First-Time Tony Nominee: Shalita Grant steals the show in her Broadway debut in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

Shalita Grant

Shalita Grant

She is a Juilliard graduate, a part-time cabinetmaker and has an impeccable memory for faces and stories. Now Shalita Grant can add ‘Tony Nominee’ to her list of accomplishments. Grant has been nominated in the category of ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play’ for her part in Christopher Durang’s new Broadway hit Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Grant plays the comically foresighted Cassandra, a voodoo housemaid with a knack for prophecy who steals the show in almost every scene.

Grant knew she wanted to be an actor from an early age and set about making her dreams come true. She was accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School where she met Christopher Durang and originated the role of Cassandra while the play was still a one-act piece. Her busy career has taken her to regional theaters where she performed in Luck of the Irish in Boston, The Laramie Project in England and The Children’s Hour in her hometown of Baltimore, just to name a few productions. She performed at New York City’s Pearl Theatre where she starred in the well-reviewed The Philanderer, and has been seen in multiple Public Theatre productions of Shakespeare in the Park. Grant also starred as Cassandra in last year’s Lincoln Center Theater production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, before it moved to its current Broadway house.

Cassandra is a whirlwind of a character. She is part housekeeper and part prophetess who combines her namesake’s origins in Greek tragedy (Cassandra was gifted with prophecy but cursed so no one would listen to her sayings) with a strange interest in voodoo magic. Since Grant originated the role with Durang as he wrote the play, the role was written specifically for her.

Grant says that she brought a lot of family memories to the role, especially the memory of her great-grandma. Even The New York Times spoke to the wonderful result: “Shalita Grant swaggers away with just about every scene she’s in, thanks to Mr. Durang’s hilariously demented monologues full of fantastically dark premonitions and mashed-up quotations from the theatrical canon.” And here is Grant’s take on creating the character:  “I did and it worked and it surprised Chris, because he had written all of these complicated speeches and I breezed right through them. That was an exciting challenge because it was the first time I created a character.”

Maybe creating the character yourself is the trick to securing a Tony nomination. Of course, it probably has so much more to do with the talented actress behind the performance. Grant’s nomination is certainly deserved for this, her long-awaited Broadway debut. As an interesting side note, Grant turned down the chance to move to Broadway with The Public Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which starred Al Pacino. So instead of debuting as a chorus member for Merchant, Grant debuted as a featured actress in a Christopher Durang original and is forever linked with the Tony Awards.

Fortunately or unfortunately for awards watchers, Grant is up against some equally talented performers in the Featured Actress category for the Tonys. Also nominated are Carrie Coon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Judith Ivey (The Heiress), Judith Light (The Assembled Parties) and Condola Rashad (The Trip to Bountiful).

All five plays and all five wonderful actresses were well reviewed for their performances. Grant, Light and Rashad will benefit from the fact that their shows are open during the Tony voting season. Rashad has the benefit of celebrity and Light has the benefit of a show that has been a critic’s darling. Grant’s chances for winning are up in the air, but I’m not entirely confident that she’ll take home the prize. This year, at least. If her career continues, which it undoubtedly will, she’ll have some Tonys to set on her homemade cabinets for sure.

Congratulations to Grant for both her debut and her Tony nod! In what has already been an exciting and promise-filled career, I look forward to what’s to come from this talented and personable performer!

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