As a young girl, Michelle Robinson knew she would one day grace the Broadway stage. Growing up in a family full of musicians, her parents were entertainers, Robinson followed her passion early. From the Dance Theatre of Harlem to the Radio City Rockettes, Robinson has done it all. She has now taken on a new task — directing, and has brought her talents to Florida A&M’s Essential Theatre.
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Robinson began dance lessons at the age of nine. She progressed within the Dance Theatre of Harlem to eventually become a company member. Robinson studied classical ballet, modern and then moved on to musical theatre.
As we sat outside on the stairs behind the theatre, Robinson told me she never wanted to pursue anything else, that she did what made her happy. After studying at The Julliard School, she then went on to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance at the State University of New York at Purchase College. Her talents then took her to the position of a world renowned Radio City Rockette, which she considered a challenge and an achievement in the late ‘80s. “It was especially memorable, being a woman of color, a dark woman at that.”
Robinson never saw the color of her skin as a huge burden. Her parents, who are also her Heros, instilled in her very early that anything is possible for a dark-skinned girl; she just had to go get it. As a child, she was inspired by Cicely Tyson, who she credits as her favorite actress. “She looked like me, and let me know there was a place for me.” Robinson added, “It meant a lot because in the early ‘70s, black women weren’t seen as much on TV.”
Once Robinson got started in her career, she didn’t stop. She’s been in Broadway shows such as ‘Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ‘For Colored Girls’ and ‘Jelly’s Last Jam,’ just to name a few. Her secret dream role is to play Deena Jones in ‘Dreamgirls,’ she formerly played Michelle in the R&B Broadway musical. Robinson has worked with such artists as Gregory Hines, Debbie Allen and Brooke Shields. She’s even traveled to Jamaica, Trinidad, Brazil and Europe.
“It was great working in Europe because I was connected to a show. It was different living amongst a different culture because the public treated you different,” Robinson added, “They appreciated art regardless of what I looked like.”
She says being on Broadway and being African American was a responsibility. “I wouldn’t say it was hard, the ratio in comparison to others was small and the demand from others was hard. You’re representing a group of people, not just yourself.”
Out of all the shows Robinson has done, she has no favorite or special performance. She says they all are special, and that they helped shaped her as a performer. However, the moment in her career that had the most impact on her was her 1st Broadway show. “It was my 1st,” said Robinson, “And it was a wonderful experience, it made me feel like I had achieved my ultimate goal.
In recent years, Robinson has expanded her talents to author and now director. Robinson is a freelance writer and member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers. She has been directing for a little less than three years and sees it as another extension of being an artist. “It was just another skill I knew I possessed,” says Robinson, “I know what creating a good production takes. It’s a nice progression and has kept me close to what I like to do.”
Robinson was inspired to direct from working with director George C. Wolfe. “Everything I learned about directing, it was from him. We only worked together for two shows but he was so generous and helped to prepare me for shows.”
Robinson was recommended to FAMU by alum Harlan Penn, a set designer, who worked with her on ‘Ain’t Misbehavin.’ She was invited to be a guest director for ‘Smokey Joe’s Café,’ which opens this week and Robinson has enjoyed her time here working with FAMU students. “I’m an educator so I also teach. I have a raw approach that I hope they were receptive to, especially if this is something they want to pursue,” says Robinson.
Martinez ‘MJ’ Johnson, a sophomore Theatre student from Jacksonville, FL, says working with Ms. Robinson is one of the greatest and rewarding experiences ever. “She is not only a phenomenal director, but a teacher and inspiration to everyone she has come in contact with here.” Johnson is in his second semester as a theatre student and Smokey Joe’s is his second show. He was also in ‘Fabulation.’ Johnson says he could go on and on about the things he learned from her. “I’ve battled insecurities about my size and deep voice and getting work in the business. She made me realize my unique brand would work in my favor, as long as I believed in me.” He went on to say, “She opened her heart and shared knowledge from her experiences around the world. To say I am thankful, simply for meeting her, would be an understatement.”
Robinson says she wants these students to be looked at as professional actors, not just students.
Jessica Rebecca, a 1st year theatre student from Delray Beach, FL, also says working with Ms. Robinson has been one of the best experiences of her life. “She’s very hands-on, criticizes you only to better you and makes you feel good about yourself.” Rebecca added, “She gives us pointers about the real world, telling us what we should and should not do.” This is Rebecca’s 1st production in the Essential Theatre.
For those aspiring directors, Robinson says reading is essential to determining your strengths and figuring out whether or not you have an affinity for plays or musical theatre. “Be willing to do projects that may seem small and create opportunities to expand your skills,” says Robinson. She says if there is a student production, volunteer to direct and also study acting.
Robinson credits her passion and commitment to the arts as her best asset. “I enjoy creating and taking ideas and transporting images that affect people and try to bring them to life,” she says. As for ‘Smokey Joe’s’, she hopes the audience sees the bar that has been raised for the theatre and the level of professionalism she brought to the play and the students.
Robinson is not married nor does she have kids, which probably makes it easier for her to travel. She already has another project lined up and will be going back to New York before ‘Joe’s’ opening night. “It’s going to be a beautiful show,” says Robinson, “The music, wonderful sets and dynamic lighting all played into a nice collaboration.”