Singing Not Just an Act for Gloria Reuben

Over the course of the past 25 years, the world has gotten to view the performing talents of Gloria Reuben on a number of stages. She is a throwback to an era of multi-talented performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Rosemary Clooney – she acts, dances, sings, plays piano.

On TV, she owned the groundbreaking mid-'90s role of the HIV-infected Dr. Jeanie Boulet on ER, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and won an NAACP Image Award. She portrayed U.S. Attorney Christine Danielson on Law and Order, FBI agent Brooke Haslett on 1-800 Missing, Rosalind Whitman in the court drama Raising the Bar, Marina Peralta in Falling Skies, and plays psychologist Krista Gordon in the cyber-hacker psychological drama Mr. Robot.

On the silver screen, she has played a wide variety of roles, including Detective Blake Kanon in the 2014 crime drama Reasonable Doubt with Samuel L. Jackson. But the one that stands above them all was her poignant portrayal of former slave, seamstress, and civil-rights activist Elizabeth Keckley in Stephen Spielberg’s historical drama 2012 Lincoln, for which Reuben received critical praise.

On the theatrical stage, she portrayed one-time U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in David Hare's Stuff Happens, at New York's Public Theater in 2006. Reuben portrayal garnered her a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actress for New York Off-Broadway performances.

And yet it is her refined artistry as a jazz vocal and piano performer that brings her to the Valley this Friday. Reuben, who studied music technique, theory, ballet, and jazz at the Canadian Royal Conservatory, will be performing her sophisticated jazz stylings at the Musical instrument Museum a day after her birthday. She will be selecting music from her second album, Perchance To Dream, released last year, as well as a few other numbers, even playing a few numbers on the piano.

Reuben will be accompanied by MIM veteran performer and four-time Grammy-winning producer Marty Ashby and his quartet. Ashby is the executive producer of the MCG Jazz music label, which is part of a program of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (MCG), an arts organization in Pittsburgh.

“Gloria has a very honest and unique way of telling a story with her vocal performance,” Ashby offers. “Her intimate, yet powerful approach is a pleasure as both a musician and producer to work with ... And equally important — she is a wonderful person and fun to collaborate with.”

New Times spoke with Reuben and discussed growing up in a mixed-race family, auditioning as a back-up singer for Tina Turner, writing music and memoirs, and the conduit for emotional expression.

New Times: What brings you to the Valley to play at MIM?

Gloria Reuben: [Ashby] asked me to play there. He produced my last album. I heard it's beautiful there. We thought it would be the perfect place, acoustically. I have been out there, but very, very briefly, so this will absolutely be a new experience. I do have some very good friends that live there, so it will be great to perform there, but I will be there for a just few days. Unfortunately, it will not be long enough stay to get the real flavor of Phoenix, but it's nice to enjoy a new audience, interesting demographics, and enjoy a new musical adventure.

As I was researching your versatile career, I find you to be a throwback to a golden era of multi-talented performers along the lines of Sammy Davis Jr. and Rosemary Clooney and Ginger Rogers and many others. You are of the old school of talent, with singing, dancing, performing, and acting. There is a sophistication there. You don’t see that much anymore. Do you agree?

You just made my day by saying that because that's how I feel a lot. You're right — sophistication has gotten a bad rap, and you know what, I don't care. I like that I am sophisticated. I like that this music is sophisticated. I enjoy showing that hyper-finesse and gentleness and strength. I have always felt like my soul is from a different era, for sure.

You grew up in Toronto, and your mother, Pearl Avis (Mills), was a classical singer. She was Afro-Jamaican, and your father, the late Cyril George Reuben, was an architect, and he was white and Jewish. How tough was life growing up in a mixed-race household then, and what role did music play?

Music was always around the house. Well, not always, but it was there because of my mother's background. My love of music was kind of in my DNA. But I never set out like a lot of kids say, "Hey, I'm gonna be famous." I could have cared less. It was very difficult growing up in a mixed family. Between being white and beige or darker in a conservative country is very, very tricky, to say the least.

What did music do for growing up to combat this difficult upbringing?

So music for me was from a young age the only way that I had to show emotional expression, and it couldn't happen at home and certainly not at school. That was the only outlet for me. It is what saved me in a number of different ways. One of the most primal thing is music and dance, and it's in nature. Music is from nature.

You do not seem to have a certain nationality look. Do you use that as an advantage?

I moved to the States when I was 24. Something was really heightened that was about black and white. I love being a big question mark for people. You know, "Where are you from, what are you?" It's funny because I remember traveling to Venice and the Italians think I’m Spanish or Brazilian or Italian. They're so enamored of that.

What music resonated with you in your teen years?

For me it was Led Zeppelin. It was all classic rock. There was Earth, Wind & Fire for sure, but there was Journey and Boston, Kansas. It was the Scorpions. There was Fleetwood Mac. I was all over the place. Great vocals. Rush, I mean Geddy Lee, c'mon. Always, always strong vocals. Stellar storytellers. Bruce
Springsteen. If they had a great vocal and great story, I was in.

Speaking of rock 'n' roll, you had the unique opportunity to sing back-up for Tina Turner in 2000 on her Twenty Four Seven Tour. Tell the story about how that all came to be.

She said, "You have great legs, can you sing and dance?" I said, "Yes, I can." She said, "You should go on tour with me." And I said, "okay." It was a meet-and-greet, so I left, and I was laughing and thought it was the funniest thing. And then the next day, [Turner's] man reached out. So I did end up rehearsing for her and her manager in her hotel room.

How terrifying was that audition?

It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, but I did it. You end up realizing that if it’s any experience, it might be terrifying, but if I make it through this one I can do it again.

That experience led you to recording your debut album, Just For You, in 2004. Your second album after that, which you will be playing a good deal of at MIM, Perchance To Dream, is on is MCG, and you got to work with Marty Ashby. How did you come to get to work with Marty?

I met Marty Ashby at a jazz conference in New York. I was performing a few numbers at one of the events, and he was at that event. I had performed the Shirley Horn classic "Here's To Life." It really was a full experience, and I had hoped to create another album this year, but with both of our schedules it's just not going to work out. But we'll get out another one next year for sure.

While music is what is bringing you to Phoenix, your acting is what put you on the map. Of all of your recent acting roles, your portrayal of Elizabeth Keckley in Stephen Spielberg's 2012 epic historical drama, Lincoln, brought critical praise. What kind of inspiration was she?

I didn’t know anything about her until I was asked to read for the part. And of course, I had 24 hours to get a sense of who she was, but as soon as I got the part I took a road trip and documented the places where she spent her first 25 years. She was extraordinary. She got her own freedom.

You lived for a short while in Hollywood but have opted to live on the East Coast in New York. What does living apart from Hollywood and opting for New York mean to you and for your career?

The people who I admire the most, a majority of them do not live there [Hollywood]. The Helen Mirrens, Meryl Streeps, Cate Blanchetts, Daniel Day-Lewis. I don’t live there anymore, so I am "not seen there" and maybe that is a little bit of a price to pay, but that’s okay with me because I need more variety of people who do different things. I like New York City. You go for one walk on one block there and you see it all. It’s cultural and inspiring.

New York can be tough in its own way. What is the single most important factor for you in terms of staying in NYC?

For me, to continue to be inspired, and nature plays a big part. I mentioned the conduit for emotional expression. But in terms of humanity, because as an actor I have to be immersed in it. I have to be immersed in all of it. And it can be difficult.

Having the ability to move from acting to singing and performing, do you still get a hunger to go back on the theatrical stage?

I miss it [the stage]. It's fantastic. I definitely want to get back on stage soon, but in the meantime, the stage is there for music.
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn