When Angelica Ross takes the stage in Chicago at Broadway’s Ambassador Theater on September 12, she will make history as the first openly trans woman to play Roxie Hart, but Ross isn’t letting that title take up the spotlight as she dances Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography.
“I’m not one to focus on titles,” said Ross.“I know how powerful I am with or without the title of ‘pioneer’ or ‘the first.’ I’m not concerned about that. I love celebrating this moment, but I’m here to do my best and show why I should not be the last.”
The historic scarcity of Black trans women representation on Broadway means there’s been a surge of “first” milestones in recent years. In 2018, Peppermint, most well-known from RuPaul’s Drag Race, was the first openly trans woman to originate a principal role on Broadway when she bowed in Head Over Heels. L Morgan Lee’s Best Performance by Featured Actress in a Musical nomination for A Strange Loop at the 2022 Tony Awards ceremony marked the first time an openly trans woman garnered a nod.
While the politics of her bestowed title isn’t top of mind for Ross, she acknowledges that her intersectional identity of being a Black trans woman adds nuanced layers to the character of Roxie, one of Chicago’s two leading ladies. The Tony-winning Kander and Ebb musical follows Roxie, along with Velma Kelly, as they navigate the Cook County Jail and their respective murder trials, competing for attention from the press and their shared lawyer, Billy Flynn, during Chicago’s jazz age.
Ross finds that singing the lyrics of “My Own Best Friend” and “Roxie” takes on a different and deeper resonance with her personal context attached. In particular, the “Roxie” line, “I gave up on the Vaudeville idea, because you figure after all those years, opportunity has just passed you by,” conjured memories and emotions for Ross that stemmed from her transition.
“As someone who started off my transition in sex work, I thought that my dream of being on stage and television would just pass me by,” said Ross. “I was watching the life I had known—12 years of theater, gospel choirs, all of this musical performance—start to pass me by. I had to accept the challenge that was in front of me as a Black trans woman.”
I don’t think I would’ve done this show had it not been for Mama Sheryl. She spoke life and truth into me.
Part of that challenge was rediscovering her voice. While performing at the Kit Kat Lounge in Chicago, Ross had an epiphany. Her performances had become primarily lip-syncing, and as someone who grew up singing live onstage, she missed using her actual voice.
“It was this profound moment of realization,” said Ross. “I come from a space where even the RuPaul’s Drag Race world of it all did not want to acknowledge and honor the trans women who have been in that space for years. The gays were shaking their dollars at me, and I was [lip-syncing and] doing cartwheels and backflips for dollars. That’s when I started using my voice, both in activism and in thinking it was actually possible for me to sing.”
Viewers did get a taste of Ross’ magnetic performance presence in FX’s Pose, the television series set in the 1980s and 1990s New York City ballroom scene. However, Ross’ character Candy lip-synced her big solo performance “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” in season two, so Ross is thrilled to sing with her own voice in her Broadway debut.
“As someone who’s transitioned, I’ve had to learn how to transition vocally,” said Ross. “It was rough in the beginning. There were many open mic nights where I was trembling, but those moments led up to here. This is the moment where I can bring all those things together, and to show that I am a triple threat.”
Ross joins a league of Black women who have taken the stage as Roxie, including Spice Girls’ Melanie Brown, Destiny Child’s Michelle Williams, and fellow pop star Brandy Norwood. The latter reached out to Ross welcoming her to the sisterhood and offering to answer any questions Ross may have. Ross has received support and encouragement from several Black artists who have worked in both Broadway and Hollywood, including Ross’ Pose co-star Billy Porter, Jeremy Pope, and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
“I don’t think I would’ve done this show had it not been for Mama Sheryl,” said Ross. “She spoke life and truth into me. She said, ‘My dear, you are talented! Not only is this going to be an amazing moment for Chicago, but this is an amazing moment for you.’ It’s what I could only hope for from Black Hollywood [and Broadway]—that when we hear ‘I’m rooting for everybody Black,’ I know they mean trans people too. I know they mean me too.”