Standing Still at Center Stage

A musical theatre actress reflects on her journey from IU to Hamilton.

Anna Powell Denton.

When I catch up with musical theatre actress Charnette Batey (B.F.A. ’12, Musical Theatre) during the COVID-19 lockdown, she’s giving her five-year-old French bulldog Fitzgerald a bath. After the production of Hamilton she was touring with came to a screeching halt, she’s signed a short-term lease to ride out the pandemic near her family in Lexington, Ky., instead of hunkering down in New York.

While many of her colleagues are scrambling to do Zoom read-throughs or broadcast remote versions of duets, Batey is taking a much-deserved break.

“There’s a temptation to feel guilty for not reading new plays or acting out scenes,” she says. “But I’m taking full advantage of this downtime. I have enough pressure when I’m doing shows and keeping up with auditions.”

She’s cultivated her ability to keep a calm, steady center in the midst of chaos over seven years of almost non-stop touring — first with Dream Girls, then in The Color Purple, then The Book of Mormon, and now Hamilton. She attributes that equanimity, in part, to her mother.

“My mom’s always instilled in me that I can do something if I believe in it,” she says.

The key has been to maintain that perspective through difficult audition processes in an industry that, despite some advances, doesn’t offer abundant opportunities for Black women.

Batey was born in San Diego, where her parents were stationed in the navy. After her divorce, her mom wanted to be closer to family support, so she moved with Charnette and her two younger brothers to New Albany, Ind., a town of about 35,000 across the Ohio River from Louisville. There, Batey experienced “culture shock” in a multitude of ways.

“I could hear it in the way I spoke,” she remembers. “I could feel it in what I thought was cool.”

But the biggest change was that she went from an ethnically diverse city to being the only person of color in her class.

Despite the bumpy transition, the move proved fortuitous. New Albany High School has a well-funded and highly regarded musical theatre program. Batey discovered her passion after landing one of the lead roles in her school’s production of Aida, the story of a Nubian princess in love with her captor.

“We’re not a musical theatre family,” she explains, adding that one brother is in the military and the other is in medical school. “Singing was always ‘Charnette’s thing.’”

On the left, Batey poses backstage in costume at a performance of Hamilton, the major Broadway musical created and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, pictured with Batey on the right.

In high school, her powerful mezzosoprano and ability to belt high was revealed. Her teacher encouraged her to audition for the musical theatre program at IU, which is part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.

“I was like, ‘Wait, you mean I could go to college for this and do it as a job?’” she recalls. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I could do this professionally.”

At IU, she once again found herself in the position of being the only woman of color in her class, facing almost no competition when it came to parts written for Black women. One summer, she experienced color-blind casting when she auditioned for — and won — the role of sultry bombshell Lola in Damn Yankees through IU Summer Theatre.

“It was really nice to just be seen for my gift and not for the color of my skin,” she says.

As a Black actress in New York City, Batey now faces competition from both a large pool of talented actors of color and a bias toward white actors for the vast majority of roles.

“The people sitting behind the table at casting are not people who look like me,” she says. “I know there are shows I’m not booking because of the way I look.”

Despite that, she persistently auditions, sometimes going through 100 headshots in a year. And that persistence has paid off. She received her first leading role within a month of moving to New York, touring as Deena in Dream Girls, a Henry Krieger musical about an aspiring R&B trio. She’s been working steadily ever since.

“I just show up and audition even if it’s for a part that is usually cast as white,” she says. “It’s not my problem if they are unable to look at a bigger picture.”

In addition to her theatre work, Batey has trained as a yoga teacher and meditates regularly.

The tactic has yielded unexpected results. For example, she auditioned for the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, a play about a small-town girl who moves to New York City and has a brush with “white slavery,” as it’s called in Playbill’s synopsis. “They were definitely not going to cast a Black Millie,” Batey says, but the company was so impressed with her audition that they called her back when they were looking for actors for The Color Purple. She joined the touring cast as Celie, the protagonist.

It takes a lot of internal strength to keep walking into rooms full of skeptical casting directors.

“I’ve let it beat me down,” Batey says. “And then I’ve had to rise back up, just like the people before me. I come from a long line of fighters and dreamers.”

However, it took a special kind of inner fire to get through the year-and-a-half audition process for Hamilton.

“They want strong people,” Batey says, by way of explaining the exceptional time frame.

Within the theatre world, Hamilton is a notoriously difficult production with the most sung words of any major musical. That takes incredible precision and control. In addition, the production team wants strong people because of the attention lavished on the play and its cast. In short order, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop re-telling of the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton became a pop culture phenomenon. The Guardian called it the “kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals,” and its record-smashing Broadway run certainly bore that out.

Getting cast in Hamilton can be a career-changing accomplishment, one that Batey kept reaching for as she returned again and again to various auditions and work sessions. Each time, she’d get her hopes up and then — no call. In order to deal with the emotional highs and lows of that experience, she turned inward.

“I did a lot of self-work,” she says.

During that time, she trained to be a yoga teacher and took up meditation, sitting on her mat and envisioning herself being in the play.

“I found that self-love and self-worth and really homed in on how to trust myself.”

One day she was relaxing at home with Fitzgerald and got the call that she would be playing not one, but three parts in Hamilton. She was cast as both an ensemble member and as an understudy for all three of the Schulyer sisters, major roles with both propulsive raps and moving solos. After hanging up, she burst into tears.

“I just felt proud of myself for not giving up,” she remembers.

But the challenges weren’t over. Touring can be grueling, with many hours spent on buses and many more spent in a series of impersonal hotel rooms — not to mention the sheer difficulty of regularly switching between multiple roles.

“I definitely exercise that part of my brain that just gobbles up material and spits it out,” Batey says.

"I come from a long line of fighters and dreamers.”

She’s also developed a technique to keep the parts straight and not accidentally burst onto stage belting the wrong solo. Before curtains go up, she looks down at the color of her dress and repeats the name of which sister she is playing. Getting enough rest can be hard because, in addition to performing, there are nightly parties thrown by local theaters and audience members eager to meet the cast.

“People are just so excited that we’re there,” Batey explains.

To keep her balance, she tries to maintain a morning routine, even if it’s just a short one, and uses the time on the bus to decompress by putting on headphones and snuggling up with Fitzgerald. He tours with Hamilton and is a great traveler.

“Everybody loves him,” Batey reports.

In reflecting on why Hamilton is so popular, Batey sees an obsession in the American zeitgeist with Black artistic forms.

“This is African American culture put into a musical,” she explains “Think about what is hot and popular. It's all derived from my people's history.”

Another reason why the show has made waves is because it’s tipping the scales for actors of color. With color-conscious casting, the show’s cast is almost all people of color.

“There’s a lot of momentum right now,” Batey says. “There is a lot of forward movement to include people who look like me and have shows that aren’t just lily white.”

But there’s still a long way to go; around 95 percent of plays and musicals produced each season on Broadway are written by white playwrights.

Batey plans to keep pushing ahead with her career, no matter the odds. Her next goal is to originate a principle role on Broadway.

“It’s such a big dream,” she says. “But I know it’s possible because I could dream myself to being cast in Hamilton. It’s a matter of being in alignment with my aspirations.”

But for now her main focus is on resting and recharging.

“It’s not a bad thing to stop moving,” she says. “Sometimes it’s more powerful to see someone just standing still — center stage.”

Elizabeth Hoover

Elizabeth Hoover is a poet, critic, and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie SchoonerNarrative, and The Crab Orchard Review, among others, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Boston Review, StoryQuarterly, and Lunch Ticket. She writes about books and interviews authors for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bomb, The Kenyon Review, and Bitch and has contributed art reportage and pop culture criticism to Daily Xtra, Paper, and The Washington Post. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.