Chicago media tends to cover local theater by especially noting the acclaimed playwright or the gifted director or the timeless play. For whatever reason, the brilliant actor or actress is rarely spotlighted.
Chicago native AnJi White is more than deserving of “all-eyes-on-her” attention for her scintillating, breakout performance in the new production of “Sunset Baby,” playing at the TimeLine Theater, 615 West Wellington, through April 10.
In Dominique Morisseau’s acclaimed play, which has been staged around the country since its 2012 debut and is mounted here in Chicago under the peerless direction of Ron OJ Parson, AnJi White plays Nina, the struggling adult daughter of Black liberation movement revolutionaries of the 1970s.
The show, and especially AnJi White, have received rave reviews since the production first opened at Timeline Theater back in January.
AnJi’s Nina is a streetwise bookworm who does bait and switch stickup cons with her hustling dope-dealer boyfriend to survive as they both aspire towards a better life and use their criminal activities to try to finance it.
Nina grew up tough as nails, on the outside anyway, surviving alone while her father Kenyatta was locked away as a political prisoner due to his liberation activities and as life’s pressures eventually caused her recently deceased mother to succumb to drug addiction. Nina blames her father for not being there for both of them.
The locus of the play centers on love letters Nina’s mother wrote to her husband through the years, which are in Nina’s possession, and which have become particularly valuable, as book publishers want to print them.
That brings a long overdue visit to Nina from the father from whom she is estranged and wants nothing to do with. For his own reasons, he is interested in the letters, and so, too, is Nina’s scheming boyfriend, Damon.
“Sunset Baby” from thereon is an urgent meditation on fractured families, love, greed, generational differences, relationships, and the nature of liberation, redemption and reconciliation.
But it all goes through Nina and therefore, it all goes through AnJi White. AnJi gives a brave and commanding performance on a small stage at Timeline Theatre and in that limited enclosure, all manner of R-rated intrigue – in language, physicality and sexuality – plays out, literally inches away from the audience.
To sit on the couch that is the center of where much of the action of “Sunset Baby” takes place, is to realize how claustrophobic that small set really is – it’s where N’DIGO sat down to interview White pre-performance recently.
She doesn’t look like Nina sitting answering questions. Not as tall or big or larger than life. “I get a lot of that – that ‘Girl, your personality doesn’t match with the characters. How do you get into the characters?’” AnJi says. “People tell me I’m a totally different person on stage. I’m like, ‘Good, that means I’ve done the work!”
The small setting also allows you to appreciate the acting acrobatics the three performers who inhabit the show display as they circle each other for nearly two hours, with no intermission.
Kelvin Roston Jr. is Damon, the not-so-stereotypical thug boyfriend who has virtues of his own, and Phillip Edward Van Lear is the father Kenyatta, who is neither saint-nor-sinner.
But it is AnJi White who has the star-making role here, and it should catapult her on to bigger and better things as an actress in the entertainment industry.
And that’s cool because Angela White – who prefers to be called AnJi – is really of and from Chicago’s Black community.
AnJi From The Gardens
She may be the only professional actress to come out of the Eden Green complex on the
far South Side near Altgeld Gardens.
Those are her roots, where she was born, schooled, churched and grew up until the family moved to the Burbank area on the Southwest side of Chicago, where AnJi still lives with her family.
She says she knew in sixth grade that acting was what she wanted to do. Her parents rode with her on that dream – cautiously.
“My parents were supportive, but at the same time, they were like, ‘We’ll see what happens,’” AnJi said. “You’re always going out on a limb with these things because I guess most people don’t think there’s an actual career in it. But you have to keep going after it and my parents did nurture my dreams.”
AnJi and her brother Tyrone were raised in a two-parent middle-class family. Her father Daryl Anderson, in the insurance business, and her mom Debra, a RN, provided AnJi a catholic school education.
She graduated from Chicago Seventh-Day Adventist Academy Elementary School on 70th and Michigan and then Queen of Peace High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Burbank.
“I was a kid going to church with my family, but my mom did root us in prayer and to put our faith in God,” she says. But she did sing in the church choir. Her family attended Progressive Missionary Baptist on 127th and Michigan, and now Holy Springs Christian Center on 72nd and Halsted.
“Before I knew I was going to be an actress, I was always singing somewhere in the house, particularly in the kitchen,” AnJi says. “I’d sing Disney tunes like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast from the soundtracks of the movies my mom bought me on VHS tapes that I still have somewhere.
“But I’m just okay as a singer; I’m not the best. Even now, I don’t consider myself a singer – an actress is what I am.”
She certainly tried hard enough to make that happen. Looking around for a college, but not wanting to leave the area, she checked out her father’s alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a large theater department. She auditioned for it and didn’t get in, “but regardless, I knew I was going to be a theater major somewhere,” AnJi says.
Maybe karma agreed, because out of the blue she got a call from the Conservatory for Dramatic Arts in New York, asking her to come audition for them.
“I have no idea where they found out about me and I was only 17,” AnJi says. “But I auditioned. When I finished, the guy was like, ‘Yeah, we want you.’ So I went there for two years and got intensive training in film and TV.”
She thought about staying in New York and trying to make acting work there, “but I also did want to come home,” says the Libra who was born October 7, 1988. “I was spending the holidays by myself. I was out there when I was 17 turning 18 and came back at 19 turning 20, from 2006 to 2008.”
Learning Chicago Theater
Coming back, AnJi didn’t know much about the theater industry here in Chicago. “So I said, ‘Well, what does one do when they don’t know what else to do?’ Go back to school and get a job!” she recalled.
She did both, enrolling at Columbia College and working at Laurie Children’s Hospital, where she does patient registration and insurance verification. “It’s my 9 to 5 survival job,” she calls it.
Columbia College was strategic, she says, because she has an aunt who is an administrator there and because “there are people at Columbia who are in the industry or are familiar with the people in the industry and that’s helped me so much.”
AnJi cites Columbia instructor Catherine Slade as “my mentor and my first teacher there – she saw something special in me and really gravitated toward me,” says AnJi. “It was great because she groomed me and helps me on my auditions. She even helped me with the audition for ‘Sunset Baby’.”
Another big assist came from Andrea Dymond, who directed AnJi in her first show with Columbia, “The Colored Museum.” Dymond connected her with Congo Theater, where she got an understudy role in their version of the same play in January 2009.
Then Catherine Slade did a workshop AnJi participated in at Columbia with Regina Taylor when Taylor’s “Trinity River Plays” was being staged at the Goodman. Taylor was at opening night of “The Colored Museum” when AnJi was understudying and remembered her from the workshop.
Taylor took her information to pass along to the Goodman, which chose AnJi as an understudy for the “Trinity River” production, where she worked with actress Karen Aldridge.
“Then Steppenwolf contacted me and I didn’t know anybody there, so somebody must have passed on my name and I didn’t know who, or who to thank. Steppenwolf offered me an understudy role for “Clybourne Park.” And again, it was Karen Aldridge that I was understudying.”
AnJi’s career took off. Every year since she has returned to Chicago, she has done something with her craft, including making TV commercials for Kaplan University and Chuck E Cheese, short films, and a couple of indie TV productions.
“But it got to be a bit of a struggle,” AnJi says. “I was going to school part-time, working part-time, understudying in the shows. I had to write a paper while I was at the theater and had rehearsal and was trying to be at work. That’s when I said, something’s got to give.
“I’d been doing acting stuff, but I was also in school getting further into debt, so I had to make a decision to go for acting full-time, knowing that school would always be there, but the acting opportunities might not.
“I couldn’t turn down auditions because I had to go to class. That’s what I was in school for – to follow that goal of getting into acting, and I said I could always come back, but I haven’t been back since. It’s good that I can say that.”
A Big Decision
AnJi’s decision led to her performing in “ITHAKA” with Infusion Theatre; “Mud, River, Stone” with Eclipse Theatre; “Forgotten Future” with Collaboraction; “The Project(s)” with American Theatre Company; and her first lead role last year as Undine in Lynn Nottage’s play “Fabulation” staged at Pulse Theatre.
“I was used to being ensemble, an understudy, in the back, and this was me at the forefront. It was a challenge I needed. It was also a stretch because comedy is my weakness,” AnJi says. “If she gets dramatic, alright, I’m on that, but it was a satire thing and I thought the audience would hate me.”
They didn’t, of course, and that led to AnJi’s star turn as Nina in “Sunset Baby,” a role she had to read for three times.
“The first time I felt I wasn’t that good, but I got a call back and the second one I thought I was good in and if I can walk away from an audition feeling great about it, I’m okay,” AnJi said. “But the third one, I read with Kelvin, who plays Damon, and I didn’t feel I did good with it.
“I just felt like, oh man. And I wanted it so bad. You try to move forward, but it’s like no, come on, please. This was around Memorial Day and a week went by that felt like two weeks. I was at work and so upset and so emotional. I thought, man, I really let that slip through my fingers.
“I was listening to music and the song that came on was, ‘You’re Next In Line For A Miracle.’ I got a call from my agent right then and she said, ‘You got it.’ I said, ‘Are you joking?’ She said no. I got off the phone and ran to the bathroom and started crying and shouting, ‘Thank you, God, I got it!’ I was so happy!”
AnJi says that to a degree, she understands the duality of Nina, who is a Bonnie and Clyde and a bookworm at the same time. She says Nina is written as being in her late 20s, so she plays her as 27, AnJi’s own age.
“I am smart, but I’m urban as well, which is why I don’t think Nina and I are too much different,” says AnJi, who describes herself as a quiet introverted observer, a good listener who is very critical of herself, and a fitness nut who enjoys Zumba, Insanity, and Boot Camp workouts.
“In the sense of Nina’s living on the streets and having to street hustle, no. But I can identify with the emotions that she’s going through, some of the pain and regrets and loss and wanting to be loved and not getting the love that she deserves. I understand that, the psychology of that.”
AnJi said she also understands about the Black liberation movement that Nina’s parents were involved in from “reading about it, researching it and definitely listening to my director.”
She adds, “Not having been there in that time, of course I’m not going to really fully understand that, but I feel like a lot of the things that people in the Black liberation movement were fighting for then are things that we are still fighting for now – equality in education, housing, unemployment.
“They’re closing our schools, cutting funds for public education and closing our colleges now, and obviously the police brutality that’s coming to light with evidence by way of camera footage – it’s not so distant now as from then.
“We’re still not being seen as first-class human beings. Still being seen as second-class and in some ways, seen as animals, especially when we show up in the media.”
AnJi says that “Sunset Baby” has been a godsend and a launching pad for her career. She’s already landed a role with the TV show “Chicago PD,” and said she’s open to possibilities now, especially since she has no kids or husband – it’s just her and the car, she jokes.
“I’m more ready to leave Chicago than I’ve ever been (to work on the coasts),” AnJi says. “If I had to go to somewhere and survive I’d be okay. I’m still new, but I have a lot of stuff under my belt now. I’m seasoned, so it might be my moment at this time.”
The young lady from Eden Green and Altgeld is doing pretty well for herself. Surely more good things lie ahead for AnJi White as she represents her home and does us all proud.