Kecia Lewis Makes Her Mark On ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ With a Tony Nominated Performance

Lewis made her Broadway debut at 18 in the original cast of 'Dreamgirls.' Now the dream continues with her role in the Alicia Keys' musical 'Hell's Kitchen.'

Kecia Lewis as Miss Liza Jane and Maleah Joi Moon as Ali in Hell’s Kitchen. Marc J. Franklin

Alicia Cook, a resident of Manhattan Plaza on West 43rd once upon a time, changed her name to Alicia Keys in part because of the 88s on her piano and the doors they would unlock for her. That was 27 years and 16 Grammys ago, when she was just 16. Her debut album, Songs in A Minor, came out when she was 20 and won her the first five of those Grammys. These days she’s writing for Broadway. Her jukebox musical Hell’s Kitchen — now transplanted at the Shubert Theater four blocks away from the subsidized housing complex she grew up in — is a hometown favorite, winning 13 Tony nominations, one for each year Keys worked on the show. “Greatness can’t be rushed,” she’s said. 

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The show (with a book by Kristoffer Diaz) recounts a fictional facsimile of Keys’s budding years of creativity in the projects, sprinkling in new songs with her best-known r&b, hip-hop, and pop hits like “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Girl on Fire,” and “Empire State of Mind.” Maleah Joi Moon plays Ali, a 17-year-old girl in freefall, and Shoshana Bean is her single mom, but but a third character emerging from the sidelines proves to be the play’s most memorable: Miss Liza Jane (Kecia Lewis), a no-nonsense teacher who sparks—and deepens—the teen’s musical talent, giving it focus and direction: Voila! a songwriter is born.

Two weeks ago Lewis got the Lucille Lortel Award and Actors’ Equity’s Richard Seff Award. Last week the Outer Critics Circle crowned her Outstanding Featured Performer in a Broadway Musical. Yep, she’s up for two more yet-to-be-determined awards: the Drama Desk and the Tony.

Not only does Lewis strike a compelling presence in the show, she also makes her mark musically with a couple of Keys songs, “Perfect Way to Die” and “Authors of Forever.” The creative collaboration that went into making these songs stage-worthy cemented the bond between the singer and the songwriter. “She wants to know what your ideas are, what you’re thinking, how you’re building the character,” Lewis tells Observer of Keys. “And she was kind enough to share with me what she was thinking when she actually wrote those two songs—what was going on in her heart and mind—and then allowing me to bring out my own version of that, my own truth.”

Alicia Keys and Kecia Lewis attend the 77th Annual Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Event at Sofitel New York on May 02, 2024 in New York City. Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Lewis comes to the role of a teacher and mentor with experience—she’s spent most of her days seesawing between teaching and theater. “Hell’s Kitchen is a perfect match for where I am in my life and my career,” she says. At the Atlantic Theater, she’s taught stage acting. She’s done some teaching at her alma mater, NYU, and conducted a master class at Juilliard. In leaner times, she’s even been known to work survival jobs at elementary schools.

Fortunately, there haven’t been a lot of those. Broadway and Off-Broadway have kept her busy, originating or creating or replacing—roles like Asaka in Once Upon This Island, “Mama” Morton in Chicago, the title role in Mother Courage, et al. The original cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ revue reconvened for the 1988 revival, and she stood by for Nell Carter and Armelia McQueen. 

When The Drowsy Chaperone arrived on Broadway in 2006, Lewis arrived flying a plane as Trix the Aviatrix. “That’s probably in my top five theater experiences,” she figures. “This was a cast of people who, half-kiddingly, considered ourselves the oldest cast on Broadway. The baby of our company was the star of the show, Sutton Foster. She was 30. The rest of us, mostly, were 45 and above, but there was a settled heart and spirit about that, an enjoyment and confidence about what we have been doing so long. That kind of atmosphere, on stage and off, made for an amazingly good time.” The cast hung out together because they enjoyed each other’s company. “On Sundays, Sutton brought in bagels and breakfast things, and we’d meet up before the matinee.”

Hell’s Kitchen’s Miss Liza Jane, her new favorite role, is a composite of several Manhattan Plaza people who help Alicia find her way. Audiences adore this character. Coming and going, Lewis gets her claps and her laughs. Lewis attributes the audience’s warm embrace to fact that almost everyone has had someone in their life like Miss Liza Jane. “A relative, a neighbor, a school administrator, someone who really saw you and believed in you and pushed you to be your best,” she says. “I have been blessed to have quite a few Miss Liza Janes in my life over the years. One in particular that I’m utilizing to create this character: a voice-and-diction teacher of mine in high school—she’s deceased now—Mrs. Koehler. I went to the High School of Performing Arts—the old one on West 46th—and a lot of my classmates would say, ‘Are you doing Mrs. Koehler? Is that Miss Koehler?’”

The film that made that high school famous—Fame—was shot in the summer of ’79, and Lewis didn’t arrive until September of ’79, along with Danny Burstyn, Helen Slater, and Lisa Vidal.

“This is my 40th year in show business!” she gleefully points out. “June 15 will be 40 years to the day when I stepped into the Imperial Theater—age 18—hired by Michael Bennett to begin my journey with Dreamgirls. Now—to have Hell’s Kitchen, to have this kind of role and have it all at this time—is full-circle for me. All this combined in my own life, matched with this character and this group of young people—so many of them making their Broadway debuts—it’s just perfect.”

Some of the plot of Hell’s Kitchen parallels Lewis’ own life, including the problems and worries of a single mom raising an artistically inclined child. Her son, Simon, is almost 21 and “continuing the theater tradition,” his mother beams proudly. “He’s going down the route of stagehand and, right now, is finishing his training at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Internship Program.

“Raising a kid in New York City is a herculean feat. I was lucky enough that I lived in Long Island, so I was a little removed from the city, but the problems still are there—and practically anywhere in this country: the racial undertones of raising Black children or biracial children. We have to train and protect our children with a hyper-vigilance other people don’t know about.”

When Lewis reaches the Shubert Theater every day, her motherhood comes to full bloom, given how many young people are in the cast. “I love that,” she admits. “I think, since I was young, the essence of who I am is a bit of a protector. I’ve always been that. I resisted it when I was young. I wanted to be the ingénue or the pretty girl boys wanted, but I’ve come to embrace and greatly appreciate when young people want to be around me as an older person. I think that’s special.” 

The cast calls her Mama. “I didn’t tell them to call me that,” says Lewis. “It’s when they call me Legend that I begin to suspect they’re speaking code for ‘old actress.’”

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Kecia Lewis Makes Her Mark On ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ With a Tony Nominated Performance