By Gregg Shapiro
You no doubt remember diva powerhouse Frenchie Davis from her stints on American Idol and The Voice. But if you’ve been following her career between those shows and since, you know that there’s so much more to her than that. Sure, she can sing like nobody’s business, but she’s also a gifted actress and has been appearing on stage in musicals Rent, Dreamgirls and Ain’t Misbehavin. Davis is also the force behind the one-woman concert event The Frenchie Davis Experience. I spoke with Frenchie about the show and her career in late 2017.
Gregg Shapiro: Your new show is called The Frenchie Davis Experience. What can the audience expect to experience when they take their seats, Frenchie?
Frenchie Davis: They can expect to laugh a little and to enjoy some of their favorite soul music songs, as well as some of my favorite Broadway and R&B songs. Every genre; there are even some hip-hop songs that I interpret as ballads. They can expect to have a good time and hear me sing my heart out [laughs].
GS: What is involved in the song selection process for a show such as this?
FD: It’s something that evolves naturally over time; my repertoire, in general. It depends on if it’s a venue or city where I’ve performed before. I try to think about songs that the audience will enjoy. I know that the gays come to my shows. I know that people who love soul music and Broadway come to my shows. I try to have a little something for everybody.
GS: You said that the audience can expect to laugh. Do you tell any stories in the show?
FD: Sometimes. Sometimes the way that I express myself inadvertently comes out humorously, and that’s part of how I engage with the audience. Usually, I just talk to them and sometimes [laughs] we all end up laughing together. It just happens naturally. I’m not particularly good at trying to be funny [laughs]. I do find that funny moments create themselves when I engage with the audience.
GS: As a singer who has participated in talent competition shows such as American Idol and The Voice, what do you think of those avenues as a means to discover talent?
FD: I think that The Voice and American Idol are very entertaining shows. I think they allow artists to share their gift with a broader audience. What happens after you’re on the show is up to you, partially, and sometimes it’s not up to you. I think you still have to figure out a way to create a space for yourself in this world of art and show business. I don’t think that it’s wise to depend on the exposure that you get on either of those shows to do that. The reality is that over the years it’s become more of a vehicle for the artists who host and judge on the show than it has been for artists who are contestants. You see the judges previewing their new music on the show. You see that more often than you see artists who competed on that same show be able to utilize that same level of exposure. I think I saw, during one season of one of the shows, that all of the judges were on the cover of a magazine. I thought it would be nice to see Javier (Colon), that’s who won my season (on The Voice), or any of the others, on the cover of a magazine, see the machine pushing them the way they push the coaches and the judges. I think that’s what the dynamic of these shows has become. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing; it’s just what it is. I think that it’s important that artists who go on those shows to compete have that perspective so that they can get what they can from it. You take the meat and throw away the bone. It’s an amazing opportunity to share your gifts with a broader audience, but who you are and who you evolve into as an artist and performer after that is completely up to you.
GS: In addition to TV shows such as American Idol and The Voice, you have also been performing in stage musicals such as Rent, and most recently played Henri in The View UpStairs. What do you enjoy most about theater work?
FD: I think there’s a discipline that being a theater performer forces you to have artistically. There are no do-overs. There’s no auto-tunes. It boils down to whether you can sing the notes, act the part, bring life to the character. In many ways, it’s one of the purest art forms left. It’s one of the few genres actually based on talent. I love to sing, but I also love the idea of using music and singing as the vehicle for telling a story. That is what I love about the theater. I’ll never forget seeing Nell Carter in Ain’t Misbehavin and how that changed me as a plus-sized black woman. Seeing this big, black woman who was so unapologetic about herself. She was sexy and hysterically funny and could sing her ass off. That changed me forever. I remember seeing Rent for the first time and thinking, “I have to be in this show!” That was my Broadway debut [laughs]! I remember my mom saving money so she could take me to the opera. That changed me. I had this love for live performance and for theater that stuck with me. When I got to college, I initially thought I would be an English major and then go to law school. Then I met professor Mike Malone who had been Debbie Allen’s mentor when she (also) studied at Howard University. He convinced me to change my major to theater, and I did. It changed my life.
GS: Were you aware of the tragedy that occurred at The UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans prior to performing in The View UpStairs?
FD: I had heard of the UpStairs fire, but I didn’t know as much about it until I played the role of Henri. One of the stories that stuck with me the most was how after The UpStairs Lounge had been set on fire, there was a straight bar across the street, and the people sat there, and they watched this happen. Someone was overheard saying, “At least it burned their dresses off.” I remember when we had our first table read with our brilliant writer and composer Max Vernon, and there was a dramaturg there, and we learned all of this historical context. We had to take a break because everybody was in tears. It is horrific that this could happen. Up until (the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in) Orlando, it was the biggest massacre in LGBT history. Given all that was happening when Max first wrote the show and all that has happened since it was so important for this story to be told. I’m so honored to have been a part of that show and to have been able to bring Henri to life. I think it was powerful to have this image of this queer black woman being a matriarch and a patriarch to a community of people. Every night it was powerful. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, as an artist, to play that role.
GS: This interview is taking place while you are in New York.
FD: I’m doing an artist residency at the Student LGBT Center at NYU. I’m working with a collective of students, a mixture of undergrad and grad students. They are all LGBT. One of my students just came out right before the school year started. I have another student who is transitioning. It’s a program in which we explore the intersection of art and activism and how we navigate as LGBT people who are also artists. How do we use that identity, our art, and our talent as a vehicle and a tool to advocate for good in the world. They are brilliant young people. It’s been an amazing experience to be a part of this stage of their lives. I feel like I’m learning more from them [laughs] than they are learning from me. One of my students is this young Indian girl who just came out. She is creating these beautiful visual art pieces. The students are from all different disciplines in the arts. There are painters, musical theater writers (and others). We’re collectively working together to bring our individual mediums into one artistic presentation that we will be doing at NYU at the end of the school year. I’m excited about that. It’s been challenging and amazing, and I’m inspired by these young people every day.
You can experience Frenchie and her Frenchie Davis Experience on Dec 6 at the Out Front Theatre.
Tickets: $25 General Admission, $40 VIP Tickets include prime seating and a meet and greet after the show. 800-202-1708, tep.ticketleap.com