“I had to find a way to get on stage.”
By Nate Paige
Some people just know what they are meant to do in life.
In recent years, singer/actress Mariama Whyte was a member of national touring companies of “Disney’s The Lion King” and “The Color Purple.” Locally, she’s performed in musical productions at Karamu House, Dobama Theatre, Cleveland Public Theatre, and others.
In addition to being an accomplished songwriter, she’s released several EPs through her production company, and is currently working on a full album.
Mariama Whyte has mastered the art of staying busy.
Involved in the performing arts since her childhood at Moreland Elementary School, she may not have known back then which talent would stick, but her mother may have had a strong hunch. Whyte was hit by the acting bug through a suggestion by her mom, meant to serve as a coping mechanism. As a child, Whyte found public speaking extremely difficult; oral reports and presentations in school triggered high anxiety.
“My mother suggested that when I have presentations in school, I should prepare by doing a skit. ‘Make something up,’ she said. ‘Get a costume, get your friends together, and act it out.’ I thought that was such a great idea, and I got through my presentation just fine. I was in fourth grade at the time, and later that year I auditioned for a play. I knew I wanted to do it; I had to find a way to get on stage and have fun! My mother saw that spark in me, that I had a knack for acting and singing, so she enrolled me in acting and voice classes at Karamu.”
During middle school, Whyte was introduced to the violin, taking lessons at school and the Cleveland Institute of Music. She also attended the Music School Settlement for piano lessons and continued to play throughout her high school years. She was named concertmaster of the Shaker High School Orchestra during her senior year. Whyte majored in English at the College of Wooster, and it was during senior year that she decided to explore the performing arts as a career. She returned home, embracing community theater as a way to hone her acting skills before heading to New York, where she landed a role in a national tour of “Disney’s The Lion King.”
During her two-year hiatus between the end of her Lion King run and securing a role in another hit Broadway production – “The Color Purple” – Whyte gave birth to a son. “My son was with me during the majority of my time with ‘The Color Purple,’ so that made a big impact on me, as a performer, and of course as a new mother, just being able to balance this amazing, powerful show, along with getting my rest and learning how to be a mother on the road. It was exciting, but it was tough at the same time.”
Joining the cast of “The Color Purple” would be the most challenging role Whyte had landed to date. In addition to being an understudy for two of the principal characters – Celie and Nettie – Whyte was also what is known as a ‘swing.’ “Which means I was responsible for knowing 11 parts,” says Whyte. “Sometimes I didn’t know until an hour before a show who I was playing that night. It was a big learning experience, but it was a lot of fun at the same time. I was exhausted by the end of the run. And that’s when I decided to come home. It was time to sit and be with my baby. Now he’s 14 and attends Shaker High.”
As important as places like New York and Chicago are to the theater world, Whyte feels regional companies like Karamu House, Dobama Theatre, and Cleveland Public Theatre are equally important.
“I think it’s wonderful that we have so much theater in our area,” says Whyte. “Karamu and Dobama, CPT and Ensemble, they’re extremely important because they showcase local talent and they produce groundbreaking works. I think it’s remarkable what Karamu has done for the African American community, and what Tony Sias (Karamu’s president and CEO) has been able to do in the past five years, the rich material and the education they are giving to our young people.”
Music continues to play a large part in Whyte’s life. She served as a paraprofessional and substitute music teacher at Boulevard Elementary School from 2014-2019. Her album is scheduled to be released through her production company, Earth to Mars Entertainment, in 2021.
Two singles, “Hey You, It’s Me” and “Pinch Myself” were released earlier this year and will be included on the album.
Firmly re-rooted in Shaker, Whyte serves on the Shaker Schools Alumni Hall of Fame Committee and the Shaker Schools Foundation Advisory Committee. In fact, her family is firmly entrenched in the Shaker Schools. Her sister, Miata Hunter, is the principal of the Middle School and her mother, Donna M. Whyte, served on the School Board and Library Board.
“Shaker Schools gave me a very solid foundation and a rich artistic experience,” she says, “and I’m extremely grateful.”
Learn more at mariamawhyte.com.