The burst of energy known as Oneika Phillips is a Guyanese-born performer raised on the island of Grenada. It is there that the artistic seeds were planted and would eventually sprout on the stages of Broadway.
By Crispin Brooks
Broadway actor, dancer and singer Oneika Phillips fondly remembers Sunday afternoons in her childhood living room glued to the television. Her father had a collection of musicals on VHS. “Jesus Christ Superstar” was her absolute favorite. It was something about the colors, the design, the music that arrested her attention. With that, she was in love and knew that her life’s purpose was to be on stage.
Dance lessons on Grenada, videos of dancers at the Alvin Ailey studios and anything she could get her hands on in the realm of art continued to prepare Phillips even further for her life’s journey.
In her late teens, Phillips moved to Eritrea after her father accepting a job in the East African nation. The shift in sights, sounds and experiences added another layer to Phillips’ perception of the world and especially her perception of art. While Eritrea was new, it did not take long for her to settle, especially still being surrounded by her immediate family.
A Star Is Born
Her next move was not as smooth. At a dance workshop in Trinidad during a break from Eritrea, Phillips met the chair of the dance program at Shenandoah Dance Conservatory at Shenandoah University in Virginia. She was convinced that this could be a place to bring her closer to her career goals. She decided that the move was worth it. Life had prepared her for so much. What it had not prepared her for was feeling like “the other.”
Although she did exceptionally well academically, she felt alone in this sea of students who all fit in and seemed to move to the same rhythm in life. For the first time, she was faced with the chore of warping her true self in order to fit in. It did not take Phillips long to discover that this approach was not ideal. Phillips likens the emergence from that period of her life to a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. She began to embrace her true self. Recognizing that what made her the other was not something to hide, but rather something to accept and celebrate.
“Being your authentic self is absolutely necessary when pursuing your purpose,” she said.
In essence, Phillips unearthed precisely what she was fighting so hard to bury. Loving her authentic self propelled her to complete degrees in both dance and business early and take her talents to the Big Apple.
Big Lights Will Inspire You
Phillips was ready for New York. Everything she had worked for was aligning. While working on the character Anita for an off-Broadway presentation of “West Side Story,” she also received an offer to audition for the off-Broadway production of “FELA!” The chance to do “FELA!” was a dream as Fela Kuti’s music and movement meant much to her.
As tempting as it was, she stuck with Anita. After all she says, she had worked on the character for a solid two years. At the conclusion of her role of Anita in “West Side Story,” fate granted her another shot. “FELA!” was now going to be a full-fledged Broadway production and the producers were looking for an additional cast member.
In her distinct Grenadian dialect, Phillips recalls saying, “Hell no! Dis not missin me!”
Thanks to an incredible audition, Phillips rose above 200 other actors to secure the spot as a member of the “FELA!” cast. The legendary Bill T. Jones, director and choreographer of “FELA!” welcomed her. However, there was a problem. The production allowed only union actors, who were required to be permanent residents or U.S. citizens. Her visa would not allow her to work. Phillips was broken. Her first shot at Broadway was rapidly slipping away from her.
“Being your authentic self is absolutely necessary when pursuing your purpose.”
Digging deep into that authentic self once again, she requested to speak to the union. “Stick to the facts and leave the emotion out of it” was her theme going in. She composed a letter and short video with a personal statement and submitted it. After weeks of waiting, she finally got word. Her agent called her to tell her that the union agreed with her statement. Phillips, the little girl from Grenada with a dream, would perform on the theatrical world’s biggest stage: Broadway! The first from her country to do so.
After what she describes as a life-changing experience with the Tony Award-winning “FELA!” Phillips would go on to perform in productions ranging from “Amazing Grace,” also serving as assistant choreographer, to “SpongeBob SquarePants.” She was a choreographer for singer Lauryn Hill and assistant to the choreographer on the critically acclaimed “Violet.” She is now a cast member for the highly anticipated retelling of the musical “1776.”
When Life Hits You
“FELA!” had been an absolute success for Phillips and her castmates. Jay Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith had hopped on as producers. Sold-out shows and national recognition positioned Phillips to go nowhere but up.
But life happens. Phillips began to experience back pain. A check with her physician revealed that stress from some dance moves over the years had resulted in a career-threatening spinal injury. As always, she faced this challenge with bravery. In the end, her surgery was a success.
As the saying goes, however, when it rains, it pours. Nine months after she and her family faced the threat of Phillips losing her career and some of her mobility, her sister Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43. Judy opted for a double mastectomy. Her treatment was radiation based, and with proper care she was able to beat the disease.
Both sisters say that sickness brought them even closer. One year after her surgery, Phillips rejoined the cast of “FELA!” for the national tour. One stop was in Phoenix, where Judy, her daughters and their parents reside. The experience of seeing her sister on stage living in her passion encouraged Judy to fight and conquer her cancer battle.
“It inspired and encouraged me to see my sister get back to her passion,” Judy said. “If you’ve seen my sister perform, she holds nothing back and leaves everything on the stage.”
The sisters learned many lessons from that period in their lives.
“There’s a maturation that happens as you traverse life and ‘adulting,’” Phillips says. “Age gaps matter less. The annoyances of sibling rivalry ease, and egos are tempered.
“My sisters and I have seen each other both accomplish and misstep, fall and rise again. We were fortunate that is all strengthened the bond of sisterhood. We do our very best to be there for each other without being oppressive or intrusive. Room for self, in sickness or health, is just as essential as support.”
View this post on Instagram
Life During the Pandemic and Beyond
Phillips has navigated through many a storm. Music, specifically Caribbean music, has been at the epicenter of her comfort. A significant part of her embracing her role as “the other” was wrapped in the sounds and rhythms of the region where she was raised. In the summer of 2020, Phillips joined the popular dance instruction platform Socanomics at the behest of its founder, Selena Watkins. Before joining Socanomics, Onieka was sharing her wining skills with a large audience via her own classes on Instagram live.
“It was mainly geared towards friends: moms especially, who could use a break from the ‘new normal’ in a unique, enjoyable, healthy uplifting way.”
In addition to the physical benefits, Phillips recognized that her small contribution kept many in her classes afloat by lifting their spirits. Admittedly, she says, her spirits were also lifted. “The color, rhythm and soul-moving drive” of Caribbean dance music brought much-needed doses of joy at a time of uncertainty. Though her classes were free, she welcomed donations. Being the selfless person that she is, however, she donated a portion of the proceeds, totaling $6,000, to several causes including the ACLU, Smart Fit Family, The Actor’s Fund, National Black Disability Coalition and The Innocence Project.
Though she uses her art to push her beloved culture, Phillips is also an activist at heart. She joined 70 other dancers who volunteered to perform in a presentation at Times Square titled “Broadway for Biden.” She explains that it was a complete exercise in trust.
“The movement was sent to us a week prior for us to teach ourselves, then execute with minimal run-through before filming.”
The experience was overwhelming for her. After months of shelter-in-place rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was able to interact, though cautiously, with members of her dance family. She describes those moments as “bittersweet.” Scanning a sea of talented artists with masks covering half their faces and not being able to feel their embrace made her contemplate. What will become of their industry if the pandemic continues its marathon?
Regardless, she says the experience was worth it. The lights and indescribable energy of Times Square did not fail the event. Each performer would “especially now have a stake in the results of the election.”
With many artists devoid of the chance to perform, any opportunity to showcase her art at this time is not lost on Phillips. Just before the now-storied shutdown, Phillips was preparing for her role in the revival of “1776 The Musical.”
The production pushes the boundaries by casting cisgender women, transgender and non-binary actors to portray the Founding Fathers. The intent of this embodiment of the play is to present those who were in authority through the very voices that were silenced at that time. Workshop rehearsals had commenced. There was a buzz of excitement and the almost certain promise that they were on the cusp of something historic. And then … darkness. Rehearsals were cut in the middle of the day. Broadway was shutting down.
Creatives, however, have a reputation of knowing how to pivot and adjust. The “1776” producers, the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) of Harvard University, wisely saw the advantage of Zoom. They immediately developed a virtual workshop. The production’s development has continued. Cast members have met consistently and have been afforded the privilege of meeting with some of Harvard’s brilliant historians including Timothy McCarthy, Vincent Brown and Emmy-winning director/choreographer, Jeffrey Page. Phillips and cast have enjoyed interacting and being able to think and create especially now.
Through it all, Phillips maintains that even in difficult times everyone must seek the connection between the mental, spiritual and physical.
“Self-care looks like listening to music that pleases you, taking up a hobby that invigorates you, turning off the lights and sitting in dark to a single candle flame,” she says. “It looks like surrounding yourself with those who uplift you and, without a shadow of a doubt, knowing those persons that must be released from your space and life. It looks like drinking water. It looks like dancing in the street at carnival. It looks like sitting at an ocean’s edge and breathing in salt and sunshine. It looks like saying, ‘No.’ It looks like saying, ‘Yes.’
“Whatever clears space within us to manifest the things we most hope for, that is self-care. It is an investment in ourselves that reaps the most valuable return: clarity, tenacity and joy.”
She offers specific advice for maintaining the kind of balance that fosters good mental health.
“Having a grounded and powerful support system is essential during these times,” she says. “This means fostering and nurturing kinfolk when times are less strenuous. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your kin – the friends and relatives who create a powerful cipher of willingness, loving reciprocity, upliftment, constructive criticism and empowerment.
“So, when the world turned upside down, I was not completely thrown off kilter. Even at my lowest moments, the powerful web we have created caught me each and every time.”
Phillips has faced many battles, but always emerges victorious. She is known to her Instagram followers as @dragonpassionfruit. Her personality is as unique as her handle. A unicorn, a teacher, an activist, a fighter. She intentionally positions herself into all things positive and progressive. She is compassionate enough to care for others while being strong enough to fight for what is hers.
“I wish joy, love, patience, sanity, health and opportunity for everyone,” Phillips told her Instagram followers. “I also hope we all have the support systems – friends, family, teachers, therapists, pets, exercise, faith – to guide us forward to an even more evolved place than before when we emerge. In the meantime, acknowledge the grey days and trust the sun to appear again.”
That little girl who enjoyed watching musicals on VHS tapes on Sunday afternoons has evolved into a doer. She does it to encourage, to remember and to inspire. She does it for Grenada, the Caribbean, the ancestors … and for the culture!