The buzz emanating from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where “Ghost, the Musical” is previewing, is that the special effects are pretty amazing. But the one effect inspiring even more chatter is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the 25-year-old actor who blazes across the stage as Oda Mae Brown, the conning psychic who becomes a linchpin in this romance between a young artist and her dead lover. It’s the role that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar in the 1990 film weepie that starred Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, and which may catapult Randolph to fame when the show bows on Broadway on April 23. She’s also likely to be a strong contender for a Tony Award. Not bad for someone who just a year ago was finishing up a masters program at the Yale School of Drama, when she got a call to audition for the musical.
Randolph first performed the role for a short time during the musical’s previous engagement in London and then moved on with the production for the Broadway transfer. Director Matthew Warchus’s belief in her ability to pull off such an iconic role certainly seemed justified at a recent preview. Within minutes of her flamboyant, hopped-up entrance as the scheming storefront psychic, one could hear the rustle of programs as people looked to find out who this force of nature was.
For the record, Randolph grew up in a religious household and was raised by educator parents, first in Philadelphia and then in the suburbs of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Though her first ambition was to pursue a career in pop music, a series of serendipitous encounters with teachers led her to classical training at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts, then to a bachelors at Temple University and finally to Yale. Despite the limited resume, she’s played a range of characters, from Tituba in a community theater production of “The Crucible” when she was 15, to the Carlo Goldoni farce “Servant of Two Masters” at Yale Rep, to “Hair” at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia. “Ghost” marks her Broadway debut.
Has playing this role made you feel different when you pass a storefront psychic in New York?
Oh, definitely. When I got the part, I knew I had to check them out. I don’t believe in that stuff but I don’t blame people who do. Everybody has to believe in something even if your belief is not to believe. It was funny because I went to a psychic and she told me, “Oh, you’re going to make tons of money.” And I said, “Hmmm.” And she said, “And something really wonderful is going to happen for you in March and April.” And I said, “Hmmm.” And she said, “Many people will see you and you’ll get great exposure.” And I thought, “Alright!” Do I think some of it’s real? Now I do. And, Lord knows, I do a more exaggerated version of it. But I love giving these ladies a shout-out.
But acting is a con anyway on some level, isn’t it?
Absolutely. It doesn’t seem any different to me. As an actor, your process is no different. You’re pretending to be someone who you are not. And here I’m pretending to be a psychic. But what’s great about this role, about the writing, is that within moments of the con, Oda Mae is vulnerable. God plays a trick on her. “Okay, you want to hear the spirit world? Well, here it is.” And she gets to play on so many vulnerable levels throughout the show, dealing with total strangers because they’re all in this together. I don’t want to get too deep, but I think this aspect of her, for New Yorkers especially, is really a big concept of the show. When stuff goes wrong, who’s there to help you? You reach out to strangers and strangers reach back.
Did the film mean a lot to you growing up?
I thought it was a good movie but it wasn’t one that I watched over and over again. Not like the Disney movies I grew up with or the old movies I’d watch with my grandmother. That Hollywood glamour, wearing long gowns and breaking out into song and dancing with Fred Astaire. That was so magical. I was obsessed with Shirley Temple! I thought she was the coolest. That movie where her father goes off to fight in India and comes back and he’s blind and she says, “Oh, Daddy, Daddy, please remember…” Breaks my heart every time!
As someone who was one of the few African Americans in your suburban high school, did you feel that you would be constricted in your choices of parts?
I had talent so either I got a good part or I didn’t get it at all. I was never in the ensemble. So I learned early on it was all or nothing. Kind of hard to cast me in Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. So it was very humbling and it really prepared me for the industry now. I take nothing for granted. I always acknowledge the blessings given to me. But back then I just kept myself really busy with activities, lots and lots of sports until my voice teacher told me, “You can’t be yelling on the court and then come in here.” Maybe all that activity and being funny, the class clown, that was a way for me not to make it about color.
What makes you laugh?
Oh, silly, ridiculous physical comedy. Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy and all their brilliant characters always make me laugh. I’d love to write a sitcom that could use me in that way, let me be free with my body. And New York street life. I was going into the grocery store and this guy came out singing “do-re-mi” so intently over and over again. I think he was trying to figure out what came next. “Do-re-mi. Do-re-mi.” Everybody ignored him but he cracked me up.
Do you find “Ghost” to be the classic weepie everybody else does?
It’s got some great writing. But what really makes me emotional is “Extreme Makeover.” When they give away those houses? Forget it! And little kids who can sing amazingly on YouTube. I can’t deal with it. Maybe because I see myself in them. Or because they have so much talent I think of what could be set for them in the future. That joy? It messes me up every single time.