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Ahead of her LI show, LaChanze talks vacationing, her unusual name, more

LaChanze attends the 33rd Annual Lucille Lortel Awards

LaChanze attends the 33rd Annual Lucille Lortel Awards in 2018 in New York City.  Credit: Getty Images for Lucille Lortel/Jemal Countess

LaChanze is looking forward to her summer vacation.

        The Tony- and Emmy-winning actress, known for her electrifying performances in Broadway musicals like “Once on This Island” and “The Color Purple,” has just completed a 10-week Off-Broadway run of a new musical — “The Secret Life of Bees,” based on the bestseller by Sue Monk Kidd.

        But before she breaks out the flip-flops and heads to the beach, she’s bringing her “Feeling Good” concert tour to Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater for one night on August 5. The evening provides a musical glimpse into her life, from career highlights to the shock of 9/11, when her husband died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, leaving her widowed with a one-year-old toddler and eight months pregnant with their second child.

        Now 57, LaChanze has also appeared in films (“The Help”) and TV (“Hercules”), and last year starred in Broadway’s “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” earning another Tony nomination. She spoke by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

Will you have a chance to spend time in Sag Harbor before or after your concert? It’s beautiful out there.

Only a couple of nights. My children and I are traveling right after for our summer vacation. In fact, I’m holding off our vacation for this concert.

Where are you going?

We take a family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard every year. There are a group of families there — we all grew up together. So my daughters get to have fun with their friends and I get to have fun with mine.

The look of the Vineyard — the flora and fauna — is actually very similar to the East End.

Yes. I’ve been to the Hamptons to visit friends who live out there. It has the sophistication of being near the city, but everyone’s a lot more relaxed. I like being that far out. You can have a clambake — and at the same time enjoy a nice glass of Pinot. (She chuckles.) You know, the best of both worlds.

Indeed. Changing topics — LaChanze is your middle name. Does anyone still call you by your first name, Rhonda?

Oh, yes. My father and mother, siblings, cousins — in mixed company, they’ll call me LaChanze, but at home I’m Rhonda. LaChanze is my grandmother's name. I always loved it. When I was in high school I started asking friends to call me that. I guess it meant something to me to be named after my grandmother, who was one of the strongest, most beautiful women I’d ever met. She’s left us now, she’s transitioned on, but she was really a beautiful spirit. Vibrant, full of joy. But she was also an adult during the 1940s and ‘50s…so she struggled with segregation and other issues. I adopted the name to honor her, and keep the power of her name alive. My family—we’re not Creole, we’re from Florida—but the name is Creole, and it means “one who is charmed.”  

So take me back to the moment when Rhonda decided to change her name to … just LaChanze. No last name at all.

My last name is Sapp. In my profession, it’d be super-easy for critics to use that name to say something derogatory. So I dropped it altogether.

A bold choice for a young woman.

It was. There weren’t many women who had one name then — it was Madonna, or Cher. People teased me, but now no one comments. The only time I use my last name is when I’m at a PTA meeting, or showing my passport.

I hear you’re writing a memoir.

Yes. It’s entitled “By Chance,” and comes out next year with Scholastic. I’ve been told quite a bit that my life is inspiring ….so that’s what I chose to do — inspire young girls and women about how you can live a life with joy, regardless of what comes your way.

You’ll have to add an extra chapter for “The Secret Life of Bees.” (In this new musical, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage, music by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, LaChanze played one of a trio of eccentric beekeeping sisters who aid two young women on the run in 1960s South Carolina). Any chance you’ll bring the show to Broadway?

It has a future — that’s all I’m at liberty to say. But if you didn’t see it, you’ll have an opportunity to see it in the near future. I think we’re going to London, then returning to the States. That’s why my book isn’t finished yet. My acting career interrupts from time to time.

Well, maybe you’ll get some writing done on Martha’s Vineyard. And time to relax.

I’m looking forward to that. Two whole weeks with meeeeee and some lobster.

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