My mother and grandmother smoked cigarettes [I drew from that]. I asked the director, Phyllida Lloyd, if I could incorporate it and she said yes.

What research did you do for the role?

I studied ways not to villainize the character. Zelma gave her daughter Tina the wrong kind of tough love. Zelma wanted a better life [she moved from Tennessee to St. Louis]. She did not know how to raise Tina. In this show, Zelma has a voice.

Tina had something different inside of her that Zelma didn’t understand. They did have love for each other. The hospital scene, I really connected with that because I recently lost my mom.

What advice would you give someone who wants to perform in a national tour?

I would say focus on your health and stay strong mentally and physically. Remember to stay hydrated. Stay organized and get enough sleep.

Get ready to experience new things. You will make 20 new friends. These shows are a study in human behavior. Explore your environment.

National tours require resilience, patience, courage, and discipline. Be prepared and hold on until your time comes at bat.

You taught a master class at your alma mater, Howard, yesterday. Talk about that.

I was on a panel for mental health; mental health services are now a part of Howard’s Musical Theater and Acting school.

I directed Spell Number 7 there in 2019 so it was a full-circle moment. I’ve taught at Howard too, and I attended Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts in the late ’80s when the founders, Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Mike Malone, were still there.

Those students at Howard asked many of the same questions you’ve asked me. I told those students my acronym for the word “fail” is First Attempt at Learning.

TINA – The Tina Turner Musical plays through October 23, 2022, at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC. Tickets ($65–$150) can be purchased online.

Running time: Two hours 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticketholders. Broadway at The National requests patrons and staff to stay home if they are feeling ill to protect other patrons, cast, crew, and staff. See National Theatre’s COVID Safety Plan here.

‘TINA – The Tina Turner Musical’ at the National takes you to a rock concert (review by William Powell, October 8, 2022)


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