Actress and LGBTQ+ advocate Angelica Ross, is currently taking centre stage at New York’s Ambassador Theatre as housewife-turned-murderess, Roxie Hart in Chicago, making her Broadway debut in an eight-week enagement in the Tony-winning production that’s now in its record-breaking 25th year. With a now classic book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. In portraying Roxie, Ross has made history herself, becoming the first openly trans woman to take on a leading role in a Broadway show.
Undeniably a fan favourite as Candy Ferocity on the award-winning series Pose, Ross went on to star in both the ninth and tenth seasons of one of Ryan Murphy’s other hit FX shows, American Horror Story. She’s also appeared in the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story, on television in Transparent, Claws, Doubt, Danger & Eggs, and Dead End: Paranormal Park, and played Georgia in Chase Joynt’s Sundance-winning feature documentary Framing Agnes. An HRC Visibility Award honouree, Ross is the president of Miss Ross, Inc. and founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, which helps to bring economic empowerment to marginalized communities with a focus on Black queer and trans folks.
Taking time out between shows, Angelica Ross spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about her journey to Broadway, what she wants to bring to the iconic role of Roxie, launching her music career, and her admiration for the trailblazing trans women who have been part of the Miss Continental pageant system.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Many people will know you from your screen work on Pose and American Horror Story, but when they get to see you in Chicago they’ll realize that you’re a certified triple threat. When did you first fall in love with theatre and performing?
Angelica Ross: “I’ve been in love with theatre since my first play in the first grade, playing Sleepy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I grew up in what we consider the hood in a small town called Racine in Wisconsin. When I say that, people are usually like, ‘Wait, Black people live there?!’ But, yes, we do. And yes, there’s a hood there; just like there’s a hood in every part of America. I grew up around a lot of violence, gangs, prostitution, and drugs. There was a lot of that going on in my neighborhood. After-school activities gave me this space of having one more thing to do before I had to go home. So I found myself doing musicals and being in every choir that I could be in. I learned how to play the piano by ear in the fourth grade, but eventually started taking piano lessons.”
“I ended up joining a local theatre group, the Racine Kid Players. Then when I got too old for that group, I went into the Racine Youth Players. So on my resume—stapled to the back of my headshots—was 12 years of musical theatre experience before I even graduated high school. I always dreamed of being on Broadway and doing plays, but once I transitioned, that dream started to fade a little bit because I just didn’t see how it was going to be possible.”
It’s interesting hearing about you teaching yourself the piano by ear initially as a kid, because then later in life you were teaching yourself programming and tech skills.
“Learning is a really big part of my life. I recognize that it’s great to have mentors and teachers, but sometimes all you have is what’s in front of you, and if you’re really passionate about that thing you will figure it out.”
What was your relationship with Chicago the musical before the offer of playing Roxie came along, was it a show that you knew well?
“I saw a local version of the musical when I was younger, but I became obsessed with it when the movie came out. It was mesmerizing to me visually and musically. It really spoke to me and reawakened that theatre kid inside of me. It’s a movie that I’ve watched so many times and always sing along to all the songs. So getting a chance to be in the musical has been a dream come true. The movie is one of my all-time favourites, directed by Rob Marshall, who also made Memoirs of a Geisha. I remember both movies came out within a few years of each other and they both have the same visually stunning appearance. One of my favourite lines in Memoirs of a Geisha is when Ziyi Zhang’s character Sayuri says, ‘Every step I have taken, has led me right here to you’ and I feel like that is what has led me here to Chicago. Every step that I’ve taken—the musical theatre steps, as well as the detour steps—have led me right here.”
What did you want to bring to the role of Roxie Hart?
“I wanted to bring life to it. Yes, I’m playing a character, but as a Black trans woman I understand Roxie’s journey. Just like with the role of Candy Ferocity on Pose, one of the biggest things that I wanted to bring to both roles is understanding. It’s very easy to judge women like that, but it’s a little more challenging for some folks to understand. So that’s what I’m hoping to bring, a little bit of understanding. As well as the fun of course!”
How does the character of Roxie resonate with you?
“Well, Roxie’s husband Amos is a sweet and lovable character, and I love working with the actors who play him every night because there’s something so endearing about each one of them. But, as sweet as Amos is, I think we live in a society that tells women they should settle for almost any man that’s willing to take care of them, even if the passion isn’t there. You can see the kind of passion Roxie had with Fred Casely, or the passion that comes up when she talks about her career. Sometimes we’re told to put that aside and settle for something that’s more realistic, more attainable. Holding on to a dream in the midst of a very male dominated industry, where sometimes you have to use your sex appeal, can be very confusing for some folks. But when you’ve got your eye on the prize, sometimes you’re willing to do whatever it takes, and throughout history that has looked differently for women.”
What kind of impact do you hope that you being cast as a lead in a major Broadway show like Chicago might have for LGBTQ+ folks in the audience, as well as those who aren’t in New York, but can see that you have this major platform?
“This goes out to all the church sissies out there. When I was living in Chicago and doing drag, I’d get off work late at night and see Black queer and trans people on the streets singing because they had no other place to sing or to be. You could tell the folks who have been kicked out of their church spaces, but still have a song in their soul. I hope that me being on stage encourages them to know that their voice has a place and that all they have to do is to continue being great at what they do and not be afraid to audition for those lead roles, because progress is happening. I’m not saying that the door is completely kicked down, but I do know that I’ve cracked it open a little bit.”
At one point during the show, it’s just you on stage and the orchestra, which is really thrilling. What does it mean to you to be filling the Ambassador Theatre with your voice each night?
“It’s truly been amazing to stand centre stage as a Black trans woman and to be centred in a moment and to have people root for you, to have people hanging on your every word. Even though I’m playing a fictional character, I feel like it’s a moment where people are watching and witnessing a Black trans woman shine in the spotlight. I think just that act alone will help to open people’s minds and their hearts when it comes to opportunities for other trans people, and to not see it as some sort of transphobic situation, thinking that trans people are taking things from cis women or anything like that. First of all, it’s the first time it’s happened and it’s an eight-week run out of 25 years. So I would hardly call that taking over. I think the audiences are enjoying the experience, I’m enjoying the experience, and I hope to see more of it.”
What was it like getting to grips with the wonderful choreography and do you have a favourite number to perform in the show?
“The choreography has kicked my ass for weeks! I had three weeks of rehearsals in LA with Greg Butler, then came to New York and did three more weeks of rehearsal before opening. It’s such a great feeling to be doing these numbers. Me and My Baby used to be such an exhausting number, but now it’s a real energy boost when I’m performing it. So I love doing that number, as well as Roxie, with all the boys. I enjoy paying attention to even the smallest details, like how I’m moving my wrist. I really appreciate the opportunity to participate in such iconic Fosse choreography. So I pay respect to all of that, but as much as we revere the terminology and names for certain moves by choreographers, I want to reiterate that Black queer and trans people deserve the same respect. When they come up with the move, and they call it a dip, it’s kind of disrespectful to call it a death drop, because someone created that move and there’s a name for it.”
I loved your track with Ultra Naté and Mila Jam that came out last year, Fierce. That was my summer jam, then this year you gave us the beautiful ballad, Only You. Tell me about recording that track and if there’s an album in the works?
“Yes, there is an album in the works, but right now it’s coming along slowly because I’m doing eight shows a week on Broadway! So I’m a little busy, but I’m still working on it, writing and trying to decide which songs I want to put on it. When it came to Only You, I funded that all myself. I’ve always found ways to make my main hustle fund my side hustle until it’s able to fund itself. Being a star and being able to have access to certain things, I was able to invest in producing my own song, hiring songwriters and producers and paying for the music video, which wasn’t easy. As you can see, it was a quality music video, set out in the dunes. It was so beautiful and I was so happy to make my vision come alive because it was important for me to create a love song and romantic imagery for Black trans women. As I prepare to release the club remixes and hip-hop remixes, I’m hoping to see the video playing in all the gay clubs.”
Yes, we’ll definitely be requesting it! You inspire people so much and encourage people to really believe in themselves. Did you have someone in your own life that helped you to believe in yourself?
“There have been various people along the way, kind of like breadcrumbs, who made me feel like I was a good person and that I was going to be okay. From mentors in after-school programs when I was in high school and middle school, to friends who were in the musicals with me coming up, to new friends that I’ve met along the way who see me. The reality is that not everybody is going to see it for you. Not everybody sees it for me and I’ve gotten so okay with that. I really appreciate the people who do support me and who show me love, because some days I look back on that when the rest of the world might be giving me a hard time, or when I’m up against a political firestorm of anti-trans or anti-Black what have you. Sometimes that support means everything.”
One final question for you, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years, and why?
“I’ll have to point to the Miss Continental pageantry system. It’s been around for an extremely long time. I remember when I was coming up, I had these black and white headshots of former queens who had won, people like Mimi Marks, Monica Monroe, Paris Frantz, Erica Andrews, and Tandi Andrews. These are all trans women who brought so much and gave so much to the culture, and who sometimes didn’t get that back, whose stories are still untold. I’m hoping that as an executive producer in Hollywood I will be able to continue to pay homage to those women who inspired me to become who I am, both in my current performances, as well as the things that I produce. I was first runner up for Miss Florida Continental three years in a row in that pageant system. I was first runner up to Erica Andrews, who then went on to win the title, who has since passed away. She was Roxxxy Andrews’ drag mother, and she was someone who we all saw as one of the most sickening to ever do it. I’m very thankful for the girls.”
By James Kleinmann
Angelia Ross is currently making her Broadway debut in the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago the musical in an eight-week limited engagement at the Ambassador Theatre (219 W. 49th St., NYC), through Sunday, November 6th, 2022. Tickets are on sale now at chicagothemusical.com.