Mariama Whyte came home to Shaker nine years ago to slow down the pace of her life and focus on spending more time with her elementary school-aged son, Micaiah. Since 2001, Mariama had been based in New York City as a Broadway performer. She starred in the national tour of The Lion King and then joined the cast of the national tour of The Color Purple as a swing member (for that, she had to memorize an impressive 11 parts) and an understudy for two leading roles. She was ready for a change, so as a way to maintain a flexible schedule and maximize her time with Micaiah, she applied to be a substitute teacher at Shaker Heights Schools. Today, she's a special education aide at Boulevard where she's still connecting with an audience, albeit younger, but every bit as impressionable.
Tell us about your connections to Shaker.
My sister is Miata Hunter, assistant principal at the Middle School, and my mom, Dr. Donna Whyte, was on the school board in the 1990s. I graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1993. My mom had put me in acting and voice lessons when I was in fifth and sixth grade, but my main thing when I was in Shaker was orchestra, volleyball and track. I was concertmaster of the orchestra, so I was a performer and I knew that I loved being in groups and ensembles. I really didn’t start performing as a singer until I was in college.
Where did you go to school?
I went to The College of Wooster, majored in English literature and started singing in the gospel choir. That’s when I was like, “I think I might want to pursue this after college.” My senior year was pivotal. There was a new professor there who encouraged me to try music and theater—and it just clicked. I graduated, came back home, did some regional theater at Karamu, Cleveland Public Theater and Cleveland Play House, and then I decided to hit the pavement in New York City.
So you landed a role in the national tour of The Lion King in 2003. What was that like?
It was amazing. My whole idea was to move to New York and to stay there, but it was such a blessing to be on the road and to see the whole country. I had various parts in the ensemble and I was the understudy for Rafiki the baboon and Shenzi, one of the hyenas. Years later, I saw the show in Houston and I thought to myself, “This is such a good show. I can’t believe I was in this!”
What was next for you?
I left in 2005 and took a nice break and had my son. Then about ten days after he was born, a friend of mine who was in The Lion King said that there was another show of The Color Purple in Chicago and encouraged me to audition. That was a different experience for me because I was a swing, so I didn’t perform every night, but I had to know 11 parts. My son was only seven months old at the time and my mom came to help every weekend. When I wasn’t performing, I was spending time resting in the green room.
Now that you’re back from New York, how are you staying creative?
I just finished a show at Karamu called Simply Simone, about Nina Simone. It was the first run of a show I’ve done since The Color Purple. I also do teaching artist work at the Playhouse Square Department of Education and help out with different theater groups. I’ve restructured things creatively a bit, and now I've been more focused on my singing and songwriting. My music is a little R&B, I mix in some reggae—my father is Jamaican—and folk and jazz. Being in The Lion King just opened up my ears in a way that they hadn’t been before. I just love the world influences in music and the sound of South African music. I love to incorporate different cultural sounds.
Now that you’re an adult who’s been away and returned, what are your reflections on growing up in Shaker?
I had such a positive experience growing up in Shaker. I didn’t realize until I was older how blessed I was to have had the opportunities in music that I had here. It’s funny—I wasn’t in the theater program here and people in college just assumed that I went to a school of the arts. I really felt so prepared, much more than my peers. I knew how to be an independent thinker and how to collaborate.
What’s next for you musically?
I’m working on an album for 2018 that has a lot of fun elements that all generations, including children, can listen to. And someday, I’d love to develop something where I can go into schools and have a one-woman show that engages audiences. But a big part of whatever I do will be to make sure that I stay connected to children.
Learn more about Mariama Whyte’s music online. You can also listen to one of her favorite original songs “In Times of Peace and War” on any of your favorite online music sites.