Amber Iman on Readying Lempicka While Advocating for Black Women on Broadway | Playbill

Special Features Amber Iman on Readying Lempicka While Advocating for Black Women on Broadway

The actor has become a muse for the new Broadway musical, and for the industry at large.

Amber Iman Heather Gershonowitz

The song “Woman Is” from the new musical Lempicka contains some evocative lyrics: “Woman is speed, green, shattered / Woman is powerful.” That anthem is sung by the title character, Tamara de Lempicka, who is describing her lover and muse, Rafaela. As the woman who plays Rafaela, it’s been a delight for Amber Iman to internalize the adoration expressed in that song. “To know that that song is being sung about me, it's like, ‘Whoa, look at me! I'm out here being a love interest!’” she exclaims with a laugh. “It just feels like a gift.”

For Iman, it’s been rare for her to play someone who is soft and romantic. Though she played Nina Simone on Broadway in Soul Doctor, at a regal 5’10,’’ Iman says she once lost out on a role as a love interest because of her height. “That's not beautiful in our world, the woman being taller [than the man],” explains Iman. “I never get to see tall girls in love scenes.” Iman even wrote her first short film, Steve, because of that frustration.

Well, in Lempicka—the new Broadway musical from Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, which begins performances March 19 at the Longacre Theatre—Iman is making up for lost time. The show follows the real-life painter Tamara de Lempicka (played by Eden Espinosa) who, after fleeing Russia during the revolution, lands in Paris with her husband and child. There, she finds community with the bohemians and meets Rafaela, someone who is spirited and independent—who lights Tamara’s creative fire.

“You're watching two women who are trying to find their place and leave their mark on the world,” explains Iman. “The world has its knees on their necks. And they are both fighting to stay afloat. What do you sacrifice? How do you maintain who you are? Keep a piece of your soul and not sell yourself out, but still survive?”

READ: Eden Espinosa Has Been Waiting a Long Time for a Role Like Lempicka

Amber Iman Heather Gershonowitz

Rafaela is loosely based on the real woman who inspired the Lempicka painting “La Belle Rafaela.” But she also represents something profound. Muses have been gazed upon for centuries, but their names and stories have been erased from the history books—the names written on the canvas are those of the men who painted them. But in Lempicka, the muse is finally given a voice. And that’s partially thanks to the woman playing her.

Iman stepped into the role in 2018, after seeing an early version of the musical at Williamstown Theatre Festival, with Carmen Cusack as Rafaela. Iman had previously auditioned for Tamara and was a longtime friend of Matt Gould. When Cusack could no longer continue with the show, Iman was asked to play Rafaela. Then, in one of the workshops for the shows, Iman said to the creative team, “I'm so sorry. But I just have a question about why Rafaela is here and why she stays…I'm just not seeing what compels her to stay.”

It’s a fair question. After all, Tamara is married with a child. Why would Rafaela, who is practical and only initially became a model to make some money, let herself get wrapped up in such a complicated situation?

“It’s my job to live inside of this woman,” explains Iman. “And I have to ask the questions. Sure, I could just sit there and be like, ‘OK, I'm gonna say this, and I'm gonna sing these lyrics.’ But I don't think that's why I was hired. I think I'm in rooms like this because I have a point of view, because I listen and pay attention.”

This muse actually speaks, and her query inspired to Gould writing a ballad for Rafaela called “Stay.” That song begins with, “I've been on my own since I was 10. Show some weakness and you're dead.” So now, why Rafaela stays, is because with Tamara, she is allowed to be vulnerable. 

That’s poignant for Iman as well, because it allows her to explore a part of Black womanhood that goes beyond steely strength. “You get to be soft. You get to be playful and fun. You get to be a comedian. You get to tell the jokes. You get to sing the sexy songs. You get to wear the lingerie. You get to be in control. You get to show all the colors. And I think we need way more of that,” she says, joy evident in her voice.

Just like how Rafaela inspires Tamara in Lempicka, Iman has been a source of inspiration for the Broadway community. As a founder of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Black Women on Broadway, Iman is one of the theatre industry’s preeminent advocates for diversity and opportunity. Both organizations are dedicated to mentoring and bringing Black theatre workers together in community. While Iman is preparing to open Lempicka, she is also planning the third annual Black Women on Broadway Awards alongside co-founders Danielle Brooks and Jocelyn Bioh. All three women are busy this season (Brooks is an Oscar nominee for The Color Purple while Bioh just had a hit play on Broadway in the fall with Jaja’s African Hair Braiding). But Black Women on Broadway remains a passion project for them.

“Danielle, Jocelyn, and I, we don't know anything about fundraising,” explains Iman of how the three of them found funding for last year's Black Women on Broadway Awards. "We don't have any help. When people see the event, that's literally the three of us on the phone, sending emails, sending texts, asking for favors. All 150 swag bags, we packed ourselves in a hotel room.”

Danielle Brooks, Jocelyn Bioh, and Amber Iman at the 2023 Black Women on Broadway Awards Heather Gershonowitz

The long-term goals for Black Women on Broadway include a Black Women on Broadway Festival, scholarship opportunities, and full-time staff positions. Iman admits it’s the hardest project she’s ever been a part of, but the most rewarding. She remembers the lean times she’s had as an actor, when friends would cook her dinner, hand her an unlimited Metrocard, or give her work to help her stay afloat. That community helped Iman survive. Now, she wants to pay it forward by creating a community for other young Black theatre artists.

“Theatre workers are the hardest workers—we work the longest hours and get paid the least amount of money. And we should be celebrated for the fact that we are still here and surviving and creating great art,” she says passionately. “Especially Black women. So Danielle, Jocelyn and I are invested in making sure Black women feel seen, heard, affirmed, and loved. Period.”

See Iman discuss how she never set out to be an advocate for diversity, and why such efforts are necessary, in a roundtable discussion with director Jessica Stone, choreographer Camille A. Brown, and playwright Heidi Schreck.

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