Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Inside Broadway with Hailey Kilgore: The Adoptee Shares Her Journey from Farmland to ‘Once on This Island’

Hailey Kilgore (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hailey Kilgore)

*Making her Broadway debut at 18 years old, Hailey Kilgore beat out thousands of young black girls for the role of Ti Moune in the Broadway musical revival “Once on This Island.” Directed by Michael Arden, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and choreography by Camille B. Brown, “Once on This Island” is currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York City.

Auditions for the role of Ti Moune were held throughout the country and the Caribbean Islands, including Haiti, Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York. Kilgore was halfway through her second semester at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy when she booked the leading role.

Now 19 years old, Hailey was born in Humble, Texas, and adopted at birth by Rebecca and Eric Kilgore of Portland, Oregon, who later moved the family to the nearby suburb of Happy Valley. She credits her adoptive parents with raising her in a supportive, healthy and loving environment in which she was able to excel personally, academically and creatively.

Gwendolyn Quinn: Tell us what it was like growing up in Happy Valley, Oregon.

Hailey Kilgore: I was the only African American girl in school, sports and at church, but I always had the full support of my parents and my family. It was a struggle to find my identity and figure out who I was and where I fit in. I grew up in a safe environment where my family always had my back and always had my best interest at heart. My parents were very protective, and I also had my grandmother, who was also a big part of my life.

Hailey Kilgore (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2017)

GQ: What did your [adoptive] parents think of “Once on This Island?

HK: My parents loved the show. It has been an interesting journey moving to New York; I was alone. My mother helped me move into my first apartment and then she left. I know that they are over the moon and they have been so supportive of me from afar. My parents also let me learn my lessons and make my mistakes and grow.

GQ: When did you become interested in the performing arts? What age did you start training?

HK: I was born into the theater. My parents were both actors, and my father owned a theater company when I four years old. It wasn’t until I was in sixth or seventh grade that I pursued the training aspects of dance, vocal, and acting. I started late in the game because a lot of kids, especially kids that are born into theater families, start ballet by the time they are two years old. My parents didn’t want to force that lifestyle upon me; they wanted me to do what I wanted to do. My parents said you’re either going to do it and the second that you show that you don’t want to do it, it’s back to school and cheerleading and gymnastics.

GQ: You mentioned that you grew up in a predominately white community. How was that experience? Did you start struggling with your identity?

HK: I started exploring adoption and what adoption meant during my late elementary-school years. Fortunately, I didn’t understand going to a grocery store and being followed around by a male clerk because he thought I was stealing something from the store. I didn’t know anyone who experienced that so I grew up thinking it was normal to be treated that way. I now know that steeps into other things like being spoken down to and bullying, which I struggled with in the ninth grade. I remember my mom would drive me forty-five minutes to Portland every Saturday and she would let me be a part of the Northwest Community Gospel Choir, and that was my first experience with the black community and with people who looked like me. I met people who were dealing with the same issues that I was dealing with growing up. I remember feeling safe and welcomed, and I learned so many lessons being a part of that experience.

Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2017)

When I started my acting training, I worked with the organizers of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, and I started working with black directors and artists in Portland, which there were not many. The acting competition was based on the works of August Wilson, who is considered the black Shakespeare of theater. I started having these experiences with the African American community that had never had before.

GQ: How did you land the role in the show?

HK: When I was a sophomore in high school, I met a New York-based playwright [Rodney Hicks], and he had asked me to do a reading of a play that he been working on [“Perfect Works in Progress,” now titled “NC-17”]. I play the role of a transgender black teen, and Rodney [Hicks] became family, and he pushed me to work and practice whenever I could.

A few years later, I moved to New York for my first year of college. I found out that they were doing the worldwide search for the role of Ti Moune for “Once on This Island.” The creative team wanted someone young, vibrant and energetic. I remember my heart telling me that I should audition for this musical. I talked with Rodney, and he reached out to the director, Michael Arden [of “Once on This Island”], and said you need to see this girl. If he had not shown that video to Michael and David [Perlow, the associate director], I would not be here, I would not be doing this. I would still be in school.

Hailey Kilgore (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2017)

GQ: How does it feel to be a leading lady in your first Broadway show?

HK: It was and still is a lot of pressure; so many young women went into that room and auditioned for the role who I know would do a beautiful, flawless job telling this story. It’s still a challenge; I learn something every day. I’m learning so much about the business and the industry. I also have been given a beautiful family and the blessing of having people around me [cast] on stage every day.

Yes, it is hard work, I’m getting over being a perfectionist, but I’m also someone who pushes myself and my peers. I like to give it my all every time I go on stage. It goes back to my parents who said if you’re going to half-ass it, there’s no point in doing it. I’m blessed, and I’m happy to be here.

GQ: Do you plan to finish college at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy?

HK: I want to go back to school. I’ve been thinking about studying psychology as well. I’m going to go wherever life takes me, and hopefully, God will keep blessing me with all of the amazing things that I’m so lucky to have.

GQ: What are some of your other career goals?

HK: When I close my eyes and think about the future, I would love to work on an action film or a murder mystery. I am a huge fan of “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens.” My best friend and I grew up watching [“American Horror Story], which is terrible because children should not watch that show. I also grew up watching “American Crime Story” and “Law and Order SVU” with my mom. I’m obsessed with murder mysteries. I can see myself doing something fun in that genre.

GQ: Do you like living in New York City?

HK: I love New York, but I miss home sometimes because I grew up on farmland. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, where trees and dogs are running free in the yards. I remember the first experience I had [moving to New York]; it was summer and very hot, and there were people pushing dogs around in baby carriers, and I was confused because my dog would want to run free and play. I miss living in Happy Valley; it’s an hour away from skiing and going to the mountains and an hour and a half away from the beach. It is different living in New York, but the thing I love about New York is you can do anything and go anywhere.

 

Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media strategist and consultant with a career spanning   more than 25 years. She covers entertainment, travel, and lifestyle news. Quinn is a voting member of the Drama Desk. She is a contributor to NBCNews.com/NBCBLK.com, BlackEnterprise.com, HuffPost, and Medium.com, among others.

Gwendolyn Quinn
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder and creator of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway,” “The Living Legends Series,” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURWEB.com. She is also a contributor to BE.com, BE Pulse (via Medium.com) and the Huffington Post. Quinn is also a contributor to "Souls Revealed" and "Handle Your Entertainment Business." She is the curator of The Living Legends Foundation’s “The State of Black Music and Beyond” essay series published on the Huffington Post. Contact her at GwendolynGQuinn@gmail.com.

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