New York City is full of actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who aspire to make it big. Valisia LeKae (’01) moved to the city after graduating from UT and began making a name for herself on the stage. All of her work will come to fruition in March 2024, when she reaches a pinnacle that many artists can only dream about—performing at the famed Carnegie Hall.
But the Memphis native’s journey hasn’t been without setbacks, including a battle with ovarian cancer that transformed LeKae into an advocate for other women like her.
In 2013, LeKae was basking in the high of living her Broadway dreams, performing as Diana Ross in Motown: the Musical and garnering Grammy and Tony nominations, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 34.
It was a roadblock she didn’t see coming. And she soon realized that she also didn’t see anyone who looked like her on the informational materials and websites she was given.
“The educational resources focused mostly on Caucasian women over 50, and I was neither,” says LeKae. “I would not have asked to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But I could use my voice to advocate for young women of color, especially young African American women.”
LeKae says her role in Motown: the Musical gave her a platform to speak up. Earlier this year she spoke with Forbes magazine about the issue, saying, “Here I was in my early 30s. I never had a child before and this really encouraged me to use my voice as an instrument of love and healing to advocate for women who, like myself, are in their 20s and early 30s and enduring cancer.”
That spirit of advocacy and giving has led LeKae to go back to school to work on a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at Syracuse University. She hopes to work with cancer patients and their families as well as performers, actors, and athletes. In true Volunteer fashion, LeKae also wants to work with people in marginalized communities.
“I understand that seeing a therapist is a privilege; not everyone has health care, and not everyone has the resources to afford therapy,” she says. “Serving those in underserved and underprivileged communities is important to me.”
She kept up her studies while returning to the stage as 1960s R&B singer LaVern Baker in the off-Broadway hit Rock & Roll Man. The show tells the story of disc jockey Alan Freed, who was one of the first to play the music of Black artists on the radio and produce integrated concerts.
Juggling the demands of performing and school was not an easy task. Sometimes LeKae’s online classes and shows overlapped in the evenings.
“There were a few Mondays when I had to step away from my computer, perform the opening number, and then go back to class,” she says. “However, I am great at organizing my time. . . . My schedules have schedules, and my alarms have alarms!”
But it’s a pace she’s used to. As an undergraduate student at UT, LeKae donned the Smokey mascot costume and spent weekends performing in shows at Dollywood all while earning a degree in psychology—a degree that comes in handy as a performer.
“It keeps me curious and engaged, especially when digging into characters’ minds and behaviors,” LeKae says. “I have always approached my characters mentally, asking why, what, when, where, how? It’s a never-ending process. As humans, my characters change, grow, and evolve. There’s so much to learn and experience before I bring a character to life.”
When she takes the stage at Carnegie Hall, however, there will be no character study necessary. LeKae and fellow artist Bryan Terrell Clark will be taking on the songs of Motown with the New York Pops.
While singing at Carnegie Hall is often a dream gig for performers, LeKae says the most exciting part is sharing it with friends from UT who will be in the audience and, most importantly, with her mother and grandmother, who is in her 90s (her grandfather died after a short battle with colon cancer in October).
“They’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much for me to have such a moment. I’m sure my grandmother’s prayers alone equate to 10,000 hours,” says LeKae. “I weep at the thought of sharing this moment with them.”
This story is dedicated to the memory of LeKae’s grandfather, Warren Lewis, who was known as the Fire Barber of Memphis.