A two-track mind

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How a kindergarten teacher, an outspoken celebrity, and a casting director helped one woman pursue her dream — and what she’s doing to pay it forward


  • Upper East Side Broadway singer-actress-dancer and fitness expert Nikki Kimbrough. Photo: Fadil Berisha

At five years old, Nikki Kimbrough was known as “the little girl with the big voice” at her Richmond, VA church. She’d been enrolled in a performing arts program in kindergarten, and Gary Yarbrough, a teacher for the initiative, helped to hone the special something he saw in her.

“I knew about Diana Ross, but Mr. Yarbrough introduced me to Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan, and would teach me Broadway and jazz songs that sparked my interest to learn more,” says the Upper East Sider.

With her mom’s and Mr. Yarbrough’s support, it wasn’t long before Kimbrough would score a role as the only African-American orphan in Richmond’s Haymarket Dinner Theatre’s production of “Annie.”

“When the show ended, I looked at my mom and said, ‘One day, I’m going to move to New York City and sing on Broadway.’ I had just turned eight,” says Kimbrough.

Education would have to come first, and as it did another talent emerged. Kimbrough received a full track and field scholarship to the University of Virginia, and then ran on the Olympic Development Circuit while getting her Masters in public relations at Syracuse University. Sports filled much of her time, but the arts bug still nagged at her. Then came a sign she couldn’t ignore.

“Spike Lee was a guest speaker at Newhouse [School of Public Communications], and he said he thought most of us were really performers at heart, but had chosen Communications because we were afraid of the instability. I totally felt like he was talking to me,” says Kimbrough. “I got a Backstage trade paper, and two days later I was on a bus to New York City to audition for ‘The Lion King.’”

Kimbrough didn’t get the role, but she found another champion in casting director Mark Brandon, who placed her in the workshop chorus. In the meantime, she quickly parlayed her athleticism into a business to offset the erratic income. Today she’s considered one of the top fitness experts in the country, and shares her knowledge in magazines and on the likes of Today, GMA, and The Steve Harvey Show.

A chance meeting at an open call would reunite Kimbrough with Brandon, who in full-circle fashion cast her in the Broadway National tour of “Dreamgirls,” and in 2013, her childhood dream materialized — Kimbrough made her Broadway debut in “A Night with Janis Joplin” in the roles of Etta James and a Joplinaire.

For the last three years, Kimbrough has been paying it forward as the Executive Director of the Harlem All-Stars Theater Group (HASTG), a non-profit whose mission is to create extraordinary theater experiences that educate, encourage, and inspire young people ages 6 to 17.

“I truly feel meeting the people I met along the way changed my life,” says Kimbrough. “I’ve been given so much, the least I can do is to give back and open up opportunities to a bunch of kids. It’s amazing to watch them grow into these performers, and I want to let them know that they’re superstars.”

Kimbrough, along with the HASTG creative team, including founders Ikay Henry and Linda Hazlett, build upon previous years’ productions of “Annie” and “The Wiz, Jr.,” with “The Lion King, Jr.” opening its two-night run at The Tato Laviera Theatre at Harlem Repertory on June 9.

Kimbrough was recently the Broadway guest for Rosie’s Theater Kids, an arts education program started by Rosie O’Donnell in 2003.

“It was great to see the structure of their program, and how they really change the kids’ lives. I want to do that with HASTG,” says Kimbrough.

If her track record is any indication, there’s an excellent chance she will.

Performances of The Lion King, Jr. run June 9th and June 10th at 7:00 p.m. at The Tato Laviera Theatre at Harlem Repertory 240 East 123rd Street $10 advance, $15 at door.

To buy tickets and learn more about HASTG go to www.harlemallstarstheater.group

Follow HASTG on Facebook


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