Awa Sal Secka did not grow up singing show tunes.
The Gaithersburg High School and Montgomery College alumna, who has performed at Ford’s Theatre, Signature Theatre, Round House Theatre and the Kennedy Center — and has a Helen Hayes Award nomination on her resume at just 24 years old — is starring in “Cinderella” at Imagination Stage. But she didn’t discover musical theater until well into her teenage years.
“My family wasn’t very ‘theatrical’ at all,” said Secka, who was born in the Bronx and grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Gaithersburg with her family in 2005, just before starting sixth grade. “I think I did a Harriet Tubman play in elementary school — I played Harriet Tubman’s mom — but I still didn’t take it into my brain as an art form.”
Music, however, was always something she could relate to. “That was my first love, from as far back as I can remember,” she said. “Music was my first form of communication.” She joined the choir, first at Gaithersburg Middle School and then in high school. “I was drumline captain in the band, and really went hard for music, but I never saw it as a practical career for me.
“I wasn’t ‘typical,’” she explained. “I knew I wasn’t socially considered beautiful, or what most people would recognize as an actress — at least in my mind at that time. I didn’t think I had the looks or the guts for it.”
As it turned out, Secka was wrong.
“Awa is somebody I have wanted to work with for a really long time,” said “Cinderella” Director Kathryn Chase Bryer. “She’s so incredibly talented, and I’ve been watching her probably for the last six or seven years in different shows. She came and did ‘You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown’ for us this summer — that’s the first time she performed at Imagination Stage — but I had actually cast her in ‘Cinderella’ last spring.
“I love her fierceness, I love how talented she is. I have a very, very diverse cast with a very wide range of ethnicities, and I think that, in this time, that’s important. We want to show all the ways that people can be portrayed onstage.”
Also important: that this version of “Cinderella” offers a different take on the fairy tale classic. “This was written in the 1990s by the artistic director of a theater called Emerald City in Chicago,” Bryer said, noting that while she and Janet Sanford, Imagination Stage’s founding artistic director, “really wanted to do ‘Cinderella’ this Christmas,” they felt that the traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein version lacked the themes of empowerment and self-sufficiency that modern audiences, especially young ones, need to see reflected onstage.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to do that version because it’s so not female-positive,” she explained. “I understand that Cinderella is an oppressed character, so you’re never going to get away from that. That is the story.”
But Bryer said that while fairy tales are important because they address the psychological needs of children as they’re developing, it is important to present characters that are resilient, clever and strong. The Cinderella of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1957 musical seemed passive; in this version, the director said, “She doesn’t shy away from emotion: she’s allowed to get angry, she’s allowed to be really sad — she’s allowed to not settle for her situation. I feel that’s really different and powerful.”
Also different is the farcical nature of the play. Yes, it’s a musical that adheres to the classic storyline, but Bryer stresses that this kid-friendly show is also funny and active, with over the top characters and silly chase scenes that add to the theatrical experience—and a heroine who works hard to create the kind of future she desires.
“The things that happened to Cinderella don’t feel like she made them happen, like she was her own agent,” Bryer explained. “But in this particular version she really does stand up for herself. She has a sword fight with the prince!”
“She’s still an oppressed character. You’re not going to get away from that,” Bryer added. “But (the playwright) does a lot of things with the story that sort of turn it on its head in terms of empowering Cinderella, giving her her own agency and the ability to make things better for herself.”
And that’s what Cinderella has in common with the young woman playing her at Imagination Stage. “Music was around me, for sure, but not to the point where I would ever think that it was a viable career,” recalled Secka. “My mom wanted me to be either a doctor or a lawyer, based on what she had experienced in America after emigrating from The Gambia.”
Unwilling to give up on her dream of being a singer, Secka decided to study vocal pedagogy and become a singing teacher. When the four-year universities where she was accepted proved too expensive, she enrolled at Montgomery College (MC). “They paid my whole way through, and it was the best experience ever,” Secka said. “The support that I had from them made it possible for me to flourish, and I’m so grateful to them every single day.”
At MC, Secka was introduced to the stage as part of Montgomery College’s Summer Dinner Theatre program. Smitten, she changed her major to theater performance with the encouragement of Professor Susan Hoffmann. Among her teachers and advisors were D.C. theater professionals like actor-director Ken Yatta Rogers, actor Sasha Olinick and Pauline Grossman, who choreographed “Cinderella,” and with their help, Secka started getting parts even before she graduated with an associate’s degree in theater performance.
“The professors at MC are impeccable, they’re incredible,” she said. “And they all work in the area, so when you dedicate yourself to your art the way they teach you to, they see that. And they start to recommend you.”
Secka got auditions and call backs. “The opportunities never stopped coming,” she said. From “Avenue Q” at Olney Theatre Center to “Caroline or Change” at Round House Theatre — for which she received her Helen Hayes Award nomination — to “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Signature to “The Wiz” at Ford’s Theatre to “Me Jane: The Dreams and Adventures of Young Jane Goodall” at the Kennedy Center to “Cinderella,” Secka has kept working. And as grateful and humble as she is about every role, Secka said getting cast in “Cinderella” was especially surprising.
“I was so excited,” she said. “We have the idea of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed young girl. It was intriguing to me that they would choose someone who looked like me to be the object of someone’s affection, the apple of someone’s eye, and the person who gets herself out of a really trying situation.
“We are currently in a time where being who I am, someone who reflects disenfranchisement and discrimination, the world can say ‘You are not worth it!’ Sometimes people are made to believe that their entire lives and other times people say, ‘No, I know I’m worth it! I can have everything, and if you won’t help me to get it, I’ll make a way for myself.’
“I think to put a black woman in that position, to show other young black women — the little black girls in the audience, other women, other people, period! — that this kind of person can have love, success and happiness, is a responsibility that means more to me than the opportunity.”
It’s a responsibility Bryer came to understand as she was going through the process of casting the play. “I had a lot of different people audition for Cinderella,” she said. “And the women who came in who were not white said to me, ‘I can’t even believe I’m auditioning for this!’ and I was shocked. They said, ‘When I was a little girl, I could never dream to be Cinderella. It’s something I could never picture. I was not allowed to think that way.’
“I hate that they felt that way,” she added. “And now I hope that when these little girls see Awa, they grow up never having to think that.”
“Cinderella” runs through Jan. 6 in Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Performances begin at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 25; 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Sundays Dec. 1 to 16; 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sundays and Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday Dec. 22 to 31 and 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 31 to Jan. 6. Tickets start at $15; group rates are available. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.